For the second book in our 25 Days of Picture Books 2015, I am making this post do double duty and combining a Christmas book with Wordless Wednesday. As such, this post will be a bit longer than my usual Christmas countdown posts, but it also includes an interview with the author herself! Let’s jump in. Here is Carl’s Christmas by Alexandra Day, 1990.
I don’t know about your kids, but my girls were both dog crazy for the first couple years of life. I too am a big dog lover and love a good picture book featuring our canine friends. The Carl books are a bit of a classic it would seem, so what better than a classic character in a holiday special.
Lest you think I am cheating the wordless book title, I will point out that the Carl books usually have an opening line of text from the adults on the first spread. But the rest of the book is typically completely wordless, except maybe a well-placed sign or two in the background.
So in this adventure, the opening page shows a father and mother bidding their dog Carl goodbye on Christmas Eve and asking that he take good care of the baby while they are gone to Grandma’s and church. I’m not even going to attempt to decipher why on earth it would be a good idea to leave a dog as a babysitter. We are reading a book, folks. Enjoy it. This is classic Carl, and he always rises to the occasion as an excellent and exciting friend to the baby.
So the parents are gone and Carl gives the baby a lift downstairs where they delight in the Christmas tree and some special wrapping of a house plant. Then the two head outdoors. They wander past decked out windows, manage to win a beautiful Christmas basket, greet a charity Santa, and listen to carolers before realizing that it is getting late and they might miss Santa completely.
They race home, wait until they both fall asleep, and then Carl – being the alert watchdog – hears something outside. He rushes out to inspect and nearly runs into Santa himself. His faithfulness steps up to the plate once again and he helps Santa into the house, distributes gifts, and send Santa on his way. The book closes with Carl carrying the sleeping babe back upstairs to bed and then settling himself down as well with a special gift from Santa.
There are two main reasons why I think Carl’s Christmas (and all the Carl books, really) remains a favorite and works fascinatingly well. First off, the concept is so incredibly ridiculous that it is humorously endearing. The plot is simple, yes. A dog takes care of a baby, finding unique ways to entertain themselves, and then they go to sleep. But wait, a dog takes care of a baby?! And yes, Carl really takes care of the baby – carrying it around, helping it with things, and adventuring with the baby. This is baby’s best friend.
But secondly, this book works so well because the illustrations are beautiful, and remarkably realistic. On the surface that may not seem too interesting, but we are talking about realistic illustrations of a ridiculous concept. It is really quite brilliant. There are so many spreads that I just absolutely adore (most of which I pictured here, because how could I not show my favorites?). There is something about the realism with a touch of whimsy that makes Carl’s Christmas a great holiday read.
And now I am so excited to feature a brief Q&A with the creator of the Carl books, Alexandra Day.
Question: What motivated you to create a (mostly) wordless picture book as opposed to a traditional text + illustration book?
Alexandra Day: The answer to that one is easy: I am a painter by profession and more importantly, there was no one to talk, except the mother at the beginning and the end and the occasional adult who happens along.
Q: Was there ever text or narration in your head for Carl’s Christmas or did it always perform silently?
AD: The answer to this is related to the first question. It’s very important when you create a world, that you obey your own rules. My world in the Carl books postulates a real dog, but one with extra mental capabilities, and a very young child with a very intimate bond with him. It approaches everything from the level and point of view of the two protagonists. For that reason, I keep the angle of observation very low, at child and dog level, and do not ask them to do anything they physically could not do. Mentally… well, that’s where the fantasy comes in. I do work out a series of events that follow a sort of simple picaresque plot, which I then sketch to see how they will flow. A picture book has a lot in common with a movie, in that the “scenes” have to fit together with visual as well a content logic.
Q: Is there a specific storyline and conclusion to Carl’s Christmas that you hope the reader gets or is it a bit open-ended in your opinion?
AD: I hope the reader will enjoy participating in the various things Carl thinks up for them to do, and Carl always does some little act of thoughtfulness and generosity, which children seem to agree with me is logical and proper.
Q: Was it a more challenging experience to create a wordless book than text books or is every book different, period?
AD: A wordless book is not more challenging for me, because, as I said, I am really a painter, not an author. That said, it can sometimes be tricky to get something across without narration. Signs and labels on things help in a pinch.
Q: Is there a soundtrack that you hear for Carl’s Christmas?
Q: Do you consider wordless picture books a better solitary experience or more exciting as a read-aloud?
AD: I don’t know. I have heard many times that the books are used to good effect with people (children and adults) for whom language is a barrier (ESL children, mentally impaired, Alzheimer sufferers, very young children, etc.). They apparently make up their own stories or simply enjoy the episodes as pictures and jokes.
Q: Have you ever shared Carl’s Christmas in a storytime? Do you have tips for how it or any other wordless picture books could be read aloud?
AD: Reading the Carl books at story time doesn’t usually work for me because I always take the real Carl with me and the children are so excited by his presence (he is a very smart dog and does tricks) that they can’t really concentrate on a book. I think the teachers do better with the book beforehand, because the children generally seem to know what goes on in the book, and have questions for me.
Q: Do you have any favorite wordless picture books?
AD: There are lots; it is not a new form. I have basically wordless picture stories going back to the 19th century.
Q: And lastly, because you never really read a picture book alone and I adore brainstorming book groupings, do you have any books that you consider to pair well with Carl’s Christmas, wordless or not?
AD: I suppose any books about Christmas would be good.
Thanks so much to Alexandra Day for taking the time to answer a few questions about fantastic Carl and his Christmas adventure.
Don’t miss my other posts and interviews about wordless books. And I hope you’ll continue to join me on this Christmas book countdown of 2015!