by Jacqueline Briggs Martin and Phyllis Root
Jackie: Ah winter. Season of holidays and snow. Such a richness of stories.
Phyllis: I have a shelf full of favorite Christmas books. What most of them have in common is story, not just about Christmas itself but also about families celebrating their connection to each other. They meet my own test for a good Christmas story—take away Christmas from the setting and the story still has a strong heartbeat about love, family, community, and caring for each other.
One of our family favorites is Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas by Russell Hoban with pictures by Lillian Hoban (Parents Magazine Press, 1971). Emmet’s dad has died. His mother takes in washing while Emmet does handyman chores to help make ends meet, using the toolbox his father left him.
With Christmas coming, both Emmet and his mother wish they could make the day special for each other, even though, as Irma Coon says, “It’s a bad year for that.” Emmet yearns to buy a used piano for his mother, and she hopes to give him a second hand guitar.
Jackie: Hoban’s language brings the story to life. Emmet’s mother says: “It’s been such a rock-bottom life for so long, just once at least I’d like to bust out with a real glorious Christmas for Emmet—something shiny and expensive.” Rock-bottom life. What a useful phrase!
Phyllis: Ma and Emmet both see a way to “bust out” when they hear of a talent show with a fifty-dollar prize. They each secretly make plans to win the prize money, Ma pawning Emmet’s tool box to get fabric for a dress to sing in and Emmet putting a hole in Ma’s washtub to make a string bass to play in the Jug band with his friends—actions which stake everything on winning.
But alas, the Nightmare band with electric instruments, a light show, and wailingly loud music wins the prize. Yet walking home, Emmet and his Ma and his friends realize they are glad that, like Pa who took a chance on selling snake oil, they took a chance on the prize. And when they sing their joy outside of Doc Bullfrog’s restaurant they are rewarded by him with dinner and a regular gig.
Jackie: This plot is so satisfying. Despair, then relief—and reward.
It struck me reading this book this time that Russell Hoban was writing about the same kinds of characters that Vera B. Williams wrote about—families who loved each other but didn’t have a lot of money, had to make do.
Phyllis: And who wouldn’t love the pastel world Lillian Hoban creates in the art? In her obituary she is quoted as saying, that what she liked better than anything is “just messing around with color.”
Jackie: And we should also mention that this book was made into a movie by Jim Henson.
Phyllis: The Hobans also wrote and illustrated another favorite, The Mole Family’s Christmas (Parents’ Magazine Press, 1969), in which Delver [Russell Hoban is still laughing about that name], a mole whose family does “straight tunneling work,” learns of the stars which he can’t see. At the same time he learns about telescopes and the existence of a fat man in a red suit who brings presents by way of chimneys. The mole family builds an above-ground chimney in hopes of a visit, but each also secretly makes presents for the others just in case the man in the red suit doesn’t bring gifts to animals. As they build their chimney they are plagued by Ephraim Owl, who goal is to catch and eat them some night. “If not this time, then some time,” he hoots.
Yet when the moles all fall asleep on the chimney waiting for the fat man in the red suit and Ephraim spots them there, he decides it would be funny if the moles woke up and found themselves not eaten—which is exactly what they do find come morning, along with a telescope from the man in the red suit. Again, a family that wants to meet each other’s needs and make each other happy.
Jackie: Russell Hoban once said, “People say that every artist has a particular theme which he goes through over and over again, and I suppose mine has to do with … finding a place.”
In James and Joseph Bruchac’s tale Rabbit’s Snow Dance (Dial, 2012) Rabbit (whose tail is long) has his place and he wants it covered with snow, more and more snow, so he can eat the tasty buds and leaves up in the trees.
Phyllis: I love the word he chants, AZIKANAPO, which the Bruchacs explain means “It will snow foot wrappers, great big flakes of snow.” Even though it’s summer, Rabbit sings his snow song, reasoning that if a little snow is good, more is better. The other animals aren’t pleased, but Rabbit sings snow down as deep as the tree tops, then falls asleep on the top of a tree. While he sleeps, sun melts snow, and when Rabbit wakes up he sleepily steps off into what he thinks is snow and tumbles to the ground, losing bits of his tail on the branches. By the end of the book he has lost his tail, gained patience, and only sings his snow song in the winter.
Jackie: This YouTube video in which Bruchac talks about the origins of the story and the kind of tree rabbit might have been trapped in is charming and reminds us all to look closely at the world.
Also a seasonal family story, Papa’s Latkes by Michelle Edwards (Candlewick, 2004) portrays a family that must cope with loss. Mama has died “before school started” and Papa and Selma and Dora must make the latkes for Chanukah. Papa goes at it with gusto and plenty of potatoes, onions, and oil. But his latkes look like mudpies and Selma just can’t accept a Chanukah without Mama. Papa brings the family together in a long family hug and Selma brings her mother into the picture by lighting the Chanukah candles just the way her mother had taught her. This is a lovely story, for all families, where loss is not denied or glossed over but lived and loved through.
Another story about community, unintentional community, is Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree by Robert Barry (McGraw-Hilll, 1963) Mr. Willowby lives at the other end of easy street from Emmet Otter and Ma. He’s got a big house and orders a big Christmas tree, too big.
But once the tree stood in its place
Mr. Willowby made a terrible face.
The tree touched the ceiling then bent like a bow.
“Oh, good heavens,” he gasped. “Something must
Moving the word “go” to the next line—chopping it off— is a subtle touch that made me laugh out loud.
The butler trims off the top and takes it to the upstairs maid. But her tree is too big—and so on through Mr and Mrs. Timm, a bear family, a rabbit family and finally a mouse family who live just behind the wall in Mr. Willowby’s parlor.
Though this book, if written today, would include more kinds of families, not more animals but different configurations than the “Mr. and Mrs. and kids,” there is still something joyous in the rhymes, the successive trimmings, and each new group’s delight in their section of green.
Phyllis: I love how the characters all make something from what’s been tossed away—it’s another story about making do and celebrating what we have.
Happy Celebrations to you all and wishes for many good story times.