Every year, a couple of months before the holidays, I envision myself totally on the ball, shopping early and leaving time to bake like mad and enjoy my daughters’ delight in the season.
Read the last Seven Impossible Things on Inga Moore's 'A House in the Woods.'
Then the holidays descend upon the world, I get weary of the world’s thneeds, run from the very idea of shopping in any sort of crowd, put everything off and turn around to see the holidays have nearly passed.
That’s why it surprises me that every year at my blog I like to take a look at new holiday titles for children. Or perhaps it’s not so surprising. Looking at the varied ways that authors and illustrators have found to celebrate the holidays within the confines of a 32-page picture book doesn’t require venturing out into throngs of people. And it doesn’t require any more work than sitting back in your favorite comfy chair to crack open a book and take it all in.
There are some standout titles this year. For starters, don’t miss the 50th Anniversary Edition from Viking Juvenile of Ezra Jack Keat’s The Snowy Day, a book which Jerry Pinkney accurately calls “groundbreaking” in this New York Times’ write-up on the impact the book had on children’s literature.
Author Michael J. Rosen and the master of pop-ups and paper engineering, Robert Sabuda, bring us the simply elegant Chanukah Lights. Brock Cole has also released a brand-new title, The Money We’ll Save, centered on a Christmas celebration in a 19th-century New York City tenement. It is an outstanding picture book in every way, no matter the time of year.
But today I want to shine the spotlight on a more under-the-radar book that I also think is one of this year’s best holiday titles, Olivier Dunrea’s A Christmas Tree for Pyn. This book endears itself to me more and more with each reading.
There’s no shortage of books in children’s literature that deal with a hard-hearted, crotchety old man, whose heart is melted by the unbridled cheer of a young child (usually a girl). This one is no exception, but it’s subtly handled and touching—without being too sugary-sweet.
Long on text and with illustrations laid out in ample white space, it’s the story of Oother and his small daughter Pyn. They live on “the top of a steep, craggy mountain,” and Oother is a “bear of a man” with a booming voice, large hands and a “bristly black beard.” Every time Pyn calls him Papa, he reminds her that his name is Oother. “Good morning, Oother,” Pyn corrects herself straightaway and with no complaints. His communication with her typically consists of a system of grunts.
She’s cared for and happy, but in one simple sentence, Dunrea makes clear why Oother’s heart is a bit hardened and why he keeps a certain emotional distance, if you will, from the child: “How very much like her mother she is, he thought.” Clearly, there is no mother around, for whatever reason, and Oother is still trying to adjust to her absence, albeit in a rather surly, monosyllabic way.
Pyn wants to head out to the forest for a Christmas tree. “No Christmas tree,” Oother grunts. Pyn, however, keeps at him with a gentle determination till first she gets a “we’ll see,” and finally she sets out on her own to chop one down. After getting stuck in the snow, Oother finds her and in “one swift movement he swept her off her feet and placed her on his shoulders.” They set off to find their tree—my favorite moment being when they find the perfect tree and bow their heads to give “thanks to the fir tree for allowing them to cut it down.”
Her first Christmas tree! Score one for Pyn and her sweet stubbornness.
I won’t give away the ending, but Oother eventually (and finally) makes a space in their world for the mention of the young girl’s mother, giving his daughter something he once made for his wife. It’s a genuinely poignant moment. Laid out with honesty and restraint it speaks volumes.
Dunrea—who consistently shows these characters in profile, as if we’re in the room observing the action and as if Pyn, for one, can hardly slow down from forward motion—has only the lines that constitute the eyes of Oother, given his very hairy face, to show us his emotions. It works. And, never one to complicate a spread, Dunrea keeps his compositions minimal, with warm, soft colors and precision of line.
Family. Love. If you’ll allow me to channel my inner Hallmark card, that’s really what the holidays are about. (Not thneeds, please.) This book has that in spades. Don’t miss it.
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 focused primarily on illustration and picture books.