I am so excited about today’s book for our Christmas picture book countdown! Although this one is from 1981, I had never seen it until this year when I was browsing Christmas books for this series. I enjoy Tomie dePaola’s work and he is quite a classic for children’s books, but wow! This is going to be one of my new favorites of his. Join me in admiring The Friendly Beasts: an old English Christmas Carol by Tomie dePaola, 1981.
I am quite familiar with this old English Christmas Carol as one of our favorite musicians has a lovely recording of it, but I have never seen a picture book for it. A little surprising to me actually and perhaps I should look into it more as there must be a few. It is a great little carol for children as it heavily highlights the animals surrounding the Nativity. The children’s choir at our church back in Tennessee performed the carol a few times as well and it is really such a sweet little carol to hear from little voices too.
In this illustrated version of the carol, dePaola has created lovely soft watercolor illustrations and paired them with handlettered type. The opening stanza sets the tone for the song and the book as three men carry candles into the pages and talk of Jesus being born in a stable while the friendly beasts stood around him. Each following stanza has one page introducing the beast who is “singing” the verse and then a following wordless spread showing the animal’s part in the story. These wordless spreads are lovely to behold and also fascinating to think about in context to the carol. I like to think of the wordless spreads as the lines of music after each verse that lead into the next verse. I’m not sure of the technical music term for those, but they seem to breathe and give space to imagine the stanza you just heard. It actually works quite well to read this book while listening to a musical version of the carol!
The animals in the song are a donkey, a cow, a sheep and some doves in the rafters. They sweetly lead the story along until the stable is full and the baby Jesus is surrounded by animals and people celebrating him, the Emmanuel. At the end of the book is some sheet music which looks to be a beautifully handlettered and drawn page by dePaola. He is a man of details and I love it.
One last note, I think dePaola’s character illustrations are quite interesting here. I’d have to really go back and study the progression of his illustration style, but I think the people and animals have a slightly different look than his typical style. It might just be the eyes, but the change makes the overall feel less cartoonish and more reverent in my opinion. It is a lovely approach to the simple carol, adding depth with the layers of muted color and the gradual increase of things surrounding the baby in the manger. We’ll be reading and singing this book often this Advent season. I hope you love it too!
Thanks for following along our book adventure at 25 Days of Christmas Books 2014!