**EDITED: Barefoot Books rep Liz Hughes just let us know that she has a few copies of this out-of-print book available! Email her at Liz@ReadingBarefootinBoston.com if you're interested!!**
Today is Day 4 of our 12 Days of Christmas Picture Book countdown. I chose today's book because of a conversation I had with Sprout not long ago. On a visit to the grocery store, he stopped dead in front of a big display of poinsettias. "What are these flowers?" he wanted to know, and I told him. Then he asked "Why are they for Christmas?". Well, that I didn't know the answer to, but told him I'd try to find out. And lo and behold, as with so many other things, the answer is available in a picture book.
Actually there are a few books about this legend, a story from Mexico that is told in various versions but has the same basic origins. Joanne Oppenheim's take, The Miracle of the First Poinsettia, tells of a young girl named Juanita who lives in a village in the mountains. Juanita's family has fallen on some hard times, and there's no money for the usual Christmas festivities and gifts. Juanita manages to come up with some small gifts for her siblings. But when it's time to visit the church, Juanita is embarrassed that she has nothing to give the baby Jesus on this special day. Ashamed, Juanita hides outside the church - but then the stone angel speaks to Juanita, telling her to gather the weeds that grow around the angel's base and carry them into the church. A bewildered Juanita does as she's told, and to her astonishment the weeds have turned into beautiful red flowers, the ones we today know as poinsettias.
Unfortunately this version is out of print (please, Barefoot Books, won't you bring it back??), but it's worth finding from a used bookstore or library, for lots of reasons. For one, the illustrations by Fabian Negrin are just breathtaking. The color palette he employs is really perfect for the tone of the story, evoking the mystery and wonder that surrounds the holiday. I also love that though Juanita's family is poor, there are no noticeable differences between them and the other worshipers - they aren't dressed in rags and they aren't beggars. Oppenheim's use of Spanish throughout the story is another welcome addition. A glossary included at the back gives the meaning of any unfamiliar words, so that the text flows without the distraction of translations. And an author's note discusses the story's origins and the author's personal connection.
This title's a little long for the younger set - best used with preschool and up, I think, which means there are plenty of chances to talk about what happens to Juanita. If you're looking for a book that explores the deeper meaning of the holiday, of why we give gifts and how Christmas is much more than just accumulation of material goods, The Miracle of the First Poinsettia is well worth hunting for.
The Miracle of the First Poinsettia by Joanne Oppenheim, published by Barefoot Books
Sample: "From all over the village, people made their way to the church. Juanita followed her parents who carried the little ones with them. But at the doorway Juanita stopped. She did not go in. How could she go into the church with nothing -- not even a candle to place at the altar?"