Day 10 is a lovely story written in 1988 by Gloria Houston and illustrated by the wonderful Barbara Cooney. It is The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree.
Set in 1918, in the hills of the Appalachian Mountains, the story is about young Ruthie and the Christmas she would never forget. With her papa off in the Great War, Ruthie and her mama must figure out how to honor their family’s promise to provide the perfect Christmas tree for the village church that year.
Early in the spring, Ruthie and her papa had chosen the perfect tree, high up on the edge of a cliff. As Ruthie hoped and prayed for her papa to come home for Christmas, she and her mama prepared for the holiday with meager funds and a lot of love. As tradition in the town, since Ruthie’s papa was to provide the tree that year, Ruthie was to be the angel in the school Christmas play. She practiced hard and longed for money for a special dress. No one in town thought that the family could fulfill their word with their papa off at war; but determined and proud, Ruthie and her mama set out to provide that perfect tree and hope to surprise the whole town. And as the season often surprises those who give, they are in for some sweet moments of their own.
I picked this book up off a used bookstore shelf and carried it home, simply because it bore the artist’s name: Barbara Cooney. Then as I read it for the first time last year at Christmas, my heart was warmed by such a sweet story. Living in the Appalachian Mountains these few years myself, I find an even greater draw to the story. The back jacket flap shares that the author, Gloria Houston, wrote this tale from her own life. She grew up in the Appalachians in the county now known as the “Christmas tree capital of the world” and her own father provided the community’s Christmas tree, per tradition, several times through her childhood. No wonder the story is so wonderfully written, considering she drew from her own memories.
I was not familiar with Ms. Houston before acquiring this book, but I am delighted to become a fan. Her storytelling is lovely and it feels like you are sitting with her and listening to a firsthand account as you read. I hope to discover many more of her treasures, especially her 2011 book, Miss Dorothy and Her Bookmobile. Marvelous!
Barbara Cooney is, however, a favorite of mine. I have never been disappointed by her work. She is very devoted to detail and wondered: “How many children will know or care? Maybe not a single one. Still I keep piling it on. Detail after detail. Whom am I pleasing—besides myself? I don’t know. Yet if I put enough in my pictures, there may be something for everyone. Not all will be understood, but some will be understood now and maybe more later” (manythings.org). Her pictures are worth studying again and again. They often tell so much of the time period which can sometimes teach more than the story itself. The pictures in this book were created with acrylic paints, though she was quite versatile in medium including scratchboard, pen and ink, pen and ink with wash, casein, collage, and watercolor as well. The delicateness with which she illustrates is so lovely. See a nice compilation of her books on wikipedia.
I hope you pick up this book and be taken back to a simple Christmas time created with such care by Gloria Houston and pictured by Barbara Cooney.
Follow along our book adventure at 25 Days of Christmas Books.