'Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the land of retail, shoppers were clamoring for, well, The Night Before Christmas by Robert Sabuda (Little Simon, Oct.). So goes the story of Sabuda's most recent tour-de-force of paper-engineering, a collection of intricate, wintry holiday images that serve as the author-illustrator's interpretation of Clement Clarke Moore's classic verse. From a chimney-hopping Saint Nick to a team of reindeer that literally leaps off the page, Sabuda whimsically gives readers a peek at Christmas Eve from a mouse family's point of view.

Of course, holiday titles are nothing new for Sabuda, who has previously seen success with The Christmas Alphabet (Orchard, 1994) and The Twelve Days of Christmas (Little Simon, 1996). "I have a real soft spot for Christmas," he said. "I think it goes back to when I was a boy in rural Michigan. The winters were so big there. I truly believe in global warming—there were times when there was so much snow that we didn't have school for weeks. Everything was so white. We would build all kinds of snow forts and snowmen. I always go back to the pure simplicity of exploring shapes in white. I have not lost my love for that yet."

And judging from the swifter-than-a-flying-sleigh sales of The Night Before Christmas, it appears that fans are more than happy that Sabuda follow his snow muse. Following a first printing of 250,000 copies (of which more than 200,000 have sold thus far), the total in-print figure for Night is 272,000 copies. This is in addition to 500 limited-edition copies priced at $250, and a boxed set featuring The Night Before Christmas and The Twelve Days of Christmas.

"We've had phenomenal orders from the chains and the price clubs," said Robin Corey, Sabuda's editor and publisher of Little Simon. "It's still kind of early for a Christmas title, but the book is already selling very well in independent stores, museum shops and mail-order catalogs, too" she added. "We're very close to selling out of the first printing, but we have copies on re-order and expect to have stock through the end of the year."

Having ample stock of Night is indeed no small feat considering that the labor-intensive books are printed and hand-assembled in China—a location that might as well be the North Pole if quick replenishment is needed. Corey revealed some of the planning required for such an undertaking. "A book like this is a good two years in the making," she said. "Robert needs at least a year to work out the book, and then we need a year in production from the time we receive the finished art. I approached Robert years ago about doing this book because I felt it was the natural successor to The Twelve Days of Christmas. But we purposely timed it to so there would be a substantial lag [which turned out to be six years] between the two books—we didn't want to publish too many Sabuda Christmas books." Corey estimates that the hand assembly of Night began last spring. And because the publisher arranged for split shipments from China, the recent dock strikes on the West Coast luckily did not have much of an effect on the book's movement. For Sabuda's part, he says it took "eight months to a year" to complete his Night Before Christmas compositions in his New York City studio. "I was finishing up close to September 11 last year," he recalled. "I have to say that the book was a very nice distraction to have at the time. It really pulled me through everything that was going on."

Among the artistic challenges he faced on this project was a dilemma about whether to show Santa with a pipe. "I remember that [in her picture book version] Trina Schart Hyman showed Little Red Riding Hood delivering a bottle of wine to her grandmother and that caused a lot of controversy," said Sabuda. "I didn't want people to think that I was a big pro-smoker or anything." In the end, he stayed true to Moore's words and Santa is seen at one point with a silver pipe.

Thus far, Sabuda and Corey both report that response to the book has been overwhelmingly positive. The Night Before Christmas has landed on the PW and New York Times children's book bestseller lists "I just came back from a 10-day tour," Sabuda noted. "Everywhere I went [including Philadelphia, Boston, D.C., Richmond] the people were so nice and so kind. Many of them told me how much they liked to share my books with kids at holiday time. And my audience seems to include kids, parents, teachers and librarians. I'm very pleased at how it's all turned out."

Putting the final trimmings on the fall publicity campaign includes bookstore appearances in New York City and Greenwich, Conn., as well as a scheduled segment last week on the Today Show ("It's great that they are so supportive of books," Sabuda enthused).

After an appearance at the Mazza Museum in Findlay, Ohio, Sabuda will have a bit of time to enjoy the holidays before finalizing the artwork for his next pop-up, Alice in Wonderland, due out in fall 2003 from Little Simon. And in the meantime Sabuda fans will be able to enjoy one of his traditional-format picture books, Uh-Oh Leonardo, which appears on Atheneum's spring 2003 list.