Written by Russell Hoban, Illustrated by Lillian Hoban
Parents Magazine Press, 1971
Christmas was coming and it was coming fast. It was coming to the town where the houses huddled with their cozy windows shining in the winter dusk. It was coming to the country where the snow lay drifted up against the barns and the firewood was all stacked beside the houses. And it was coming to the river and the little run-down place where Emmet Otter and his mother lived, near Frogtown Hollow.
The plot in a nutshell: An otter and his mother take risks to make each other happy for Christmas
Times are hard in Frogtown Hollow and Emmet and his Ma do their best to make ends meet, with Ma taking in laundry and Emmet doing odd jobs. This year, however, they both really want to give each other a special gift. Ma wants to buy Emmet a guitar and he wants to replace the piano she had to sell. But it looks hopeless until the announcement of a Christmas Eve talent contest with a $50 prize. Emmet and his friends form a jug-band and Emmet has to put a hole in Ma’s washtub so he can play washtub bass. Ma has to pawn Emmet’s tool chest to buy fabric for a dress nice enough to wear to sing in the talent contest. They both perform their best, but the $50 prize is won by the River Bend Nightmare rock band, who puts on a dazzling stage show. Ma, Emmet and his friends head back to Frogtown Hollow and along the way, they sing a song together. Doc Bullfrog hears them singing and offers them all a regular performing gig at his restaurant. On their way home from their first night’s performance, they stop and sing Pa Otter’s favorite song, Where the River Meets the Sea because they feel that Pa, who was a big believer in taking chances, would have been very proud of them.
I cannot even begin to explain the deep emotional connection I have to this book. I remember the day that I received it in my Parents Magazine Book Club box, just a couple of weeks before Christmas. I read it for the first time laying on the floor beside the Christmas tree, because my mom had moved some of the furniture around while she was cleaning the floor in our family room. Immediately after reading it, I told Mom she had to sit down so I could read it to her. She and I both fell in love with it and were overjoyed when the Muppet version, which is very faithful to the book, debuted on HBO in 1977. Most people are familiar with the television version, as it is still an annual favorite. But the book, with Russell Hoban’s wonderful way with words and Lillian Hoban’s warm and wonderful illustrations, will likely forever hold its place as my favorite Christmas book. Merry Christmas!
And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is that sometimes a little faith can turn failures into huge successes.