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Saturday, December 20, 2014

What Child is This? A Christmas Story, by Caroline Cooney. Random House, 1997. $7.99 ages 12 and up

"Matt was overwhelmed by the desire for Santa to be real. For Katie to have Santa. "Think little," said Pollard again, tapping his pen the way Mrs. Wrenn tapped her nails. Katie faded like an old sheet, as if she'd been washed too many times. Her hands came down slowly, and she sat on them, squishing out hope."

As we race to get the presents bought, the tree up, the house decorated, we often forget that there are many who do not share the joys of Christmas that so many expect. Today's post is about a book that I have been reading every year since it was first published. I have just done so again.

Liz Kitchell and her family appear to have everything ... wealth, power, good fortune. At the heart of it, the family is struggling to deal with the death of Liz`s niece, her sister`s baby daughter. Liz knows that she is blessed with all that she needs and more, and wishes that her family could see to help those who have little:

"The camera work was brilliant. Slowly scanning a city block, it turned joyful Christmas into pain. You could tell the hearts of the neediest were dried and split like old vinyl. Liz had the loveliest home that money could create, and thirty seconds of the neediest made her feel homeless. But Liz`s parents were not interested in the neediest. "Why should be have to look at that?" her father had said irritably. "Why can't they stick to reporting and stop laying guilt trips and demanding money?" He hit the Mute button."

Tack is one of Liz's classmates - he and his family own a local restaurant. What makes Tack happiest at Christmas time is their 'restaurant tree' where wishes are placed and hopefully, granted. Matt is another classmate -a young man whose life has been spent in one foster home after another. He is always angry and keeps mostly to himself. Matt works at the restaurant as a busboy. Matt lives with the Rowens, a tired foster couple who can cope with Matt; they are finding it difficult to also care for Katie, whose Christmas wish is a family. She knows just the one she wants:

"You'd sit on their laps, and their hugs would last and last.
Not hugs like social workers gave: quick as grades.
Hugs like mothers gave: wrapping-you-up hugs.
Hugs like father gave: hoisting-you-into-the-air and tossing-you-around hugs...

Being a foster kid was like living in a blender.  Life was always flinging you against sharp blades.
But amazingly, as Christmas approached, Matt was suddenly willing to help Katie with spelling and arithmetic.  Matt was silent but mean; mean from years of no family...and Matt helped her.
She wondered if he would let her walk with him part of the way to the restaurant when he went to work tonight.  Sometimes he did, and sometimes he would let her stop and talk about the pretty decorations people had.  Once, he had held her hand."

For the first time in all of his years in foster care, Matt has opened his heart (just a little bit) to someone else. So, when Katie states that her wish for Christmas is a family, Matt fills in a paper bell with Katie's wish, places it on the restaurant tree with a hopeful heart, and then worries that he has given her false hope.

Will the true spirit of Christmas grant eight-year-old Katie's fervent wish for a family?  It might take a miracle, but isn't that what Christmas is all about? The story is told in alternating chapters about classmates whose lives intersect at school and beyond school walls. There is hope, then heartbreak and finally, a fitting ending to a story that will capture hearts at this special time of year. 

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