Two Touching Christmas Stories
I wear my heart on my sleeve (from Parents’ Choice)
On the bestseller lists for months, Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes was an immensely popular and personal memoir about his Irish childhood. It may not be surprising, then, that Angela and the Baby Jesus, his Christmas children’s book, reads like an oft-told family story. The event described would have taken place in Ireland some time ago, when his mother was six years old and worried about the statuette of the Baby Jesus in the Nativity crèche at the nearby church, afraid that the little infant would be cold on a wintery night. So, the young Angela takes the baby home and puts Him in her bed to warm, and there is hell to pay. When her parents find out about the kidnap, the family takes the Baby Jesus back and they encounter a parish priest and a policeman, both irate about the theft.
Of course, what prompted Angela’s rescue mission was a little girl’s concern—that and the familiar childhood conviction that there is no boundary between the living and the nonliving, that statues (or dolls, for that matter) can be in need of care. But childhood compassion does not end there. When the priest and policeman jokingly speculate about what kind of punishment would be appropriate for this larceny, Angela’s younger brother Pat insists he will go to jail in his sister’s place. It is a touching moment, and rightfully so: “Tears twinkling on the cheeks of the priest in the December moonlight. The policeman coughed and gave his baton a bit of a twirl.”
Loren Long’s illustrations for this picture book are blue and wintery and, I have to say, just right. They recall the work of Chris Van Allsburgh in The Polar Express, but they are better in the way they go off in their own quirky direction. Long’s picture of the Baby Jesus flying over the wall (after Angela has tossed the statue into her backyard) is one I can’t forget.Another beautifully illustrated Christmas book is Kate DiCamillo’s Great Joy with pictures by Bagram Ibatoulline. Set in that vaguely Golden Time of America in the 1940s and 50s, Ibatoulline’s sketches are likewise vague and golden. In truth, illustrators often engage in a vague and sketchy style to cover over an absence of skill. But Ibatoulline’s work is striking because it goes the other way, making faces, for example, more specific and more definite in a gauzy atmosphere. This is a really terrific and beautiful book.
The story is by Kate DiCamillo, a writer I am in love with. A few years back, I praised her The Tale of Desperaux (which is slated to appear as a film this Christmas season). I am also keen on her The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, likewise illustrated by Ibatoulline. Now I add Great Joy to my list of favorites.
The book’s opening recalls the wintery-night and Christmas-season opening of Russell Hoban’s great children’s novel The Mouse and his Child, but here DiCamillo introduces a monkey with a tin cup and an aged organ grinder performing on a snowy downtown corner. Watching them from her apartment above is the little girl Frances, who wonders where they pass the frigid nights. She asks if the two might be invited in, but her mother explains, “They’re strangers.”
Then, on the evening of her debut as an angel in a Christmas pageant, Frances drops a nickel in the monkey’s cup and invites the organ grinder to come to the theatrical in her church just down the block. As the play begins, Frances unfortunately forgets her lines. But when the man and his monkey come in the back, Frances smiles and remembers: “Behold! I bring you tidings of Great Joy! Great Joy!” The last picture shows the reception afterwards, where Frances and the organ grinder and dozens of others (including the monkey) mingle with cookies and Christmas punch in hand. DiCamillo’s dedication appears at the end of the book: “With gratitude for open doors and for all the people who have welcomed me in.”
I should add that both these books present touching stories, the kind that make your eyes mist up and give you a catch in your throat. Previously, I objected to such sentimentality in Christmas books and in an earlier essay for Parents’ Choice expressed my preference for dark and sassy holiday stories like Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas and “Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas.” Now, older and a grandparent, I no longer worry. I wear my heart on my sleeve. And I love these books for unashamed reasons.
Angela and the Baby Jesus
By Frank McCourt; illustrated by Loren Long
Scribner, $14.95 (Hardback)
For reasons I don’t understand, this book is referred to as the “Adult Edition.” The same book at a higher price ($17.99) and illustrated by Raul Colon is called the “Children’s Edition.”
By Kate DiCamillo; illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline
Candlewick, $16.99 (Hardback)
This essay originally appeared in Parents’ Choice (December 2008).