Christmas Picture Book
Christmas Always Comes is the tale of a very Australian Christmas. As always, former Australian Children’s Laureate Jackie French tells the story expertly, here with the narrative enhanced through dialogue and lyrical descriptions.
Bruce Whatley’s illustrations depict the size, vast distance, colours and dryness of the Australian countryside, with splashes of brightness.
His pictures are created with “acrylic wash laid over line-work drawn with an old-fashioned nib pen and ink” to bring place to life and depict characters from a past time.
It is 1932, time of the Great Depression, and the country is in drought. We first meet Ellie, Joey, their parents and dog, Brownie, on Christmas Eve. They are droving their cattle in search of water.
Ingenuous, enthusiastic young Joey hangs up his and Ellie’s worse-for-wear socks instead of Christmas stockings and expects a Christmas tree, decorations and Santa, pudding and presents. Ellie, who is older, realises that presents are unlikely this year.
On Christmas morning their old cow, Blossom, finds a “Christmas tree” with golden fruit and green leaves. Red and green parrots are feeding in its branches. It is an apricot tree owned by an unhappy-looking old man who overhears Ellie say, “We don’t need a tree or presents or a pudding. We’ve got each other. We’ll make it a wonderful Christmas.”
The man, Mr Darcy, softens as he recalls that Rosie, his deceased wife, used the same words on their first Christmas even though the house wasn’t finished, the horse was lame and their baby was due. He planted the apricot tree for her and offers the children its fruit because that’s what Rosie, with her generous heart, would have wanted.
Mr Darcy realises that, as drovers, the family may not have much food to celebrate Christmas and offers them chicken to roast and vegetables to cook, as well as grass for the cattle. His gruff kindness transforms the dry landscape:
“The land was gold, not brown, as Ellie and Joey,
Blossom and Brownie climbed out of the gully.
Diamonds glittered from the cobwebs on the barbed wire.”
Further surprises are in store for the family before they share Christmas with Mr Darcy who muses that “any Christmas can be the best one in the world”. The title Christmas Always Comes does come true.
The story shows how, even in difficult circumstances, the care and kindness of family and community can generate love. The book blurb says it well, “From two of Australia’s best-loved picture book creators comes a story about finding joy and beauty where you least expect it, and how kindness can create miracles.”
Jackie French and Bruce Whatley are long-standing and successful picture book collaborators, particularly well known for the Wombat books, of which the first is Diary of a Wombat. Another of their successful series is The Natural Disaster Picture Books, of which the most recent book is Drought.