Advent Reading Challenge: Santa (again)

23rd December

Another Night Before Christmas by Carol Ann Duffy, illustrated by Rob Ryan (Picador, 2010)

The Advent Calendar is now drawing to a close and I hope this trawl though some seasonal children’s literature has been as enjoyable

Another Night Before Christmas

Another Night…

for you as it has for me. Today’s calendar slot features a fairly recent publication by Carol Ann Duffy re-telling ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas (see here). I bought this when it was first published as that year’s contribution to the festive library.

In this poem, a small girl decides to stay up late and see if Father Christmas really exists:

On the night before Christmas, a child in a house,
As the whole family slept, behaved just like a mouse…
And crept on soft toes down red-carpeted stairs.
Her hand held the paw of her favourite bear.

It’s a fact that a faraway satellite dish,
Which observes us from space, cannot know what we wish.
Its eye’s empty socket films famine and greed,
But cannot see Santa Claus on Christmas Eve.

Though she lived in an age where celebrity rules
And when most of the people were easily fooled,
By TV and fashion, by money and cars,
The little girl knew that here was a real STAR!

I like the modern twist here of Santa being compared to the twenty-first celebrity culture and coming out as the only true star on the horizon. Duffy captures the magic of Christmas that we as adults would still like to believe in. The black and white illustrations from Rob Ryan are striking: beautifully detailed and magical in themselves.

Only one more day to go…

Advent Reading Challenge: Nativity Play

21st December

Read Me and Laugh

Funny poems galore


‘Just Doing my Job’ a poem by Clare Bevan (taken from Read me and Laugh, edited by Gaby Morgan, mentioned in a previous post). This poem was originally published in We Three Kings (ed. Brian Moses, Macmillan, 1998).

I love this poem, conjuring up as it does long forgotten memories of participating in the school Nativity Play. Not that I ever had a starring role, I hasten to add, my only ever role being as the inn keeper’s wife which only had one short line. Hardly a distinguished theatrical career.

The poem features several small boys in the role of ‘Herod’s Henchmen’, which no doubt required lots of parental assistance in the form of cardboard and tinfoil accessories. All of that charging around the school hall sounds great fun (not that fun was exactly the point of it all I suppose). But it probably burnt off excess end of term excitement in the process.

I have extracted three verses to give you a flavour of the activity:

King Herod

King Herod by James Tissot


1, I’m one of Herod’s Henchmen.
    We don’t have much to say,
   We charge through the audience
    In a Henchman sort of way.

3, Our swords are made of cardboard
    So blood will not be spilled
    If we trip and stab a parent
    When the hall’s completely filled.

6, Yet when the play is over
    And Miss is out of breath
    We’ll charge like Henchmen through the hall
    And scare our Mums to death.

Of course, the sting behind the title of the poem is that a whole multitude of sins may be glossed over by employing the excuse of ‘just doing my job’. A lesson for children to learn while they enjoy reading the poem.

The striking painting of Herod the Great dates from 1886-1894 and is in the Brooklyn Museum (image courtesy of Wikipedia).

Advent Reading Challenge: More Pudding

20th December

Conscience Pudding a story taken  from New Treasure Seekers written by E. Nesbit and illustrated by C. Walter Hodges (Ernest Benn Ltd, 1904, 1948)

line drawing of making the Christmas pudding

Making the Conscience pudding

I have always loved Edith Nesbit’s stories, particularly the three books about the enterprising Bastable children, Oswald, Dora, Noël, Alice, Dicky and H.O. who find imaginative ways of restoring the family fortunes when their father’s business fails.

This book is one of a bundle I picked up in a second-hand shop in Birmingham sometime in the early 1990s. It looked as though one family had been having a clear out as several volumes were inscribed with the name of ‘Arrowsmith’. It is not in brilliant condition, but certainly worth the few pennies I paid.

In this episode of the children’s adventures, the young entrepreneurs decide to make a Christmas pudding for themselves rather than suffer the ‘plain pudding’ that their father has instructed the cook to make. However, they have no money to buy ingredients and two of the younger children come up with an enterprising solution:

“It’s no good. You know we’ve got no tin.
“Ah,” said Alice, “but Noël and I went out, and we called at some of the houses in Granville Park and Dartmouth Hill – and we got a lot of sixpences and shillings, besides pennies, and one old gentleman gave us half a crown. He was so nice. Quite bald, with a knitted red-and blue-waistcoat. We’ve got eight-and –sevenpence.”

