The Twelve Days of Christmas, illustrated by Jan Brett

On the first day of Christmas, my blogger shared with me…
a Jan Brett book about the twelve days!

The Twelve Days of Christmas, illustrated by Jan Brett
(1989, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, ISBN 0-399-22037-2)

Jan Brett is one of the most talented and prolific author/illustrators in classic children’s picture books that I can recall. Her attention to realistic detail is amazing, and this book adaptation of the traditional English Christmas carol does not disappoint.

The text of the book is simply the lyrics of the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” As in the song, each page builds on the previous one, so the full twelve days of Christmas are listed on the last spread. Brett includes the musical score and lyrics for the song on the very first spread, and an editor’s note at the end of the book gives a little history and explanation about the twelve days of Christmas (Christmas Day through Epiphany on the sixth of January) and the song itself. Modern readers (American ones, at least) may be confused at first by the inclusion of “four colly birds” instead of “calling birds” but that is apparently the original phrase.

The illustrations, however, are what really make this book. Jan Brett is a master of animal realism in particular, and she can make even her Marie Antoinette-like French hens look like they could strut off the page if you didn’t keep an eye on them. Each spread gives the impression of an intricate stained glass window or an illuminated manuscript with various panes on the page depicting different scenes. Each spread features one day of Christmas with the gift of the day exquisitely illustrated as the central image of the page. This image has some special qualities I’ll discuss a little later on. The narrow pane on the top border of the main illustration shows branches of an evergreen decorated with ornamental versions of whatever the daily gift is, like a little glass partridge or colorful paper fans for dancing. This pane is flanked by cornerpieces featuring a decorative item, such as pears for the first day and gingerbread men on the tenth, that typically ties in with another image on the page somehow. Although these cornerpieces are similar to one another, they are not identical; each image is unique. The wide horizontal borders on the right and left of the main image show progressive scenes from what appears to be a wealthy Victorian family’s preparations for Christmas. They tell a story of the search for a tree, the decorations, and the family celebration when all is ready, a fitting complement to an English Christmas carol. Perhaps my favorite part of each illustration, however, is in the lower corners of the page, superimposed over the bottom of each family scene. There the reader will find an animal with a banner or some other object with the seasonal greeting of a different country: Buon Natale from Italy, Joyeux Noël from France, Feliz Navidad from Spain.  Remarkably, even if you don’t know from which country the greeting hails (and it took a good deal of searching for me to determine a few of them), you may be able to figure it out by studying again the main illustration on the page. Rather than just having six generic geese, for instance, these geese have long braids and are wearing headscarves and clothing traditional to Poland. The pipers piping are bagpipers in full Scottish garb, and the flamenco dresses and flowers in the hair of the ladies dancing give away their Spanish origins. The last page, free from text, shows a Christmas tree decorated with all the daily ornaments and the Victorian family singing together in the background.

GirlChild’s Reactions: Because the text is the lyrics to the song, I sang this one instead of just reading it, and GirlChild was very attentive. (She loves singing.) Once we got to the editor’s note at the end, she didn’t want to hear any more. My husband and I, however, were very interested, so we told her to just cover her ears if she didn’t want to hear it. This is a beautiful book with a classic Christmas theme, and I would recommend it for reading (or singing!) aloud to even very young children who love music and for independent reading for older children who can appreciate the gorgeous artwork.

Additional titles:

(Jan Brett seems rather fond of Christmas and winter-themed books!)

Online resource:

Welcome to the World of Jan Brett–Jan Brett’s website is chock-full of information, coloring pages, activities relating to her books, and more! It’s a great resource for parents, teachers, and librarians.

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3 Comments

Filed under online resources, review

3 responses to “The Twelve Days of Christmas, illustrated by Jan Brett

  1. Pingback: Christmas Wrap-Up | Rushing to Read

  2. Pingback: Themed Third Thursday: Give the Gift of Books | Rushing to Read

  3. Pingback: BoyChild Chooses: The 12 Reviews of Christmas, Day 9–Twelve Lizards Leaping: A New Twelve Days of Christmas | Rushing to Read

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