Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree: A Classic Holiday Story

“Oh, wasn’t it grand to have a tree — exactly like Mr. Willowby?”

Cover of the book Mr. Willowby's Christmas Tree“One man’s rubbish may be another’s treasure,” wrote Hector Urquhart in his introduction to Popular Tales of the West Highlands. That’s the moral of Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree (public library), a delightful children’s book by Robert Barry about a Christmas tree that’s just a little too tall. First published in 1963, this endearing Christmas story continues to capture the imaginations of children everywhere.

The story begins when a giant Christmas tree is delivered to Mr. Willowby’s house. After discovering that the tree touches the ceiling, he has the top chopped off. The maid uses the treetop as her Christmas tree, but it’s a little too tall for her room, so she too cuts off the top and disposes of it. It’s a pattern that continually repeats itself until all of the characters — even the mice living in Mr. Willowby’s house — have a Christmas tree that’s the perfect size.

Mr. Willowby’s Christmas tree came by special delivery. Full and fresh and glistening green — the biggest tree he had ever seen. He dashed downstairs to open the door — this was the moment he’d waited for.

But once the tree stood in its place, Mr. Willowby made a terrible face. The tree touched the ceiling, then bent like a bow. ‘Oh, good heavens,’ he gasped. ‘Something must go!’

Artwork from the book Mr. Willowby's Christmas Tree

Artwork from the book Mr. Willowby's Christmas Tree

Cover of the book Mr. Willowby's Christmas Tree

There’s something both touching and hilarious about the unwitting gifting of the treetop. Every character who chops off the treetop throws it away as trash, and every character who finds it considers it a great gift that was bestowed upon them. The thought-provoking progression of events may prompt children to reexamine their definition of “trash.”

Benjamin Rabbit found it then just outside the Foxes’ den. ‘It seems,’ he thought, ‘most certainly, Santa left that for my family.’

‘Look,’ he cried, ‘see the tree I found!’ With that he called his family round. Then there was a merrymaking, rollicking, frolicking, carrot-shaking celebration around the tree. All were as happy as rabbits can be.

Artwork from the book Mr. Willowby's Christmas Tree

Artwork from the book Mr. Willowby's Christmas Tree

Artwork from the book Mr. Willowby's Christmas Tree

Of course, all good things must come to an end, and so it is with the treetop. The book ends with the mice living in Mr. Willowby’s house — the last recipients of the remaining treetop and, believe it or not, for whom it’s just the right size. They put a star made out of cheese on top.

When the holidays roll around, you simply can’t go wrong with a story as good as Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree. This is one book that will remain a staple in every child’s Christmas book collection. Complement with ScarecrowCynthia Rylant’s book that celebrates the intricacies of life from a scarecrow’s perspective, then revisit Finding Winnie, a children’s book that tells the true story of the actual bear that inspired the character of Winnie the Pooh.

Joseph Wood Krutch on the Importance of Personal Integrity in Troubled Times

“The time may come when you lose hope for the world, but it need never come when you lose hope for yourself.”

Cover of A Krutch Omnibus“Nothing can be affected but by one man,” wrote Henry David Thoreau. “We must first succeed alone, that we may enjoy our success together.” Of course, Thoreau’s celebration of the individual runs counter to the prevailing logic of our age. As a society, we believe that collaboration and teamwork are of paramount importance, and that we need to cooperate to accomplish anything great.

But society is little help when it comes to developing our own personal ethics, morals, and philosophical beliefs — the building blocks and sustenance for self-identity, personal integrity, and self-respect. When it comes to creating a sense of self, young adults have to start from scratch, and they have to do it alone.

The great American writer, naturalist, and literary critic Joseph Wood Krutch (November 25, 1893 — May 22, 1970) addressed this topic in a commencement speech delivered at the University of Arizona on June 1, 1960 and later published in A Krutch Omnibus (public library). “I will assume the privilege of a commencement speaker to give advice,” he told the audience before sharing his fascinating views on the cultivation of personal integrity and self-respect. His timeless message is ripe for rediscovery in a world increasingly defined by materialism and relativism.

Joseph Wood Krutch
Joseph Wood Krutch

Krutch cautions young adults against doing what everybody else does, thereby diluting their integrity.

Do not be so exclusively concerned with society and social conditions as to forget your own condition. You are your own self and you cannot shift the responsibility for that self to world conditions, or social conditions, or the mores of your civilization. That you cannot shift this responsibility is your burden. It is also your ultimate resource.

The time may come when you lose hope for the world, but it need never come when you lose hope for yourself. Do not say ‘I will do what everybody else does.’ Be, if necessary, a lonely candle which can throw its beams far in a naughty world. And I say this not only because I think that in the end that is best for society. I say it first of all because I’m sure it is the best and happiest course for yourself. If you must be pessimistic about the world, if you must believe that society is corrupt, then do not see in that any reason why you should be corrupt. Be scornful of the world if you must, but base your scorn on the difference between yourself and that world which you think deserves your scorn.