So after acquiring these riches, Alice and Dora sally forth to buy the ingredients from the grocer (who is kind enough to tell them that a cupful of ginger would be too much) and the children begin secretly to make the pudding:

“…we barricaded the nursery door and set to work. We were very careful to be quite clean. We washed our hands as well as the currants. I have sometimes thought we did not get all the soap off the currants. The pudding smelt like a washing-day when the time came to cut it open. And we washed a corner of the table to chop the suet on. Chopping suet looks easy till you try.” (see picture!)

Not exactly Jamie or Delia then! But where does the ‘conscience’ bit come in, I hear you ask. This is because the younger children collecting the money had asked for money to make a pudding for ‘poor children’. When the older children found out, they declared that the pudding had to be given away to some truly poor children, as it was dishonest to keep it.

This results in comical efforts to give the pudding way, ending in a trip to the workhouse in a desperate quest to salvage the family’s honour. This is not exactly a workhouse as depicted in Dickens, as the matron puts on Christmas entertainment for the older residents.

All’s well that ends well, when matron listens to the sorry tale and relieves the children of their ‘conscience pudding’ both literally and figuratively. An apt Christmas story in more ways than one…

Advent Reading Challenge: Little Grey Rabbit

19th December

Squirrel Goes Skating written by Alison Uttley and illustrated by Margaret Tempest (William Collins 1986, 1988). This is an abridged edition of the original story published in 1934.

Squirrel Goes Skating

Skating Fun…

Again, during this reading challenge, I am indulging in an old family favourite, revisiting Little Grey Rabbit, Squirrel, Hare, and their countryside friends. In this snowy story, the animals gather to go skating on the pond at Tom Tiddler’s Way. The entire neighbourhood takes skates and food and sets off to have a day of fun on the ice:

Everything was frozen. Even the brook, which ran past little Grey Rabbit’s house on the edge of the wood, was thick with ice. Each blade of grass had a white fringe, and the black, leafless trees were patterned with shining crystals.
On every window of the house were Jack Frost’s pictures – trees and ferns and flowers in silver.

At last they reached the pond, which lay in the centre of a small field. Already many animals were on the ice, and the air was filled with merry cries. The newcomers sat down and put on their skates. Grey Rabbit placed her basket of food in the care of Mrs Hedgehog, who sat on a log, watching her son, Fuzzypeg.
Soon they were laughing and shouting with the others, as they skimmed over the ice.
Hare tried to do the outside edge, and got mixed up with the skates of a white duck. He fell down with a thump and bruised his forehead.

After Grey Rabbit, Squirrel and Hare had enjoyed a picnic with their friends Water-rat, Moldy Warp, Mrs Hedgehog and Fuzzypeg:

They all returned to the ice and skated until the red sun set behind the hills. Dark shadows spread across the fields as the animals removed their skates and set off home.
“It has been a jolly day,” said Grey Rabbit to Water-rat and Moldy warp. “Good-bye. Perhaps we will come again tomorrow.”
“Goodnight. Goodnight,” resounded round the pond.

I cannot claim this to be a Christmas piece exactly but it fulfils our nostalgic longing for those snowy winters where we can play for a while and then go and snuggle at home afterwards. We can enjoy the thought of snow without actually getting our feet wet and cold! Alison Uttley used her own country childhood experiences in her stories so I am sure that she once went skating on her local pond (though possibly not with hares and ducks).

Until tomorrow…

Advent Reading Challenge: Seven Stars

18th December

‘Christmas Shopping’ taken from Mary Poppins written by P.L. Travers and illustrated by Mary Shepard (Collins 1958, 1998). First published by Peter Davies Ltd 1934.

Mary Poppins

Practically Perfect…

As we head into the last full week before Christmas I am conscious of just how many festive poems and stories that I will not have room to put up on the Landing Advent Calendar. Nevertheless I am pleased that I have managed to include so many of our old family favourites along the way. Perhaps I will have to do it all again next year.

Today is the turn of everyone’s favourite nanny, Mary Poppins who was at various times the mainstay of the Banks’ household. In the Christmas shopping episode Mary Poppins has taken Michael and Jane into town. There they have a magical encounter with one of the Seven Sisters who has come to earth in human form to do a spot of seasonal shopping:

“Now you recognise me, don’t you? I’m the second of the Pleiades. Electra – she’s the eldest – couldn’t come because she’s minding Merope. Merope’s the baby, and the other five of us come in between – all girls. Our Mother was very disappointed at first not to have a boy, but now she doesn’t mind.”

