That’s the Spirit, Claude, by Joan Lowery Nixon,
pictures by Tracey Campbell Pearson
I try not to review too many Texas-themed books (although our library has them to spare!), but Joan Lowery Nixon is a well-known author, and the Texas setting of this book doesn’t spoil its potential for universal appeal!
This fun early chapter/picture book hybrid tells the story of Shirley (a tall, thin woman) and Claude (a short, stout man with a full gray beard) and their adopted children Tom (who is 10) and Deputy Sheriff Bessie (who is 8). In the first chapter, Bessie is knitting an enormous stocking which Claude says will certainly be too large for her to wear. When Bessie explains it’s to hang up for Sandy Claus, neither Shirley nor Claude has ever heard of him, so Tom and Bessie explain who he is. Claude is skeptical, saying that while “maybe Sandy Claus rides on his sleigh to some parts of the world, but…he’s never made his way to Texas.” Tom and Bessie are both disappointed, and “Shirley never could abide to disappoint a child” (a repeated line), so she started thinking about what to do. Claude, despite his gruff replies, has apparently been thinking, too, because he tells the children he’ll cut down a little pine tree for them to decorate. “That’s the spirit, Claude,” Shirley says to end the chapter (another repeated line). In the second chapter, Bessie decides to write Sandy Claus a letter to invite him to Texas, thinking that’s maybe why he’s never come. After the children go to bed, Claude and Shirley discuss what Claude is sure will be a disappointment, but Shirley has an idea: Claude can dress up in his red long johns, wear his red flannel nightcap, and put flour in his beard and pretend to be Sandy Claus. Claude protests, but he finally agrees…just as long as he doesn’t have to go down the chimney. “That’s the spirit, Claude!” Shirley responds. The third chapter begins on Christmas Eve when Bessie and Tom hang their stockings by the fireplace and announce that they hope to catch Sandy Claus in the act when they hear the reindeer on the roof. Once they’re in bed, Claude gets all dressed up and heads to the roof to make the noises to alert the children, but someone on the roof startles him, and they both fall off onto the ground. Claude is happy to abandon his costume after the real Sandy Claus says he came because he respects the law and Deputy Sheriff Bessie wrote him a letter to tell him to come! When they enter the house together, Shirley and the children (peeking from behind the door to their room) are surprised, and Sandy Claus is taken aback by Bessie’s enormous stocking (once again mistakenly believing it was the right size for the foot of the person who owned it). He fills the stockings, then asks them a favor: Deputy Sheriff Bessie had given him a list of names of other children in the area who needed a visit, but he is behind because of falling off the roof, and he wonders if they would help him out by delivering the toys for him. Claude agrees–just as long as Sandy Claus agrees to keep coming back to Texas each year. After Sandy Claus leaves, Claude calls for the children to come with him to “help out Sandy Claus and deliver some gifts.” Shirley smiles and gives Claude a hug with “all the warmth and love of Christmas in it” before she once again says, “That’s the spirit, Claude!”
Told using a sprinkling of old Texas vernacular, this story is set in a time when men and boys wore nightshirts to bed and women wore ankle-length skirts and sat by the fire with an embroidery hoop after their evening meal. The illustrations (watercolor, I believe) are bright and cheery and take up about half of each page, the rest of the page filled with text in paragraph form. There is a cat and an armadillo (in true Texas fashion, although I’ve only ever seen them stationary on the side of the road) that show up in each illustration for younger readers to seek out. Other details include the decorations and old-fashioned home features, like the punched tin pie safe and the corrugated tin roof. I felt like the illustrations were familiar even though this was my first experience with this book, but I found that it is part of a series, so that might be why!
GirlChild’s Reaction: GirlChild liked this book and was able to follow along because of the many pictures and the simple story line. I did have to prompt her to understand that Claude and Shirley had never heard of “Sandy Claus” (who she knew without asking was Santa Claus–guess she’s heard the Texas drawl enough not to be confused!) and the silliness of the people who thought Bessie’s stocking was meant to be worn (because our Christmas stockings were never meant to be put on feet!). Probably best for a read-aloud to preschool to first grade children and for independent reading for second and third graders because of the sly humor and dialect that make it a little trickier to read or understand without support.