Thursday, December 17, 2015

Miracle on 133rd Street, written by Sonia Manzano and illustrated by Marjorie Priceman

In Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present walk the streets of London on Christmas day.  In the midst of a central London marketplace, revelers shop for their holiday dinners.  As they make their way, Dickens writes:
The sight of these poor revellers appeared to interest the Spirit very much, for he stood with Scrooge beside him in a baker's doorway, and taking off the covers as their bearers passed, sprinkled incense on their dinners from his torch. And it was a very uncommon kind of torch, for once or twice when there were angry words between some dinner-carriers who had jostled each other, he shed a few drops of water on them from it, and their good humour was restored directly. For they said, it was a shame to quarrel upon Christmas Day. And so it was. God love it, so it was.
In time the bells ceased, and the bakers were shut up; and yet there was a genial shadowing forth of all these dinners and the progress of their cooking, in the thawed blotch of wet above each baker's oven; where the pavement smoked as if its stones were cooking too.
“Is there a peculiar flavour in what you sprinkle from your torch.” asked Scrooge.
“There is. My own.”
“Would it apply to any kind of dinner on this day.” asked Scrooge.
“To any kindly given. To a poor one most.”
“Why to a poor one most?” asked Scrooge.
“Because it needs it most.”
Your Correspondent was reminded of this wonderful moment while reading the new book by Sesame Street star Sonia Manzano, Miracle on 133rd Street.  Energetically illustrated by Marjorie Priceman, Miracle tells the story of Jose and his family’s holiday dinner.  Jose and his Mami are preparing the Christmas roast, but their oven is too small for the meat.
In an inspired moment, Jose thinks that they can take the roast to the local pizza parlor, and cook it there.  As Jose and his Papi walk through their 133rd Street apartment building, they pass children fighting, scared shut-ins, arguing neighbors, and other challenges to urban life.  Outside, they tramp through the snow, passing a desperate Christmas-tree salesman and finally comforting a grouching pizza-pusher.
However, hours later after the roast has been cooked, Jose and Papi finally become holiday pied pipers as the pizza man, tree salesman and all manner of troubled apartment dwellers follow them home, beguiled by the delicious aroma of Christmas dinner.
Suddenly, the apartment that Jose’s Mami thought was too small is now just right for a holiday gathering. 
Though simple in its plot and execution, Miracle on 133rd Street is complex in its themes and approach.  This is not a tale to sugarcoat the many challenges immigrants (in Jose’s case, Puerto Ricans) have in assimilating in inner cities; nor does it paint a picture of blanket good will during the holidays as a given.  Instead, Manzano demonstrates how simple creature comforts, a warm and loving environment and reaching out to people are more than enough to generate Christmas spirit.
The illustrations by Marjorie Priceman have a madcap, energetic quality.  Like much modern art, perspective is flattened and bright (almost neon) colors pile one-atop another, as if Priceman was channeling Chagall for children.  They are a perfect accompaniment to the text, and the resulting paring is something like music.

Better still, Manzano and Priceman have created a picture book that will inspire children to cherish their homes, their friends and their communities.  It is a delightful tale reminding us that we are all going through life together, and there is no better time to share our common humanity than at Christmas.  Highly recommended.

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