“But what are you doing here?” demanded Michael, still very surprised.
Maia laughed. “Ask Mary Poppins. I am sure she knows.”
“Tell us, Mary Poppins,” said Jane.
“Well,” said Mary Poppins snappily, “I suppose you two aren’t the only ones in the world that want to go shopping at Christmas-“
“That’s it,” squealed Maia delightedly. “She’s quite right. I’ve come down to buy toys for them all. We can’t get away very often, you know, because we’re so busy making and storing up the Spring Rains…”

Maia has a lovely time choosing gifts for her sisters: A stove with silver saucepans for Electra; a skipping rope for Taygete; Alcyone gets The Swiss Family Robinson; Celaeno has a hoop; there is a spinning top for Sterope and a rubber duck for Merope.

If you want to know how an astral body pays for her shopping, or indeed what she receives for Christmas then look out for this Mary Poppins story. As is usual in any adventure with their mysterious nanny, the children are not sure whether they really saw what they thought they saw, or simply had a wonderful dream. And as Mary Poppins’ readers will know, she never tells anybody anything…

(The image of the Pleiades was sourced from Wikipedia)

The Pleiades

The Pleiades


Advent Reading Challenge: Mrs Pepperpot

17th December

Mrs Pepperpot’s Christmas  taken from Mrs Pepperpot’s Year  written by Alf Prøysen (1914-1970) and illustrated by Björn Berg (translated by Marianne Helweg). Published by Puffin Books 1981 (Hutchinson 1973).

Mrs Pepperpot's Year

Size is no barrier for Mrs Pepperpot!


As I am sure many of you know, Mrs Pepperpot is the woman from Norway who has the tendency to shrink to the size of a pepperpot at very inconvenient moments. In this story, true to form, she shrank just when she was planning to go Christmas shopping:

‘She wanted to buy a sheaf of corn for the birds’ dinner, and she wanted to get them a little bird-house where she could fee them every day. The other thing she wanted was a wreath of mistletoe to hang over the door, so that she could wish Mr Pepperpot a “Happy Christmas” with a kiss. But Mr Pepperpot thought this was a silly idea.

“Quite unnecessary!” he said.’

So of course Mrs Pepperpot had to find a way to make her husband buy exactly what she wanted at the market. To that end she hid in his knapsack as he headed out of the house.

‘At one stall stood a farmer selling beautiful golden sheaves of corn. As her husband walked past the stall Mrs Pepperpot climbed out from the knapsack pocket and disappeared inside the biggest sheaf of all.

“Hullo, Mr Pepperpot,” said the farmer, “how about some corn for the birds this Christmas?”

“Too dear!” answered Mr Pepperpot gruffly.

“Oh no, it’s not!” squeaked the little voice of Mrs Pepperpot.

“If you don’t buy this sheaf of corn I’ll tell everyone you’re married to the woman who shrinks”.’

Of course the poor man had no choice but to buy the best sheaf of corn. By the time Mrs Pepperpot had finished, her husband had bought a fine bird house and even a mistletoe wreath. After an adventure with a red balloon, Mrs Pepperpot returned home and grew back to her normal size.

Mrs Pepperpot's Christmas

Picture book edition

I enjoyed the Mrs Pepperpot tales when I was a child and so it is nice to see that she is going strong, with several stories still in print. Though I must admit that all of our editions are rather battered second-hand copies from the 1970s and 80s. But no less loved for all that…

Advent Reading Challenge: Pancake Panic

14th December

The Latke who couldn’t stop screaming: a Christmas Story by Lemony Snicket with illustrations by Lisa Brown (McSweeny’s Books, 2007)

This is a Christmas book with a difference as it tells the story of a frying Hanukah latke who escaped screaming from the pan. Here is


A Screaming Latke

the blurb to give you a flavour (pun intended) of this seasonal tale told in Snicket’s inimitable style:

‘Latkes are potato pancakes served at Hanukah. Lemony Snicket is an alleged children’s author. For the first time in history, these two elements are combined in one book. People who are interested in either one or both of these things will find this book so enjoyable it will feel as if Hanukah is being celebrated for several years, rather than eight nights.’

The story opens as the potato pancake runs away screaming thus: “AAAHHHHHHHH!!!”
‘This may seem like unusual behaviour for a potato pancake, but this is a Christmas story, in which things tend to happen that would never occur in real life.’ 

On his flight through town (still screaming), the latke meets a row of coloured lights, a candy stick and a pine tree who all try to convince him that he is really as much a part of Christmas as Santa Claus:

‘“Santa Claus has nothing to do with it,” the latke said. “Christmas and Hanukah are completely different things.”
“But different things can often blend together,” said the pine tree. “Let me tell you a funny story about pagan rituals.”
But before the pine tree could begin its story, a family came tramping through the snow, searching the forest carefully.’

You may be able to guess how this story ends, all things considered…