I was introduced to this book by Sheila Silvester, a close friend and colleague from Scarborough who organises author visits for schools in North Yorkshire. She’s a librarian too and reads the book out to younger school children every Christmas. They love it and, I have to say, I am now hooked myself.
The story is about a girl called Frances who, I take it from the pictures, lives in a bustling North American city like New York. It’s war time, and Frances’ father is away on active duty in the services. He’s not mentioned in the text; he is only present in a framed photograph in Frances’ apartment.
Frances loves looking out of the window and, just before Christmas, her eyes are drawn to an organ grinder and his monkey on the street corner. The man and his pet intrigue her. She learns that he is homeless and begs her mother to invite him in for some nourishment. Her mother, not wanting vagrants in the house, refuses.
Frances is determined to somehow make contact with the organ grinder and invites him to the Christmas pageant in which she is playing the heraldic angel, announcing ‘tidings of great joy’ to the shepherds outside Bethlehem. But will the organ grinder come to see the play? Will he even be allowed into the hall? The answer to that question makes for what I consider a perfect ending to a very moving if understated story, and a message central to the theme of Christmas.
The book, originally published in 2007, has divided critics. Some see it as another masterpiece by the Newbery Medal winning author. Others, including the New York Times, called it sentimental and bland. To me, the latter have missed the point of the book. This is a story with a distinct spiritual message, delivered subtly. It works.
Bagram Ibatoulline’s illustrations, done in soft acrylic gouache, add layers to the narrative. There is much to explore on every spread and children are sure to pore over them long after the story has been read. A gem of a book, then, and one worth seeking out.
Other Christmas book reviews and posts you might like:
Room for a Little One – by Martin Waddell