It’s that precious time of year, filled with gifts wrapped in sparkly bows, dreams of sugar plums, the merry dimples and rosy cheeks of Santa, angels securing their wings with each tinkle of a bell, lip-smacking latkes, and laughs like bowls full of jelly. There’s also more fruitcake than you can possibly stand, but pshaw! It’s still mostly all sweetness and goodwill and good ol’-fashioned gluttony. And it’s all heartwarming. Yes?
No, thank you. Bradley Bartleby will have none of that. Well, except for the gluttony.
Bradley is the dastardly star of Jonathan Emmett’s The Santa Trap, originally published in Great Britain in 2009 but released this year here in the U.S. by Peachtree. It’s illustrated by Poly Bernatene, who lives in Argentina and teaches at the Buenos Aires School of Fine Art.
This book is funny. It’s funnier than that infamous childhood photo of you screaming on Santa’s lap (around which the family gathers annually for a new round of jokes at your expense). I’ve seen a giant stack of new holiday-themed picture books this year. While many of them are good, I find this one the most outstanding in terms of sheer entertainment value.
This is dark humor at its merriest. Or should I say frostiest? The back of the book jacket says it all: “WARNING: Contains no peace and goodwill.” This is for those children (and adults) who need a break from the happy-happy-jolly and the overall yuletide euphoria.
Bradley was born bad and became “badder” the older he got. He’s also spoiled silly, and his parents are terrified of him – with good reason, which I’ll let you discover for yourself, if you choose to pick up a copy of this wicked funny holiday treat. Despite his greedy Christmas wish list, typed up by a team of secretaries, Santa yearly brings him socks. Stupid socks. And Bradley’s had enough.
With his parents stupidly and (mostly) mutely watching him get to work, Bradley sets out to booby-trap their home, intent on catching Santa. “Isn’t it a little early to be setting a trap?” his father asks. “It will be a whole year before Santa comes again.” No, says Bradley, he’ll need 365 days to do it up right. And, why, yes, the look in his eyes during this moment screams Slightly Unhinged and Moderately Deranged and Entirely Depraved. “I’m going to catch the fat fool and take every present he’s got.”
(Oh, no! He didn’t! I see you wagging your finger and rolling your head now. But he did. He did, indeed, call him a “fat fool.”)
We’re talkin’ dynamite in the chimney, tigers he steals from the local zoo, guillotines over all the doors and windows, trapdoors in all the floors, a metal cage hanging above, and even more. It’s such an elaborate, complicated set of traps that his parents move out to live temporarily in a hotel.
As you may have guessed, things don’t go so swimmingly for our pernicious protagonist. Even better, he ends up being the very unwilling recipient of his own dark deeds. I can’t ruin this entire read for you, should you want to experience this yourself, but I’ll say it’s satisfying and delicious with its backfiring revenge. And don’t expect any ABC Afterschool Special-type of change-of-heart on Bradley’s part. This is that perfect book for your older elementary student who is learning his or her way around that beautiful thing called gallows humor, and any precious-ness at the end would be an injustice.
The no-holds-barred humor--both author and illustrator are not afraid to pull out all the stops with Bradley’s inventive weapons--is refreshingly funny. Emmett builds the tension well, and Bernatene’s digital mixed media illustrations are, at turns, over-the-top comical, as they should be, but then strangely beautiful in spots. (His tigers and street scenes are especially beguiling.)
My last and loudest laugh was reading in the author’s back-flap bio that he based the story on his own Santa traps, which he built as a boy. And which were real. Now, I’m sure he didn’t hang an anvil from the living room ceiling, as Bradley does, but still, don’t you just want to have a cup of coffee with this guy?
Here’s hoping Santa skips the socks and puts this story of a beastly boy under your tree instead. When you’re done dreaming of sugar plums, you can delight your inner imp with Bradley’s merry tale of wrath.
Julie Danielson (Jules) has, in her own words, conducted approximately eleventy billion 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.