The Dog That Saved Christmas by Nicola Davies illustrated by Mike Byrne
Award winning author Nicola Davies tells this story, of a boy for whom Christmas is a strain rather than a joy and the dog that helps him to learn to cope, with sympathy and gentle humour. A Christmas story with a difference but still celebrating what Christmas is all about.
Each year Jake struggles with Christmas. He prefers his life to consist of a regular routine and at home his family adapt to help him learn to cope. His bedroom is an oasis of ordered calm where he feels safe and secure. School has the structure of a timetable that Jake knows and understands and the corridors and rooms with their familiar colours are soothing to him. However as Christmas grows nearer this regular routine both at home and at school is disrupted. Jake’s logical approach to life means that he struggles to cope with the fact that his Mum and Dad want a tree inside the house and the flashing lights and increased noise cause him stress. He decides that he will try to turn back time to prevent the arrival of Christmas. Then, when a new teacher at school does not understand his needs it all becomes too much for Jake to bear any longer. However it is then that Jake meets a little lost dog who may just be able to turn his life around.
Although it is never explicitly mentioned in the text it is clear to an adult reader that Jake has autistic spectrum disorder and Nicola Davies has handled this beautifully and in a way that young readers will be able to relate to and understand. His misunderstanding of words and phrases due to his literal attitude and his distress caused by sensory over-stimulation are described with care. This should also be comforting to children who feel similarly to Jake. There is kindness all around Jake even though he himself finds it difficult to understand other people’s emotions. His parents are kind and patient, his teenage brother displays a gentle concern and the teacher assigned to Jake explains things to him and encourages him in his school work. The growing bond between Jake and Susan, the dog that he befriends gradually gives him the reassurance and confidence he so badly needs and this story has the happy ending that readers need and will be hoping for.
This is a lovely book highlighting that Christmas can be stressful and a struggle for some but also celebrates the true meaning of what Christmas is all about and how it can be found in everyday life. Part of the highly readable collection of books published by Barrington Stoke this would be enjoyed by readers aged about 8+ and is particularly suitable for struggling, dyslexic or reluctant readers. I also think that it would be a good read aloud story for younger readers being a quick read but a very satisfying one.
Great Joy by Kate DiCamillo Illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline
Kate DiCamillo is an author who can break your heart but always provides her readers with hope. In this utterly beautiful picture book she teams up again with Bagram Ibatoulline who illustrated her popular children’s book, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. This is quite possibly the perfect pairing to create a Christmas book that will touch the hearts of its readers.
It is just before Christmas when an organ grinder and monkey appear on the street corner outside Frances’s apartment. Frances can see them from her window and, sometimes, when it’s quiet, she can hear their music. In fact, Frances can’t stop thinking about them, especially after she sees the man and his monkey sleeping outside on the cold street at midnight. Frances grows increasingly concerned about them and asks her mother if they can be invited in for dinner. Her mother, caught up in the frantic pre- Christmas preparations, says no. DiCamillo invites the reader to view the situation through the eyes of the child and Frances’s gradual realisation of the predicament of others not as blessed as her is very touching. Eventually when the day of the Christmas pageant arrives, Frances takes matters into her own hands with the result that for Christmas at least the organ grinder will find some happiness.
This stunning picture book has a very nostalgic feel to it, set in the US possibly in the 1940s with an absent father, shown in uniform in a photo, maybe away in the war. The illustrations with the old fashioned cars, the lights twinkling from shop windows, the fashions and the ankle deep snow take me back to old Hollywood films I watched in my childhood at Christmas time. There is a reassuring solidity about the scenes and the organ grinder’s sadness contrasts sharply with this. The lighting in the wonderful illustrations is stunning with Frances tiptoeing down stairs with her touch, the night time street scene and the opening of the door into the church all bathed in a golden glow.
Thanks to Frances, the organ grinder and his monkey will experience joy at Christmas and the happy closing scene is reassuring for children. However we are left with questions about the future of these characters and thoughts about our attitude to strangers especially those less fortunate than ourselves. It is through a small child that joy is spread in this gorgeous picture book, an appropriate and thought provoking message at Christmas time.