The widow and the woodcarver;Open book

26th November 1999 at 00:00
THE CHRISTMAS MIRACLE OF JONATHAN TOOMEY. By Susan Wojciechowski. Illustrated by P J Lynch Walker. pound;5.99.

Gwynneth Bailey on a heartening Yuletide tale.

First published in 1995, this is fast becoming a classic and can be used effectively from Year 1 through to Year 6.

A young widow and her seven-year-old son are new to the village where Mr Toomey the woodcarver lives. Tragedy has left Mr Toomey morose - his wife and baby have also died - but the new arrivals help him to overcome his unhappiness enough to complete a set of Nativity carvings.

The written text outlines the three characters with great vigour and is inextricably matched with the illustrations. Lynch portrays the characters with sensitivity and creates a highly atmospheric backdrop for the action which is set in America (possibly New England) in the 1890s.

Allow children time to absorb the changing relationship between the boy Thomas, the widow McDowell and the unhappy Mr Toomey, and to study the powerful illustrations for which Lynch was awarded the Kate Greenaway Medal in 1996. This successful marriage of words and pictures will reveal something new on each re-reading.


English - Text level work

* Study the character of Jonathan Toomey. The book opens with the sentence, "The village children called him Mr Gloomy." Find evidence of things which irritate him and collate a list. Why are these aspects of daily life an irritation? Compare his facial expression at the beginning and end of the book on opening his door to visitors.

* "Whistling is pish-posh," Mr Toomey gruffly tells Thomas. What does he mean? Search the text for other occasions when he uses this phrase and discuss.

* The story is narrated in the third person. Choose one of the three characters, and write part of the story from that person's point of view, trying to empathise with the character.

* Discuss Mr Toomey's statement: "There are no such things as miracles". List events considered to be miracles, both historic and present-day.

* Sitting still and quiet is difficult for Thomas. Collect examples from children's experience when keeping quiet has demanded concentration, for example to stop a sneeze, as in the text.

* Search the text for the first evidence that Mr Toomey is warming to Mrs McDowell and Thomas. Discuss Thomas's role in this.

* Collect the sounds the author uses to "colour" the woodcarver's room: the scrape of the knife; Mrs McDowell's humming; the church bells.

* Dramatise the story, in groups of three, with extras to create sound effects. Divide sections of the action between groups, keep conversation to a minimum and use mime. Perform the group work in sequence.

* The opening sentence on most pages reads like a new chapter, telling of the passing of time. Use this model for children to plan an original story leading up to Christmas.

Word level work

* "Jonathan Toomey seldom smiled and never laughed," we are told. Older pupils could think of examples of degree, for example "seldom jogged and never ran". Add children's own ideas, then create a poem reflecting Mr Toomey's character at the beginning of book.


* Find more of Lynch's work. See especially Favourite Fairy Tales (text by Sarah Hayes, Walker pound;12.99), Catkin (text by Antonia Barber, Walker pound;9.99, pound;5.99). and When Jessie Came Across the Sea (text by Amy Hest, Walker pound;10.99). What are the similarities?

* Draw in Lynch's style.

* Collect functional and ornamental objects carved from wood, especially Nativity figures. Make still life drawings with written descriptions. Identify different types of wood.

* List woods used for different purposes: fir for telegraph poles, larch for fence panel; beech for chairs, oak for tables; hickory (mentioned in the text) for axe handles; teak for decks of ships and garden furniture.

* Copy Thomas, who carves a robin after first sketching it.

Gwynneth Bailey is literacy and numeracy co-ordinator atAldborough county primary school, near Norwich.

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