Thursday, December 8, 2011

8. The Twelve Days of Christmas

Written & illustrated by Jane Ray
Candlewick, 2011
$16.99, ages 3-6, $16.99

In this beguiling edition of The Twelve Days of Christmas, a suitor woos his love next door with a series of gifts that reflect his deepening affection.

The suitor, an elegant man with twinkling eyes, watches his gifts arrive from his window until the last one is delivered, and he feels brave enough to a walk over and declare his love.

As the first of 12 gifts come, tiny puffs of snow float down outside a row of color-washed houses by a canal. A postman knocks at flat #4 and the woman, her hair swept back with a ribbon, answers the door and gasps with delight. 

There on the step is a potted pear tree, each branch perfectly positioned as if espaliered, and a partridge with mottled feathers perched on a limb. A tag dangles from another branch addressed, "To My True Love X."

Every day greater numbers of things arrive on her stoop, each more whimsical and grand than the last.

On the fifth day, five children in hats and mittens run by the woman's door, rolling golden hoola-hoops at their sides, and on the tenth day, ten lords-a-leaping, dressed in pinstriped pants and top hats, shuffle about on the roof swinging their arms.

Jane Ray's pictures are sumptuous, delicately ornate and folkloric, with gilted stars, sleek birds that glide into scenes and perch, and charming details, subtly adorning the page.

When the nine ladies dancing arrive on a boat in the canal, shimmying in fur-lined coats, a banner curves between masts that's as playful as the man's glances. Hung among triangles of fabric are socks and pantaloons.

Every spread captures the magic of young, new love. Houses have a rosy luminous glow that ties in with the blushing cheeks of the woman, and the air sparkles with possibility.

Ray even flirts a little with readers. On the first spread, she entices interest in the couple's courtship by giving it a feeling of mystery.

As the pear tree arrives, Ray backs away from the row houses and doesn't let on who the woman's suitor is. Readers must scan their windows and doors, and the sidewalk below to pick out which fellow it could be.

In addition, the woman being pursued is demure, her smile reserved, and she betrays little, though her eyes glisten.

Readers sense that she knew instantly who the sender was and imagine that inside this private woman, her heart is bubbling with joy.

But they're not completely sure of her emotions, and this leaves readers wondering and hoping that they are right, much like a suitor feels when he's trying to read into feelings.

Ray keeps to the traditional refrain, with no words spoken between the man and woman. Yet there's so much to be read in their glances and reactions that readers feel almost voyeuristic.

This is a book that makes the heart beat a little faster. With every page, readers get to peek in on something very personal -- and at times, they may even find themselves smiling, as if they were the ones being wooed.

Jane Ray is also the author-illustrator of the charming fairy tale, The Apple-Pip Princess, and Snow White, a gorgeous three-dimensional version of the classic.

To read my 2009 review of Snow White, click here.

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