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Celebrating Winter Celebrations

Phyl­lis: Win­ter has come down like a snowy blan­ket, and ani­mals in our world have migrat­ed, hiber­nat­ed, or are shiv­er­ing their way through the months ahead. But ani­mals in pic­ture books have oth­er ideas. Why not be a part of December’s cel­e­bra­tions of Hanukkah, Christ­mas, Sol­stice or help a friend in frozen need? These books make us feel as cozy as a cup of tea, a light­ed tree.

Le Loup NoelMichael Gay’s The Christ­mas Wolf was orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in France as Le Loup Noël. For­tu­nate­ly for us, it was also pub­lished in Eng­lish in 1980 by Green­wil­low Books. Father Wolf and his fam­i­ly live in the moun­tains in an aban­doned pow­er­house. When the wolf cubs won­der why Father Christ­mas nev­er comes to them, Father Wolf decide some­thing must be done and heads to town. He is run off the road by a truck and lands in the dump, where he fash­ions a dis­guise from a hat, boots, a long coat, and sun­glass­es. But it’s hard to hide his wolfish ten­den­cies at the store in town, where a revolv­ing door baf­fles him, and sales­peo­ple won­der when he says that his wife prefers a bone to jew­el­ry. In the toy sec­tion his excite­ment caus­es him to for­get his dis­guise, and his tail gives him away. In the out­cry, Father Wolf hides in a win­try win­dow dis­play, final­ly return­ing home emp­ty hand­ed that night. The same truck that ran him off the road, return­ing from town, man­ages to hit him, and when he howls in pain Moth­er Wolf finds him and helps him home. The truck dri­vers, fright­ened by the howl, leap from the truck, which pitch­es down the moun­tain­side, scat­ter­ing the presents it car­ried. In the morn­ing, the ani­mals find presents every­where — in trees, on the ground. A ban­daged and recov­er­ing Father Wolf real­ly has brought Christ­mas to the delight­ed ani­mals. The last two spread show a pleased Father Wolf and wife and ani­mals glee­ful­ly open­ing presents, read­ing books, play­ing a gui­tar, and find­ing all sorts of Christ­mas sur­pris­es. Even though each side of a spread shows a sep­a­rate image, Gay’s art flows seam­less­ly as we jour­ney along with Father Wolf and feel immense sat­is­fac­tion along with him at the end.

Storm Whale in WinterThe Storm Whale in Win­ter by Ben­ji Davies, is a sequel to The Storm Whale in which a lit­tle boy, Noi, res­cued a strand­ed whale washed up by a storm. Noi, who lives with his father and six cats by the sea, keeps search­ing the water for his whale friend with no suc­cess. Win­ter descends, and Noi’s father leaves for one last fish­ing trip, even though the sea is fill­ing with ice. When he doesn’t return by dark­ness, Noi thinks he sees his father’s boat out to sea and hur­ries across the ice to find it. The boat, when he reach­es it, is held fast by ice, and Noi’s father is not aboard. Afraid and not know­ing what else to do, Noi curls up tight in a blan­ket. Sud­den­ly the boat feels a BUMP. The storm whale and his whole fam­i­ly have come to help. They punch through the ice, singing, and push the boat back to the shore, where Noi’s father had been brought when res­cued by oth­er fish­er­men. The art shows Noi togeth­er with his father in the spring, paint­ing the boat which they rename The Storm Whale in hon­or of the night Noi’s friend had come back, then sail­ing togeth­er among the whales.

Both of these are sim­ply told, straight­for­ward sto­ries, and yet both touch the heart unsen­ti­men­tal­ly. Father Wolf wants to make his chil­dren hap­py with the gift of Christ­mas, and Noi wants both to find his friend and also his father. Both sto­ries end with goals achieved, but not until after dif­fi­cul­ty, which makes their suc­cess even sweet­er.

The Hanukkah BearJack­ie: The bear in The Hanukkah Bear (by Eric Kim­mell and illus­trat­ed by Mike Wohnout­ka; 2013) has an eas­i­er time of it. He wakes up mid-win­ter to a deli­cious smell, which he fol­lows to the house of 97-year old Bub­ba Bray­na. She doesn’t see as well as she used to, nor hear as well. But she still makes the best latkes around. And this night she makes twice as many because the Rab­bi is com­ing.