You will be told that you risk thinking yourself wiser and better than the common run of men. I hold that this, too, is preferable to being content not even to try to be better and wiser and more honest than they are.

Krutch also warns about the intoxicating appeal of “money, power and fame,” the pursuit of which can rob young adults of their personal self-satisfaction.

You may think that personal integrity and self-respect are not what you want more than anything else. You may say to yourself that putting them first would make it too difficult to get along in the world and that you want to get along in the world; that you would rather have money, power and fame than personal self-satisfaction. You may even say that you want money, power and fame so that you can ‘do good in the world.’ But if you do say any of these things, you will be making an unwise choice. You will be surrendering something which cannot be taken away from you to gain something which can be taken away from you and which, as a matter of fact, very often is.

We hear it said frequently that what present-day men most desire is security. If that is so, then they have a wrong notion of what the real, the ultimate, security is. No one who is dependent on anything outside himself — upon money, power, fame or whatnot — is, or even can be, secure. Only he who possesses himself and is content with himself is actually secure. Too much is being said about the importance of ‘adjustment’ and ‘participation in the group.’ Even cooperation — to give this thing its most favorable designation — is no more important than the ability to stand alone when the choice must be made between the sacrifice of one’s own integrity and adjustment to, or participation in, group activity.

Complement this particular part of the fascinating A Krutch Omnibus with The Butter Battle Book by Dr. Seuss, then revisit Thunder Boy Jr., Sherman Alexie’s children’s book about the search for self-identify.

Kitten’s First Full Moon: A Lighthearted Lesson in Learning

A kitten sets out in search of the moon and is surprised to find something entirely different, but what she discovers is immensely satisfying all the time.

Cover of Kitten's First Full Moon“Let your kids find their way,” counseled Barney Saltzberg, the author of Beautiful Oops!, a deeply imaginative book that teaches children it’s okay to make mistakes. The idea that we need to provide children with space to learn and freedom to fail is not new. But all kids can use some gentle reassurance that the mistakes they’re making are an essential part of learning.

Kitten’s First Full Moon (public library) by Kevin Henkes provides that reassurance in the form of a silly story about a kitten who tries to drink the moon. Kitten tries licking and chasing the moon, but she’s continually met with failure after failure. It’s a playful reminder that learning — and the inevitable mistakes that come with it — isn’t always easy.

Kitten first sees the moon when she’s standing on the house porch. The black and white illustrations that complement the story are a bold touch.

It was Kitten’s first full moon. When she saw it, she thought, There’s a little bowl of milk in the sky. And she wanted it. So she closed eyes and stretched her neck and opened her mouth and licked. But Kitten only ended up with a bug on her tongue. Poor Kitten!

Artwork from the book Kitten's First Moon

Artwork from the book Kitten's First Moon

Artwork from the book Kitten's First Moon

The book is full of Kitten’s mishaps, which escalate and eventually land her head-first in a pond. But the story ends on a high note when Kitten returns home and finds a big bowl of milk on the porch. That you can always return home for comfort and consolation is a powerful lesson for children.

This is a story of serendipity. Kitten sets out in search of the moon and is surprised to find something entirely different. What she discovers is immensely satisfying all the time.

Then, in the pond, Kitten saw another bowl of milk. And it was bigger. What night!

So she raced down the tree and raced through the grass and raced to the edge of the pond. She leaped with all her might — Poor Kitten! She was wet and sad and tired and hungry.

So she went back home — and there was a great big bowl of milk on the porch, just waiting for her. Lucky Kitten!

Artwork from the book Kitten's First Moon

Artwork from the book Kitten's First Moon

The book Kitten's First Moon

The story and the illustrations are elegant in their simplicity, as is the implicit message. What kitten loses to failure, she gains in knowledge. In the process, she discovers that mistakes are essential to learning.

On his website, Henkes discusses the book’s humble origins.

The story began as part of a failed attempt at creating a young concept book about circles. There was one line from the manuscript that I like: ‘The cat thought the moon was a bowl of milk.’ This line stuck in the back of my mind. I expanded upon it to write Kitten’s First Full Moon.

All along I saw the book in my mind as a black-and-white book. I’d long wanted to do a book with limited or no color, and for the first time, I’d written a story that seemed just right for this approach.

The text is simple and young, and so I wanted the art to be simple, too. I liked the idea of having a white cat, a white moon, and a white bowl of milk surrounded by the night.

Kitten’s First Full Moon is a beautiful children’s book that deserves a spot on every child’s bookshelf. Winner of the Caldecott Medal, this timeless story will no doubt be treasured for generations to come. Complement with Scarecrowa book that celebrates life from a scarecrow’s perspective.