Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Christmas Gift: Great Joy by Kate DiCamillo

Kate DiCamillo and illustrator Bagram Ibatoulline delivered their tastfully wrapped Christmas gift with their publication of Great Joy. Although the story itself inside the box is unremarkably heartwarming Christmas fare, the illustrations are the giftwrap which makes it irresistible.

As her mother sews her Christmas pageant costume in a comfortable upstairs room, a photo of Frances' soldier father nearby, the little girl spies an organ grinder and his monkey in a green coat and red cap working the busy street below. That night little Frances can't sleep and finally tiptoes to the window with a flashlight, where she sadly spots the organ grinder, the monkey inside his coat, sleeping on the snowy street below.

Frances' concern for the organ grinder and monkey is met with vague explanations and a refusal to invite the two to dinner from her mother, but as the two, dressed in their best clothes and warm boots, walk toward the church for the Christmas Eve service, Frances drops her nickel in the monkey's cup and guilelessly invites the two to the service. "I'm going to be in the Christmas play tonight. I get to wear wings and I have one line to say.... You can both come."

Then as Frances, dressed as the Angel of the Lord, steps forward to say her line, she sees the sanctuary door open and the organ man and his monkey, silhouetted against the light from outside, and she announces clearly, "Behold, I bring you tidings of great joy. Great Joy!"

Ibouttine's soft, dark scenes and his characters' faces seem lit with a Rembrandt-like glow of their own in his lovely acrylic gouache illustrations. The story of a little girl's concern is slight but sweet, and the book itself is a joy.



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