Generally I don’t review children’s books, feeling that this task is best done by my friends over at Aslan’s Library. But I can’t help myself this time . . .
Kate DiCamillo is probably best known for her fictional chapter books for children, such as Because of Winn-Dixie and The Tale of Despereaux. I was intrigued when my mother-in-law gave this to the girls for Christmas several years ago: it’s a picture book. It has become my favorite children’s storybook of all time.
The first thing that distinguishes this book as no ordinary story is the beauty of Bagram Ibatoulline’s illustrations. Painted in acrylics and trimmed in gold, each one is a masterpiece of warmth and detail. Ibatoulline evokes an urban 1940s context at Christmas time with a realism and charm reminiscent of the classic holiday film Miracle On 34th Street (1947). The softness of his drawing, his masterful use of light, and the humanity of his figures creates a context so magical and powerful that we are drawn in completely. There is storytelling going on in every painting, from the doll propped carefully up at the breakfast table on one page to the framed photograph of a naval officer on another that explains the father’s absence from the story.
The story is told in a series of vignettes that are sewn seamlessly together. DiCamillo’s gift for showing-not-telling is in evidence and even children quite young will be able to follow it easily. Young Frances is being prepared for her role in the church Christmas pageant. Her mother is hemming her costume and she has memorized her line. But Frances is distracted from preparation by the organ grinder on the street corner below her apartment. He has a little monkey in a cunning hat and Frances can’t figure out where they sleep at night. One night she stays up alone to discover it. When she finds that he sleeps on the street, Frances is filled with compassion and invites the man to the Christmas pageant.
Up to the pageant scene, this book is a charming and heartwarming story. When Frances takes the stage as the angel in the pageant, it becomes something more. There is a truth that shines so beautifully and movingly through this simple story at this point that I tell you truly I have yet to see an adult read it aloud without crying. Once a very unemotional English friend heard us say this and offered to read it to the children, claiming she never cried at books. She lost it so badly she had to croak out the ending. It still gets me every single time.
This book isn’t just true and beautiful and moving. It’s missional. Frances hasn’t just memorized her line in the pageant, she’s grasped its significance in a way that is sadly so often missed. “Behold!” she shouts, “I bring you glad tidings of great joy!” And though her line stops there the story itself impresses us with the rest of it: ” . . . that will be for all people” (Luke 2:10).