Savour a magical retelling of the Christmas story, seen through the eyes of a young shepherd boy, in this beautifully poignant and atmospheric tale from well-loved children’s author, Michael Morpurgo, illustrated by Quentin Blake.
It’s a well known story. A humble stable, a holy couple, a newborn baby in a manger and a bright star shining brilliantly above. Most are also familiar with the scenario of the shepherds watching their flocks at night – and some may even be inclined to burst into the opening lines of the traditional carol – when an angel appears and invites them to visit the newborn baby in Bethlehem.
This is the basic premise of Morpurgo’s retelling, but with a twist. The story focuses on the disgruntled young shepherd boy who is left behind to mind the flock while his father and older brothers follow the star. But then the young boy is also invited by the archangel Gabriel to visit with a very special mode of transport – to travel On Angel Wings – and becomes the very first visitor to the newborn Christ child.
Master storyteller Morpurgo is brilliantly adroit at bringing a human side to his tales, never glossing over real or raw emotions, while Quentin Blake’s glorious watercolours are so evocative that you can almost see sparks fly when the shepherds poke their crook in the fire.
The real beauty of this retelling is that it is not sanctimonious, yet it exudes a quiet peacefulness. Children will identify with the shepherd boy who feels miffed at being left behind, with his plaintive yells of “It’s not fair!” then rejoice in his wonder at being chosen for such a special privilege.
Despite his angelic credentials, Gabriel has a very human warmth that calms the shepherd’s understandable fright when he first appears, with a very colloquial “I’m sorry to drop in on you unexpectedly like this. It must be an awful shock.” And don’t expect stuffy, formal language from Gabriel either: he speaks with surprising modernity as he invites the young lad to join him on a jaunt to Bethlehem and promises ‘We could be there and back, lickety split, and no one would know.’
Meanwhile, Quentin Blake’s illustrations lend a romantic aura, with his seemingly casual, scraggy brush strokes evoking just the right atmosphere. As befits a night-time tale, colours are subdued, but there are flashes of brilliant gold around the Angel Gabriel. The Bethlehen stable is dimly lit, with Mary, Joseph and a few animals appearing out of the soft greyness, while a smiling baby Jesus – looking remarkably alert for being just hours old – is radiant in a warm, yellowish glow.
The story is told in flashback, with the shepherd boy, now a grandfather, telling the story to his grandchildren, which cleverly brings familiar family dynamics to the story. There is a certain amount of disbelief from the children as they listen to their grandfather, and yet they are also enchanted by his wondrous tale and love to hear their grandfather tell it. Like many family traditions – and we know how children love routine and familiarity – it wouldn’t be Christmas without it.
The children have a wonderful sense of innocence, which is tempered by their playful banter; they are on that precarious cusp of wanting to believe, but also not wanting to be seen as gullible or naive. It is the same sense of childlike hesitation that children of a certain age have about Father Christmas: is he real or not? In this case, the children want to believe their grandfather’s magical story, and yet they tell themselves the story is “too improbable, too fantastical.”
But then, something most magical happens…
Author notes Michael Morpurgo is, in his own words, “oldish, married with three children, and a grandfather six times over.” Born in 1943, he attended schools in London, Sussex and Canterbury before attending London University to study English and French, followed by a step into the teaching profession and a job in a primary school in Kent. It was there that he discovered what he wanted to become a writer. One of the UK’s best-loved authors and storytellers, Michael was appointed Children’s Laureate in May 2003 and awarded an OBE for services to Literature in the Queen’s Birthday Honours in 2007. He has written well over one hundred books, including Kensuke’s Kingdom, Private Peaceful and War Horse. War Horse was adapted for the stage by the National Theatre, winning rave reviews and numerous awards including five Tony Awards in the US. The film version of War Hose by Steven Spielberg was released in 2012.
Born in 1932, Sir Quentin Saxby Blake is an English cartoonist, illustrator and children’s writer. After having his first satirical drawing published in Punch magazine at the age of 16, Blake read English Literature at Downing College, Cambridge, and later studied part-time at the Chelsea School of Art and Camberwell College of Art. He gained a teaching diploma at the Institute of Education before working at the Royal College of Art for over twenty years, where he was head of the Illustration department. Blake has illustrated over 320 books, of which he has written 35. He is best known for his illustrations of Roald Dahl’s well-loved titles. Other collaborations include William Steig, the creator of Shrek, and Dr. Seuss (In 1974, Blake provided the illustrations for Great Day for Up!, the first Seuss book that “Seuss” did not illustrate himself. More recently, he illustrated David Walliams’s first and second books, The Boy in the Dress and Mr Stink. For his lasting contribution as a children’s illustrator, he won the biennial, international Hans Christian Andersen Award in 2002, the highest recognition available to creators of children’s books. From 1999 to 2001, he was the inaugural British Children’s Laureate.