Bill Peet was a name I recognized as a pretty famous writer, so I grabbed this book despite the cover which looked like something off of Schoolhouse Rock (and therefore appeared dated–no disrespect to Schoolhouse Rock intended!). When I was doing my bit of research to find out something about him (because, for the life of me, I couldn’t remember anything else he’d written!), I discovered that, in fact, I was not very familiar with him at all! His bibliography is impressive—over thirty books written and illustrated for children—but I found that I was much more familiar with his filmography! He worked at Disney for twenty-seven years and is, apparently, the “storyman” behind the original 101 Dalmatians movie and The Sword in the Stone; for 101 Dalmatians, he also wrote the script. I think perhaps that I read his books as a child—I read pretty much everything the library had to offer—but although his illustrations look familiar, none of his book titles ring a bell.
Countdown to Christmas tells the story of one year during the 1960s at Santa’s workshop when Santa goes on a “Kick” (according to Prancer) about updating himself and his work only to discover that the “old” him is just what Christmas needs. Santa is worried about keeping up with the times and starts to do a full makeover of his operation, starting with tossing his old, special sack and repainting the sleigh in tie-dye colors to replace the standard red until next year, when he plans to replace it with a jet. Everyone else at the North Pole has serious reservations about these changes, but Santa plunges ahead with all the alterations. When he discovers that his new, synthetic sack won’t hold all the toys—it’s not magic, after all—he realizes the error of his ways and heads out into the night to find the old, patched sack he tossed out of the window in his haste to modernize. He has almost given up when he finds a big walrus wearing his sack as a hat. He trades his cap for the sack and rushes home to finish his preparations for his duties, restoring the sleigh to its original appearance and relishing the traditional trappings of his yearly trip. A final cry of, “A cool Christmas to all! And a groovy New Year!” finishes the tale.
The story is told in rhyming couplets and is peppered with slang from the sixties (which is fitting to the theme of the story but could be hard to follow for a child who is completely unfamiliar with stereotypical sixties speech). Peet manages to maintain a stable rhythm and keeps his rhymes from seeming too contrived despite the length of the book, so reading it aloud is a pleasure. The book feels like a cautionary tale about jumping too quickly into fads and reminds us that time-honored tradition is never really out of style—at least at Christmas!
Peet is, of course, famous for his illustrations, and this book is no exception. Although the cover illustration—a snow-covered factory releasing pink smoke into a starless, black sky—caught my eye for the wrong reasons, the rest of the drawings, although very much an older style of illustration, do not feel out-of-date like some books printed in this era can seem. The illustrations are done in colored pencil and India ink and are very rich and detailed. Shading and texture are very important aspects of the art in this book, and they show what great care went into each drawing. Some of the illustrations span two pages, and others are simple scenes that change from page to page. The text is set in white space reserved on each page and never fills more than half of the page (usually about a third of it). Every page features a full-color illustration.
GirlChild’s Reactions: GirlChild did not have any specific reactions to this book despite the fact that she listened attentively from the back seat as I read it. Not being a fan of Cartoon Network or Scooby Doo (although one of her daddy’s old Scooby Doo mystery books is an occasional random pick for bedtime reading) and having grandparents who aren’t stuck in their youth, she hasn’t heard much sixties slang and wouldn’t get the point of it in this book anyway at this age. The whole concept of fads and tradition is also kind of lost on her since she’s not old enough to get into trends or be very aware of traditions either, so, to her, this was just a fun story about Santa, and she enjoyed it as such. (We never taught her to believe that Santa brings her presents, so she has only a basic understanding of Santa lore and enjoys him as just a story character at Christmas time. Judging from her incredulous response to seeing a Santa at an IKEA recently and the way she responded when a greeter somewhere asked her if she was looking forward to Santa visiting, I am fairly sure she thinks Santa belongs at the “firehouse” (fire station) across the street because that’s the only exposure she’s had to Santa impersonators! My child is weird.)
My mother claims we own Chester the Worldly Pig, and The Wump World looks increasingly familiar the more often I gaze at the cover. I think his other books should be worth a peek, too, as they (the ones published by Houghton Mifflin, at least) are still in print despite being published from the late 1950s through 1990. Although Countdown to Christmas was fun and funky, this groovy book might be best shared with a child of the 60s or elementary age children who can appreciate the sentiments.
Additional titles (recommended by others who better remember his works):
For more information:
Homepage for Bill Peet (This is far from the most professional-looking website I’ve ever seen, but it appears to draw from his autobiography and interviews and has the most detailed information compiled in one place that I found.)