This story is everything you would expect from an author and illustrator who has come to be regarded by children’s book lovers as the “Queen of Picturebooks.” A tender and thoughtful story set in 1930s Liverpool with lovely illustrations in Shirley Hughes’ unique style, this has a kindly theme of acceptance and friendship that is particularly fitting at Christmas.
Young Bronwen and her little brother Dylan live with their widowed Mam. Every day, in the early hours of morning, Mam leaves the two alone as she gathers other people’s laundry to bring back to their house to wash. Each night at bedtime, if she’s not too tired, Mam tells the children stories. Not fairy tales read aloud from books but exciting stories of dragons and ghosts, for their mother is a proper storyteller. Each Sunday, the little family go to the local chapel, perhaps a reminder of home in Wales. The O’Rileys, who live next door also go to church, but a different sort of church and one that Mam warns the two small children is not a church for them. Although polite to Mrs O’Riley and her sons Bronwen and Dylan’s mother keeps her distance from them.
But then on Christmas Eve, Mam has to go out to the shops for some last minute items and leaves her children alone for a little while. Bronwen and Dylan hear a ghostly plonk! plonk! plonk! from the washroom that sends them running into the street. They run straight into the arms of Mrs. O’Riley. Far from being scary or “different.” Mrs O’Riley reassures the children and takes them into her home until their mother returns. Once next door the children not only find the family are kind and welcoming but they also solve the mystery of the ghostly plonking. Better still Bronwen and Dylan’s mum makes a new and kind friend.
The wonderful illustrations are so full of detail that you want to slow down as you read this book and take it all in. Young children would learn quite a lot of historical information from this lovely book without actually realising it. Shirley Hughes has a gift for conveying the emotions of small children in their expressions and general demeanour that encourages young readers to empathise with the characters. Little children can become very worried by the unknown or something they don’t understand despite there often being a very straightforward explanation for it. Both the story and the illustrations capture this perfectly. As with all this author’s picture books there is a feeling of comforting kindness and reassurance. We all need a bit of that sometimes.
I must confess to a personal reason for liking this particular Christmas picture book even more. My parents are a similar age to Shirley Hughes and were born and brought up in Liverpool too. In fact my dad has memories of visiting T J Hughes’ department store, founded by her father, as a little boy. This book and the illustrations in particular remind me of my own childhood visits to Liverpool and my dad’s stories of life in pre-war Liverpool so I have always felt an affinity to the story and the characters. However you don’t have to be a Scouser to love this, a lovely thoughtful message of kindness and community spirit is wonderful for everyone.