Cynthia Rylant,
illustrated by S.D. Schindler,
Children of Christmas:
Stories for the Season

(Orchard Books, 1987)

The six stories in this slim collection are not typical Christmas fare. Cynthia Rylant looks beyond the tinsel and glitter of Christmas to touch on the condition of so many in the holiday season: those who are alone or lonely, who are sad or abandoned. At the same time, Rylant does not resort to cynicism nor does she lapse into despair. Rather, she uncovers a seed of hope and light in each of the tales, like retrieving a small but precious gem from the snow, strung together with the thematic thread of "children of Christmas."

Garnet Ash is "The Christmas Tree Man." He lives alone, after living with his parents until adulthood and never really seeking outside companionship, and when they die, he "didn't know what to do with himself, with them gone." Unable to live in his boyhood house any longer, he moves way out of town and starts a Christmas tree farm. Most of the year he lives alone and tends his trees, but in December, Garnet Ash has company. Car after car climbs the road to his farm as families search out that perfect tree. Garnet sees the trees as his children, each different, each with its own personality, and every year he must let most of them go. Still, there are always a few left behind to keep him company. These are unique children of Christmas indeed.

In the second story, Frances and her father stop "Halfway Home" at a diner on Christmas Eve, following a shopping expedition to get her mother's gift. There are two other men eating at the diner, and a waitress who is also serving as a short order cook. Each is wrapped up in his or her own thoughts and work until Frances spies a shadow by the window. It is a cat. The waitress lets it in, and in the course of feeding it and warming it, the little cluster of people reach out to each other; none is alone or isolated at the end of the story. It is up to the reader to decide who is the child of Christmas here, Frances or the cat -- or perhaps both.

Philip, the child of Christmas in "For Being Good," awaits his grandfather's arrival for Christmas. His grandfather, a widower, seems sad and withdrawn to Philip, whose home is warm and loving. He finds out something about his own father as a boy, though, and discovers a special way to reach his grandfather's lonely heart.

"Ballerinas and Bears" follows Sylvia, a young girl who has been abandoned by her mother, on a Christmas Eve walk, resonant of the tale of the little match girl. She looks in the store windows and at the people around her and imagines what it would be like to be a child in a warm bright home, with cups of cocoa topped with whipped cream, chocolates wrapped in red foil, a mahogany table groaning with good food, what it would be like to held by someone who loved her -- all the things that would "fill her Christmas Eve to the top." Finally, someone notices this child of Christmas, just long enough to demonstrate a gesture of concern, just enough to fill her Christmas Eve.

Every year, the Christmas train wends its way through the mountains with a rich man standing on the platform of the caboose, tossing "Silver Packages" to each of the children. He is repaying a debt of gratitude to the people of the mountains who cared for him when he was injured, and the annual event is always eagerly awaited. Frankie is one of the children who runs after the train, hoping for a doctor kit -- which he never receives. His silver packages have nice toys and warm socks or gloves or hats or scarves in them, and as he grows older, he develops an appreciation for them, as well as an understanding of gratitude. As an adult, this child of Christmas returns to the mountains to repay his own debt.

Mae, the protagonist of "All the Stars in the Sky," is not a child; she is a homeless, mentally ill woman who cannot remember what it was like to be a child or even any memory of her life before the streets. Dirty, ignored and unloved except by her three dogs, she falls ill on Christmas Eve but cannot find her way to the "sick place," the hospital, to get help. Taking shelter against the side door of a building, she falls unexpectedly inside as the unlocked door opens. She is in a building full of books, one she dimly remembers as being a warm place to sit, but the "book people" are all gone. She makes her way through the library, finding a staff room with food in it, and then the children's room, where a basket of Christmas books gets her attention. She is especially taken with the picture in one of "the woman and the baby and all the stars in the sky," and she pages through each. She leaves in the morning, feeling better, but the images of the books fill her eyes, a gift and a reminder from the most important child of Christmas of all.

Rylant writes unsentimentally and frankly but the simplicity of her words conveys a rich depth of meaning. She uncovers the secret heart in everyone: we all want to be loved, to be cared for, to be able to love and care for others. But she also treasures and nurtures that secret heart. S.D. Schindler's black and white drawings enhance the stories nicely, including a tiny sketch illuminating the first letter of each story.

In the world of children's books, it is significant when a book remains in print for over 10 years. Looking for something different this year? Invite the Children of Christmas into your home.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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