The Christmas Mystery

Yesterday was a miserable Sunday, which I spent mainly wrapped up in bed worrying about the mouse. That’s right – the nightmare had come true. We had walked into our kitchen in the morning (and note that said kitchen is based on the second floor) only to find a tiny mouse casually sitting by the dishwasher. What was more, it didn’t seem scared of us in the slightest and literally had to be shooed away out of the front door. It doesn’t use the back door, this mouse.

Anyway, that was it. The mouse was gone, but the vision of it haunted me for the rest of the day. I nestled myself in bed, which was conveniently in the part of the flat that was furthest away from the kitchen and picked up a book which had been lying on my bedside table for months, waiting for it to be close enough to Christmas. And Jostein Gaarder’s The Christmas Mystery, rescued me at least temporarily from thoughts of the mouse. It is an absolutely amazing story, and that is said with no hint of exaggeration. It has just the right blend of adventure and wonder, as well as transporting the reader almost literally back in time to the true spirit of Christmas.

The story centres around two characters – one, Elisabeth is a girl who disappeared without a trace fifty years before from her home in Norway, having ran after a lamb. This lamb leads her on a journey across the whole of Europe through to Palestine, and also takes her back in time 2000 years to the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. She meets various characters from the nativity scene who join her on her journey and tell her wonderful tales of what has happened.

The second focal character is Joachim who lives in the Norway of the early noughties. He goes out to the shops with his father before Christmas and buys a strange advent calendar, unlike any of the others that are in the shop. Behind each of the windows, he finds a tiny piece of paper, each of which tells him a portion of Elisabeth’s story and also gives insight into the life of the strange man who made the calendar.

The chapters are titled as different days in December which makes this a great read in the run up to Christmas. It really got me feeling like a child again. It also gave me some inspiration for a potential story involving a girl who follows a mouse… but that’s for another time.

Have any of you read The Christmas Mystery or any other of Gaarder’s books? I would be interested to hear your thoughts.

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Christmas stories for children

These days there are too many of them to count. They fill the stands, spill over the bookcase shelves and festive displays at Waterstones – some with furry Santa hand puppets cleverly sewn through their middles, others with pop up presents and Rudolf noses that sing carols when you press them. We are most definitely spoilt for choice. But there is something magical about the old Christmas stories for children – the ones that have been read by the excited eyes of many generations; the ones that already have, and will continue to stand the test of time.

A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens

This remains my all-time favourite Xmas story which has been presented in many different forms on stage and screen. Mr. Scrooge will always remain in readers’ memories as the stingy, mean and grumpy old man who decides to turn his life around after a visit from three very different ghosts. It gets to the true message of Christmas, which is about focusing on other people, rather than just yourself – and the moral teaching within it will continue to ring true!

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The Little Match Girl – Hans Christian Andersen

I cried when my dad first read this to me aged 5, and I still cry when I re-read it now! A sad story that makes you think about those for whom Christmas isn’t a joyful time. The match-stick girl is freezing in the street but is afraid to go home fearing that her dad will beat her for not selling any matches. She tries to warm herself up with heat from the lighted match and sees visions of a Christmas tree and a holiday feast. Eventually her grandmother comes down from heaven to collect her, where she will no longer be hungry or poor.

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How the Grinch Stole Christmas – Dr. Seuss

A hilarious rhymed book from the author of The Cat in the Hat which criticises the commercial nature of Christmas. The Grinch is a bitter creature with a heart ‘two sizes too small’, who decides to ruin Christmas for the inhabitants of Whoville by stealing their presents, Christmas tree and log fire. But he learns from his neighbours that ‘Christmas means a little bit more’ than just the material things – it’s about laughter, joy and spending time together.

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The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus – L. Frank Baum

A lot of children want to know (I certainly did) – where does Santa Claus come from? This book, written by the author of The Wizard of Oz, gives you the answer. It tells us that Santa was a baby found abandoned in The Forest of Burzee. He was taken in and raised by fairies. Upon reaching young adulthood, the fairies decide that he must see how other mortals live – he experiences war, brutality, poverty and child cruelty. Soon he becomes known for his kind acts towards children and his fame spreads far and wide.

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The Night Before Xmas – Clement Moore

The best known Christmas rhyme ever written – still popular almost 200 years on. On Christmas Eve night, while his wife and children sleep, a man wakes up as he hears noise outdoors. Looking out the window, he sees St. Nicholas in a sleigh flying through the air and landing on the roof. He enters the house through the chimney, carrying a sack of toys with him. The man watches him filling his children’s Christmas stockings and laughing as he
wishes everyone Merry Christmas.

This is by no means a complete list. Do you have any of your own favourite classics that you would add?

Ideas from childhood – Roald Dahl

I’ve just finished reading Roald Dahl’s autobiography Boy which is written as a series of hilarious and often shocking snapshots of his childhood memories.

Having grown up loving all of his books (in particular Esio Trot which remains my all-time favourite children’s book), I was intrigued to find out where his ideas came from. Amongst the top pieces of advice for aspiring writers is that you should always carry a notebook with you, because you never know when you might get inspired by something. But Dahl didn’t begin writing until his forties and it turns out that a lot of his best ideas came from childhood.

In Boy, his description of the dirty and mean-spirited sweetshop owner Mrs. Pratchett made me immediately think of Mr. and Mrs. Twit, while his headmaster at Llandaff Cathedral School had a number of character traits that were shared by Mrs. Trunchbull in Matilda. I particularly loved the description of when Dahl and his friends are punished by the headmaster for putting a dead rat in one of Mrs. Pratchett’s sweet jars after she tells him:

“Nasty cheeky lot, these little ‘uns! They comes into my shop and they thinks they can do what they damn well likes! They put their grubby ‘ands all over everything and they’ve got no manners. I don’t mind girls. I never ‘ave no trouble with girls, but boys is ‘ideous and ‘orrible! I don’t have to tell you that, ‘Eadmaster, do I?”

Dahl’s third school , Repton, was based near the Cadbury’s factory and in Boy, he writes about the joy of receiving free sample packs of chocolate – these were sent to all the students in his school in return for their feedback on the flavours. They gave the chocolatiers insightful comments, such as:

“Too subtle for the common palate.”

No doubt this awesome experience lead to the idea for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Boy is filled with the idea-generating events from Dahl’s life and I would truly recommend it to all children’s writers. It may even remind you of some lost memories from your own childhood that could be transformed into cracking fiction.