Sunday, May 1, 2011

Silver Packages: An Appalachian Christmas Story

Written by: Cynthia Rylant

Paintings by: Chris K. Soentpiet

Every year at Christmas time, a train comes through Appalachia.  It is not just any train—no, just any train would not stir up much excitement.  It is a very special train—the Christmas Train—and from the day children are born in the mountains, they learn to wait for the Christmas Train that arrives every year on December 23rd

You may wonder why the train is so special.  The answer lies in learning something about generosity and kindness—about tradition—about owing a great debt and giving back. 

In her story, Silver Packages, Rylant recalls her memories of growing up in Appalachia.  Her story is loosely based on a real train, known as the Santa Train, which comes through the Appalachian Mountains and delivers special gifts to those who are waiting every December.  It has been a tradition for the past 65 years and is a way for business owners to give something back to their community. 

Similar to some of Rylant’s other stories, she takes us through the passing of time as the story of the Christmas Train transpires.  Rylant begins by telling us how the tradition of the Christmas Train came to be many years ago and how on the twenty-third, “—the train will slowly wind up and around the mountains, and on the platform of its caboose will stand the rich man in a blue wool coat.  He will toss a sparkling silver package into the hands of each child who waits beside the tracks, and for some, it will be the only present they receive.  So the train is awfully important.”   

As the story continues, so does time.  Rylant introduces us to Frankie, a young boy who waits for the Christmas Train every year, hoping to receive a particular present—a Doctor kit.  Several years pass and Frankie waits for the Christmas Train each year hoping for the particular present that he yearns for—but it never comes.  What he does get each year is something that he needs more—socks, mittens, a hat, and a scarf.

Many more years pass and Rylant now describes Frankie as an adult saying that, “When Frankie grows up, he moves away, out of the hills.  He lives in different places and meets different kinds of people and he himself changes a little into a different kind of person.”  Frankie then begins to reminisce about the mountains and of his fond memories of waiting for the Christmas Train.  Most of all, he realizes that the rich man always gave him what he needed—and he remembers something about owing a debt just as the rich man had.

Through the passage of time, Frankie has grown up to become Frank, and although he has moved away from his home, he cannot fight his memories. He does finally return home and has found a way to give back to his community—he comes back as a doctor.  

Cynthia Rylant often writes picture books with adult themes.  I had a difficult time deciding if this book was more for children or for adults—so I decided that it could be for both.  The story inspires selflessness, kindness, and generosity.  The story itself, being based on a true story, is something that children can also learn from.  However, the passage of time and the nostalgia of the Frankie are more suitable for an adult’s understanding.  Also, the social issue of poverty is presented, as it is evident throughout the text that many of the families are poor.  This however, can certainly be addressed with children.

Rylant’s use of descriptive and poetic language with varied sentence structures make her words come alive.  For example, “He returns to the hills where he has grown up, and that winter, near Christmas, he stands at the tracks, watching the children wait for the train.  And it comes, as always.”  When read aloud, the sentences read like a poem.  The second sentence is emphasized due to its length.  We also sense the feelings Frankie is having when he returns to Appalachia, “The grown man watches the steam engine move toward him, watches the caboose roll by him, and he nearly runs after that train, so strong are his memories.  This grown man nearly runs after a silver package.”  Again, Rylant varies the length of her sentences—reading like poetry and providing emphasis on what is most important in the second sentence. 

Accompanying the eloquently written text are full-bleed, double-spread paintings by Chris K. Soentpiet which truly bring the emotions of the characters in the story to life.  Each illustration adds to the meaning and depth of the story.  The story begins on the title page, where a framed illustration of a brown sack filled with silver packages is waiting on the caboose of a train—the subtle hint of the story continues on the dedication page where a train can be seen traveling through the snowy hills of Appalachia.  The horizontal lines of the train evoke a sense of tranquility and peacefulness.  The gradual slopes of the Appalachian hills evoke the same feeling.

The mood quickly changes with the text as Rylant tells how the story all began.  Dark hues of blue and black saturate each page—even giving darkness to the snow on the ground.  Soentpiet creates tension in the beginning when we read about the rich man who got in a car accident by positioning him and his car diagonally across the center of the page in the foreground.  The colors are dark and threatening—but in the distance, a light shines and a woman stands in a doorway—letting us know that everything will be all right.  We begin to sense the warmth of the community as a the woman nurses the rich man back to life—warm tones of orange, yellow, and brown lighten up the page—but tension is still sensed with the diagonal position of the characters.  The mood changes throughout the rest of the story as the palette of colors becomes brighter—using warm-earthy tones to create a sense of humbleness within the characters and to contrast against the white snow. 

One of the most notable features of these representational illustrations is that of the emotions present in the characters.  One of my favorite illustrations in the story is when Frankie opens his first silver package on Christmas morning.  Soentpiet shows Frankie in the center foreground of the left-hand page allowing us to see his disappointment in the gift that he has been given.  On the right-hand side, Frankie’s family is drawn in the background with smiling faces—grateful for the gifts that they have received and unaware of Frankie’s feelings.  Rylant writes, “Frankie looks at his mother and father and brothers and sisters and tries not to cry.”   These detailed emotions combined with the fact the illustrations are drawn from a very close perspective, help us to feel emotionally connected to Frankie.  We feel empathy for how hard this moment is for him, and we hope that next year he gets his Doctor kit.  We can relate, because we know that being upset is to be ungrateful, but it is hard to push aside your dream.  

Both Rylant and Soentpiet combine their talents to create an emotionally powerful story.  Cynthia Rylant believes that stories come from memories.  Her strong childhood memories have led her to create this thought-provoking and beautiful story of a tradition that continues today.

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