By Noelene Clark
December 15, 2016 at 07:26 PM EST

When it comes to holiday books, there’s nothing wrong with the time-tested classics.

But readers who want to add a little spice to all that sugar might have to think outside the festively wrapped box.

From a dog who thinks she’s a flying reindeer to a Lemony Snicket-style origin for Santa Claus himself, here are some offbeat holiday stories that are heavy on the fun and light the on sugarplums — but still sweet enough to land on Santa’s nice list:

Olive, the Other Reindeer

By Vivian Walsh and J.otto Seibold (1997)

When a little dog named Olive hears the popular Christmas song “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” she mishears the lyric, “All of the other reindeer” as “Olive, the other reindeer” and considers it a call to action. She catches a bus to the North Pole, where she joins Santa’s high-flying reindeer team for the Christmas Eve delivery route. Even though Olive can’t fly (she dangles from a piece of ribbon held in Comet’s mouth), it turns out Santa has plenty of use for her canine talents, including chewing on sticks, fetching, barking, and smelling. The funny writing coupled with the colorful, modern illustrations make for a sweet and zany holiday tale.

North Pole Ninjas: Mission: Christmas!

By Tyler Knott Gregson, Sarah Linden, and Piper Thibodeau (2016)

The Elf on the Shelf may be deciding which children deserve presents, but the North Pole Ninjas want to help kids focus on giving back. The book introduces a team of stealthy elves enlisted by “Santa’s sensei” to secretly spread holiday cheer through acts of kindness. The book comes with a plush sensei and an envelope full of secret missions for kids to complete, including “Bring a bag of groceries to your local food bank,” “Go for a walk with your family and pick up any litter you find,” and “Do something super secret and super nice for your parents.” Can’t argue with that.


By E.T.A. Hoffmann, Maurice Sendak, and Ralph Manheim (1984)

E.T.A. Hoffmann’s strange Christmas story about a girl whose Nutcracker comes to life and defeats the villainous Mouse King has received many a candy-coated adaptation. This is not one of them. Where the Wild Things Are author Maurice Sendak was enlisted by the Pacific Northwest Ballet to collaborate on the 1983 production of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. The result was a return to what Sendak called “the weird, dark qualities that make [Hoffmann’s story] something of a masterpiece.” The production was considered a triumph, and the following year, Sendak published a children’s book using his enhanced his original set drawings along with rich, new illustrations and Ralph Manheim’s translation. Indeed, the book is weird and dark, but also just right for the holidays, which, after all, promise “scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago.”

Shmelf the Hanukkah Elf

By Greg Wolfe and Howard McWilliam (2016)

Shmelf, a fastidious North Pole elf in charge of managing the naughty and nice lists, discovers that Santa won’t be visiting some well-behaved children because they’re Jewish. Concerned about the kids, Shmelf decides to investigate a Jewish home, where he discovers menorahs, dreidels, latkes, the story of the Maccabees, and, yes, eight nights’ worth of presents. “Hey, now I get it!” Shmelf says with a grin. “Hanukkah’s awesome! I’m totally in!” Santa is impressed by Shmelf’s chutzpah and gives him a new role — complete with a blue-and-white uniform and a reindeer named Asher. Wolfe’s comedic rhymes paired with McWilliam’s painterly illustrations make for a joyful, modern mashup of two grand holiday traditions.

A Boy Called Christmas

By Matt Haig, with illustrations by Chris Mould (2015)

For slightly older readers, this Carnegie Medal-nominated book offers a fresh, funny, and heartfelt origin story for Father Christmas, or Santa Claus as he is known to American children. Meet Nikolas, an 11-year-old who lives in a one-room cottage in Finland and whose only toy is a doll carved from a turnip. When his father doesn’t return from an expedition to find a real elf for the king, Nikolas sets off to track him down and finds trolls, flying reindeer, a pixie, and plenty of adventure along the way. With its dark-but-charming humor and rare depth, Haig’s spellbinding story is sure to become a Christmas evergreen.