In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Counting down to Christmas

Dear Aunt Debbie,

And happy holidays to you!  Having an almost-4 year old in the house makes Christmas seem right around the corner.  Every morning, Eleanor opens the next window on her advent calendar, and she must count from 1 to 24 at least six times a day.  She's even started to remember the number 15, which usually gets skipped.

Holiday anticipation is, of course, reflected in our reading list, in new favorites and old.

New: an abridged version of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, illustrated by Brett Helquist.  The abridging is okay -- boils the story down to its most important elements, so you get Tiny Tim saying "God bless us, every one!" but not any more of a real sense of him or the Cratchit family, and there's no explanation for why Scrooge was left alone at Christmas when he was a boy, or why the lovely young woman he danced with at Fezziwig's party didn't end up as his wife.  The original A Christmas Carol, which my family often read as Christmas approached, is coming soon in our future, I think.

The gift of this book are the illustrations, which are vivid and appealing, and bring the ghost story to life for kids.  They owe a lot to the 1951 British film, which I remember watching often as a kid -- the beautiful Spirit of Christmas Past; the jolly, bearded Spirit of Christmas Present; and the death-cloaked specter of the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come.  (In a nice anachronistic touch in Helquist's illustrations, the third spirit seems to be trailing a string of electric lights, which I guess you might get wrapped around you if you kept traveling to Christmases of the future.)  Jacob Marley's ghost is enormous and imposing, and Scrooge sallow and beak-nosed.  Eleanor listens to it each time with wide, excited eyes and her hands drawn up to her mouth, thrilled.

Old: There must be hundreds of versions of The Night Before Christmas.  I imagine it is a huge best-seller: simple and rhyming and focused on Santa.  The girls have a lush version of it from Jeff's parents, complete with a tiny golden stocking hanging from the silky red string bookmark.  From my parents, we've inherited my childhood version, above which there can be no others in my eyes.

It's out of print, of course, but you can find copies at Alibris and elsewhere: the Leonard Weisgard-illustrated version of The Night Before Christmas.

It is a perfect book.  I've had to reinforce the binding of our copy with clear tape in order to keep it together, but the illustrations are intact and it's undamaged.  All, that is, except for the page describing the children's dreams.  Over and around their heads, I once took a purple marker, I guess to approximate sugar-plums.  I didn't write in my books as a rule, so I must have felt strongly about scribbling on this page.

What is so perfect about the illustrations?  It's hard to explain.  They are sweet without being cutesy: the narrator appears bluff and hearty, and Santa pleasant and bright-eyed.  The pages are oversized (too big for my scanner to capture accurately), and Weisgard alternates simple scenes with images of Santa imposed over pine tree branches or surrounded by a wreath.

Perhaps I'm blinded to other Santas because this was my first, but I can't help feeling that there can't be a better one.  Do you have a current favorite?

Love, Annie


  1. I am 64 and still have my Leonard Weisgard illustrated version of TNBC. It, too, has needed some tape but the illustrations are still magical to me. My son loved it and I hope one day we will have grandchild(ren) who will love it too. Thanks for sharing this with us.

  2. I still have my original too. I see it is available at Barnes and Nobel, hard cover for under $6. I know this is several years late :)