I had originally purchased Thomas “Survive the Jive” Rowsell’s The Spirit of Yule for my daughter, as the size and illustration-style suggested that the title was a children’s book.
Upon receiving the book, however, I discovered that this book is actually not a children’s book… at least, not for young children.
The language of the text is not only too complex for toddlers, but as prose, is almost too good to be properly appreciated by children:
I strode briskly to aid circulation, but I must admit that my pace dwindled with my spirits as the leafless oak boughs crowded in around me, and the still silence of the wood was shattered by the shriek of a barn owl echoing without answer between the solemn and ancient trees…
Not that I am against children being exposed to quality literature — but children, even older children, do not seem to be the audience.
This left me with a kind of confusion: what exactly was I looking at here? The beautifully-illustrated, hard-bound book clearly looked like a children’s book, but read like a short-story for a more mature audience.
There is only one comparable work I can think of, which is not a book, but a piece of film: I am thinking of the movie depiction of the story of the Deathly Hallows from Harry Potter:
I refer to the movie specifically — and not the source text — because the visual component adds a certain je ne sais quoi to the story. For Rowsell’s book, the illustrations really bring the story to life. Both stories are somewhat dark in their content without really being dark at heart, and the illustration style in Deathly Hallows closely matches that of The Spirit of Yule. Fundamentally, both are stories for adults disguised as stories for children.
So how might one read such a book?
The book is historically well-researched (Rowsell is a must-read historian for anyone with an interest in European history), but being formatted as a children’s book, it does not go into the depth that one might find in David Anthony or Kris Kershaw. It is entertaining, but too short to keep one occupied for weeks in the manner of a novel. Genre-wise, it appears to be in a kind of limbo, and thus begs the question: under what circumstances might one read such a book be read?
My wife thought that it was the perfect book to keep in a back closet for when the kids begin to question the truth of Santa Clause (“you want the real story of Christmas? okay Johnny, here it is…”).
But I feel like such a well-written and illustrated book of such short length might merit more regular revisitation.
When I was growing up, our nominally-Christian family would sit around a Christmas carousel, reading the Christian Christmas story in condensed form from little books kept in a kind of cardboard advent calendar. This became a tradition, sober but pleasant in a homey kind of way. Everyone knew what was going to be said, and each of the little 40-60 word books came with cute little illustrations.
I think that Rowsell’s book could serve a very similar role among somewhat less-sober adults in a Yule-tide gathering. Without giving too much away, the story itself seems to imply this purpose, revolving as it does around a fireside adult gathering complete with alcohol and story-telling. There are even passages which might warrant some crowd-participation in the form of booing or cheering at certain junctures.
Overall, I highly recommend this book. Its research, writing, illustration, and publication are all top-quality, and it really does offer something more for the holiday season, especially for those who love Christmas-time as much as anyone else, but who feels lost for justification without some tradition to draw upon in their desire to celebrate one more triumph of survival over the cold and dark of winter.