Christmas Collectibles

One NightA plethora of picture books about Christmas are published each year. Some are froth and bubble, as unsatisfying as cheap tinsel. Others are excellent, and should be shared with children and families in the lead-up to Christmas Day or join the collections of  avid Christmas book collectors.

Some standouts for 2014 that are already available are One Night by Penny Matthews and Stephen Michael King (Omnibus Books, Scholastic) and The Christmas Rose by Wendy Blaxland and Lucy Hennessy (Walker Books Australia). One Night is an Australian retelling of the birth of Jesus. Stephen Michael King’s illustrations illuminate this miraculous event. The Christmas Rose is a beautiful piece of art and writing which tells the story of a girl who follows the shepherds and the star to the stable to give the Saviour a gift.

Christmas Rose

 

A fun Australiana addition to Christmas this year is Colin Buchanan, Greg Champion and Glenn Singleton’s Deck the Shed with Bits of Wattle (Scholastic). It comes with a bonus CD. Effervescent musician and writer, Buchanan, is accumulating a significant body of work for children. Seek him out.

Some older titles for Christmas book collectors and aficionados that are worth a look if you haven’t already come across them are –

Applesauce and the Christmas Miracle by Glenda Millard and Stephen Michael King (who also illustrated One Night), a very Australian story which achieved the distinction of being a CBCA shortlisted book, rare for a ‘seasonal’ book.

The ABC Book of Christmas is distinctive because it features art by Australian illustrators, including Stephen Michael King (the king of Australian Christmas illustration), Ann James, Judith Rossell, Wayne Harris, Greg Rogers and Anna Walker.

Jesus’ Christmas Party by Nicholas Allan, is a very funny account of the birth of Jesus, told from the grumpy innkeeper’s point of view. For those scratching their heads for Christmas play ideas, this book can easily be adapted as a performance or readers’ theatre. The Nativity Play by Nick Butterworth and Mick Inkpen would also be helpful to read during the festive season. And Mem Fox and Kerry Argent continue the nativity play theme with the Australian contemporary classic, Wombat Divine.

jesus' christmas partyA Christmas Story by eminent UK illustrator, Brian Wildsmith, tells the Christmas story from the point of view of a girl and donkey. Other high-quality picture books told from animals’ perspectives are On This Special Night by Claire Freedman and Simon Mendez; and the original, humorous, The Lion, the Unicorn and Me by esteemed author Jeanette Winterson, illustrated by Rosalind MacCurrach.

British artist, Christian Birmingham has illustrated some sumptuous Christmas books including The Night Before Christmas and A Christmas Carol. P.J. Lynch has also illustrated Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol exquisitely.

A Small Miracle by Peter Collington was shortlisted for the Kate Greenaway Medal and is a contemporary Christmas parable.

Newbery medal winner, Kate DiCamillo has crafted a profoundly moving story of a girl who cares for a stranger at Christmas time in Great Joy. It is superbly illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline.

And The Tale of the Three Trees, retold by Angela Elwell Hunt and illustrated by Tim Jonke, beautifully combines the Christmas and Easter stories.

Tale of the Three Trees

Book Review: The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson

It helps to know that this new novella by Jeanette Winterson is published under the Hammer imprint and that their new series of books is intended “to bring horror back to the forefront of the market”. This is what it says on the Hammer website, but the blurb sent to reviewers is rather more up-market and says that the series “features original novellas which span the literary and the mass market, the esoteric and the commercial, by some of today’s most celebrated authors”.

This explains why Winterson has written a book which fits perfectly into the gothic horror genre. It explains, too, the black, often sickening content of The Daylight Gate, and why part of the publisher’s blurb reads like the start of a romantic suspense story:  “A beautiful lady – fine clothes, long red hair and astride a white horse, is followed by a falcon. She is riding through Pendle Woods. It’s the Daylight Gate – that spot of time when daylight turns to night. And at the centre of the woods, watching and waiting, a group of feral, desperate women are gathering”.

Winterson’s novella is based on the Lancashire witch trials which took place in 1612. Twelve women and two men were charged with the murder of ten people by the use of witchcraft, and their trials were documented by the clerk-of-the-court, Thomas Potts, and published as The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the County of Lancashire.  Winterson fictionalizes the lives of the witches who were hanged and burned, and of the men (including Potts) who were responsible for bringing them to trial.

In short, abrupt sentences, and in short abrupt chapters, Winterson describes the women, their sordid lives, their treatment at the hands of the men who arrest, abuse and imprison them, and their belief in the powers of the Devil – the Dark Gentleman whose favours they seek through the filthy and disgusting practices of black magic.

Only Alice Nutter, a wealthy woman on whose land the witches live and on whose charity and protection they thrive, is not a witch. She is the red-haired woman with the tame hawk who rides through Pendle Woods in the publisher’s blurb. And even she, who learned her alchemical arts from Dr John Dee, practices magic and is very close to the dark side. Dee taught her skills which she used to create a highly desirable magenta dye. Thus she obtained her wealth. He also gave her an elixir which preserved her youth. And through him, she met her lover, Elizabeth Southern, who does sell her soul to the Devil and who becomes one of the accused witches.

Winterson says that the story of Alice Nutter and Elizabeth Southern is an invention of her own, not based on fact. But she makes ‘Elizabeth Southern’ the chosen pseudonym of ‘Old Demdike’ who, along with an Alice Nutter, was tried and condemned as one of the Lancashire witches. Apart from this, the facts of her story are historically correct and the place names are of places which did or do exist. Should you wish to visit the Well Dungeon in Lancaster Castle, for example, you can do so, but you will have to imagine the filth, the smells and the squalor which Winterson so graphically describes.

The only man in the book who is likeable, is Christopher Southworth, an escaped and hunted member of the Papist ‘Gunpowder Plot’ to blow up King James I and his parliament. Alice hides him in her home at Rough Lee and plans to escape with him to France. The lawyer, Potts, is brought unpleasantly to life as a fanatical witch hunter and accuser. William Shakespeare makes a cameo appearance to quote from Macbeth about “the instruments of darkness”, and John Dee is also briefly present, but all the other men in the book are, in varying degrees, nasty.

Is it a coincidence, I wonder, that the abused witch-child in the book is named Jennet?  After all, Jeanette Winterson’s imaginative writing is, itself, a form of magic. But there is little love in this book and this is not her usual inventive and fluent style. I just hope that she will now leave the gothic and use her magical arts to create light rather than darkness and horror.

Ann Skea
Website and Ted Hughes pages: http://ann.skea.com/