Mouse in the Manger

30 pages,
ISBN: 0140549714

Woodland Christmas

by Frances Terrell,
32 pages,
ISBN: 0590244302

Christmas with Anne:
And Other Holiday Stories

by Lucy M. Montgomery,
224 pages,
ISBN: 0771061994

The Twelve Tales of Christmas

by Margot Sexton, Janis Jones,
60 pages,
ISBN: 088887135X

The Christmas Deer:
An Advent Story and Calendar

by April Wilson, April Wilson,
40 pages,
ISBN: 1555912427

Santa's Workshop

by Paul Stickland,
ISBN: 1895555817

Post Your Opinion
Children`s Books
by Diana Halfpenny

The word Christmas invariably conjures up a stock collection of images that have gradually become part of our idealization of that particular special day: the Christ child radiating love from his manger in the stable; Santa Claus flying through the night on his sleigh, distributing gifts; children exclaiming with delight as they unwrap their presents; friends, neighbours, and family visiting and sharing in the festivities; Christmas trees, snowy-white landscapes, and church bells.

Almost anything that is offered for sale around this time-and most certainly children's Christmas books-draws either directly or through allusion upon that collection of images. More often than not, this means that bookstore shelves are crammed with cliché-ridden products that harried adults are quick to grasp for. Originality becomes, if not an object of outright opprobrium, at least a quality to be mistrusted, and approached with extreme caution.

Christmas with Anne and Other Holiday Stories is no exception. As it turns out, we do not, in fact, spend Christmas with Anne, but with a host of other characters in the editor's selection of the fourteen "other" stories, which were originally published in newspapers and magazines around the turn of the century, and had since languished in one of Lucy Maud Montgomery's scrapbooks. Only two of the stories (to justify the title) are excerpted from the Anne series. I could not find one spark of real creativity in any of the fourteen stories, which seemed to me to be a tedious procession of poor but virtuous families receiving a timely reward for their forbearance and selflessness, interspersed with equally hackneyed stories about wealthy yet essentially good-hearted families who need to be reminded that it is, after all, more blessed to give than to receive. Under the spell of universal goodwill, feuds and disagreements, often of long standing, are wiped out in an instant. Great friendships blossom or are renewed over the performance of some good deed. And all these scenarios seem to end with the same trite resolutions, which the characters vow to carry forward into the New Year.

"`Blessing on Jean's Christmas inspiration,' said Nellie. `But, girls, let us try to make it an all-the-year-round inspiration, I say. We can bring a little of our own sunshine into Miss Allen's [a fellow boarder's] life as long as we live with her.' `Amen to that!' said Jean heartily. `Oh, listen, girls-the Christmas chimes!'

"And all over the beautiful city was wafted the grand old message of peace on earth and good will to all the world."

This sort of shallow, excessively moralistic writing cheapens any real emotions one might feel at Christmas. I would have been tempted to agree with the editor, and pass these stories off as writing for those "younger readers" she mentioned in her introduction, were it not for Madeleine L'Engle's view that, if a book is not good enough for adults, it is certainly not good enough for children.

As anyone who knows children has surely realized, they can be extremely discerning. Tim Wynne-Jones's charming picture book Mouse in a Manger pays homage to that fact, by inviting them to see a parallel with the birth of Jesus in his story of a frightened, hunted mouse that finds shelter and a place to give birth in a box of Christmas paraphernalia lying in a storage shed. The figure of one of the wise men, peering out from a corner of the page as three children come to the shed to retrieve their Christmas decorations, is not the only visual clue. In fact, the illustrator, Elaine Blier, makes excellent use of the margins to provide a sometimes humorous subtext to the story, much as Jan Brett does in her beautifully illustrated books Annie and the Wild Animals and Trouble with Trolls, to name but a few. The text is similarly multifaceted, working by means of allusions on a number of levels that belie the simple vocabulary and short sentences. There is much to discover in this picture-book that is likely to make it a favourite in many families' Christmas libraries.

