The Christmas Tree Tangle by Margaret Mahy.
Illustrated by Sarah Davis.
Auckland: Penguin Group NZ, Picture Puffin, NZ Juvenile (2017).
RRP: $19.99. Pb, 32pp.
Reviewed by Anna Smith.
First published in 1994, re-issued in 2006 and then published in e-book format more recently, Margaret Mahy’s The Christmas Tree Tangle has this year been re-issued as a full colour glossy feel paperback with a new illustrator, Sarah Davis. A talented young artist from Australia, Davis applies her playful, relaxed style to Mahy’s rhyming narrative of a feline in a tangle. Six animals, each with distinctly quirky personalities, attempt to recover a kitten stuck at the top of the town’s Christmas tree and in the process find themselves in need of rescue. Told in a series of rhyming couplets, Mahy’s word-play in this not particularly well-known tale is as deft and alluring as it always was. ‘Goodness gracious, what do I see?’ is the invitation for each animal to begin their dizzying climb:
Squealing! Bleating! Barking, too,
While the cat and the kitten moan and mew!
Carolling children stop to stare
At all the animals clinging there.
The children think it’s a jamboree:
What an astonishing Christmas tree!
Such tongue-rollers as ‘horrakapotchkin’; ‘caterwaul’; and ‘jamboree’ only add to the mayhem. While adult readers will have encountered these expressions elsewhere, to younger children from the 21st century they are exotic and unfamiliar and for that reason must be treasured and passed on as unselfconsciously as possible. (The discretionary use of bold type is quite appropriate for this kind of audience.)
The tale’s comfortable resolution with a young girl as hero rescuing the trapped animals who have found themselves, decorations, Christmas cake and all invited home for family celebrations, satisfies. The blend of realism and whimsy throughout is appealingly done and Davis’s full-page spreads of gigantic decorated trees, a wobbling goat, an offended cat, a nervous dog with a dry nose, and three over-confident pigs complements this off-beat, extravagant, Kiwi version of ‘The Farmer in the Dell’ .
Anna Smith has recently retired from teaching English literature at the University of Canterbury Te Whare Wananga o Waitaha. She has written on New Zealand artists and writers as well as reviews, short stories and a work of fiction.