Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Back to the Future: 'Twas the Night Before Christmas: A Visit to St. Nicholas illustrated by Jessie Willcox Smith


So begins America's favorite holiday story poem, composed for his own children by Clement C. Moore in 1822. First printed in the local newspaper and then picked up by other publications and reprinted in school readers, "A Visit from St. Nicholas" eventually found its way into picture book format. Now each fall publishing season features several special new editions of Moore's text, done up in many styles, cartoons, parodies, and gorgeous, full-color form in which famous illustrators compete to find new and creative ways to portray that famous midnight intruder who never fails to leave filled stockings "by the chimney with care."

Forthcoming early, with plenty of time to order for the holidays is Houghton Mifflin's revised and new edition. For this one the publisher echews the current crop of artists in a return to the past, back to the 1912 edition of 'Twas the Night Before Christmas (Holiday Classics) (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014), featuring the vintage artwork of the illustrious turn of the nineteenth-century illustrator, Jessie Willcox Smith. Smith, known for her work on several classic children's books, was a student of Howard Pyle, noted for his heroic illustrations in The Story of King Arthur and His Knights (Sterling Unabridged Classics) and The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood (Sterling Unabridged Classics).

For Clement C. Moore's classic, however, artist Jessie Willcox Smith avoids the heroic, picturing her St. Nicholas faithfully as a "jolly old elf," half the height of the father who cautiously observes him, indeed plump and elfish, with stumpy legs and elfin brown fur garb without white trim, with pointed cap unadorned by the usual fur pom-pom atop it, more a rotund Brownie than super-sized benefactor. Artist Smith's scale is modest as well, with a plain brown fireplace from which hang ten, well-worn socks, in varying sizes, from a string across the fireplace front. The children nestle, several to a bed under flowered quilts, and Papa in his nightshirt and cap emerges, a little disgruntled, from his canopied, side-curtained bed to peer out the mullioned window-paned shutters at St. Nicholas landing noisily on his lawn.

Santa's reindeer and sled are miniature, as Clark describes them, dwarfed by his huge, cram-jammed toy bag, and this Santa has to look way up as he confronts Papa in the hallway. Smith's vignettes are set against bright white pages, centered like medallions, but not without jolly details of St. Nicolas's largess spilling from his pack. The Saint departs in an appropriately snow-decorated scene flanked by frozen evergreens, under a full yellow moon as expected, but eschewing the sight of saint and sled actually taking flight. Smith sets her text in centered paragraphs with large, red initial capitals, and adds decorations in the form of a red-beribboned girl saying her prayers on the first page and a tiny red-overalled bear adorning a small round box on the final page.

All in all, Jessie Willcox Smith's version of this classic holiday story is a lovely choice for holiday reading and gifting, child-sized and child-friendly, and a nice addition to the holiday book shelf.

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  • This would be an excellent addition to any school library collection!
    The illustrations are truly memorable !
    Thank you for your review.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:59 AM  

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