A Book For Christmas

When I was a child, I had some great-aunts, whom I don't recall ever meeting, but they had a lovely tradition: they gave us children books for Christmas. It was always something unusual - a book I'd never heard of, unlike, say, my beloved Nancy Drew series, or even The Black Stallion books.

No, these were tales of children who lived on a remote Scottish island with puffins for pets, or a collection of poems with illustrations so beautiful I'd pore over them for hours, tracing ever line, and imagining myself in the painting.

There was nothing quite like opening Aunts Paula and Hannah's gift each year, and eventually, as Christmas dinner was cooking, settling down in the sleepy silence between gift opening and dinner to read.

There have been many traditions in family gift giving - the child who wanted a Harley, so a toy Harley was presented each year; or the ornament and pair of socks in the Christmas stocking; the "surprise" gift that Dad would pick out by himself each Christmas to present to us children - but none that was quite the same as that book each year. I'm sure I still have most of them, and I'm also quite sure I read a few of them to my own kids.

One of them I remember very clearly was a book called The Rabbit's Umbrella. It was written by, of all people, George Plimpton, that peripatetic man of all seasons - a man who enjoyed his wealth as I would, were I to be so lucky. "American journalist, writer, literary editor, actor, and occasional amateur sportsman. He is widely known for his sports writing and for helping to found The Paris Review. He was also famous for "participatory journalism" which included competing in professional sporting events, acting in a Western, performing a comedy act at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, and playing with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and then recording the experience from the point of view of an amateur."

In other words, he did it all.

But I digress. Back to The Rabbit's Umbrella - the book centers on a big, wonderful dog named Lump. He's brought home as a pet by Mr. Montague for his son, Peter. Mrs. Montague, a social climbing lady who lunches, expects a dainty little poodle, similar to those of her friends, who delicately receive bits of cucumber sandwich from the hands of their mistresses at tea parties. Instead, Mr. Montague falls in love with a big, lumbering, lump of a something-dog - and Peter names him Lump.

Meanwhile, in a haunted house on the other side of town - just a soon-to-be-decommissioned streetcar ride away, live three burglars: Pease, Punch, and Mr. Bouncely. These three unlikely criminals rob houses, but never make much of a go at it as Punch is fond of whipping up a meal out of whatever he finds in the refrigerators of the unsuspecting householders. Usually, the owners will awaken - or return home - to find the remnants of some elegant meal in the kitchen, and little if anything taken.

All the elements for a great tale are in place: boy, dog, save-the-streetcar, and three bumbling burglars.

It's a chapter-book, as one young reader I am very fond of likes to call them. That means that while a young reader of a certain age can read by him or herself, it's the kind of book that mom and/or dad will also enjoy reading with children - one delightful chapter per evening.

Will Mrs. Montague let Peter keep Lump? Will the streetcar be abandoned in the name of progress? Will the burglars invade the Montague home? And most of all, will Mrs. Montague ever learn to put her car in reverse?

For a very young reader, don't forget the Richard Scarry books. These find the object stories are so full of detailed pictures a child - and a parent - can get lost for an hour on a single two page spread: scenes of perhaps a simpler time, but with happy, friendly, fun and filled frames of pigs and hippos and trucks and farmers and towns and railroads - it's designed for mom and dad to ask the little one,"Can you find the tractor?"

Perhaps there is a common thread in that both writers haled from a simpler time themselves, though both saw action in WWII.

Scarry's (an Irish name properly pronounced Scar-ee, but typically pronounced "Scary" by Americans) most famous series of books was about Busytown. Scarry's characters were almost always anthropomorphic animals.  But for a certain type of child, it is the detailed accuracy of how things work that will provide endless examination and enjoyment. One little boy I know was quite fastidious in his critique of things that work - and if the drawing would not work as promised, he wasn't reluctant to say so. But Scarry's illustrations never disappointed. His trucks and trains and tractors and gadgets would actually deliver - to this little fellow's delight.

For an older reader - why not go ahead and get a collected works of Dickens, or even Sherlock Holmes? It's a sad thing that, with so much to take up our time, we miss out on the drawn-out, detailed immersion of Charles Dickens and Conan Doyle. It was from reading writers like these that I learned to let the "movie" of the book play in my mind.  To this day, when I revisit Bleak House or The Speckled Band, I still see the same rooms, the same characters, and hear the same voices. Because in the days that these books were written, imagination of necessity filled the role that television, film, and even illustration now occupy, the reader's own vision of events became the story. I can still see the lights across the moors; the busy streets of London; the shabby Victorian rooms of Holmes or the Cratchits- the same way that I saw them the first time I read The Hound of the Baskervilles, or A Christmas Story.

So go ahead - start a Christmas gift tradition, for your own or someone else's kids. Or for anyone you want to delight. Find a book that will be a surprise.


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