fiction favorites…The Lion in the Box

For the next three weeks, I’ve got three vintage novels, all on the short side,  you might like to track down for family holiday read-alouds. I found them while searching for a list of vintage Christmas picture books which are coming up in December as well. Kind of on a vintage binge, I guess! The first one is…

the lion in the box cover imageThe Lion in the Box, written and illustrated by Marguerite De Angeli

Mama was away at work today and Miss Von Tipple was taking care of Ben and Sooch. Mama didn’t work every day, only occasionally. She usually worked at night, cleaning offices on Madison Avenue, when the girls were at home to care for the little ones…
Sometimes one of the ladies of the church came to stay with the younger children if Mama had to work in the daytime and the girls were in school. A group of women from the church who called themselves The Partners gave their time to those in need. And Mama was certainly in need of help. There were five children to be fed and clothed and cared for. Betty was eleven, Rosie, nine, Lili, seven and new york city immigrants 1900Ben, five. Sooch was just a baby, one and a half. Papa was gone. “He is in the Great Beyond,” Mama explained…

“Hello, girls,” Miss Von Tipple greeted them as they came in. “Now that you’re here, I’ll go along home. Your mama will be here soon and I’ve left you some milk and cookies…[B]e good. You know Christmas is almost here!” She smiled at Lili who stood near the door and winked.

Mama and her young family live in New York City at the turn of the century. With her husband gone, Mama has far more than she can handle to earn a living plus raise five children. She relies greatly on her oldest three daughters to look after themselves and the little ones and to do many of the household chores, while she works tremendous hours — cleaning offices, then setting the bread dough to rise or the soup bones to simmer after returning home at midnight. Her immigrant neighborhood is also full of kind folks who keep a look-out for one another.

foxy grandpa pin-nyjournalApparently Mama is doing a fine job. Her household is a happy one despite their meager food and clothing. “Things had to be done whether you liked it or not,” according to Mama, and no use complaining. Still, Lili longed for a real doll rather than the pinned-together tea towel she had, and even more, she wished Ben might have an actual toy train instead of the pickle bottle he chug-chugged around the floor.

This Christmas season is crammed full of surprises, though. There are the new new york city christmas 1900 image from goodbooksforyoungsouls at blogspotstar decorations the girls are learning to make, and the pretty little tree Mr. Ryan saves out for them. Strangest of all is the huge wooden crate delivered to their door in the night, causing such a commotion and fright. Thanks to the generosity of Mrs. Lloyd, this is a Christmas beyond Lili’s wildest dreams.

Written in 1975, this is based on a true story, told to the author by the real Lili. Knowing that makes it far more meaningful, charming as it already is. The willing cooperation and contentment of Mama and her children, the tangible helpfulness of neighbors and church, and the incredible outpouring of generosity by one woman towards another, all inspire us towards better lives.

It’s a sweet, old-fashioned story full of ordinary household scenes and everyday conversations, enlivened with its depiction of life in New York City long ago. But –the grand unpacking of the mysterious crate is anything but common. It’s absolutely astonishing! To top things off, there are Marguerite De Angeli’s delicate, warm pencil drawings, a pattern for making star decorations of your own, and a short afterword telling what became of the real children in this story.

It’s about 60 pages long, an easy, quiet, read-aloud for ages 5 and up, or a nice, short, chapter book for a 3rd grade-level reader.