Today I wanted to give a shout out to my very favorite Christmas book of all time. No, it isn’t How the Grinch Stole Christmas (she says with some guilt and an apology to that wonderful classic and to Dr. Seuss himself); it’s The Red Ranger Came Calling, by Berkeley Breathed.
I was as surprised as any fan of Opus the Penguin and Bill the Cat to find a Berke Breathed book that centered on, well, human beings. But loving Bloom County, I picked it up to thumb through it. The book passed both of my tests for successful picture books: it brought me both tears and chills in the middle of the bookstore. Wiping away the tears, I hurried to the counter and bought it immediately. I’ve read it a gazillion times to classrooms, friends and individual students, and I wipe away tears every time.
The book is a wonderful piece of family folklore. Told in the first person, the main character is the boy who would grow up to be Breathed’s father. Breathed’s love for his father and his childhood experience of wonder listening to this story infuse the book with a palpable aura of joy.
The first-person narrative nails the voice of a cranky, curmudgeonly little boy raised during the Depression, trying desperately not to feel any more disappointment than his already cynical self has experienced. Breathed manages to layer in the perspective of a wiser, older self reflecting back on the story without minimizing or patronizing his young narrator at all.
The story centers on said curmudgeonly little boy’s adventures to disprove the existence of Santa Claus, in particular to expose a fake whom locals claim is the Real Deal. After all, the boy explains, “It took folks far more fruity than the Red Ranger of Mars to be tricked into believing such twaddle. Like many my age, I knew that Santa Claus and the tooth fairy and the Easter Bunny were just that many more promises hatched by those who weren’t very good at keeping any.”
The rich illustrations glow with magic. They match and magnify the tone of the narration perfectly. Half the fun of reading the book comes from giving voice to the main character. The other half comes from letting kids study the evocative pictures. The combination makes The Red Ranger one of my favorite read alouds.
To say that the boy discovers the true meaning of Christmas would be too clichéd to mean much, but I will tell you that he gains a new understanding of faith, belief and love, and just what those untrustworthy grown-ups are really trying to express with their twaddle. And as he does so, I can promise you that (if you are anything like me) you’ll find yourself wiping away tears and chills each time you reread this book to those you love.