by MK Martin
Have you ever read the Nutcracker? It’s a stunning book, illustrated by Toller Cranston who, if you’ve never been into figure skating, was a prominent athlete in the sport. Do yourself a favor and search for him on Youtube. Preferably in his canary suit.
There’s also a lovely version illustrated by Maurice Sendak I love very much. But the reason I love these stories is the same: Godfather Drosselmeier. This resplendent, but somewhat homely be-caped uncle, shows up at an otherwise ordinary Georgian/Victorian Christmas (depending on the version) and brings with him the most fantastic mechanical inventions, of his own design.
There are children in this story, but this guy, this is who I wanted to be. He wowed the crowd without witticisms, he stunned the savvy without good tailoring. He was far more interesting than Santa, and he didn’t outsource. Though his creations were all wondrous, it was one in the back that over a young lady’s heart. A carved Nutcracker who, though his proportions were mishap and his grin a little wide, his purpose was clear and his mission unfailing. When night comes, and the dread Rat King comes to terrorize the world of magic, it is the Nutcracker who saves the day. The illustrations are beautiful, captivating, and somehow, Sendak manages to convey Marie’s expressions in just a few lines, and terrify with the enormous Sweet Tooth, who could represent any frightening authority figure of any era.Babar, Jean de Brunhof’s epic tale of his title character’s search for Father Christmas, comes up in our reading rotation even if it isn’t Christmas. Any story where the characters are all animals, walking around our human world in suits and silks, and ruling their own kingdoms is instantly a favorite. I love that Babar is a champion for his subjects, that he adopts orphaned members of his family, and others, and that his wife, Celeste is always the quiet (well, elephant quiet) voice of reason. One of his adopted kids, Zephyr, discovers Father Christmas brings toys to children all over the world, and he wonders if it wouldn’t be a good idea for them to write and see if he will come to Elephant Country too?
Since it’s too long to wait for mail of any kind, Babar decides to go on a quest for his kids, to make sure their letter gets there alright. He’s lead a merry chase through interesting places, aided by some and thwarted as well. The ending is happy, and Father Christmas has a very cool airship.
My very favorite holiday story, though, is The Secret Staircase, by Jill Barklem. The illustrations in her works are breathtaking journeys, a story to be told in each one. It was this story that first introduced me to Midwinter: the ‘pagan’ observance of the darkest day, the Death of the Year. It is a fleeting moment in the calendar, because, the next day is already longer than the last. It is like witnessing the Universe being born all over again; from the darkness, light, and then everything begins.
Ms. Barklem must also find this to be magical, because she takes us with her little mouse heroes up, up into the palace hewn and carved from a massive tree, to rooms and cupboards not seen in any remembered age.
Every turn shows them beauty, majesty and hidden secrets of a world since forgotten. If there’s a history buff lurking in your kid, this story will draw them out. The purpose of their search, is to find something a little bit more stunning for the Midwinter recital and log burning. A popular, but well worn poem has been chosen, and they are looking for a little glamour. Where else should you find those things, but in your great-great-great-great-great grandparents’ closet? The greatest illustration is of the denouement, and I read the poem out loud, with gusto every year.
When the days are the shortest, the nights are the coldest,
The frost is the sharpest, the year is the oldest,
The sun is the weakest, the wind is the hardest,
The snow is the deepest, the skies are the darkest,
Then polish your whiskers and tidy your nest,
And dress in your richest and finest and best ..
For winter has brought you the worst it can bring,
And now it will give you
The promise of SPRING!!
To me, it’s the kids’ books that are the classics, of any age. Grown up stories tend to drag along with them the social trappings of the age, while a child’s story is to the point. I hope you get a chance to read these, some day.