Thursday, December 8, 2011

11. Jingle Bells

Written by John Harris
Illustrated by Adam Gustavson
Peachtree, 2011
$16.95, ages 6-10, 32 pages

A minister lifts the spirits of a downtrodden congregation with the sound of sleigh bells and a flurry of snow-white feathers, in this charming twist on history.

John Harris, the co-writer of A Giraffe Goes to Paris, weaves a tender tale of how John Lord Pierpont came to write the holiday song Jingle Bells in the sticky heat of Georgia in 1857. 

Though little is known about what spurred Pierpont to write the beloved carol, Harris gathered what facts he could, then pieced them together with his imagination to create this heart-warming story.

Many historians believe Pierpont wrote the song in Medford, Massachusetts, but others like Harris believe he was more apt to have written it in Savanna while serving as a church music director.

Since Pierpoint was a Unitarian and grew up in the North, Harris believes he was a strong abolitionist and warmly welcomed former slaves into his congregation.

But doing so probably would have come at price. For in 1857, the Civil War had yet to begin.

Perhaps one day confederates threw a rock through a window of his church and while he was cleaning up the glass, Pierpont felt a sticky breeze blow in.

Nostalgic for the cool north and wanting to distract a little girl from the hate that rock represented, he might have sat down at his piano and tapped out the jingle.

"Plink-plink-plink," went a key of the pipe organ, just like sleigh bells. "Then he did it again," Harris writes, and note after note, the tune came to him.

Now that Pierpont had the perfect song to transport his congregation into horse-drawn sleighs, he needed something light and fluffy to float down to the pews.

They could toss white blossoms in the air, he thought, but where could they find them?

Then one day as his chorus practiced Jingle Bells for a Thanksgiving concert, a feather in a lady's hat caught his eye. Bags of feathers, that's what they need.

Harris makes you wish history was just as he imagined it, while oil painter Adam Gustavson imbues the congregation with so much character, they come to life on the page.

This is a lovely story about opening one's heart and making something magical out of what you have.

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