A little girl notices an organ grinder and his monkey sleeping on the freezing city streets, and just can’t get them out of her mind. Great Joy, by Kate DiCamillo, sends a powerful message of caring and tolerance for the holidays, and all throughout the year.
Some books are dripping with emotion. As unsubtle as a Lifetime Christmas special, they will reliably have the tears trickling down my cheeks by the halfway point. The absolutely lovely Someday, by Alison McGhee, fits this bill. (See my earlier post about books that make me cry.)
And then there are the ones that wrench your emotions in a way you can’t quite explain. Great Joy packs an unbelievably poignant punch without a bit of sentimentality. I just love, love, love this book.
What makes it special? The emotion comes at the very end and takes you by surprise. The whole book is quiet and somewhat wistful, even haunting, and you don’t have any sense that something amazing is going to happen. And then, when it does, it just slays you.
What else do I love about it? The way Kate DiCamillo lets the illustrator help tell the story. She doesn’t waste her words. She’s wordy and descriptive when it counts (she tells us several times that the monkey’s little vest is shiny green; this is important), but on several occasions she intentionally keeps her prose spare, letting the beautiful illustrations fill in the blanks of the plot. The very last spread has no words but tells the joyful conclusion; you can easily spend a few minutes looking at it.
Did I mention the beautiful illustrations by Bagram Ibatouilline? They have an ethereal yet detailed vintage quality. Although DiCamillo never specifies the era, the illustrations suggest the 1950s—that most American and Normal Rockwellish of decades.
Another reason I love it? It seems like a departure for Kate DiCamillo. I think it’s her only picture book, and it has a quieter, gentler voice than we usually see from her. Add it to your holiday picture book list!