The Amazing Christmas Extravaganza, by David Shannon (1995)
As more and more lights go up around town, this ninth review is for a book that showcases a truly astounding display!
Mr. Merriweather and his family have always celebrated Christmas with happy simplicity: a well-trimmed tree in the front window and a wreath on the front door. This year, however, he decides to branch out and add…a string of white lights around his window. When his neighbor, Mr. Clack, makes a derisive comment about Mr. Merriweather’s lights in comparison with his own, Mr. Merriweather is flustered and embarrassed and replies that he’s not yet done and that Mr. Clack will be amazed by the finished product. After his first splurge (where he buys so much his station wagon can hardly contain it!), Mr. Clack seems jealous, and other neighbors show up to admire his display. This admiration makes him so happy that he keeps going out and buying more things, even resorting to building his own display items when the stores run out of things to add! While most of the neighbors continue to exclaim over his work, his family is starting to regret that he is spending so much time and effort on the display. As the book says, “Mr. Merriweather was no longer thinking about Christmas…. He was thinking about bigger, brighter, and more.” He even skips his children’s Christmas pageant to keep on decorating. He becomes so absorbed in his efforts that he doesn’t notice that he’s sapping the neighborhood electricity and that the tourists coming to see his display are becoming a nuisance to his neighbors. When his lights cause the entire neighborhood to lose power on Christmas Eve night, his neighbors have had enough and tear apart his display while he and his family hide under a bed, thinking there’s an earthquake shaking their home! On Christmas morning, when the shaking finally stops, Mr. Merriweather is stunned to discover the angry mob still outside and the smouldering remains of his destroyed display. He realizes that, although well-intentioned, he had let things get out of hand and hadn’t really paid attention to how those around him were feeling. His neighbors, ashamed of what they did out of their frustration, offer to help him put the display back together, but Mr. Merriweather says that his little string of white lights are enough. Everyone tells him how wonderful the display really was, despite all the problems it caused, and Mr. Merriweather is encouraged to try again but to scale down his artistic endeavors for his next attempt–Easter! Moral of the story: Don’t let anyone else’s rude comments ruin your enjoyment of the simple things!
David Shannon writes and illustrates this book with barely a tip of the hat to his No, David! and other books for younger readers; the only similarity I saw was in the darkness of the eyes of all his characters. (I frankly find it a little creepy, but it didn’t detract from this book at all.) While this is still a picture book, the text is much longer and more complex than most of his stories with which I’m familiar (A Bad Case of the Stripes is the closest one I know in both artistic and literary style to this one), and you’ll need to be a patient reader and have patient listeners for this story. You’ll need to be patient because your listeners will keep interrupting you to point out something else they’ve found in the acrylic paint illustrations and because, even when you’re through with the text on the page, they’ll want to keep exploring the pictures! They’ll need to be patient because you’ll want to actually read all the words when they are absorbed in the art. Not a bad reason for either, really. Most of the text is written in medium-length blocks on a white page with a border of lights around it…and the lights border becomes more cluttered with Christmas flotsam as the book progresses. Even the cover gives a glimpse of the conflict in the story: it’s actually hard to find the title (written in gold text at the top) in all the craziness that is his National Lampoon-esque display!
GirlChild and BoyChild’s Reactions: Both of my children were completely absorbed in this book. (I actually chose this book because GirlChild has been using the term “extravaganza” to describe the party she and her cousin are planning to host at Grandma’s house this New Year’s Day…and because the cover illustration was so over-the-top!) True to form, GirlChild was more caught up in the emotional aspects of the text and BoyChild was all about spotting things in the pictures. They both crowded against me on the couch while I read the book to them before naptime, and I imagine I’ll find BoyChild, at least, crouched over it as he examines the pictures again once I put it in their library book bin, and GirlChild will probably try to finish getting ready in the morning early enough that she has a chance to read it herself before school. GirlChild’s eyes were like saucers when I read that Mr. Merriweather was no longer thinking about Christmas–the enormity of losing sight of Christmas and family and friends just to make a big production was not lost on her! I’m pretty sure BoyChild’s thinking wasn’t quite so deep on this one. That said, it’s a great read-aloud for good preschool listeners individually or in small groups up through elementary school in groups (even to upper elementary for an exercise in discovering themes using trade picture books) or one-on-one. While not a religious story at all, it can definitely be used to facilitate a discussion of what happens when a person loses sight of the truly important things at Christmas time.