Reviewed by Gerard Healy
A delightful children’s story by Jackie French, with illustrations by Bruce Whatley. Here we have a family droving cattle along the dusty back-blocks of Australia on Christmas Eve, 1932. Young Joey, the son, wonders if Santa will find them, while his older sister Ellie knows that it could be difficult this year.
There’s a good chance that most modern city kids would have little idea of droving or what Australia was like in 1932, when the Great Depression was hitting everyone hard. So in a sense, this is a story about a far-away land and a long forgotten time, but some things remain constant. The desire of parents and carers to make Christmas special is ever-present, as is the need for social connection at any time of the year.
In a strange way, Covid-19 restrictions have reintroduced some of the distance barriers between us these last two years. Families haven’t been able to get together for celebrations, especially across state borders. So the 1930s family travelling along the bush tracks by themselves is strangely like some isolated families of today. We can usually call and zoom each other but it’s no substitute for physical contact.
While there are five human characters in this yarn, two are pivotal. The young son Joey is one and the gruff old widower Bill the other. Joey seems like a born optimist and he’s banking on Christmas being the traditional rite of presents, good food and a tree. He’s too young to understand that circumstances have changed and it will be much harder to have those things this year. However when he and his sister meet Bill, something changes in the old man. The pivot is the realisation of what his late wife would have wished for. The treatment of her death was sensitively done with the drawing of the gravestone and Joey’s innocent questioning of the old man about who was Rosie.
Ellie the sister plays an intermediary role between the innocence of Joey and the grimmer reality of their parents’ world. Life on the road must have been a struggle with the drought ever-present and most people facing the harsh winds of the Depression. The dad seems a mere shadow of a character with only a few lines of dialogue, while the mum gets a slightly enlarged role as chief care-giver and cook. There’s no mention of schooling so presumably they’re taking a long break.
Jackie French uses some sophisticated vocabulary in this story: road verges; the dust-dappled dirt; …gathered like castles in the sky and new, plaited leather belts. For a child to be able to read and understand such language independently, they would probably be in middle primary at least. This makes the suggested age range of 3+ rather optimistic and heavily dependent on adult support for this younger cohort. The adult would probably have to explain some of the historical and cultural aspects of the 1930s as well. No real worries, it’s always a given that children’s books are better when shared.
The other subtle aspect of the writing is the way French hints at how Santa will be able to find the two children in their isolated place. Older children may pick up on the clues, such as the macadamia nuts looking like the ones they passed on the road a few weeks earlier. In another sense, the stern old widower Bill turns into a Santa-like figure with his generous offers to the family. Slight shades of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.
I found some of the faces drawn by Bruce Whatley a little amateurish to be honest. For example, the features of the brother and sister characters’ faces could be switched without making a difference I thought. However, the overall effect of the illustrations transmitted the ideas in the text quite well.
For younger children, I would certainly recommend this book for families to share at Christmas time. As a gift idea for a child at middle Primary age it would be most suitable.
Jackie French AM is a well-respected Australian writer who was the 2014-15 Australian Children’s Laureate and the 2015 Senior Australian of the Year. She was born in Sydney in 1953 and grew up on the outskirts of Brisbane. She has won over 60 awards here and abroad and describes herself as dyslexic. As well as being a patron of literacy programs across Australia she also has a soft spot for wombats, having written the very popular Diary of a Wombat (2002).
Bruce Whatley was born in Wales in 1954 and worked in advertising in London. He has written and/ or illustrated over 90 books, starting with The Ugliest Dog in the World (1992). He began a successful collaboration with Jackie French with Diary of a Wombat (2002) and was awarded a Ph D in 2008 for his work on using your non-dominant hand to illustrate with. His last three books have been done this way.
Christmas Always Comes
by Jackie French (writer) and Bruce Whatley (illustrator)
Harper Collins Australia
32pp; $24.99 (HB)