If you grew up in the 80s you'll remember how Scooby Doo was ruined for a generation of children by the addition of an irritating, wise cracking puppy called Scrappy Doo. Bringing new sidekicks into a long running series is usually a sign of desperation and artistic bankruptcy. So I did have to wonder about a retelling of the Christmas story featuring a brand new pint-sized donkey.
Luckily the donkey in A Christmas Story isn't likely to be voiced by Justin Beiber in a Dreamworks animation anytime soon. Author Brian Wildsmith wouldn't stand for it. His donkey is a rather solemn young thing, and Wildsmith an artist of the highest standing. He's responsible, so it says here, for setting the picture book world alive in 1962 with his ground-breaking ABC, which was the first to give the image as much prominence as the text. He preceded the breakthrough success of Maurice Sendak, John Burningham and Eric Carle and even has his own museum in Japan, attracting millions of fans.
Funny then that until a few months ago I'd never heard of Brian Wildsmith. I probably did read his stuff as a child, but nothing stuck. He barely figures in Julia Eccleshare's 1001 Children's Books and I think it's fair to say that he's not really given due prominence in the UK.
When I joined Pinterest earlier this year his work suddenly began appearing. A lot. Even in this very reduced form his mastery of colour and expression jumped out. So I ordered up his ABC and the amazing Favourite Fables, and was duly blown away.
A Christmas Story follows a little donkey whose mother has taken Mary and Joseph off to the Bethlehem maternity unit. Like all responsible pet owners, the Nazareths get a young neighbour Rebecca to feed their donkey while they're away.
But they hadn't banked on little donkey being a talking creature. And a persuasive one at that. Soon he has led Rebecca and a small green eyed cat all over the Holy land, paying a visit to some of your seasonal favourites like Gabriel and Herod along the way.
Finally, with shepherds and kings in hot pursuit they make it to an inn with a handily signposted stable. And lo did Jesus make some brand new friends that day in Rebecca of Nazareth, and her persuasive donkey.
This facetious commentary possibly belittles just what a beautiful book A Christmas Story is. Like much of his work the text is kept to the bare minimum letting the pictures tell the story – and more. As Brian explains this was something of an innovation.
'Before ABC the text was the most important thing and pictures would just accompany it, diagrammatically explaining what was going on in the words. But I could limit my text so the illustrations explained what actually happened. And not just the physical event of what was happening, but the vision of the people or the animals or the landscape around them. I was expressing in colour the wonder and beauty of the world in which we live, which had never happened before, and would have been difficult to explain in words for children.'
Plus there's loads of gold. Which is always brilliant in books.
Next Christmas I'm going to get hold of his other Christmas books, including A Christmas Journey. This companion piece follows a Great Dane on a mysterious journey to meet the baby Jesus, accompanied by his dopey teenage owner…
Come back tomorrow when I'll be comparing Michael Morpurgo to Wacky Races.