Saturday, December 20, 2008

Holly and Ivy: 'Tis the Season by Ann M. Martin

Ann M. Martin is a pro! It's got to be hard to write a Christmas story for elementary/middle school readers that's original yet nostalgic, moving yet not syrupy, full of the stuff of real life and yet still touched with a bit of the Christmas magic.

'tis The Season (Main Street), third book in Martin's noted Main Street meets these criteria.

Flora and Ruby Northrup are facing their first Christmas in Camden Falls after the sudden death of their parents in January. Their maternal grandmother, Min, has taken in the orphans warmly, and despite their recurrent sadness at the change in their lives, they feel the first stirrings of Christmas as one by one shop windows begin to shine with charming and original decorations and Main Street is transformed into a living Christmas village.

In the eleven months since they arrived, ten-year-old Flora and eight-year-old Ruby have been drawn into the daily life of the town. As Christmas approaches, the girls experience both the sadness of memories of their last Christmas with their parents and the anticipation of the coming season. Flora is busy with her nature photography project for the upcoming Camden Falls birthday celebration, and gifted singer Ruby is rehearsing for the annual Children’s Chorus Christmas performance. As the days zoom by, Flora and Ruby see the stack of carefully wrapped presents grow in Min’s Christmas closet, watch the lighting of the town Christmas tree in the square with their best friends Olivia and Nikki, and shiver in the snowfall as they watch the annual Christmas parade and Santa’s arrival by hot air balloon. Even the surprising holiday visit by their prickly Aunt Allie, a successful, self-absorbed New York writer, doesn’t dim their pleasure as they decorate Min’s tree with her old family ornaments, each one with its own story. Finally it is Christmas.

Ruby made a dash for the stockings, but Flora stopped suddenly as she entered the living room. This moment, the perfect Christmas moment, happened only once each year. It was the few seconds in which she could glimpse the stuffed stockings hanging from the mantel, a fire in the hearth, the shining tree surrounded by wrapped gifts; the few seconds before the first bit of wrapping paper was removed and Christmas began to unravel. This wasn’t her old house, this wasn’t her old living room or fireplace, and these weren’t her familiar decorations. But Flora found the scene as heart-stopping as always, and she paused to look, just look.

Idyllic as it seems in this scene, Martin doesn’t candy-coat the season. The problems of real life are just below the surface of this magical moment. Friend Nikki’s alcoholic parents can’t provide a real Christmas for their family, especially for six-year-old Mae, whose Christmas wishes are filled because Flora and Ruby and their neighbors stage a visit from a faux Santa to deliver all the presents on her list. Olivia’s family plans a move far away after her father’s job loss, but she hides her feelings to avoid spoiling the Christmas mood for her friends. Their neighbor Mr. Wicket realizes that he must move his wife, declining quickly into late dementia, to a special care facility, and even cranky old Mrs. Grindle fears that advancing age will soon force her to sell her shop downtown. The problems of life don’t take a holiday in Martin’s realistic story, but the familiar season still has its own magic for Flora and Ruby as they get through the sorrowful anniversary of their parents’ deaths and move toward the unknowns of the new year.

'tis The Season (Main Street), one of Martin's noted Main Streetseries, along with the other books in this sequence, would make a great Christmas present for any middle readers on your list. Books 4-6 in the series include Secret Book Club (Main Street), Best Friends (Main Street), and September Surprises (Main Street).

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