With 50 books to his name, including of course the hugely successful Artemis Fowl series, Eoin Colfer decided the time was right for a Christmas story. It’s undoubtedly a challenge doing Christmas, as the pop charts prove. For every Fairytale of New York, or Elton John’s Step into Christmas, Eoin’s own favourite, there are all those trite, gimmicky earworms. Rest assured though, Juniper’s Christmas is the kind of book you’ll be singing – sorry, reading – as happily in July as in December. Andrea Reece spoke to Eoin Colfer about the book for Books for Keeps.
For someone who says his family describe him as being ‘a bit Scrooge-y when it comes to Christmas’, Eoin Colfer has embraced all the trappings of the season in his new book. Juniper’s Christmas stars Santa Claus and features flying reindeer, elves, and a lot of Christmas trees. What’s more, at its heart is the magic of Christmas, not only how Santa delivers to everyone in just one night, though that is explained, but the true magic of love, family and being together.
In the story, 11-year-old Juniper needs Santa’s help to find her missing mother, the task made more complicated since poor Santa, grieving the death of his wife, left the North Pole ten years ago and is resolutely avoiding all children, though he is living in the park near her home. This Christmas story is something Eoin’s been mulling over for a while, prompted by the musical Noël he wrote with his friend, composer Liam Bates. ‘That was like a soft launch for me into the Christmas thing,’ says Eoin, ‘It was well received so I took a few characters whose stories I felt hadn’t been resolved and put them into this book,’ and he adds, ‘I really, really enjoyed it, a lot more than I anticipated!’
‘not everyone is happy at Christmas’
The starting point for the story is that not everyone is happy at Christmas. ‘It’s not new, the idea that Christmas can be quite sad for people,’ says Eoin, ‘If you’ve lost someone and it’s your first Christmas without them that can be really sad and I wanted to deal with that. Juniper is a Christmas baby and her dad was a big Christmas fan, but she lost him a couple of years ago. She and her mum are just coming out of that and for the first time Christmas is a chance to remember the happy times with her dad. And then you have Duchess who lives in the park, so for her Christmas is extra sad’ – there’s a whole extra layer of misery for Duchess we discover, and a lot of guilt to handle, as years earlier she tricked Santa in an effort to further her scientific career, nearly injuring her own niece in the process. ‘Santa Claus himself has no time for Christmas anymore, so there all these people who are not happy at Christmas. I read a survey somewhere – and I hope it’s not true – that there are more people unhappy at Christmas than any other time of year because their lives haven’t turned out how they planned, or simply for good old-fashioned loneliness, which is the biggest depressive in the world. I wanted to include that, but, it being a Christmas book, I also wanted come to a happy ending. I think it’s good for kids to be aware of these things – there are lots of kids who are dealing with grieving, while in Ireland alone we have something like 6,000 kids living in hotels because they’re technically homeless – I wanted that to be seen.’ He’s keen to point out he’s not big on issue books, ‘I don’t want to beat people over the head with this, it’s better to weave it into the story.’
Juniper’s dad came to England from Ghana as a refugee and, again without beating readers over the head with it, Eoin conveys the awfulness of that situation. It’s something else he feels is important. ‘In Ireland at the moment we have a thing called Direct Provision, and migrants might be in that for ten years, and unable to work in that time. It’s a system that to me is very tough. I know there’s no easy answer, but when kids are in school it’s so important that other kids in the classroom realise what they’ve gone through. You hear so often, “they’re taking our jobs” the same old claptrap, but that kid could have walked half way across the Sahara desert, been separated from his family, nearly drowned on the crossing, had to come through Greece, Italy, France to finally get to Britain or Ireland just to sit beside you in a classroom. And also, I like to present you with this amazing character Juniper, who you have to like, and then a little way in you find out that her dad was a migrant who married an English girl and, “I love this character so what’s that other person even talking about?”. It’s a way to naturally put that person in a situation where their whole story is not “I’m the daughter of a migrant”, it’s “I’m mixed up with Santa Claus and that’s my story and this is part of my back story but other than that I could be anybody in your class”. I’ve been doing that more and more recently with books, just trying to present peoples not as their history or their illness or their disability, but as a person who happens to have this or be that or come from there but that’s not the main thing about them.’
No no-rules magic
Eoin takes his approach to the magic of the story just as seriously. Take for example, Santa’s sack. How can it possibly hold all those presents and still fit on the sleigh? We learn in chapter six that it’s more an interdimensional portal than a sack – and yes, it makes perfect sense. Duchess, in her former life as a scientist, discovers the source of Santa’s magic – which she calls Spangles – and attempts to harness the power as a source of energy. It doesn’t work but that’s not because of the science. That the science makes sense is important to the boy that Eoin was. ‘I always hated it no-rules magic solutions. In Artemis Fowl, the magic is explained, the rules are explained, and that way you keep the tension. I’m not going to win any Nobel prizes, I don’t think the magic in Juniper’s Christmas would bear a stress test, but it sounds real while you’re reading it, you think “OK I’m prepared to go along with that”. And I know fellas like I used to be when I was 12 will be very happy with stuff being explained and even if they’re a bit cynical, it’s enough that they’re willing to let me away with it for the duration of their reading session.’
I particularly love the elves in the book, who drive a camper van equipped with scanners that are meant to pick up magic but sometimes pick up cats instead, much to the irritation of their pernickety boss. ‘It amused me to have an office scenario in a camper van’ says Eoin, praising illustrator Chaaya Prabhat’s image of the elf team all squashed into it, ‘And it’s another way of tying supernatural beings like Santa into the human world, which is a nice grounding for people reading the book. Plus, it’s just inherently funny to take characters who are usually in a very ethereal setting and plonk them firmly in our world – a minotaur riding a scooter is always going to be funny!’
‘one of my favourite villains’
This being an Eoin Colfer adventure too you can expect some excellent baddie characters and Trude (short for Intrude, her son is Lars, short for Larceny – you get the picture) Madden is one of his favourite villains. ‘She’s so bad I thought, ‘I’ll have to make her Irish, otherwise I’d be picking on another race, if she’s Irish I think a get a pass”’ he says, laughing. ‘In a Christmas story you can get away with that Child Catcher level of almost cartoon-level mean, and she certainly is that. The story is that she was burned by Santa as a girl, got the old lump of coal in her sock and where most people would learn from that, Trude decides she’s going to get her revenge so when through an amazing coincidence she sees Juniper riding a reindeer, she thinks “Finally after 30 years of being a villain, this is what I’ve been building towards!” She eventually has an Irish hurling ball in a sock as a weapon – I would say that was the best fun I had writing that character!’
There’s no redemption for Trude, you may be glad to know, but there is for the book’s other villain, an avaricious local official, and for Duchess too, who paid such a terrible price for her mistake but finds happiness by the end and even romance (‘Maybe because I’m getting on, I thought it would be nice to see people who are not 18 having love stories in kids’ books so I thought I’d pop that in’ says Eoin).
Christmas books need happy endings, we both agree, which brings us back to the topic of seasonal stories and the careful way Eoin approached this one. ‘I don’t want to compare myself, but I thought about A Christmas Carol which is one of the greatest books ever written, every sentence, every word, every image is perfect; and I thought well, that’s something to aspire to, so that’s how I approached it, trying to do due diligence to all the characters and the story.’ And it’s undoubtedly true that this most un-Scrooge-like of writers has written a classic Christmas tale.
Andrea Reece is managing editor of Books for Keeps.
Juniper’s Christmas by Eoin Colfer, illustrated by Chaaya Prabhat, is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books, 978- 978-0008475536, £12.99 hbk.