Wenceslas by Geraldine McCaughrean, illustrated by Christian Birmingham

The story of Wenceslas is fairly normal Christmas fair – a king (who has light shining out of his cloak and footprints) leaves the comforts of his castle in the middle of a terribly cold night to bring food to one of his peasants.

From a lessons standpoint, the message is fine for a picture book. Never mind that, as king, he runs a country where the hunger and poverty of his peasants exists in the first place, or that the comfort he provides is only to one family of peasants and not to the thousands of others who will simply suffer while the nobles enjoy their party. It’s also something of a monarchist message, practically deifying the king by no virtue other than basic human decency (backed with the money and power to act on it).

But still, it’s a Christmas story and we don’t expect too much depth from these things – certainly not in a picture book. And the artwork makes whatever flaws in the story entirely worthwhile. Christian Birmingham’s images are stunning – so gorgeous that there were several I’d love to just hang on my wall. He uses the contrasts between warm colours (representing the Wenceslas’s quasi-divinity, warmth, fire, happiness, safety) and cold (representing, obviously, the cold) to give his images great depth and resonance.

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