The Night Before Christmas

"Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!" Most of us know this line, the ending of Clement C. Moore's classic poem "The Night Before Christmas," first published in 1823. But I promise you, it will hit differently after you read Loren Long's visual interpretation.

I get it — a Christmas book is unlikely to win the Caldecott. Particularly one with a text that's almost two hundred years old and that's been presented in picture book form countless times. But hear me out. First, a Christmas book has won before: Chris Van Allsburg's The Polar Express, in 1986. (And a book I'm not familiar with, The Christmas Anna Angel, illustrated by Ruth Sawyer and written by Kate Seredy, was a 1945 Caldecott Honor.) Secondly, Christmas-themed or no, Loren Long has achieved something quite remarkable here. This is most definitely not your mother's, or grandmother's —or great-grandmother's — Night Before Christmas

Immediately, on the cover, Long indicates that the book will be a mix of the traditional (we see an elf-like Santa with a white beard and pipe) and the less traditional: note the four panels running along the bottom, each with a differently shaped outline and each showing a different homescape. From left to right: an urban apartment building; a rural farmhouse; a trailer in a trailer park; a house surrounded by palm trees — in the Caribbean, perhaps.

Open the book, and endpapers show us four separate vignettes of children, who will turn out to be the inhabitants of the four different homes. We see two boys, apparently brothers but not the same race, putting up blue and yellow ornaments on a Christmas tree; a brown-skinned girl writing letters to Santa asking for a horse; two siblings drawing a picture of a fireplace on a large piece of brown cardboard; three brothers and sisters, one of whom is in a wheelchair, making Christmas cookies. Already, this feels different. 

From here the visual narrative takes off, as Santa flies through the night and visits each family in turn. We see the interiors of each home, with sleeping children and (per the poem's parameters) the occasionally awake adult, plus pets. Each warmly colored double-page-spread interior offers a richness of detail that rewards long and repeated viewings. Check out the variety of treats each household has left out for Santa. Check out the toys in Santa's bag and to whom they are delivered and how they transform. Check out the different decorations that adorn each household: the city apartment's includes a menorrah; the Caribbean home, fish ornaments on the large tree; in the small trailer, a table-top Christmas tree (and the children's drawing of the fireplace that has been hung up over a window and that clearly has afforded Santa entrance). It's all completely absorbing, and completely accepting of a variety of experiences and lifestyles.

[Read the Horn Book Magazine review of The Night Before Christmas here]

For detractors still worried about the overfamiliarity of the text, Long even manages to freshen and update the language of Moore's poem. The phrase "and Mama in her kerchief" has always felt outdated to me, but by putting that kerchief on a brown-skinned woman in a tropical locale, Long brings the poem right into the present. It no longer feels old-fashioned. It feels fresh.

Long has gifted us with an original, pore-over-able, and powerfully inclusive Night Before Christmas. Let's circle back to the poem's last line: "Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!" This is the first time I've really felt, in my heart and in my bones, those "all"s. This is a Night Before Christmas for everyone, for every child, everywhere. A warm Calling Caldecott welcome to it — and "a good night!" to you all, till after the New Year.

Farewell to 2020. May 2021 land with less fear and hate, more peace and justice for all

 

Martha V. Parravano
Martha V. Parravano
Martha V. Parravano is book review editor of The Horn Book, Inc., and co-author of the Calling Caldecott blog.
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Emily Schneider

Ms. Parravano, you’ve raised an interesting point about holiday books. I’m Jewish, and I don’t see any reason why an outstanding picture book about Christmas should not potentially win the Caldecott. Since you acknowledge that there seems to be some prejudice against this category of books for the award, I would like to point out that an outstanding Chanukah book would be an even less likely candidate. I am thinking specifically of Paul O. Zelinsky’s All-0f-a-Kind Family Hanukkah from 2018. It was incredibly beautiful and innovative, but I don’t think that anyone believed that it would win a Caldecott, although it did win the Sydney Taylor Award. I would also like to comment on your characterization of this Christmas book as being “for everyone, every child, everywhere.” I think that you are alluding to the fact that the illustrations in the book include people of color. Children who are not Christian can certainly enjoy Christmas books, especially once they are old enough to understand and appreciate them as parts of another culture. But when you are a member of a minority religion, your children are constantly inundated with Christmas, and confronted with the assumption that this particular religious holiday is “for everyone.” There are different kinds of inclusiveness, after all.

Posted : Dec 30, 2020 05:53

Martha Parravano

You are absolutely right, Ms. Schneider. Thanks for making this important point.

Posted : Dec 30, 2020 05:53


Allison Grover Khoury

I haven't seen this book, but of course, your review makes me order it right now. I love Loren Long's work. Thank you.

Posted : Dec 29, 2020 09:57


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