Christmas may be an exciting time for humans, but what do animals make of it all? Tosca's Christmas is a cat's interpretation of the festive season. Cats are very much creatures of habit and don't take too kindly to changes in their routines, so Tosca is not best pleased to find that her favourite armchair has been moved to make way for a strange, glittering tree. There's a sea of wrapping paper on the bed, so she isn't allowed on there either. The kitchen is full of interesting smells but she's not welcome in there and trying to climb the Christmas tree turns out to be a big mistake. Poor Tosca, all she wanted to do was ask the fairy on the top branch to grant her Christmas wish, but suddenly she's put out into the garden and the snow is falling fast. But then Tosca sees a light in the sky and hears a distant jingling of bells. Her Christmas adventure is about to begin.
Tosca's Christmas is a delightful seasonal story with an old-fashioned, sentimental quality that it somehow manages to get away with at Christmas time. Admittedly, this is a somewhat idealised vision of Christmas where snow is several feet deep, Christmas trees are huge, real and stunningly decorated, and people make their own Christmas pudding and mince pies. However, that is all part of its charm. It makes you feel warm inside and I think it would make a wonderful bedtime story in the run up to Christmas for children aged about 4 and upwards.
Anne Mortimer is acclaimed for her paintings of cats, and they add an exquisite quality to this book. Anne Mortimer's cats look like real cats, not cartoon cats, and reflect feline body language and behaviour perfectly. Tosca's tabby markings, the way her facial expressions change as a result of subtle movements of her ears, the intensity of her bright eyes, all seem so beautifully observed and you almost expect that if you reached out and touched the picture you would be able to stroke Tosca's soft, fluffy fur. As a cat owner I can totally relate to the descriptions of Tosca wanting to get her claws into the wrapping paper, sitting under the tree sulking or tapping the windowpane with her paw to try to attract attention and be let in.
This book captures the frantic nature of Christmas preparation and even the youngest of children will be able to recognise a lot of similar things going on in their own houses, such as Christmas trees going up, presents being wrapped, festive foods being baked and tempers becoming a little frayed. They may even have some experience of a pet causing havoc by knocking the tree over, stealing food or just getting in the way.
I like the way this story encourages children to empathise with Tosca instead of just focussing on their own feelings about Christmas. The book reminds us to spare a thought for our pets and to think about how we can make sure they are happy and safe at Christmas time and not neglected. This provides a lot of scope for discussion. (I must admit, I always wanted to throttle Tosca's family for putting their cat outside on a snowy night and forgetting about her! Where are the RSPCA when you need them?) Children can be asked to reflect on the things that happen in the story. Was Tosca being naughty or was she just being curious? What could Tosca's family have done to reassure her that she was still loved? Were Tosca's family being deliberately unkind or were they just so distracted by all the Christmas build-up that they forgot about her needs?
This book is an absolute joy to read aloud. In addition to the stunning pictures, each page is surrounded with a border of red ribbons and holly leaves, so the book totally oozes Christmas. The illustrations are so expressive and complement the text perfectly so that even non-readers can re-tell the story for themselves after hearing it once, using the pictures as a guide. Some of the language is a little tricky for young readers, so I really think this is more a book to be read aloud by an adult than for a child to read alone.
What is particularly magical about it is the moment when Father Christmas makes his appearance. I love the way the author gradually builds the atmosphere and tension as a bright light in the sky draws nearer and nearer. In almost poetical language, there are descriptions of the 'gilded sleigh', the 'majestic beasts with vast antlers' and of course the 'plump, white-bearded man in a warm red suit." Those words are just asking to be read out in an awe-struck, excited voice. The accompanying illustration shows Santa unloading his sack from the sleigh as the full moon shines bright and the snow falls. Equally lovely is the picture that follows it, where we see Tosca rubbing her face against Santa's boots. The addition of a few cute paw prints in the snow makes this particularly endearing.
I do find the idea of a cat wishing for a Christmas present rather amusing. Anyone who has ever owned a cat knows that they are likely to look on with disdain if you present them with a clockwork mouse on Christmas morning. Tosca's ability to open her own Christmas present is also rather impressive! Children who own a cat might find it fun to compare their own pet's behaviour with that of Tosca. My children always thought Tosca was very brave to go up to Father Christmas and make friends, as our own cats were always wary of strangers (particularly men) and would have run a mile at the first sign of that sleigh.
For an unashamedly indulgent, 'feel good' Christmas read, I would recommend Tosca's Christmas. Cat lovers will particularly appreciate it and might well find themselves checking out Anne Mortimer's artwork further.
Used copies of Tosca's Christmas can be picked up from Amazon for £0.58 at the present time, with some outrageously expensive new versions selling for over £100! Quite why, I'm not too sure. (It's a good book but not THAT good!) With a bit of luck, your local library might have a copy for you to borrow over the Christmas season.