by Sam Juliano
The Lost Gift: A Christmas Story is predicated on that rarest of occurrences in this age of climate change, late-launching winters and the annual transients who prefer a yuletide celebration outside a swimming pool. Still, December 25th is a date that for centuries has captured the imaginations of writers and illustrators, who have maintained a traditional image of Christmas, one inhabited by the seasonal trappings and the setting most of us can only dream for. We’ve been treated to such holiday winterscapes and the indelible trappings that have long given this holiday its sense of mystery and anticipation in works such as Clement C. Moore’s The Night Before Christmas, Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman and Chris Van Allsberg’s Caldecott Medal winning The Polar Express. In all three and in many others Christmas is defined by blustery snow, freezing temperatures and Jolly old St. Nick, a tireless globetrotter who somehow defies all logistics by making a personal stop at every house where children reside, usually entering through chimneys. The favored visual transcription of Christmas Eve is a very dark blue starry sky, a snowy terrain, houses scattered, pine trees in abundance and a rustic home with a fireplace, a living room Christmas tree and gifts wrapped in red and green paper. This exquisite setting, usually evoking a location far to the north is captured via pencil and ink washes with digital color in a gem of a holiday book, written by Kallie George and illustrated by Stephanie Graegin. The story, chronicles the return of a present that fell off Santa’s sleigh after a gust of wind, by four dutiful forest animals, who must complete their task in frigid cold way past their bedtimes. Their challenges -and a later snowbank mishap- recall that which faced the resilient title character in William Stieg’s classic Brave Irene.
A bluebird, rabbit, squirrel and deer sit atop Merry Woods Hill. All but the bird wear scarves, but the extreme cold is blunted by knowing that Santa’s sleigh was soon to pass their neck of the woods. Graegin, whose bright-colored gorgeous summer playground tapestries set in Brooklyn in the critically lauded Water in the Park, starkly negotiates denim blue in the opening double page canvasses, where George depicts the blink of an eye meeting in the dead of night as smelling like “pine and peppermint”. Red is strategically placed as is the white snow for some mighty beautiful art. The animals think briefly, but overriding the objections of the quartet’s resident contrarian, the smarmy squirrel, they head towards the sections of the woods where the package disappeared. In a splendid Whose woods these are I think I know canvas the four find the red with green ribbon package embedded in the show, but rabbit brings his penchant to bear in digging it out. Then squirrel discovers a Chicka-chicka-chicka sound after shaking it, and bird subsequently starts pecking at the ribbon. Rabbit intervenes, reminding them that a tag denotes ownership. Graegin’s vignettes on white are utterly charming. Despite the devil’s advocate rumblings of squirrel, the group by majority rule decide to honor the implications of the tag, which states that it must go to the “new baby on the farm.” A sled must be constructed and following the lead of bird the group gather the materials, tie everything together and set up deer as the carrier. Again the busy vignettes are delightful and sublime.
With the aid of starlight the animals head to their destination, encountering a steep hill, as the moon appears behind clouds and an owl looks on from a tree hole, but a whoosh and a whoomp and the animals must regroup. Squirrel, grumpy as ever still lends a hand and after dislodging the package they glide past a snowy forest enclave that is arguably the most beautiful spread in the book. Snowy umbrellas anchored to the ground by way of slender wooden spikes extend far into the covered hills, where a few houses can be seen. George asserts that the exhausted rabbit is beginning to waver.
Rabbit perks up the group with a rendition of “Jingle Bells” en route to the farmhouse. After alerting the man with accidental porch noise they hide behind a snow covered hedge as he emerges holding his infant daughter. The man asks aloud where the gift came from, but quickly enough discovers it is a gift from Santa, as baby seems to sense there may be others behind this surprise. Father and daughter return to the house and are eyed through the living room window by the four anointed Christmas Eve postmen. They are disappointed to see that the gift is a “stick”, though baby seems delighted with the sound it makes when she shakes it. She finally gets to see the package bringers in another ravishing spread of a splendidly ornamented tree, and some living room furniture where toy soldiers, a wreath with candles and Christmas cards stand, and green and red decor. When baby smiles, all the other follow suit fully immersed in this precious moment. Mission accomplished, the contented animals head home as Christmas Day approaches in a whimsical canvas of a white terrain and some newly falling snow. Two rapturous oval tapestries bathed in blue and white showcase a package from Santa that arrived, one thanking them for their help. The final spread depicting a the orange dawn of December 25th also makes fair claim for illustration honors, as the group hovers over a fancy cake, as rabbit holds a carrot and squirrel clings to some acorns. The end papers feature the same cross-patterned red wrapping paper used for the baby’s gift, right down to the green-bordered label.
The Lost Gift: A Christmas Story is one of two yuletide-themed books that is being proposed in this year’s Caldecott Medal Contender series. While the other – Maple & Willow’s Christmas Tree is largely concerned with preparation, George and Graegin’s book is all about those few hours on Christmas Eve when magical things happen. George’s story, amplifying a single heartening incident and its aftermath is captivating, while Graegin’s art is brooding, atmospheric and strikingly contrasted. Her animals (and humans in fact) are lovingly etched in forms that resemble wooden puppets, and the book contains several showstopping tapestries. The Caldecott committee, several weeks removed from Christmas should still have no problem considering this beautiful book for one of their medals. It is that deserving.
Note: This is the thirty-fifth 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.