One day, about this time last year, I was driving my children home from school. It turns out that the hour of 3 to 4 p.m. is my sleepy time of day (if I knew why, I’d fix this problem), and I was feeling drowsy as I talked to them about the upcoming holidays. Because I was also focused on oncoming traffic, words weren’t quite coming to me as I bid them—the fatigue and distraction had me focused on things other than precision of communication (to say the least)— and I said to my daughters: “it’s almost…you know…Merry Ding Dong Time.” I wasn’t trying to be funny or cute. It’s just the first thing that came out of my mouth—and the best I could do. The girls said after a long pause, “What did you just call Christmas?” I still haven’t lived this down.
Whether we’re ready or not, Merry Ding Dong Time is upon us. I’ve seen a stack of 2015 holiday picture-book titles, and I’m here today to talk about my favorite. If you’re interested in tracking it down as a gift or for reading to children this year, let’s hope I’m giving you enough advance notice.
India Desjardins’ Marguerite’s Christmas, illustrated by Pascal Blanchet, is an import. Originally published in French two years ago, it’s on American shelves now, thanks to translator Carolyn Grifel and Enchanted Lion Books. It’s a beauty. It’s the story of the elderly Marguerite Godin—we don’t meet her till the third spread, because the book opens with two lovely, expansive, wordless spreads that show us the snowy road she lives on—and one very memorable Christmas.
Marguerite has aching joints, shaking hands, a weak bladder, and a failing memory. She lives alone and gets tired a lot. She once hung a giant Christmas wreath in her window but has left it hanging year-round, because the very act of hanging it wore her out. Marguerite “would be happy if she never had to set foot outside her house ever again,” though she doesn’t need anyone’s pity either. And it’s not that she dislikes Christmas; she’s merely old, set in her ways, and experiencing fear about the outside world. It “feels full of hidden dangers,” after all.
Marguerite has grown children, and when they’re mentioned, illustrator Blanchet shows them holding old family portraits in front of their faces. This is how Marguerite sees things—fixated on the past and fearful of the present. She’s always telling them that she’s fine spending Christmas Eve alone. Her husband is dead, and her family and friends are dropping like flies all around her. In one very spare and moving illustration, Marguerite stands alone, looking down. “Soon it will be her turn,” Desjardins writes. It’s a very lonely life Marguerite lives.
One night, a family’s car breaks down in front of Marguerite’s house. This is pre-cellphone age—the book is set early in the last century—and so they are truly stranded. Marguerite’s internal struggles to help the family (they’re outsiders, and that frightens her) make for compelling reading. She has to decide if she’ll let the father in the house to use her phone and his young daughter and her mother in to use the bathroom. In the end, when she finally ventures out to bring a treat to the family, who had resorted to singing carols in the car and opening presents, she finds that she’s just missed them. The tow truck has taken them away, but she “smiles tenderly. They’ll never know how much they gave her this Christmas just by celebrating, despite their misadventure.”
In the end, Marguerite stands in the cold and can’t quite recall “why she’s been so afraid.” This is a contemplative and beautiful close to the story, the reader standing there with her, breathing in the cold and wonder.
This might sound like a somber story, but there’s a lot of humor here, including laugh-out-loud moments of dry, even dark, humor. When the family, for one, first knocks on her door, she anxiously figures her time has come, and Blanchet shows the Grim Reaper in Marguerite’s mind at her doorway (dramatically—with lots of red and ominous shadows). When Desjardins writes that Marguerite tolerates her loud slippers, because “if she didn’t wear them, she might slip and fall like her friend Rita,” Blanchet shows us Rita’s gravestone marker, a tall one with a falling Rita depicted in stone on the top. My favorite moment, however, is probably when Marguerite rationalizes her refusal to go to Christmas Eve Midnight Mass anymore: “[T]he story of the Nativity wasn’t likely to change.”
Another thing to love about this book is its design and production: a cloth cover! Candy cane–striped endpapers! The thick, cream-colored pages! Happy holidays, indeed. The entire package here is a gift to readers. Blanchet’s illustrations are a throwback to illustrations of the 1940s and ’50s; his artistic style is a clear cousin to the likes of Roger Duvoisin.
In a piece she wrote for A Family of Readers: The Book Lover’s Guide to Children’s and Young Adult Literature, Martha Parravano notes that picture books work best when they are “on the side of the child.” I think about that as I read this book. Our protagonist is an elderly lady, yes. Will children relate to this? I think so. She is a person that many children will recognize in their own lives, and she operates out of equal parts fear and anxiety. It’s not like these are things children have never experienced, and I think it’d be eye-opening on many levels for them to hear Marguerite’s story and think about the lives of elderly people they know. Or, as the Kirkus review notes more succinctly, “Share with older children; it will give them a new understanding of Grandma.”
Marguerite’s moving, but never cloying, tale is one you won’t soon forget. So when you grab your favorite holiday picture books to read with children this year, add this charmer to the stack.
And may you have a Merry Ding Dong Time.
MARGUERITE'S CHRISTMAS. Copyright © 2015 by Enchanted Lion Books for English-language translation. Illustration used by permission of the publisher.
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.