I think that this moving story of kindness and warmth conquering grief and sadness is utterly gorgeous. The text with its fable like feel is matched perfectly by illustrations of such breath-taking beauty that this has become a Christmas classic for every age and everyone. It is quite probably my very favourite Christmas picturebook.
Jonathan Toomey is the best wood-carver in the valley however he is always alone and never smiles or laughs. As he makes his way around the town he frequently grumbles and although a young man he walks hunched over as though weighed down by a great burden. The villagers don’t know it but there is a reason for Jonathan’s despair. It is grief. Jonathon does not talk about his loss but keeps it hidden deep within him. One day a young widow and her little boy call at his house. She has a request that requires Jonathan to use his great skills as a wood-carver. This request, the kindness of the young woman and the earnest enthusiasm of the small child gradually break down the barriers that the heartbroken man has put up to protect himself.
Although originally published in 1995 this wonderful book has a feel of a classic story of a bygone age. The stunning illustrations add to this as, to me, they have the appearance of old masters with their depth and use of light and shade. That P J Lynch won the Kate Greenaway Award for these in the year of publication is entirely understandable. The combination of text and picture is wonderful and conveys emotion in a powerful and moving way.
Susan Wojciechowski’s story unfolds gently and slowly and as a reader you are drawn in to Jonathan’s world. I love the calm, quiet kindness of the young widow, Mrs McDowell, as she slowly brings warmth into the home. However it is the little boy and his insistence on the recreation of his beloved nativity figures who really works the magic. This is a wonderful way of introducing the Nativity story and the author has created a tale of redemption that is both meaningful and readable.
My current copy is the 20th Anniversary Edition which has a gentle snow scene on its cover. However it was an earlier edition that first enchanted me. The picture of the wood-carver and the boy seen below captures, for me, the essence of the story and it was that cover that caught my attention as I tidied up the library shelves. The man and the boy working together as one to create the wooden nativity figures are hypnotic. The care and guidance shown by the man and the earnest concentration on the boy’s face displayed in this picture sum up their relationship beautifully. When I saw it I had to open the book to find out more. For the next few minutes time stood still as I read. Since then I have always had a soft spot for Jonathan Toomey and the little family who saved him.
This is a remarkable and very special Christmas book. Please, if you haven’t already read it do give it a try. I’ve a feeling you won’t regret it.