Christmas Farm
Cover illustration
See permission.
The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.
Christmas Farm

by Mary Lyn Ray; illustrated by Barry Root

Wilma, a slender, pragmatic-looking lady, comes to the end of the gardening year  and begins to wonder what she should plant next time. Admiring her own splendid Christmas tree, she decides to plant a crop of conifers for others to enjoy; after ordering sixty-two dozen seedlings, she realizes she needs to enlist the help of her young friend and neighbor, Parker. The seedlings, five years old when planted (the same age as Parker), lose a few of their number to pests and cold every year, but Parker and Wilma tend and shape them until they’re ten years old and ready to sell. Then they’ve got a busy fall and winter selling 566 trees, and after that they’re ready to start all over again with even more.

It’s interesting that the Christmas holiday tends to inspire so many sentimental picture books, yet it’s the solid ones such as this that are the most resonant. The story here is down to earth—literally, even —yet lovely in its homey way. Stylistically, the prose employs short sentences in a subtly individual voice
(“Parker lived next door. He was five, like the seedlings”), making for inviting reading aloud, and both description and information are tucked neatly into the matter-of-fact narrative. The text is tightly structured by seasonal changes: every summer, Wilma and Parker provide necessary maintenance; every winter, hungry animals from deer to mice take their toll on the trees’ number; each year, there’s a parallel between Parker’s growth and the trees’, which further sets up a solid pace and helps youngsters grasp the considerable investment of time necessary for tree growth (Wilma and Parker’s trees take five years to go from planting to market). Teachers looking for atypical math opportunities will find them here in the carefully enumerated figures tracking the tree numbers from purchase to sale, while young audiences will adore the notion of the fair and real partnership between grownup and little kid, each participating on his or her own terms, both necessary to the success of the venture.

The art has the same firm purpose and rustic charm as the text. Smudgy, charcoally sketch lines are cozy and informal, while watercolor and gouache paints play on the contrast between warm, sandy earthtones (interior scenes bathed in sunny ochre, and bare ground a deep tan) and rich blues and greens. Landscape views predominate, understandably; scenes of picturesque tree-dotted rolling hills in green and gold summer as well as snow-blanketed winter remind viewers that the beauty of a field of trees isn’t limited to Christmas. Yet Root wisely relies on activity, not natural beauty, for interest in most spreads, including in nearly every illustration some human action as Wilma and Parker labor and, at times, play amid their trees, or animal action as insects, birds, and four-footed critters fill out their roles in the little arboreal ecosystem.

A closing page of information gives a brief overview of the history of Christmas trees and tree farms and their ecological place; that’s yet another element to make this title year-round worthy (it might be particularly entertaining to bring it out during a hot summer day and ask kids what they think Christmas
trees are up to in July), so don’t limit it to the winter holidays. Of course, it’s that season that will be its glory time, and between this and Ann Purmell’s Christmas Tree Farm (BCCB 11/06), youngsters looking to get to the root of the holiday are well supplied indeed. (See p. 168 for publication information.)

Deborah Stevenson, Editor

Christmas Farm

Cover image by Barry Root from  Christmas Farm ©2008. Used by permission of Harcourt Inc.

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This page was last updated on December 1, 2008.