04 January 2011
On the Eleventh Day of Christmas There Were Books
Great Joy, Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline
This is a sweet picture book about a young girl named Frances who worries about an Italian organ grinder and his monkey whom she sees nightly sleeping on the street. Her mother tells her he's probably fine, but Frances remains concerned about him. Besides the story's theme of care for others, the 40s-era (there are subtle hints that this takes place during World War II) illustrations are absolutely gorgeous (pastels? I don't know, but they almost glow). Ibatoulline evidently loves old movies, because Frances looks very like Karolyn Grimes, who played Zuzu in It's a Wonderful Life and Debby in The Bishop's Wife, the photo of her serviceman father looks a lot like John Wayne, and, especially in the last illustration, Mom is the spitting image of Maureen O'Hara from Miracle on 34th Street!
Christmas Customs Around the World, Herbert H. Wernecke
This is a book from 1959; the title is explanatory of the contents—the author first talks about Christmas symbols such as the poinsettia, holly, Christmas trees, candles, etc., then turns his attention to international Christmas customs. This was published by a Christian publishing company by a former seminarian, so there are many 1940s accounts of Christmas at Christian missions in Africa and Asia, and of course, a scattering of comments about "superstitious pagan customs," that would have been common at the time. One of the interesting things about this book is noting how Christmas customs have changed just in the fifty years since it was published. For instance, Wernecke talks about the Swiss gift giver being the Christkindli, but modern books about Christmas, including Rick Steves' European Christmas, identifies this character as "Samichlaus," who is a Santa figure rather than an angel figure. One wonders how many other of these customs have changed!
Star Bright!, Andrew M. Greeley
This is a small novella about Jack Flanigan, a cynical young man from Chicago, who is attending classes in Cambridge, MA, and who meets a beautiful, enigmatic Russian girl in Harvard Square. She has lived a hard life, but still holds onto her faith. Slowly, Jack begins to fall in love with her, although he is trying to hold himself back. But will a trip home at Christmas to meet Jack's contentious Irish family make or break the relationship?
I started this one with a cynical shake of my head, but as "Odessa" charms Jack, she also charms the reader. She reminded me of Molly, the little angel in the telefilm The Little Match Girl, who created a bit of magic wherever she went. I eventually closed the book with a smile, but your tolerance for the plot depends on your tolerance for Christmas sentiment (although it isn't piled up with sugar as it might be in other books).