by Sam Juliano
A family car ride to a tree farm in early December is for many holiday aficionados the purest expression of the Christmas spirit. A real tree, cut and wrapped in mesh and mounted on the vehicle’s roof with sturdy rope is a pine smelling ritual of incomparable significance for those wanting to sustain the homespun purity of this celebratory time of good will and decorative ambiance. For those who repeat this custom year in and year out the very thought of climbing up to the attic to bring down a dusty box with a white artificial tree is tantamount to yuletide blasphemy, somehow as fraudulent as opening unwrapped gifts on the day before Christmas. Finding the right tree by way of height, girth and fullness is never an easy task, but if it were most of the fun would be drained away. The trip home is an exciting time, and if the flakes are falling the mood is one of exuberance. Most kids believe the tree that makes it to their living room is better than any other, and they invariably forge a spiritual connection to the protector of their presents and the source of that incomparably lovely smell that are privy to only once a year. Helping to squeeze a tree through an often impregnable doorway poses a modest challenge for a young girl, but the very thought that it is her turn to put the star on top will increase her brawn ten fold.
In Maple & Willow’s Christmas Tree, the fourth book in a hugely popular series by Lori Nichols that launched with Maple in 2014, and continued with Maple & Willow Together and Maple & Willow Apart, this enviable scenario is played out with some wildly unexpected results. A review of Maple was penned in December of 2014 as part of that year’s Caldecott Medal Contender series. After the two exquisite sequels, this wholly sublime Christmas entry is again proposed as a Caldecott contender. The first thing everybody says when they look at any of the Maple books is that the art is so beautiful. The precise and tidy pencil on Mylar illustrations, which are then digitally colored result in captivating spreads and vignettes, a formula that repeats itself in this holiday entry. Nichols goes with white object silhouettes on red for the end papers, and immediately sets the festive tone on the first page depicted a bare-tree winterscape populated by the two precocious sisters sledding down an incline under the watchful eye of a burrowing rabbit. The approaching holiday is signaled on the following panel when the girls hold and tangle with the old fashioned big bulb lights, before lending their hands to a baking assignment.
Before long though, Maple sports a red nose and turns a sneeze into high drama. Willow tells her she looks like Rudolph, but soon surmises that her older sister may be allergic to pine trees. The theory is tested when the girls head outdoors to play in the snow, whereupon Maple’s sneezing spree subsided. When they came back into the house however, it didn’t take long for the verdict to be in. Maple and pine could not be in each other’s company, meaning the tree had to be propped outside. Willow thinks the allergy extends to the essence of the holiday itself, but the more world wise Maple knows it is restricted only to the tree, telling Willow as much. Still, before they retire for the night, Maple tells her sister she’s sorry her allergy has ruined Christmas. The ever precocious Willow isn’t in the mood for consolation and tells her back “I’m sorry you ruined Christmas too.” But the younger sibling regrets her curt demeanor, and is unable to sleep. The eviction notice served up for the tree was distressing, but her sister’s feelings were more important. Then Willow devises a way to save the holiday, though it requires more than a little effort. But this girl is smitten with the holiday and she burns the midnight oil to bring her plan to fruition. Though half asleep, Maple is led downstairs for the happy unveiling. Standing in the same space where the Christmas tree stood is the normally subservient Christmas tree ladder, now decorated more extravagantly than any ever before. Both girls exult in their unique fill-in, coming to see this compromise as yuletide perfection. Even a squirrel and winter bird perched on the tree look with intrigued through the window. Small presents are none the wiser with the unconventional substitute either.
Nichols’ art was wildly praised by children’s book critics in 2014 with the first installment, and appraisals of the sequels pretty much stayed the course. Maple & Willow’s Christmas Tree continues the slice-of-life escapades, featuring those by now all-too familiar spare and razor sharp vignettes, striking color balance, and that wintry feel needed for a Christmas book to exert the maximum effect. Highlights include the exhilarating and intimate sleigh ride – a real marvel on white; the breathtaking tree grove with the snowy branches in the creamy expanse eyed affectionately by the girls in minimalist incarnation; the hood clad and ear muffed girls sharing their native language (“Ootay, igbay”; “Ustjay, ightray”) while helping to make the big decision; the ravishing ride home amidst a winter wonderland; the charming sneeze vignettes, with the varied face contortions; the girls gazing outside after the tree is removed from a suddenly bare living room; the powdered navy blue section of the book documenting Willow’s alternative game plan, including the the outdoor starry night with perched owl, and of course the beautiful color illumination of the light bulbs around the world’s most anointed step ladder. Sumptuous color contrast between the warm illumination of the inside and the cold nocturnal environs are showcased in the final spread, while the last single illustration is a gloriously colorful Christmas statement.
Nichols’ latest adventure with her two darlings is surely the very best traditional themed Christmas book of the year, though two others with religious subjects are also part of the Caldecott Medal contender mix. The biggest challenge with Maple & Willow’s Christmas Tree is to act like the art is a mere continuation of past chapters. But this is ultimately impossible as Nichols has upped the ante with a book that makes the most beloved holiday ritual one of painstaking thought and execution. The Caldecott committee may well be over the holiday season when they deliberate in mid January, but there are many more December 25th’s to come. A Christmas step ladder and those frosty atmospheric tree groves may prove impossible to resist.
Note: This is the thirty-second entry in the ongoing 2016 Caldecott Medal Contender series. The series does not purport to predict what the committee will choose, rather it attempts to gauge what the writer feels should be in the running. In most instances the books that are featured in the series have been touted as contenders in various online round-ups, but for the ones that are not, the inclusions are a humble plea to the committee for consideration. It is anticipated the series will include in the neighborhood of around 40 to 45 titles; the order which they are being presented in is arbitrary, as every book in this series is a contender. Some of my top favorites of the lot will be done near the end. The awards will be announced on January 22nd, hence the reviews will continue till two days before that date.