Sunday, December 15, 2013

Once More Down the Chimney : The Night Before Christmas illustrated by Holly Hobbie

It is a blue and silver midnight, snow settling over a long and low log cottage and bare trees. Only a lonely snowman and a prowling red fox stand watch to witness a flash in the sky and a sleigh descending on that low rooftop, the lead reindeer just swerving to miss the chimney.

Inside the mice are sleeping, and so are the children, one toddler and two sisters and a brother, in their cozy room, while dad is just shedding his robe and slippers to slip in beside his sleeping wife.

The sudden clatter above wakes the snoozing cat; the toddler sits bolt upright between his sleeping siblings, eyes wide; and Dad dashes to the window, tugs it open to peer out and is chilled by a swirl of snowflakes invading the bedroom.

Followed by the curious cat, the toddler in his little drop-seat footie sleeper pads down the stairs carefully, while Dad, believing he is the only one up, flattens himself against the dining room wall as someone emerges from the fortuitously unlit fireplace, a someone in a long, fur-trimmed red robe and black boots.

In disbelief Dad runs his hands through his already disheveled hair, and the tot and cat are astonished at what they see going on beside their tree. Only the cat approaches the midnight visitor, tail up, to get a treat.

Yep. It's A Visit from St. Nicholas, all right, no doubt about it!

Veteran illustrator Holly Hobbie has a freshly-conceived and illustrated version of The Night Before Christmas (Little Brown, 2013) which supersedes her 1978 effort in more ways than one. As the author admits, "The prospect of illustrating a long-revered classic is intimidating--all the more daunting because it has been celebrated by such a wide spectrum of accomplished artists. I wanted mystery and wonder-- a fresh perspective to the tale. Here's a child who gets to see the unseeable!"

And readers get to see it through the eyes of that small child (and Dad, the designated necessary narrator) in a beautifully conceived and executed version of Clement Moore's poem, one altogether in a league with all those "accomplished artists" who have gone before. Hobbie's setting is a more modest, Norman-Rockwellian one than most: no elaborately decorated Victorian mansion like Jan Brett's, no folkloric colonial house like Tomie de Paola's, no stately early nineteenth-century burgher's home such as Dan Santore's. Hobbie creates a comfortable house somewhere between all the others, one furnished solidly with a retro-styled sleigh bed for parents who don't need a kerchief or cap against the cold, a home decorated with a few hand-knit, homemade adornments and a touch of hand-me-down antique furnishings here and there. The toddler himself is at the center of this retelling, his body language, his surprise and wordless wonder telling the tale visually and well.

Hobbie's watercolor, ink, and gouache artwork in full-page, double-page, or spot vignettes paces the story perfectly, done with tasteful palette and keeping the inevitably adorable qualities of the little eyewitness a bit understated. A treat for the eyes and the heart, helping Clement Moore's magical story come alive once more in an admirable new edition.

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