Joanne Oppenheim, illustrated by Fabian Negrin, The Miracle of the First Poinsettia: A Mexican Christmas Story (Barefoot Books, 2003)

I am a librarian and a book review editor, so people are resigned to the fact that I'll be sending them books for Christmas. Since I have one son, three godchildren and an ever-growing scurry of nieces and nephews, I get to look through childrens' books every year. Usually I steer clear of the ones with specifically "Christmas" themes, because it seems that most of the stories have been told and retold world without end.

This lovely picture book by Joanne Oppenheim and Fabian Negrin; however, got in under my radar. And I'm glad. The Miracle of the First Poinsettia is based on a very old Mexican legend. Like many old legends, the story is similar to other stories of its kind. The main character is a poor little girl (like the Little Drummer Boy) who has no gift to bring to the Christ Child on Christmas Eve at the Midnight Mass. Her name is Juanita, which is the Mexican equivalent of "Jane" — it's an Everychild name. She's the folk hero, the child who has nothing but the purity of her heart and her courage; it's these qualities, time and again, that open the space in the folk hero's life for a miracle.

Given such a common, often-heard story, we need something special to set it apart for us. Oppenheim and Negrin give us that special something here. Oppenheim tells the tale (which she says she originally encountered as a three sentence story while she was researching Christmas celebrations around the world) in simple but evocative words. She sprinkles it liberally with Spanish exclamations and endearments, which increase the reader's immersion in Juanita's small Mexican town (and for those who don't know Spanish and can't figure out the meanings by context, there's a glossary in the back). And she inserts into the plot all sorts of details to make the small town come alive: the nine days of posadas, involving the joyful singing of Christmas carols, leading up to Christmas Eve; the piñatas hanging in the market stalls; and the enthusiastic music of the mariachis, who traditionally lead the townspeople into the church for Midnight Mass on la Noche Buena (literally "the Beautiful Night"), Christmas Eve.

Fabian Negrin has been rightly praised for his luminous pictures, full of deep, glowing colors. Here, we see Juanita with her long braid flying behind her back as she runs through the streets of her town, seeing all the preparations for Christmas and looking for some small gift that she can carry up to the church altar and lay before the Christ Child. When she stops in the marionette shop, we see a traditional skeleton hanging amongst all the other kings, foxes and caballeros that Señor Rojo, the marionette-maker, sells. It's clear that Negrin has been in just such a town as Juanita's. His pictures contain all sorts of little details which, while not mentioned in the text, serve to enhance the story and take it further into our imaginations.

In the end, even though we already know from the first page that Juanita will find the gift she's looking for, the miracle she experiences is satisfying. Like all good legends, it suggests to us that the world has wonderful, unexpected things in store for those who have courage and pure hearts. Which, in turn, makes us want to develop such courage and purity in our own hearts.

The Miracle of the First Poinsettia is typical picture book size; it's roughly nine inches tall and twelve inches wide, and has thirty-two pages. The end papers are covered, front and back, by Negrin's paintings of poinsettas, and are beautiful enough that you may be tempted to cut them out and use them for wrapping paper. In addition to the glossary mentioned above, in the back of the book is the song the mariachis sing going into the church on la Noche Buena, including the tune and the words, in Spanish and English.

[Grey Walker]

Joanne Oppenheim is a noted author of books for children, winning many awards. Her current Web site features the Oppenheim Toy Portfolio, Inc., an organization that reviews children's media, of which she is the president.

Fabian Negrin grew up in Argentina and studied art in Mexico City. He has illustrated five other books for children. You can see a list of the books he has illustrated here.