The Legend of the Poinsettia retold, illustrated and read by the late Tomie DePaola shares how an angel, a mysterious visitor or perhaps Our Lady of Guadalupe urges young Lucinda to join the Christmas Eve procession into the church. “Any gift is beautiful because it is giving,” she tells her. Lucinda has messed up weaving a blanket for baby Jesus in the manger scene. She’s mortified that she has no present to bring into the church. She places weeds around the manager as her substitute offering. The leaves transform into blazing red stars before the eyes of Lucinda and other worshipers.

Picture books often feature the giving of gifts, because gifts hold such meaning for children. DePaola’s gorgeous illustrations make the most of what is a very visual gift indeed, the Flower of the Holy Night, But his scenes focus mainly and magically on Lucinda and the townspeople who are changed by her heartfelt, albeit slightly desperate gesture.

Illustrators know to show more attention to the emotions of the giver and/or receiver than the gift itself in their pictures. They know the gift is not usually the meaning of the story. Sumptuous language and paintings celebrating the journey of a fresh orange from its inception in an orchard, across great distances to a supermarket and finally a snow-covered school playground are mere set-up in An Orange in January by Dianna Hutts Aston, illustrated by Julie Maren. The story’s emotional high point comes on the final, double page spread that depicts a child sharing the fruit segments with his classmates.

The Caldecott Honor-book Thank You, Omu! by Oge Mora purports to be about a thick red stew in a big fat pot, seasoned and stirred for a nice evening meal. But it turns out to be really about the procession of characters grandma Omu shares her meal with – until the point where the stew is gone, and roles of giver and receivers are reversed! The heartwarming spread at the end of the book are the faces and figures of these people, prominent among them Omu. All portraits of grace.

Jamie Otis and Mama Petway endure a terrible year with the loss of Papa, worsening poverty, harsh weather and floods.

But they revive when their church community comes together to aid a mother and daughter who have lost everything in a fire. “What is given from the heart reaches the heart,” Reverend Dennis tells the congregation. Jamie makes a book with his crayons for the little girl, Sarah, that tells a story about her.

April Harrison’s collage illustrations of children and mothers in a hard Christmas season overwhelm a reader with emotional power in What is Given from the Heart by the late Patricia McKissack. The gifts in this story are small. The impact is very big indeed.

Sometimes gifts disappoint. Again the moment depicted is a child’s swallowed response, as in Silver Packages, An Appalachian Christmas Story by Cynthia Rylant, illustrated in magnificent watercolors by Chris Soentpiet. Huge downs can teach patience, which might be a larger gift. So how does an artist convey forbearance or goodwill in faces, figures, and a page turn?

The sheer fun, joy, and total unexpectedness of preparing and delivering a gift make up La Sorpresa, the wordless story by Sylvia van Ommen. Pages work almost like a tutorial how-to. But we don’t know the why or wherefore until the last double spread, when the gift, character receiving it, and the character’s reaction are delivered in one happy blow. The gift as van Ommen depicts it as important as the response it inspires.

Author-illustrator Stephanie Graegin takes her little girl character and friend on an epic quest to recover a stuffed toy that was snatched from her in Little Fox in the Forest, another wordless story. Panels show the pair scouring the large enchanted woods like detective partners, questioning critter inhabitants, knocking on doors, and landing, finally, in the bedroom of the perpetrator, a small fox child. Case solved, Graegin concludes with a sequence, an exchange of gifts that breaks your heart with its sweetness.

All of us connected with Marks and Splashes Learning wish you a safe and blessed holiday season!

Illustration by April Harrison
What is Given from the Heart 
by Patricia McKissack