I think it’s safe to say that I read a lot of children’s books, some good, some bad, some indifferent. They are humorous, or sweet, or beautifully illustrated, or very tactile, or all of the above. But it’s rare that I find a book that is genuinely moving.
And so for our last What We’re Reading of the year let me tell you about my final Christmas book for this year, The Lion, The Unicorn, and Me.
It’s a retelling of the nativity story from the point of view of the donkey, but not simply the donkey plodding along, carrying Mary to Bethlehem and peeking in at the birth of a very special baby, no this story starts way back, back with the angels who lined up every animal (on a list handily left over from the Ark) to see who should be chosen for this very special task. They hold a few preliminary rounds, getting rid of anyone too small, or not able to carry a load until they are left with the three finalists; the lion, the unicorn, and the donkey. The Lion argues that a King should be carried by a King; the Unicorn that only a mythical creature is good enough for this task, and the Donkey simply says:
“Well if He is to bear the burdens of the world, He had better be carried by me.”
And so it is that it’s the Donkey who finds himself with a front row seat to the arrival of a King in a stable in Bethlehem, who watches the star guide wise men to come and pay homage, and the arrival of shepherds from the fields nearby. The Donkey who lifts up his nose to sing with the angels, brushing his nose against their feet as they stand on the stable roof, trumpets blazing.
It’s beautifully illustrated but even so the illustrations are definitely secondary to the gorgeous imagery in the language. I love the description of an angel as “a creature bright as hope and fast as chance”, and the moment when the Unicorn comes to pay homage; “sometimes in the night, through a gap in the wall, no bigger than thought, the unicorn touched the Baby with his horn”. There’s humour in there too; from the scenes of the animals lined up to audition for the best role in history which could have come straight from any reality tv talent show to the grumpy men having to sleep in the olive tree pots by the front door of the inn.
And for all the heavenly hosts, the angels, the unicorn, and everything mythical and majestic, there’s a realism about it too; especially in the lovely scenes of Mary wiping, wrapping and snuggling her new baby under her cloak, and of the shepherds who arrive smelling of sheep dip but bring a thick mutton stew to warm and nourish Mary. And I think it’s that degree of realism that makes it so powerful, the juxtaposition of the very mundane and the extraordinary. All I know is that when I first opened it up I couldn’t put it down until I’d finished even though I’ve more than half an idea how the story ends and that the language and the pictures it conjures give me goose bumps in a good way.
This isn’t a short story, and probably isn’t really a toddler story, and I’m absolutely certain that most of the imagery goes straight over Elma’s head and a lot of it bypasses Kitty too but that actually doesn’t bother me. I think even when you don’t quite understand something there can be a value in just letting rich language wash over you and waiting for the little bits that did catch to all join up and make a whole, and I think it’s telling that even with all of that it’s a book that Kitty has asked for again.
When I was little we had a Christmas Eve tradition of retelling the Christmas story and then my Mum reading The Night Before Christmas just before we all went to bed. We were still doing it right into my teens and early twenties and it’s something I’ve carried on with my girls. But this year I know I’m going to add this to the list. It’s the perfect story to read on Christmas Eve by the lights of the tree with everyone snuggled down into their pyjamas; a story to quieten down the excitement and to bring a little of the real magic of Christmas to the forefront of our minds.
Last week Jess was celebrating the very special first birthday of Little Miss Rosalie with the gorgeous Miffy’s Birthday; I’m sure she loved it! And if you have a favourite, or just something fun your little or not so little ones have enjoyed reading lately please do join us. I’m going to take a little break over the Christmas holidays but we’ll be back in the New Year with lots more lovely stories to share and I hope you’ll join me!