O Holy Night: Christmas with the Boys Choir of Harlem, pictures by Faith Ringgold (2004)
Here are five traditional English Christmas carols on this twelfth day of Christmas book reviews, performed by the Boys Choir of Harlem and illustrated by the inimitable Faith Ringgold!
The book begins with the text of Luke 2:1-20 from the King James Version (the one I memorized growing up!) in block text just as an introduction. Then it moves into the illustrated carols, and the rest of the text is written as song lyrics, so they look more like poetry than prose (as they should) and, after the first few lines, are printed in white on a gold box with a character from the story illustrated at the top of the box. “Silent Night” is the first song, and you’ll notice that a verse from the performance is missing in the text and that the verse that is printed is not sung. There is an adult female soloist for this song, and it is not the traditional arrangement. “O Come, All Ye Faithful” is next, and it is recognizable as the standard arrangement performed with a traditional choir sound. There is one verse printed in the book that is not performed on the cd. “O Holy Night” is a somewhat subdued gospel choir arrangement, and this one is actually my favorite! I love the voice of the soloist on the “sweet hymns of joy” section, and I love the joy and energy of the whole arrangement as well as the experimentation with volume and voice groupings. It sounds as though it may have been recorded live. The last two songs, “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” and “Joy to the World” seem to be pretty traditional renditions, and the lyrics match the performances. My favorite part of these two is that they seem to have trumpet accompaniment (or maybe even full orchestra–but years of playing trumpet makes my ears tune in most to that!) and fanfares.
Since she earned the Caldecott in 1992 for Tar Beach, Faith Ringgold’s work has been a familiar part of most picture book collections. (The one with which I’m most familiar is Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad in the Sky–it was a trade book that came with a reading series my school used when I taught fifth grade.) I am no art expert, so I’m unsure if the paintings are done in oil or acrylic, but they start in the endpapers with Mary and Joseph arriving at the stable and end with them leaving it. (It should be noted that these are the only times that Mary is shown not wearing the blue outer garment with white and gold spots that identifies her in all the other illustrations. Joseph always wears an orange robe with gold accents, and Jesus is in various styles of clothing but always white with blue. They also all have the traditional halo circle behind their heads.) Mary, Joseph, Jesus, and most of the other characters have skin tones that are varying shades of brown, but some of the angels and a few other people within groups have lighter skin tones and hair. I wonder if Ms. Ringgold was rendering an actual group of people and not just a variety of random faces, particularly among the angels; the features and hairstyles just seem too unique and detailed to be fully dreamed up in the artist’s mind! (I’m thinking particularly of one male angel with curly red hair, a long nose, and a distinctive mustache…) While the paintings don’t seem to refer specifically to the song they illustrate, they all depict either a scene from the nativity or Jesus (sometimes without his family and sometimes with Mary or Mary and Joseph) partially out of context (so you can’t really identify if a specific scene is intended). Jesus is also shown at various ages from infant to adult. Some other elements that caught my eye were the setting-less backgrounds (except in the endpapers) and the appearance of a variety of unexpected animals (like the black and white bulldogs at Mary’s feet and a pinkish animal on the title page that I couldn’t quite identify) and large crowds of brightly dressed people (who can’t be identified specifically as shepherds or wise men), sometimes adoring Jesus (who sometimes wears a crown), sometimes offering gifts. The colors are bright and rich, and the pages are full of detail to explore.
GirlChild and BoyChild’s Reactions: GirlChild read the book independently before we realized there was actually a cd with it, but she knew some of the songs, and she made up tunes to sing with the others! When I realized she was singing randomly, I joined her to teach her the actual tunes of the ones she didn’t know. When I had them listen to the cd, she noticed right away that “Silent Night” wasn’t the arrangement we’re used to hearing, but she said it was her favorite of all of them anyway. BoyChild looked at the cover and said, “Did their skin change colors?” This is why I like to choose Bible stories and nativity books with a variety of illustrations! I had the chance to explain to him that no one knows exactly what Jesus looked like, so people imagine him and draw him in a lot of different ways, including different skin tones. I don’t know exactly how to recommend using this book–it’s not really the kind of book most kids would sit down and read through (although, of course, GirlChild did just that despite the unfamiliar vocabulary present in the songs), but it would be hard to read it aloud because of the singing element. What I ended up doing was setting the book up at the table while the kids were eating (so they wouldn’t have to sit through twenty minutes of music with nothing to occupy their hands) and played the cd for them while I turned the pages to stay with the lyrics. Because some of the lyrics don’t match the music, that could be confusing, though. I think, perhaps, it would be a perfect book to have available in a listening corner (they still have those in younger grades, right?!) during the Christmas season or during a unit study of Faith Ringgold’s works (or just at your own house for quiet rest time!). It’s definitely the sort of book that you can just sit and look at the pictures without worrying about the complex text, and the musical accompaniment would make it that much more enjoyable!