By SARAH ELLIS
Published: December 16, 2007
In From the Cold
A little girl makes away with precious cargo in “Angela and the Baby Jesus,” by Frank McCourt.
ANGELA AND THE BABY JESUS
By Frank McCourt.
Illustrated by Raúl Colón.
Unpaged. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. $17.99. (Ages 5 to 10)
In terms of plain narrative, the Nativity story is hard to beat. It has pretty much everything: a journey, a baby, a mass murderer, refugees, the kindness of strangers, music, animals and big, big special effects. Picture-book artists have presented this story with originality and brio, from Dick Bruna and his squat, minimalist Holy Family to Julie Vivas and her realistically weary Mary.
Why is it, then, that so many picture books on the more general or secular themes of Christmas lack fiber? There is nothing remotely sappy in the original story, but legions of books featuring little angels and animals at the manger or anthropomorphized Christmas trees and indefatigable drummer boys fall flat. Perhaps Christmas simply provides too much material. The secular accretions of Santa Claus, figgy pudding and Suzy Snowflake are enough to make you look for inspiration in some less excessively explored holiday. Groundhog Day starts to look good.
One way around this problem is to focus on something elemental. Frank McCourt’s “Angela and the Baby Jesus” is built around the theme of cold. This family anecdote involves McCourt’s mother as a 6-year-old deciding that the infant Jesus figurine in the Christmas crib at church must be cold in his scant loincloth, then stealing him to take home to her warm bed.
Readers of McCourt’s 1996 memoir, “Angela’s Ashes,” will remember his rare gift for entering the minds of young children. He captures the way they construct complicated plans and notions based on basic misunderstandings. He never lets his adult perception of their vulnerability get in the way of the pleasure he takes in children’s complexity and sturdiness. In this small story he lets us know that Angela’s kind impulse is laced with naughtiness, sibling rivalry, attention-getting and a desire to escape the position of smallest in the family. Angela is endearing, but she is not cute.
The heist itself, which involves hiding in the confession booth and throwing Jesus over a backyard wall, is masterly and lively. The only hitch in the proceedings concerns Angela’s older brother Pat, who “was like a baby himself and often said foolish things even she wouldn’t say.” When Pat discovers Angela’s secret, he announces the truth to the family: “She have God in the bed, so she do.” But of course they don’t initially believe him. In this, Act 2 of the drama, the emotional heart of the story switches to Pat and his relationship with Angela. In Act 3, both strands, now tightly woven, come to a neat, unexpected, satisfying conclusion.
The lilting cadence of McCourt’s prose — “Was it having a bit of a rest you were?” “’Twas” — is matched by Raúl Colón’s watercolor-and-pencil illustrations, in a limited palette of blue and ochre. We move up and down stairs and streets, but we seldom stray from Angela’s viewpoint. The moonlit road home from the church is so long as to seem never-ending, the backyard wall is high as high, and when the twin forces of church and state confront Angela, the priest and the policeman are so tall that the tops of their heads are cut off the page. A message McCourt never makes explicit lies in the composition of the family scenes, the rounded sculptural figures echoing the solidity, formality and closeness of the manger crib.
Anticipating a crossover market, the publisher has also issued a smaller-format “adult” edition of “Angela and the Baby Jesus,” with illustrations by Loren Long (Scribner, $14.95). The tale is a natural for a seasonal family read-aloud (McCourt opens for Dylan Thomas), but the Long illustrations are dark and dreary, so you might as well stick with the picture-book version.
Kate DiCamillo’s “Great Joy” is also a story of cold, set in 1940s America.
By Kate DiCamillo.
Illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline. Unpaged. Candlewick Press. $16.99. (Ages 4 to 8)
Frances, who appears to be 8 or 9, looks out her apartment window to the street below to see an organ grinder and his monkey. She discovers that they sleep on the street and, concerned for them, invites them to her church’s Christmas pageant. During the play, Frances, who has the role of the angel who appears to the shepherds, chokes on her lines; but at the critical moment, when musician and monkey enter the church, she recovers, and the angelic announcement is made.
Memorable picture-book texts often emerge when two stories entwine. In “Angela” the story of Pat winds around the story of the liberation of the baby Jesus, giving it strength and universality. It is Ireland in the 1910s, and it is all other times as well. In “Great Joy” the two strands of the plot — pageant and organ grinder — don’t convincingly mesh, and neither has enough substance or originality on its own. To invite a homeless person to come in from the cold for a couple of hours is not a sturdy enough premise to justify the emotion the narrative seems to be asking of us.
This blandness and sentimentality is mitigated somewhat by Bagram Ibatoulline’s illustrations. His paintings, in acrylic gouache, portray people with very particular faces, and their gestures are meaningful and familiar. Frances stops to gather new-fallen snow on her way to church. Her mother steps gingerly on the slippery steps. He adds back-story details — a framed photograph of a man in uniform suggests a father away at war. And the concept of joy, which is not convincingly realized in the text, is made manifest in a personality-filled double-page spread that follows the final words. Ibatoulline depicts the church social after the pageant. One shepherd picks his nose, the camel (front end) emerges from his costume, the monkey sits on Frances’ shoulder and investigates her hair, and the organ grinder, illuminated by Old World charm, flirts with Frances’ mother.
Christmas books wear their messages on their sleeves. They can’t help it. We allow them an extra measure of sweetness. But the demands of storytelling still apply, even in the season of marzipan. Fully realized characters, nongeneric places and voices, an acknowledgment that virtue is complicated — these are what make the message palatable and create a space for yet one more Christmas tale.
Sarah Ellis is a writer and teacher in Vancouver. Her latest book is “Odd Man Out.”