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


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.


Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

1 Comment
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Norma Gaffron
Norma Gaffron
8 years ago

Mer­ry, mer­ry Christ­mas to you both! And to Phyl­lis, “BIG MOMMA MAKES THE WORLD is one of my favorite books ever.”