All too often, religious books for children - especially books on holidays like Hanukkah and Christmas - are more sentimental than spiritual, with sugarcoated stories and insipid illustrations. It doesn't have to be that way, as a few marvelous Christmas and Hanukkah books prove:

Mary Hoffman, the author of the modern children's classic "Amazing Grace," has created an unforgettable new Christmas story in "Three Wise Women" (Phyllis Fogelman/Penguin Putnam, $16.99).

Hoffman pays obvious homage to the Three Kings in her tale, in which three women, living different lives in disparate parts of the world, are drawn by a radiant star to the stable where the baby Jesus has just been born. Hoffman's text is lyrical, almost mystical. There's a spine-tingling thrill as she recounts the gifts each woman brings to the baby - and how Jesus eventually uses those gifts as an adult.

Lynne Russell's richly-colored illustrations, featuring people with skin tones of various shades of brown, perfectly match the melodic tone of Hoffman's text. The illustrations, like the book, are deeply-felt, yet never forced. (Ages 4-8).

Note: Hoffman's earlier Christmas book, "An Angel Just Like Me," also is a winning Christmas tale, focusing on an African-American child who wonders why all the Christmas angels have white skin.

In "The Night of La Posadas" (Putnam, $15.99), master storyteller and illustrator Tomie dePaola spotlights the traditional procession in Santa Fe, New Mexico commemorating Mary and Joseph's search for a room at an inn as Jesus' birth nears. p>Instead of just telling readers about this tradition, however, dePaola weaves the information through a story filled with magic. In his story, the couple chosen to portray Mary and Joseph can't make it to Santa Fe because of a snowstorm. Yet the procession goes forward, thanks to the efforts of another couple, who mysteriously resemble the Mary and Joseph in a carving in the village church.

As usual, dePaola's story and illustrations are deceptively simple. His colorful illustrations glow with the light of the "farolitos," the candles that illumine the way for the procession, and his story is one that will resonate with young readers. (Ages 4-8).

Author Sara Freedland crams a lot of facts into "Hanukkah!" (Candlewick Press, $18.99.) Her well-written text is complemented by the vibrant illustrations of Sue Clarke.

But what young readers will like best about this book is its spectacular paper engineering. Because the book opens horizontally, rather than vertically, Clarke had more room to create pop-up scenes that bring the history of Hanukkah alive for today's children. One scene shows the desecration of the temple by King Antiochus and his soldiers, while another vividly illustrates the actual battle. There's also a stand-up menorah and a paper dreidl that readers can take out and assemble. (Ages 4-8).

First published in 1992, "Elijah's Angel" (Harcourt Brace, $6) recounts the story of an unlikely friendship between an 80-year-old African American barber named Elijah Pierce and a nine-year-old boy named Michael. Elijah is a renowned wood-carver whose subjects reflect his devout Christianity, while Michael is Jewish.

Author Michael Rosen affectionately portrays their special friendship, which is cemented when Elijah and Michael exchange Christmas and Hanukkah gifts one year. Based partly on a true story, Rosen's text nicely ties together two important holidays. The brilliantly-colored illustrations by Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson are based on her own experience as a young friend of Elijah. (Ages 5-9).

The joyfulness of Jesus' birth is highlighted in "Jesus' Christmas Party" (Doubleday, $8.95) - a book that is my personal Christmas favorite.

Written and illustrated by Nicholas Allen, this slight volume tells the Christmas story from the point of the innkeeper who provides Mary and Joseph shelter in his stable. The innkeeper is ready for a good night's rest, and becomes increasingly exasperated as a parade of people knock on his door: Joseph asking for another smaller blanket, three wise men looking for a new king, etc.

When a host of angels starts singing overhead, the innkeeper has had enough. But his anger melts when he sees the baby Jesus, and the innkeeper ends up waking up all the other guests to pay homage to the infant.

Allen's story is funny and touching, and it makes a great read-aloud volume - or maybe even a text for a simple church Christmas pageant. His illustrations, with their cartoonish look, extend the humor. (Ages 3 up).
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