I read a moderately-sized stack of brand-new, holiday-themed children’s books this week but want to write today about one that stood out. If, like me, you want something different this year, look no further than Otto and the Secret Light of Christmas, written by Nora Surojegin and illustrated by Pirkko-Liisa Surojegin. If you don’t recognize the names of the author and illustrator, that’s because this is an import from Finland, translated by Jill G. Timbers. It was originally published in 2010 as Untu ja sydäntalven salaisuus.
What did I know about Finnish holiday traditions before reading this book? Absolutely nothing. Nor can I even pronounce the book’s original title. But this illustrated story, divided into 14 short chapters, is a refreshing read if you’re up for learning something new and/or you’re longing for a departure from the traditional American holiday fare. It’s not like it’s a narrative breaking new ground; it’s a fairly conventional holiday story, but you won’t find the likes of these characters in anything else you’ll read this year. Gather some children ‘round, too: It makes for an appealing read-aloud.
In chapter one, readers meet Otto, all decked out in his leather hat and “two horns that expressed his mood, like the ears of a dog.” Otto lives on the shore, and he’s a tiny creature, no bigger than his seagull friend who greets him at the story’s opening. Otto is mystified, because he’s found a holiday greeting postcard on the beach that reads, “Wishing you light in the midst of winter, and a joy-filled Christmas season.” The front of the postcard proclaims “THE LIGHT OF CHRISTMAS!” Otto wonders, if he were to suddenly collapse and die, whether or not he would know that he’s lived a “bright and colourful life.” He’s a deep thinker, this Otto.
He’s also never seen Christmas and wonders aloud to Seagull Schooner what it is:
“Winter on the coast of Finland was dark and dismal. If this ‘Christmas’ could
brighten it, Otto felt he might like to find it and maybe bring some back.
Schooner studied his friend. ‘I have often heard tales of strange customs in
the far north,’ he said, ‘and rumours of something that gives more light than
ten lanterns. Maybe that’s where Christmas can be found.’”
Thus begins his journey through forests to the far north. And, like a lot of quest stories, this one is really all about the journey. Sure, there are talking animals (to be expected)—an apple-stealing badger is Otto’s first friend—but there’s also a whole host of surprises. For one, there’s mighty King Kekri, the “prince of harvests bountiful” and “bearer of all things plentiful.” He’s a tall, smelly, spooky, tree-like creature, who tells Otto that Christmas doesn’t live in his parts and that he must find Father Yule and his reindeer. An information search—I was curious—tells me that Kekri is evidently a day of feasting at the end of the agricultural season in the ancient Finnish religion.
There are also mupples, small, furry forest creatures, for whom it is a matter of honor to serve their guests delicious food and who make decorations called himmelis to honor King Kekri and ensure good harvests. There are hazytales, who were once talkative creatures, but who told so many stories that “they ran out” and now move slowly across villages, telling tales at a snail’s pace and rooting themselves into the ground. They seem to owe a lot to Tolkien’s ents. Otto eventually leaves them, since they “had begun to slip into their winter sleep and uttered only a few words a day.”
Most memorable of all, however, are the leaf fairies, who dance their farewell dance down to the ground in autumn and then “leave this life.” Niiu, the leaf fairy with whom Otto has a conversation, tells him that this is nature’s cycle and that there’s no reason to mourn it. Otto witnesses this beautiful event—“the fairies melted into one another and the trees sighed as they gathered strength to face the winter cold”—and then continues on his way, meeting up with a mammoth bear, who keeps him warm and warns him about lonttis. Snow lonttis are spy-like creatures—they pass on information to Kekri about those who come through the forest. They form in the snow, though the creatures change their name based on where they are. There are, for instance, moss, firewood, and grass lonttis. They assist Otto with his directions to Father Yule. If the lonttis are not surprising enough to Otto, he also finds out there are will-o-the-wisps, who try to lure people onto thin ice. Otto’s is a dangerous, but vibrant and always surprising, world.
Finally, after meeting the Klupu, “strong, merry people who had lived on the plains of Lapland for centuries,” and after a near-defeat by a sinister Ironworm, who wriggles in the snow under Otto and sends him into a stupor, he meets Father Yule in a chapter aptly titled “Fires in the Sky.” The ending was what I expected, Father Yule telling Otto that the light of Christmas is really in the form of friends who gather “and create bright memories—all these things brighten the darkness of winter.” Otto, who had expected to find a literal ball of light at the end of his journey, finally understands that each kind creature he met was a little ray of light in the dark. But this expected epiphany at the book’s end didn’t lessen its impact. It still manages to be rewarding and will give young readers/listeners a lot to think about during a holiday that is often so commercialized.
Since the hustle and bustle and consumerism of Christmas so often drown out the camaraderie of family and friends, no wonder it’s a “secret” light. But it’s one well-worth discovering, and Otto’s story is a lovely reminder.
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.
OTTO AND THE SECRET LIGHT OF CHRISTMAS. English version © 2016 by Floris Books. Text © 2010 Nora Surojegin and Kustannusosakeyhtiö Otava. Illustrations © 2010 Pirkko-Liisa Surojegin and Kustannusosakeyhtiö Otava. Illustration used by permission of the publisher.