A Christmas Like Helen’s

by Natalie Kinsey-Warnock, ill. by Mary Azarian

2004: Houghton Mifflin Company

32 pages

Christmas always puts me in a historical frame of mind. From soon after Thanksgiving until past Epiphany, stories and trivia and memories flow constantly through my mind like a silent soundtrack to everything I do.

I think about historical figures associated with Christmas, about the history of the holiday itself and its traditions, about Christmases from my own past or that of my parents or grandparents.

So it’s no surprise that A Christmas Like Helen’s struck a chord with me. Centered around the author’s grandmother Helen, the book explores daily life and Christmas customs on a Victorian-era New England farm.

Kinsey-Warnock’s spare, poetic text beautifully conveys the realities and joys of Helen’s life, her bond with her family, and her family’s bond with the land and with their neighbors. Woodcuts by Caldecott winner Mary Azarian (Snowflake Bentley) are darkly evocative, capturing the weight and shadow of winter along with the color, energy, and emotions of Helen’s large, active family.

On the surface, this is the story of a girl who likes to go snowshoeing with her cousins, sing Christmas carols, and eat peppermint sticks and popcorn balls.  Between the lines, it’s much more–and that’s where it’s inspiring.

Helen lives without electricity and helps build a barn for a neighbor in need.  She walks to school in the snow “even on days when it’s forty degrees below zero” (yes, people really did that), helps harvest the family’s crops, and stubbornly survives a bout with scarlet fever.  In other words, she’s strong, capable, and very, very brave.

I’m wholeheartedly glad that my daughter’s life is safer, cleaner, and easier than Helen’s. I like not worrying that she’ll die from scarlet fever (or measles, or polio, or diphtheria).  I’m OK with the fact that her chore list consists of tidying her toys and sorting the silverware when it comes out of the dishwasher.

At the same time, however, that cushion of safety and cleanliness and ease can obscure what she’s really capable of.

Helen’s story is a great reminder–for me and my daughter–that even very young girls have deep wells of strength, competence, and courage. Especially when surrounded by loving families, there is very little they can’t dream or do.

Do you have a favorite Christmas or holiday book to read with the girls in your life?

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