“I bring you a warning,” replied Marley. “Tonight, you will be visited by three spirits. Listen to what they tell you, Ebenezer, for each of them means to help you.”
Stephenson and Giang’s A Christmas Carol is a retelling of the classic Dickens tale, especially for younger readers. As such, you’re probably familiar with it already; old miser Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his dead partner, Jacob Marley, who warns him of the coming of three spirits. These spirits show Scrooge visions of his past, present and future respectively, with the aim of making him a better, kinder man.
Anyone who knows me, knows that I can be a bit of a stickler when it comes to book adaptations, and A Christmas Carol is one of those that has been adapted many times, often for a younger audience (despite being originally written for adults).
Reviewing a retelling can also be a bit of a challenge because the story and characters existed before that version. But to put your mind at ease, before I continue, I’ll say that I found this one delightful – and quite interesting in its choices of text and images.
The story is written in a relatively simple manner (Victorian English can be hard to follow, even as an adult!) and in a way that keeps it moving without feeling too rushed. I’ll admit, part of me did miss the normal opening line of “Marley was dead, to begin with.”, but I can also be realistic and confess that it would have been out of place here!
There were two bits in the text that really stood out to me in their inclusion though – first was the appearance of Scrooge’s younger sister Fan in one of his childhood memories, and second was seeing Belle happily settled down, also during the Ghost of Christmas Past’s visit. Both are in the original book, but seldom appear in adaptations.
The latter is a nice bookend to the previous scene – it’s too easy to just walk away from the “break up”, whereas this shows Scrooge very specifically what he’s missing. And the former is a great inclusion to give Fred’s character more substance; too often he is just “Scrooge’s nephew”, but showing us Fan, and then Scrooge’s comment about Fred being forgiving like her, shows us a deeper connection between the two that gives us a more emotional payoff at the end.
Out of curiosity, I calculated the coverage given to the different parts of the story and discovered that “new” Scrooge gets a whopping 29%. This isn’t a complaint mind; I think it’s actually quite a good way to do it. The ghosts together still get the majority of the book (they are the biggest part of the story after all), but this way there is a larger focus on the results – which some may argue, is rather the point. What matters is that Scrooge becomes a better man. How he got there is, at least from the good old city’s point of view, less important.
The words are accompanied by charming artwork from Vietnamese artist Hoang Giang. Giang gives us a front cover that is bursting with colour, feeling very festive in spite of the scared figure of Scrooge in the middle. Everything about Scrooge in the early pages is dour and grey, surrounded by the brightness of other buildings and people (Fred especially is a great contrast in a white and yellow suit).
I noticed early on the accents of orange/red amongst the more cheerful characters – Fred’s hair, Bob Cratchit’s scarf (which he is notably not wearing in the future scene), the collection box, Fan’s sweater, Belle’s knitting. These accents all culminate in the changed Scrooge at the end, where he wears a red tie with his normal outfit – one he wasn’t wearing in the earlier sequence of the book. It’s a small piece of symbolism that works well in its subtlety.
Finally, of course, it would be remiss of me not to mention the three spirits. The Ghost of Christmas Past is wonderfully mystical, almost angelic and yet with a nymph-like quality. The Ghost of Christmas Present takes up the entire page on his first appearance (as feels only right) and, although obviously jolly, also looks quite thoughtful at moments.
The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is, as seems to be tradition, faceless. I found it intriguing that it appeared the least out of the spirits – whereas the others are present in the visions they show, neither it nor Scrooge are visible in the future events, which makes them stand out as more distant and removed. Considering that they are only “possible” events, this feels quite appropriate!
Overall, I have to say that I went in wondering if it would be similar to what we’ve seen before, and I was thoroughly pleased with the result. It’s not easy to retell a familiar story, but Stephenson and Giang have done a great job at making this feel both new but also like the classic story we all know and love. A wonderful picture book to add to your collection this holiday!