I love Jeanette Winterson’s books. I started reading her as an adult with her debut, Oranges are not the Only Fruit, and have been with her ever since. Her writing is glorious, poetic, thoughtful, strange and beautiful. Her books for children have all the same qualities. One of my favourite modern folk tales of all time is her beautiful book The King of Capri, which also has fantastic illustrations by Jane Ray.
The Lion, the Unicorn and Me, is, as the subtitle promises: The Donkey’s Christmas Story.
I am not a fan of Christmas. I am not a fan of sentimental Christmas stories, and having been third shepherd’s wife from the left in more nativity plays than I can shake a stick at, I can’t say another retelling of the nativity would be top of my list of things to read. I made an exception for Winterson though, and I’m glad I did.
The copy I have is a beautiful, cloth bound hard back with gold leaf added to the illustrations, a scarlet ribbon as a book mark, and end papers I want as wallpaper. The illustrations by Rosalind MacCurrach are sublime and work perfectly with the subject and Winterson’s able telling of it.
The language, as you would hope, is wonderful. I love the way Winterson slides from the poetic to the mundane, from the poignant to the funny from sentence to sentence. Her writing is agile, well crafted and an absolute delight to read. I found myself wishing, as I was reading it that my children were young enough for me to force them to sit down and read it to them.
Even if you have heard this story a thousand times before, this telling of it sucks you in and holds you captive right from the end.
I love the details of all the places people in Bethlehem are having to sleep, from the fathers weaving spider webs into cribs for their children, to the two melon headed men asleep in olive tree planters. I love the job interview the angel gives all the animals when it comes to choosing someone for this most special of tasks. It is all wonderful.
The poetry of the language is exquisite:
‘Soon it was clear that four legs on the ground at the same time would be necessary to reach the qualifying round. That left some serious competition – horses, tigers, a stag with antlers that branched into an unknown forest, a zebra painted black and white like an argument.’
This is a wonderful Christmas story to share. It strikes the perfect festive note. It is joyous and celebratory without being saccharine and unbearable. It is clever enough for adults to enjoy and simple enough for children to love, and that is part and parcel of its cleverness.
If you are looking for a gift book for a child this Christmas you could do no better.