Sunday, 16 December 2007

Treasures from the Christmas Book Box

Well, it's well and truly Christmas-time now, and there's no getting away from the fact, however far short of finished my shopping is. I've been to the School Nativity Play, in which Small Doyle #3 was to have played a 'Jiving Camel' [sic] but, owing to the absence of a more crucial cast member on the night, had at the last minute to assume the role of The Donkey instead. The Donkey still got to jive, however, so that was OK. But it was nevertheless a disappointment not to be able to wear the Camel costume, which, I had been warned, was sooooo realistic that she might easily have been mistaken for a REAL Camel.

And then it was belated 6th birthday party yesterday - 21 small girls learning a dance routine to High School Musical, passing (hurling) the parcel and loading up their paper plates with far more sausages, crisps and cakes then they could have managed in a week, but that's kids' parties all over, and it was generally voted a resounding success. Exhausting though - even for those of us who weren't dancing (just idly serving food and clearing away again after a morning spent sauntering around supermarkets in a laid-back fashion - I daren't use the 's' word after having read Random Distractions' pertinent remarks on this point or I fear I shall be taken to task . . .).

So many busy days and late nights for the children this last week that there hasn't been a lot of time for bedtime stories. But tonight we will be back to the big pile of Christmas Books, which emerged on 1 December when the Christmas Boxes came in from the garage.

I absolutely and completely refuse, on any account, to start decorating the house for Christmas until the end of the school term. It's just a grumpy 'thing' of mine. It's not Christmas yet, it's Advent. It's bad enough that the shops have been twinking and flashing relentlessly since the beginning of October (at least), without us all having to join them the instant December arrives. Mine is already almost the Only Unlit Garden in the Village. It will twinkle (discreetly, with white lights) eventually . . . just not for a few days yet.

I simply prefer Christmas to be concentrated, rather than allowing it to expand to fit all available surrounding days, weeks and months. Shops do it because they need to make us buy stuff. But why follow suit and get all tinselled up while everyone's still slogging away at work and school?

Before I had children, I'd leave it until Christmas Eve until I put the tree up, brought in the holly and tied ivy and red ribbons to the door-knocker while listening to the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols from King's College, Cambridge at 3 o'clock. I've had to pull back a little since then, but still haven't given much ground. My children are resigned to this Scrooge-like peculiarity of their eccentric mother and have even given up nagging me for flashing Santas on the roof and lifesize glowing reindeer in the driveway.

Anyway, as usual, I digress from what was to be the subject of this post, and that is all the much-loved Christmassy books in my children's collection.

Favourites include Little Angel by Geraldine McCaughrean, with illustrations by the always brilliant Ian Beck, and also Beck's Christmas Story carousel book, which is unfortunately out of print.

Shirley Hughes's Lucy and Tom's Christmas - very cosy and reassuringly realistic, down to the 'tears before bedtime' necessitating a brisk walk in the fresh air with Grandpa.

Nick Butterworth and Mick Inkpen's The Nativity Play is hilarious and parents will relate to its knowing observations as much as children.

Best loved of all here, without a doubt, is The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey, by Susan Wojciechowski, which I would strenuously recommend to absolutely everyone of all ages. It is a deeply moving human story of survival, hope, redemption and love, with the most astonishingly beautiful illustrations by Patrick Lynch.

Jonathan Toomey is a reclusive widowed wood-carver, nicknamed 'Mr Gloomy' by his neighbours, because of his dour demeanour. The other villagers don't realise that the reason for his unsmiling gloom is that -

'Some years earlier, when Jonathan Toomey was young and full of life and full of love, his wife and baby had become very ill. And . . . died, three days apart from each other. So Jonathan Toomey had packed his belongings into a wagon and travelled till his tears stopped. He settled into a tiny house at the edge of a village to do his wood-carving.'

One December a young widow, newly arrived in the village, calls on Jonathan with her seven-year-old son, Thomas. She commissions him to carve a nativity scene to replace one her grandfather made her which has been lost in her move. Gradually, the widow - through her persistent acts of quiet kindness - and Thomas - through his innocent, trusting frankness - force Jonathan to confront his grief and transform it into a source of inspiration in his work. The story ends on Christmas morning, with the dawning of new hope - hands tentatively held and laughter where once there had been none.

It's an intense story, sensitively told, and with a depth not often encountered in a children's picture book. It doesn't shy away from its troubling themes of bereavement and loneliness, and its resolution, while positive and warm is not at all sugary. Patrick Lynch's paintings are genuinely breathtaking - I gaze at them for as long and as many times over as my children do.

I have read it aloud hundreds of times because we've had our copy since it was first published here in about 1997 and it's demanded every single day from the moment it reappears until just before it's the last book to go back in the box on Twelfth Night. (It has been made into a film, but seems to have gone almost straight to DVD and only in Region 1 (ie US/Canada) format at that, which is a shame, because it would have been interesting to see how it had been interpreted.)

I was just composing this post when I noticed that Tarviragus has posted some fascinating photographs of the most amazing wooden crib made by a carpenter for West Mersea's parish church - how wonderfully apt.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the link, I think we are extremely lucky to have such talented artists and craftspeople on this island.
Thank you too, for a lovely nostalgic trip along the children's Christmas reading journey. What wonderful illustrations for the Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey by P J Lynch. I just love childrens books and, if they are combined with anything to do with Christmas, I'm hooked. I loved Brambley Hedge books for their evocation of the plentiful, cosiness of country living. The Children of Green Knowe and The Box of Delights are also firm favourites. Teresa

Juliet said...

Oh, yes, the Brambly Hedge books are absolutely lovely. Such evocative details, exquisitely painted. A cosy miniature world one just wants to go and live right in the middle of!

Unknown said...

Dear Juliet, by some random means (the internet is like that is it not) I came across your comments and images on and from my Christmas books, just to say thank you for such kind words and ther link to my site they are much appreciated, and your blog seems to be exemplary I have bookmarked it.
Best Wishes
Ian Beck

Juliet said...

Thanks so much for visiting Musings, Ian. I was re-reading The Little Angel to my youngest only last night, before it went back in the Christmas Book Box! It's a huge favourite of mine - as is the Teddy Robber.