A Christmas Like Helen’s, by Natalie Kinsey-Warnock, illustrated by Mary Azarian
(2004, Houghton Mifflin, ISBN 0-618-23137-4)
Dedicated to the author’s grandmother, this book shares what Christmas was like for the recent descendants of Scottish immigrants in the Vermont hill country many years ago.
“To have a Christmas like Helen’s you’ll need to be born on a Vermont hill farm, before cars, or telephones, or electricity, and be the youngest of seven children.” Each turn of the page in the book addresses a new thing that you would need to have a Christmas like Helen’s long ago: work horses, parents who tell their stories (or your grandparents’ stories) of Scotland, a barn, a love for animals, and so on. It tells of skating on the pond, riding into town in a pung (“a boxlike sleigh”) for the Christmas Eve service and wondering why Mary and Joseph couldn’t find a room. And it tells how in the middle of the night, when your father brings you to the barn to see a foal born and holds you close, you won’t be thinking about all the treats and gifts that Christmas Day will bring; you’ll be thinking that a barn is “not such a bad place to be born after all” and that you have “everything you ever wanted, or ever will want…right there on that farm.”
As the author tells what you would need to have or do or like or what might happen around Christmas, she is actually sharing her grandmother’s memories of growing up in the far northeastern United States and of a couple specific Christmases (such as the one when she got skates and the one when the doctor was afraid it might be her last one because of her scarlet fever), so this is a great book for kids interested in what life was like long ago! The illustrations are “woodcuts, hand-tinted with watercolors” (according to the book’s front matter) and give that old-fashioned feeling without being dreary or dated.
GirlChild’s Reaction: As the story progressed the second time we read it, GirlChild caught on to the repeated line “To have a Christmas like Helen’s” and said, “I want a Christmas like Helen’s! But we can’t…” (Well, we’re in Texas; very little of what the book describes is possible around here!) She was mildly dejected for a few pages, but she definitely perked back up at the ending lines about having everything you ever want and added to the last line, in her sweetest, most sing-songy voice, “My family!” She asked several questions about games and other things they mentioned with which she wasn’t familiar (like fox and geese and crack the whip (as seen on the Charlie Brown Christmas special!)), and I can see this book as an entry into historical fiction for younger children that would lead to other books like Little House on the Prairie and Hitty: Her First Hundred Years (historical fiction through the eyes of a doll) later on. Best suited for early elementary students, interested preschoolers and older children will also enjoy this simple story of times long past.