The holidays are upon us, and the other day I read a festive children’s book that came out of nowhere and is a lovely surprise. So, if you’re so inclined, settle down with your eggnog for just a moment, and I can tell you about it.
The Yule Tomte and the Little Rabbits is an import. Originally published in Sweden in 2012, it sees its U.S. edition this year. It comes from the Swedish duo of Ulf Stark and Eva Eriksson. Stark was born in 1944 and has had a long, award-winning career in children’s literature. Eriksson, who was awarded the Astrid Lindgren Prize in 2001, is one of Europe’s most beloved and celebrated illustrators. (She illustrated Rose Lagercrantz’s My Happy Life, as well as My Heart is Laughing, two books I’ve highlighted previously here at Kirkus.)
Needless to say, this is a story steeped in Scandinavian holiday traditions, so if you’re looking for a break from the traditional American fare, I can tell you this one is a joy to read and to share with children. In fact, there’s a brief chapter a day for the month of December, so there’s still time to get caught up. Someone—either the talented translator, Susan Beard, or the publisher—decided to help us out by including an informative note before we even get to the title page that explains that the tomte (or Yule Tomte) in the Swedish Christmas tradition brings presents to children. St. Lucia’s Day, the note also explains, is December 13th, and it is one of Sweden’s biggest holiday celebrations.
And then we immediately meet the tomte, a very small, gnomelike creature who lives in the grounds of an empty cottage. He rather haunts this place. His name is Grump, and he leaps off the page in all his sass and misanthropy. Well, he likes to think he’s grouchy and not a people person (his favorite book is called In Praise of Solitude), but one of the funny and endearing things about Stark’s story here is that observant readers will notice that Grump’s peevishness is just part and parcel of the abrasive exterior he likes to show the world. For instance, in the first chapter when he spots a bee stuck in a spider’s web, he grumbles and moans about having the bee around after he saves him, but he didn’t have to save him to begin with, now did he?
The book is full of moments like this—Grump’s loud petulance, immediately followed by an act of kindness. For instance, after he steps outside and a high wind blows his mittens and red hat away, Stark writes:
“Might as well go inside,” thought Grump to himself. “I’ll go in and shut the door, and I won’t open it for anyone. And if the bee says anything, I won’t answer. I won’t celebrate Christmas. I won’t do anything. I won’t look after anyone. I will sit here in my little hut and enjoy the peace and quiet all on my own.”
He left a sugar cube next to the bee for when it woke up.
In another instance later in the story, he wakes the bee and asks him if he’d like some tea: “We might as well have a cup, seeing as how you have woken up and are bothering me.”
A bit farther out from tomte’s cottage is “a burrow full of life.” The Rabbit family lives here—Mother Rabbit, Father Rabbit, Uncle Nubbin, Grandfather Rabbit, and lots of children. Here, Eriksson moves from the gray shadows of tomte’s life to the warm, earthy tones of this burrow. Her warm, inviting illustrations nearly glow.
It’s two of the Rabbit children, Barty and Binny, who find Grump’s hat and mittens. They have no idea what they are. But since the wind also carried a broken sign, saying “TOMTE CO,” to their burrow (formerly “TOMTE COTTAGE,” but a squirrel had once nibbled at it), they figure the tomte is on his way. So, the whole family starts to gleefully prep for his visit: They make presents for him; Grandfather writes him a song; they bake treats; and Father Rabbit prepares “presentations” for him, since a pigeon in the forest tells him that is “what you do at Christmas. Everyone says so.” Eventually, Barty and Binny make their way to the tomte’s house, this after an angel appears to Grump to tell him he’s going to have a family and that, specifically, two children will appear in his life.
There’s a lot of gentle humor here—one of my favorite moments is at the end when Grump, the Yule Tomte himself, pulls up to the burrow with Barty and Binny, who are all on a sled pulled by a fox who “had promised to be kind and not eat anyone up,” since it was Christmas Eve—and some funny supporting characters. (The disgruntled Owl brings laughs.) Stark bestows each of the main characters with vivid personalities, and Eriksson’s depiction of Grump is particularly irresistible. And the ending is a delightful surprise, involving a twinkling ice house and a delicious moment of silence with everyone involved. It’s filled with wonder and friendship. Yes, even for Grump.
Never fear, though: He remembers in the very end that “he was supposed to be grumpy,” a perfect final line to this book.
He’s my favorite kind of grouch.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.