Bub­ba Bray­na wel­comes the bear, whom she mis­takes for the Rab­bi, and inter­prets his grunts and growls as the Rabbi’s part of the con­ver­sa­tion. He devours the latkes. Bub­ba Bray­na laughs at his appetite and wipes of his face. “You eat like a bear,” she says in a teas­ing way. She gives him a scarf and wish­es him a hap­py Hanukkah.

Bub­ba Bray­na is charm­ing in her sim­ple gen­eros­i­ty and accep­tance of a Rab­bi who eats with his paws. And she is gra­cious when the real rab­bi comes with neigh­bors, and the chil­dren see tracks and tell her it was a bear she had fed.

Some may see this sto­ry as fun at the expense of some­one who doesn’t see or hear as well as she used to. But I love it for the qual­i­ties in Bub­ba Bray­na that allow her to be gen­er­ous with a messy imag­ined Rab­bi, laugh at her own mis­take — and solic­it her friends’ help in whip­ping up anoth­er batch of latkes. Would that we all could over­come our mis­takes with such grace.

Emmet Otter's Jug-Band ChristmasOne last ani­mal sto­ry, or sort of. Rus­sell Hoban’s otters are the peo­ple we wish we could be. We have includ­ed this book in the past, but it is so good, so warm, we just have to men­tion it again. Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christ­mas (1971) was writ­ten by Rus­sell Hoban and illus­trat­ed by Lil­lian Hoban. I have loved this sto­ry for most of my adult life. We found it when our kids were young and read it for years – all year long. It is always fun to watch the Jim Hen­son 1977 Mup­pet pro­duc­tion of this sto­ry, but the book is my favorite telling.

Ma Otter says to her friend Irma Coon, “It’s been such a rock-bot­tom life for so long, just once I’d like to bust out with a real glo­ri­ous Christ­mas for Emmet — some­thing shiny and expen­sive.” And Emmet says to his friend Char­lie Beaver, “Some­times [Ma’s] got to have some­thing fine and fan­cy.” When they hear of the tal­ent show with the fifty-dol­lar prize, Emmet drills a hole in Ma’s wash­tub to be part of the Frog­town Hol­low Jug Band and Ma sells Emmet’s tool­box to buy fab­ric for a fan­cy dress to wear as she sings in the con­test.

But no one had count­ed on the River­bend Night­mare band with their elec­tri­cal instru­ments and rau­cous (rock-us?) sound. After the Night­mare per­for­mance, Ma sound­ed like a whis­per. Emmet’s band sound­ed like “crick­ets and night peep­ers.” Still, as they walk home, Ma says, “I guess I ought to feel pret­ty bad, but the fun­ny thing is I don’t. I feel pret­ty good.” And they start to make music. And their music is heard…and appre­ci­at­ed by all the cus­tomers at Doc Bullfrog’s River­side Rest. A free sup­per and a night of enter­tain­ing fol­low. And they all go home with a reg­u­lar job at Doc Bullfrog’s and mon­ey in their pock­ets.

Ma and Emmet are so spunky. Hoban’s lan­guage is so enter­tain­ing. We all have days that we want to call “rock-bot­tom.” And we hope for times when maybe we should feel pret­ty bad, but we feel pret­ty good. This sto­ry is a clas­sic and bears read­ing again and again.

The Shortest DayPhyl­lis: The sparest of poet­ic texts (121 words by my quick count) flows through Susan Cooper’s The Short­est Day, a sol­stice cel­e­bra­tion.

Jack­ie: An end note tells us Coop­er wrote the poem for “The Christ­mas Rev­els,” a sol­stice cel­e­bra­tion begun by John Langstaff in 1957 and revived in 1971 and cel­e­brat­ed in cities all over the coun­try.

Phyl­lis: The dark art, soft as a winter’s night, is lit by can­dles in win­dow and torch­es in hands as “every­where, down the cen­turies of the snow-white world came peo­ple singing, danc­ing, to dri­ve the dark away.” They hang homes with ever­greens and burn fires to wak­en the new year’s sun. When the sun returns, they “car­ol, feast, give thanks, and dear­ly love their friends, and hope for peace. And so do we, here, now….”

And we, too, wish­ing you dear friends that in the com­ing year we dri­ve the dark away, com­mit to cel­e­bra­tions, and find peace and joy.

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Two for the Show: Winter Stories

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. 

bk_Two_EmmetOne 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.

bk_Two_MolePhyl­lis: 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.”

bk_Two_SnowDanceIn 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.

bk_Two_LatkesAlso 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.

bk_Two_Willoughby 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

go.”

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.

 

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