It simply wouldn't be Christmas morning without hearing the sound of her voice. We would gather in the living room sitting on the floor in front of an old cabinet-size radio and record player unit. A melody from an orchestra would introduce the beginning and softly provide background music as Loretta Young, an American actress, read The Littlest Angel written by Charles Tazewell.
For decades this was the only version of the story we knew. About fifteen years ago I was able to obtain a print edition illustrated by Sergio Leone (text copyright 1946). It along with the recording provided the basis for a children's sermon I gave on a Christmas Eve.
For those of you unfamiliar with the story, a new angel,
...exactly four years, six months, five days, seven hours and forty-two minutes of age...
is residing in the heavenly hosts. He may be among angels but he acts exactly like a boy his age living on Earth. The Understanding Angel asks him what he misses most. His reply is a box of treasures left under his bed.
On the day of the birth of Jesus Christ the only gift this angel has to give is his most prized possession from home, a worn and battered wooden box filled with items from his boyhood. He is humbled and tearful when he places it with the other glittering presents left by the other angels. To the littlest angel's surprise the voice of God proclaims it as the gift which pleases him most. It is raised into the night sky to become the Christmas Star shining over the stable in Bethlehem.
This year a story of another small angel is presented to readers. Star Bright: A Christmas Story (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing Division, September 30, 2014) written by Alison McGhee with illustrations by Peter H. Reynolds opens with big news. Like leaves falling from trees, paper announcements drift through the heavens reading,
The Herald GOOD NEWS Prince of Peace on His Way
It was the end of December, and a baby was soon to be born.
Angels are beside themselves with joy. On Earth presents are being gathered by men of wisdom. A new angel, a small girl, wants to find a gift too. She thinks as hard as she can about those things a baby likes.
First she thinks of light breezes, gentle drops of rain and soothing songs. These she cannot give. They don't belong to her; they don't come from her.
As she peers out at the cosmos its sheer size makes her feel tiny in comparison. Even with the light of celestial bodies there is a lot of darkness. Sometimes the dark can make you feel alone. Sometimes the dark can make you feel lost.
Not only do you feel lost, you might be literally lost; unable to locate familiar signposts. With that thought she knows what she can give to the baby. With that thought she closes her eyes, opens her wings and soars.
Her sentences are simple but bring us wonder with her words, lovely visual images. Alison McGhee speaks to the child, the child in all of us regardless of our age. How many times have you stood beneath the night sky gazing up at the countless stars spread across your view? Everything seems to float away so it is only you and the stars. This is what the little girl angel is sensing and we are kin to her in this. McGhee brings her innocence to the page and her desire to help those in need. Here is a sample passage.
Rain to cool the baby's skin.
Rain to fill the puddles.
But rain was the gift of the clouds.
The predominant use of purple in the illustrations rendered in pen, ink and watercolor then enhanced digitally by Peter H. Reynolds conveys the significance of the story. It is also reminiscent of the sudden breathtaking colors seen in the sky as the day ends and twilight shifts into night. On the front of the matching dust jacket and cover the newest angel sees the three well-known travelers from her celestial perch. On the back, in a new picture with a white background amid swirls of watercolor at the top and bottom, she is again on her pedestal looking upward this time. The words beneath her read
One very small angel.
One very important baby
about to be born.
One very special gift
to be given...
Red opening and closing endpapers represent the warmth of this story. On the initial title page Reynolds acquaints us with this angel as she reaches out to grasp one of the announcements. On the formal title page she stands on a platform, a ladder reaching skyward amid clouds tinged in shades of purple.
All of the images span across two pages. Barefoot and wearing a three-piece suit like the other angels, Reynolds does give this very special being some additional items. She is wearing an old style aviator helmet with goggles and a scarf around her neck. (I may be drawing parallels where they are not intended but truthfully I am reminded of brave women airplane pilots of the past. This little angel has a selfless spirit, a willingness to fly into the unknown for the sake of others.)
Of particular interest is the means this angel has to give vision to her thoughts; computer-like monitors are attached to various circular pedestals among the clouds. This adds a bit of extra light-heartedness to the pictures. Each of the Earthly scenes is done with attention to the realistic landscape but reverence to the events.
One of my favorite visuals is of the angel thinking about giving rain as a gift. In this, as in the two others, the background is entirely white. We are closer to her than in any other picture. Her eyes are closed as her extended hands reach out to feel the drops of water. There is pure peace to be seen in this illustration.
Whether you are familiar with The Littlest Angel or not, this book, Star Bright: A Christmas Story written by Alison McGhee with illustrations by Peter H. Reynolds is one of the most beautiful narratives I have ever read about the origin of the Christmas Star. It is not about the giving of something but the gift of self. You will want to add it to your collection of Christmas titles making the reading of it a yearly tradition.
Please follow the links embedded in Alison McGhee's and Peter H. Reynolds' names to access their websites. At the publisher's website are more illustrations from this title including my favorite.
Wishing each of you a very Merry Christmas! May your life be guided by the gift of a single brilliant star.