Great Joy, a Christmas picture book by Kate DiCamillo, really is a great joy, and between DiCamillo’s words and Bagram Ibatoulline’s illustrations it deserves to hold a special place among holiday books.
The story, on its face, seems simple enough. Frances, a young girl is going to be in her church’s Christmas pageant. She will be that special angel who declares, “Behold, I bring you tidings of Great Joy.” We meet Frances the week before the play is to take place as her mother is finishing sewing Frances’s angel costume. Frances and her mother live in a city apartment. On the corner across from their apartment stands an organ grinder and his monkey who holds out a tin cup.
Frances worries about where they go at night in the winter cold. While her mother puts on the finishing touches to her costume, Frances bombards her with questions about the organ grinder and his monkey. Her mother, if we look at that particular illustration and read carefully, is obviously distracted. She gives Frances pat parental Stop-bothering-me answers, “I’m sure they go somewhere. Everyone goes somewhere.” Frances stays up late one night and peeks down at the corner to see the organ grinder asleep on the corner with his monkey tucked inside his coat. The next morning, Frances asks her mother if they can invite the man and his monkey to dinner. Her mother says no, explaining, “They’re strangers.”
That evening, on their way to church, it begins to snow and Frances darts away from her mother and drops a coin in the monkey’s cup. Then before her mother can whisk her away, she hurriedly invites the old man to the Christmas pageant so he can hear her say her one important line and then join everyone for refreshments afterward.
Russian born and educated Bagram Ibatoulline’s illustrations give such depth and sensitivity to DiCamillo’s words that the book has a cross-generational pull. The story takes place during the forties as can be seen from the automobiles in the street. In addition, Iabtoullline’s colors are soft and hazily muted, encouraging the reader and listener to understand the long agoness of the story. He also tells us things in pictures that DiCamillo doesn’t need to write. From the dialog between mother and daughter, we sense the impatience of the mother at her daughter’s constant questions. We might wonder where that comes from before we notice a framed picture of a naval officer on the table in that scene. Now the older reader understands the mother’s impatience with Frances.
DiCamillo writes of emotional conflicts without addressing the conflict itself. Frances is told she may not invite a stranger into their apartment, therefore, inviting the old man and his monkey to come and see her in the Christmas play becomes a very brave act of defiance. Not only is this a story of “no room at the inn,” but it is also about parents not always being right.
But back to the pageant. Frances freezes when it comes time to say her lines. She continues to worry about the old man and monkey. It is only when the doors at the back of the church open to reveal the organ grinder and his monkey entering the church that Frances can announce, “Behold, I bring you tidings of Great Joy.” And then again, “Great Joy.”
The story ends with no words but a double paged illustration of all the children and their families having refreshments in the church; the monkey is entertaining the children and the organ grinder is offering a thankful hand to Frances’s mother, who, her own hand extended, looks most happy to see him.