Rarely is a holiday book so lovely in every way as Kate DiCamillo's Great Joy. The story is heartwarming yet wonderfully subdued; the artwork glows. What's more, this short tale has a message that's bound to resonate with readers of all ages.
Young Frances lives in a city apartment, and outside her window, just before Christmas, she spies (and hears) an organ grinder and his little monkey. Frances enjoys the serenade, but wonders where the two sleep at night. Her mother brushes off her questions she is preoccupied with sewing Frances' costume for the Christmas pageant. The story appears to be set during World War II, and on a table rests a framed photo of a man, probably Frances' dad, in uniform. The illustrations by Bagram Ibatoulline, done in acrylic gouache, are spectacular: full of emotion and expression, all bathed in a muted holiday glow. The magic of Ibatoulline's art is that it manages to be simultaneously almost impressionistic yet vivid with detail.
Frances can't get the organ grinder or his companion out of her mind, so in the middle of the night she sneaks another peek out her window and sees them huddled on the street corner. The next evening, bedecked in her angel costume, Frances and her mother head to the pageant. In passing, she invites the organ grinder to come along and hear her one line in the play. And, in one of those spectacular cinematic moments, he walks through the church doors just as Frances goes center stage. DiCamillo's Great Joy is just what the title suggests. It's a wonderful, quiet story about true holiday magic, the joy of opening your heart to others, to everyone in need.