Pat Hutchins was a picture book genius. Her debut, Rosie’s Walk, is rightly acknowledged as a classic and is still loved by small people everywhere. But little of her other work is that well known – or even in print – including the Silver Christmas Tree.
Published in 1974, the same year that Hutchins won the Kate Greenaway medal for The Wind Blew, this is a follow up to The Surprise Party (1968), the first in a series of books about a group of animals friends, Squirrel, Rabbit, Duck, Mouse and Fox – a kinder version of the character from Rosie’s Walk.
The story is simple. Squirrel decorates his tree for Christmas.
‘He hung garlands of holly and ivy around the branches, bunches of bright red berries between the branches, and pine cones on the tips of the branches. Although it looked nice it didn’t look nice enough’.
Mistletoe, polished nuts and dried wheat follow, but still the tree is not complete. Then night falls and a silver star appears, framed perfectly over the highest branch. But when it disappears the poor chap wonders where and interrogates his friends, assuming they have take the star, wrapping it up as a present.
Of course he’s quite delusional, and when they turn up on Christmas Eve with a lot of lovely presents, all he has to offer is a tree with no star. Until the clouds part…
And the star returns, ‘bigger, brighter and more beautiful than ever.’ The artwork here is absolutely exquisite. Look at the unusual perspective in the tree, and the looming lollipop clouds.
Hutchins might’ve had red and green in her palette, but she doesn’t really try to make it look Christmassy. This Kirkus review explains that ‘Hutchins’ familiar combination of springtime freshness and fall colors is not what the usual Christmas book is made of, and even the tree is not the conventional evergreen (though its bare branches do signify winter).’
The story is played dead straight, but there is a deadpan quality to the proceedings that reminds me a lot of Jon Klassen’s Hat trilogy. We are being invited to laugh at Squirrel’s foolishness, just a little bit. The characterisation is subtle but sharp.
The Silver Christmas Tree is out of print, but her final animal stories, Rosie’s Chick and We’re Going on a Picnic are, so search them out this Christmas. Pat Hutchins’ talent shone bright and she will be missed.