My rating: 10/10. Pretty well perfect.
This is a story about wishing. It is also about a doll and a little girl. It begins with the doll.
Her name, of course, was Holly.
It could not have been anything else, for she was dressed for Christmas in a red dress, and red shoes, though her petticoat and socks were green.
She was ten inches high and carefully jointed; she had real gold hair, brown glass eyes, and teeth like tiny china pearls.
The newest toy in Mr. Blossom’s shop in the village of Appleton, Holly is unpacked the day before Christmas Eve, and she is apprehensive as to what will happen next. The other toys are in a state of high excitement. “We must be sold today!” they whisper to each other, before the shop opens. “Wish, wish, wish!”
“What happens if I’m not sold?” wonders Holly.
“You will be put back into stock,” hisses Abracadabra, the sinister stuffed owl who broods over the store. “It is shut up and dark, and no one will see you or disturb you. You get covered with dust, and I will be there.”
Holly quivers in despair. “I wish, wish, wish for a little girl for Christmas!”
But Christmas Eve is here, and the shop is being closed up, and Holly is still on the shelf…
Far away in the city was a big house called St Agnes’s, where thirty boys and girls had to live together, but now, for three days, they were saying ‘Goodbye’ to St Agnes’s. ‘A kind lady – or gentleman – has asked you for Christmas,’ Miss Shepherd, who looked after them all, had told them, and one by one the children were called for or taken to the train. Soon there would be no one left in the big house but Miss Shepherd and Ivy.
Ivy was a little girl, six years old with straight hair cut in a fringe, blue-grey eyes, and a turned-up nose. She had a green coat the colour of her name, and red gloves, but no lady or gentleman had asked for her for Christmas. ‘I don’t care,’ said Ivy.
Sometimes in Ivy there was an empty feeling, and the emptiness ached; it ached so much that she had to say something quickly in case she cried, and, ‘I don’t care at all,’ said Ivy.
‘You will care,’ said the last boy, Barnabas, who was waiting for a taxi. ‘Cook has gone, the maids have gone, and Miss Shepherd is going to her sister. You will care,’ said Barnabas.
‘I won’t,’ said Ivy, and she said more quickly, ‘I’m going to my grandmother.’
‘You haven’t got a grandmother,’said Barnabas. ‘We don’t have them.’ That was true. The boys and girls at St Agnes’s had no fathers and mothers, let alone grandparents.
‘But I have,’ said Ivy. ‘At Appleton.’
I do not know how that name came into Ivy’s head. Perhaps she had heard it somewhere. She said it again. ‘In Appleton.’
But Ivy is going to the Infants’ Home in the country, as Miss Shepherd must go to her sister, who has influenza. Ivy is loaded onto the train, with “a packet of sandwiches, an apple, a ticket, two shillings, and a parcel that was her Christmas present”, and on to Ivy’s coat was pinned a label with the address of the Infants’ Home.
As soon as Miss Shepherd leaves her, Ivy tears off the label and throws it out the window. ‘I’m going to my grandmother,’ she declares. ‘In Appleton.’ That is in just a few stops, a helpful lady tells her, and sure enough, as the train stops at Appleton station Ivy gets off, leaving her suitcase and her St Agnes-supplied gift – a pencil-case – on the seat, and, unnoticed by the busy ticket inspector, starts out on her quest.
Not far away, in the toyshop, Holly is wishing and wishing and crying out silently, ‘Stop. Stop. Oh, someone, stop.’ But in vain.
Only one person stopped, but it was not a boy or a girl. It was Mrs Jones, the policeman’s wife from down the street. She was passing the toyshop on her way home when Holly’s red dress caught her eye. ‘Pretty!’ said Mrs Jones and stopped.
You and I would have felt Holly’s wish at once, but Mrs Jones had no children and it was so long since she had known a doll that she did not understand; only a feeling stirred in her that she had not had for a long time, a feeling of Christmas, and when she got home she told Mr. Jones, ‘This year we shall have a tree.’
‘Don’t be daft,’ said Mr Jones, but when Mrs Jones had put her shopping away, a chicken and a small plum-pudding for her and Mr Jones’s Christmas dinner, a piece of fish for the cat, and a dozen fine handkerchiefs which were Mr Jones’s present, she went back to the market and bought some holly, mistletoe, and a Christmas tree.
The tree is decorated, but
‘Who is to look at it?’ asked Mr Jones.
Mrs Jones thought for a moment and said, ‘Christmas needs children, Albert.’ Albert was Mr Jones’s name. ‘I wonder,’ said Mrs Jones. ‘Couldn’t we find a little girl?’
‘What’s the matter with you today, my dear?’ said Mr Jones. ‘How could we find a little girl? You’re daft.’ And it was a little sadly that Mrs Jones put holly along the chimney shelf, hung mistletoe in the hall, tied a bunch of holly on the doorknocker, and went back to her housework.
Need I go on? Of course not! You know what eventually happens, don’t you? But the path to wish-fulfillment is never so straight and easy …
This is a deliciously sweet story, perfect for a reasonably accomplished independent reader of 6 or 7 or maybe a bit older (my own daughter read it happily to herself for the first time at 10) and a marvelous Read-Aloud for all ages – it’s fairly text dense, so allow at least three good long sessions.
Ivy is a grand little heroine, misguidedly stubborn and with something of a temper, which makes her eventual fate even more emotionally satisfying. And because this is a fantasy – a Christmas fantasy – we do not worry about her wandering alone through a strange village; we know that she will come to no lasting harm, though an adventure or two may befall her.
Highly recommended, for the children in your life, and for a gentle treat for yourself, too!