The Twelve Tales of Christmas (what makes them so definitive remains a mystery) by Margot Sexton is almost exclusively about Santa Claus, or about the heartwarming sort of giving that is the closest we can come to a Christmas epiphany now that the actual festival is seldom observed. The way Sexton has rendered the plot, characters, and dialogue in her stories makes the secular message of hope and love seem heavy-handed at best. In "Father Time Visits Santa", the author has the former expound on the central role Santa plays in Christmas:

"Every time a song is sung about you, or a story is told about Christmas, people everywhere remember the joy and the belief that they had as a child, and the good that they felt because of it. It is that very belief of hope and good that keeps the world going. And one of these years, perhaps that feeling will last the whole year through. But Santa, until it does, they need you."

Father Time has trouble providing us with a fresh perspective on the ultimate meaning of Christmas. The illustrations, I regret to say, are as uninspiring as the text. As a vehicle for Christmas cheer, this one definitely doesn't fly.

Santa Claus, after all, is junk food for the soul-an essentially trashy figure who panders to children's innate egotism-so why burden him more weighty considerations? Better to let the medium reflect the message with something cute and easily accessible, as Paul Stickland has done in his entertaining Santa's Workshop-A Magical Three-Dimensional Tour. The subtitle is fitting enough for, although there are a few lines of text on every "page", this isn't really a book at all, but a toy. The visual surprises provided by the amazing pop-up art-work cannot disguise the fact that the author is not really giving us anything new here.

I had thought that the illustrator Frances Tyrrell was skating on thin ice in Woodland Christmas, her visual retelling of "The Twelve Days of Christmas". But as her young black bear-gorgeously and festively dressed in ermine, red velvet, and white lace-skated across a frozen lake, bringing a partridge in a pear tree to his true love, I realized that she had, in fact, succeeded in bringing an exciting dimension to this traditional English folk-song. For children who know the lyrics, there will be no surprises in the story, and since it is also extremely repetitive, this book does not lend itself well to being read out loud. The concept behind the illustrations, however, and the pictures themselves, are so charming that young children will pore over them with great delight-as did my five-year-old daughter-and then tell you the story.

The illustrations in April Wilson's The Christmas Deer are eye-catching: naturalistic, with a wealth of added detail in the borders, but here it is the unfolding of the story that caught and held my attention. The protagonist is a large reindeer, who wakes up one day to find his antlers hung with the shapes of animals, strung on emerald-coloured ribbons. After several fruitless inquiries, he encounters Owl, who tells him that the shapes will lead him on a strange journey: he has to seek out the corresponding animals and give that animal its shape (the act of giving acquires symbolic significance, brings peace, and establishes a sense of community). Strengthened by Owl's advice and direction (as the four children are by Aslan in the Narnia series), Reindeer sets off on an adventure that is both a quest for knowledge and a road to inner growth. I was so engrossed by Reindeer's transition from reluctant hero figure to true leader that I was somewhat disappointed when Santa Claus-the instigator of the quest-arrived on the scene at the end of the story, thus demoting Owl and Reindeer. Even then, I found the writing pleasingly evocative: "`Goodbye and safe return!'" cried the animals . . . and they listened until the tinkling bells no longer whispered on the north wind, and the sleigh disappeared at last into the dark, dark night."

Madeleine L'Engle, as mentioned previously, does not speak kindly of people who believe that they can or must write down to children. If you want your children to love reading, give them high-quality books that are worth loving. This is usually a difficult proposition, but it becomes especially so at Christmas, when we need to be on our guard against the twin traps of excessive sentimentality and facile imitation. Whether we choose Christmas books based on secular or religious values, let us remember that they should be books that delight children and stretch their imaginations. And if there has to be a moral, at least let it be one that is open-ended enough to get them thinking: "Maybe Christmas, he thought, doesn't come from a store/ Maybe Christmas.perhaps.means a little bit more." l

Diana Halfpenny is a freelance translator living in Montreal.


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