The cover of this touching does not show up well right here, but I guarantee the illustrations by Bagram Ibatoulline are a perfect match to Kate DiCamillo's tale of a young girl whose actions bring the true meaning of Christmas to life. Style of car and clothes and even the fact that the little girl and her mother appear to live in an apartment alone in the city suggest that the time period is World War II. One winter day the girl notices an organ grinder and his monkey across the street and she begins to wonder about the pair. (When I read this story to first and second graders, I needed to explain what an organ grinder was). Then it begins to snow and she wonders where the strangers go at night. Her mother brushes the concern off saying they must have a home where they go. Still curious, the little girl gets up in the middle of the night and looks across the dimly lit street. There beneath the lamp is the organ grinder, standing in the snow, with the monkey tucked into his jacket. He sees the girl and extends a wave of his hat (that is the book cover). Even from the distance, she is sure his eyes are sad. In the morning, she even asks her mother if they can invite them to supper. Of course, her mother tells her that such an invitation would be impossible because the man is a stranger.
As the little girl gets ready for her Christmas pageant at church her mind is still on the street pair, so when she and her mother begin their walk to the nearby church, she runs across to the old man and tells him that he is welcome at church, that she will be playing an angel. Later, at church, the nervous little girl almost forgets her important line -- until she sees her new friend and his monkey enter the church, then she shouts out her line. It is the ending illustration that shows "Great Joy" in action as the man is welcomed by the congregation, no longer a stranger.
This story is a simple illustration of the commandment to love one another and it would be a great addition to a season of family stories. Kate DiCamillo has written some of the best "chapter" books for third-fifth graders published in the last eight years. You might have seen the movies Tale of Desperaux and Because of Winn Dixie, both based on her books. And if you have an early reader in the family, make sure they discover the stories of Mercy Watson, a delightful pet pig who LOVES buttered toast.