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Charmed Christmases of donkeys, mice, ferrets, and their friends

CHILDREN's publishers have been busy this holiday season, and thankfully they've come up with a number of charming additions for Christmas-book shelves. The Little Hills of Nazareth, by Bijou Le Ford (Bradbury, New York, $12.95, unpaged, all ages), is a sweet rendition of the biblical account of Jesus' birth, which includes Naboth the donkey as Mary and Joseph's lovable companion.

With soft watercolor illustrations and lilting prose (after the baby Jesus arrives, ``the stars illuminated the Sea of Galilee''), author-illustrator Le Ford tells of a time when everywhere could be seen ``the love of God for all mankind and all creatures.''

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The First Christmas, by Marcia Williams (Random House, New York, $4.95 paperback, unpaged, ages 4 to 8), borrows from the Nativity stories in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, and features smiley shepherds and wise men who could have stepped out of a first-grade pageant. The illustrations are child-friendly without being too precious.

Can It Be True?, by Susan Hill, illustrated by Angela Barrett (Viking Kestrel, New York, $12.95, unpaged, all ages), is one of the most refreshing ``new'' seasonal tales to appear in several years. A prose poem evocative of Thomas Hardy's ``The Oxen,'' it meanders from field to sea to town on a long-ago Christmas Eve, as ``the message'' is heard by a collection of creatures seldom seen this time of year - including a fox, owl, weasel, ferret, whale, and shrew.

In Pages of Music, by Tony Johnston, illustrated by Tomie de Paola (G.P. Putnam's Sons, New York, $13.95, unpaged, ages 5 to 8), the locale shifts to the island of Sardinia for a joyful musical celebration of Jesus' birth.

Illustrator de Paola turns up with a new Christmas tale almost every year, and this is one of his more successful recent efforts. (See interview on next page.)

Although few readers will have heard of fogli di musica, the thin, hard bread that the villagers share with their visitors, they ought to enjoy the Italian setting and seasonings.

Colonial America is the site of The Baker's Dozen, retold by Heather Forest, illustrated by Susan Gaber (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, San Diego, $13.95, unpaged, ages 4 to 8). The tale dates from the mid-1600s, when a baker in upstate New York began to turn out red-and-white St. Nicholas cookies, 13 to the dozen, establishing a tradition that young readers will appreciate.

Two new paperback titles will be welcome additions to many family celebrations of the holiday season. The Nutcracker, by E.T.A. Hoffman, adapted by Janet Schulman, illustrated by Kay Chorao (Knopf, New York, $2.95 paperback, 62 pp.), is an easy-to-read story that combines the most imaginative elements of the Tchaikovsky ballet and the fantasy, ``Nutcracker and the King of Mice,'' written in 1816.

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For read-aloud gatherings, The Oxford Book of Christmas Poems, edited by Michael Harrison and Christopher Stuart-Clark (Oxford University Press, New York, $7.95 paperback, 160 pp.), offers more than 100 seasonal verses, by well-known and less familiar authors. Africa, Australia, and Mexico are among the countries represented.

Finally, there are two wordless picture books for the attentive preschool set. Recently reprinted in accessible paperback, Christmas! by Peter Spier (Doubleday, New York, $6.95 paperback, unpaged), is a spirited record of one family's seasonal preparations and celebrations. Small fry will love to follow the cat's tracks and will probably identify with the baby's smushed ornaments.

In The Christmas Gift, by Emily Arnold McCully (Harper & Row, New York, $12.95, unpaged), children can see how a presumably typical family of mice spend Christmas Day.

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