written by: Steven Hornby
interior illustrations by Gabriel Hordos
published by: Ecky Thump Books, Inc., 2009
Audience (reading level): 8 to 12 (5.6 Flesch-Kincaid)
As I was decorating our Christmas tree this weekend, I kept thinking about this book. Secrets of a Christmas Box is a fantasy story where the Christmas tree’s trimmings – both ornaments and lights – come to life each night when the Fergusons (humans) have gone to sleep. I remember wondering about the secret life of ornaments as a child … and those memories came back as I pulled some very old treasures from our trunks.
In the story, Larry, an umbrella-wielding glass snowman, is searching for his brother Terrence. Terrence didn’t make it to the tree this year. For reasons unknown to the ornaments (called Tree-Dwellers), some of their family and friends don’t make it to the tree every year. It is a fact of life, but it is not enough for Larry. He wants to find Terrence. To do that means that he will be disobeying the first rule of being a Tree-Dweller: you don’t leave the tree! Under the laws sent down by the Tree-Lord, Tree-Dwellers don’t reveal themselves to anyone .. not even Santa Claus! To leave the tree means putting everyone at risk.
Splint, a new ornament on the tree, is still learning about the Tree-Lord and life as a Tree-Dweller in the Ferguson house, but he completely understands Larry’s desire to find his brother. When Mrs. Ferguson picked him from the basket at the store, he was separated from his brothers, too. Because of his own feelings – and lack of knowledge of the rules – Split offers to help Larry find his brother. Larry’s girlfriend, a deer-like elf named Debbie, tries to talk Larry out of it. She is skeptical of Splint’s motives and believes he is being reckless with all of their lives. Ultimately, she decides to go with them.
As the adventure unfolds, there are some predictable obstacles for the trio. Some they anticipated: the cat, which plays a bigger role than its owners. Debbie and Larry make it back to the tree, but Splint is trapped. In his last mad dash to get to the tree, the cat follows and, ultimately knocks over the tree. He is both a menacing threat and, ultimately (albeit unwittingly) their savior. It is the cat’s chase that helps uncover the truth about what happened to Terrence.
Hornby does a nice job creating a world that is realistic for miniature characters and fitting you into it. They are ornaments and their meals are pine needles. Some parts of the tree are sturdy, others are sparse and fragile, making them dangerous for the ornaments. The cover image of Debbie and Larry give you visuals instantly, and there are sketches throughout that add to the imagery.
This is an enjoyable read, and I can’t help but wonder if there will be a sequel. The ornaments have just discovered an unbelievable truth and are now leaderless. Will Larry emerge as a leader? And what about Splint? He has yet to find his brothers … has he found a new family or does he need to continue his search. Interesting questions that leave the reader thinking about the story.
I will admit that as an adult several things gave me pause. While I understand the timeliness as good v. evil as a literary device, I’m not sure why we need to explain (in detail) physical violence in a Christmas book. Additionally, every time Mr. and Mrs. Ferguson enter the story there are drinking. It was always one of the first things the author describes. It is not a big deal, but they are so infrequently part of the story that when they always come on stage with wine (or asks if they want more) it sticks out. Overall, the family’s dialogue is rather stilted, like watching Leave it to Beaver. I don’t know whether these things would stick out for a pre-teen/teen reader.
If you are looking for a more substantive Christmas story, this is a nice selection. It is great for kids old enough to know the truth about the magic of Christmas but who want to believe anyway. There is nothing in the story that gives away the magic, but some of the events – like rogue Christmas lights shocking Larry – aren’t for young audiences. This is a book for students in middle-school or older. The story is sophisticated enough to engage older kids still reading at a middle-school level.
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Cover image provided by Amazon.com; interior image from the Secrets of a ChristmasBox website.
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