I missed out on a lot of children’s classics that it seems like everyone else read, but somehow a paperback edition of this 1957 book by Rumer Godden made its way into my house as a child. It is, I think, one of the first books I ever owned that wasn’t a regular picture book. At 64 pages, it’s somewhere between a picture book and a chapter book. There are no separate chapters, some pages are just text, but there is an illustration on every spread.
My childhood copy was lost at some point, and I’d been wanting to revisit this book for years. But most editions I’ve seen were illustrated by Barbara Cooney. I’m sure her illustrations are lovely, but it’s the drawings by Adrienne Adams that are embedded in my memory, and that’s the version I wanted. And finally, I found a copy online at a reasonable price and ordered it. And the story and images are so lovely and magical.
Holly is a little doll in a red dress and green socks, perfect for Christmas. But it’s Christmas Eve and her last change to find a girl of her own before, as the mean old owl Abracadabra taunts, she’ll be put in storage, collecting dust. Ivy is a 6-year-old orphan, and the only child at St. Agnes’ house not offered a place to go for Christmas. So she’s put on a train to go to the Infants’ Home. Resentful of being relegated to a home for babies, Ivy tears off her destination tag and decides to search for the grandmother she fervently believes has a home in Aylesworth, complete with Christmas tree.
The book is the story of how Holly and Ivy’s Christmas wishes come true. It’s suffused with magic, but (aside from the conversations among the toys), most of the magic is in the form of coincidence. In other words, it’s the sort of magic that could happen. And I think that makes the spell of the book all the more powerful.
I also think that, for me as a child, the book felt magical because it was set in a place so different from my own home. The idea of being put on a train with a packet of sandwiches, of eating warm chestnuts at a Christmas market, of a warm bakery wall on a a city street, of a Christmas tree in the window with a parcel of handkerchiefs underneath, church bells ringing everywhere. All of this was totally outside my experience as a rural kid in 1970s America. Even the words used — packet, parcel — added to the magic.
As an adult, the story still feels like magic because it’s a story so full of hope. There’s a great deal of darkness and even more potential darkness, but the characters cling to the potential for good, and there are times when that’s the best thing we can do.