Eyeing the new pink-colored book my sister-in-law had just given our little niece, Harana, I couldn’t help picking it up. It was The Christmas Toys by Yvette Fernandez.
It tells of a liminal space in “the deep, dark woods,” a place where toys “that have come and gone” after being delivered to kids on Christmas and years after they’ve grown up make their way “back where they’ve come from.” It’s a sort of bardo of Christmas toys, apparently not far from a certain toymaker’s workshop.
Each toy lives out its days in memories, and on Christmas Eve, each handmade plaything describes what they think Christmas is all about.
The toy soldier, the “golden-haired doll,” and the well-loved teddy bear talk about their memorable experiences on earth, in the hands of child owners. But it’s the crudely carved little wooden boy who actually comes closest to the true meaning of the season.
With delicate watercolor illustrations by Aldy C. Aguirre, it’s that rarity among children’s books, particularly this time of the year: one written with adults in mind, and with an indelible message.
Yvette recalls she came up with the story idea decades ago, as a college writing assignment back in UP in 1989. Her brothers and sisters and friends pitched her an image: Christmas toys.
“When I have the germ of an idea, it’s easier to start from there,” she says of writing the book. “We photocopied it and gave it away as a present to family and friends” back then.
Two years ago, her sister Lara dug up some old Word Star floppy diskettes and she converted the file to Microsoft Word—and so it became a real, live book.
Though she’s done many illustrated children’s biographies of people like Socorro Ramos, Cory Aquino and John Gokongwei, Yvette says fiction isn’t her go-to genre, “I guess because I’ve always been a journalist at heart, and not so imaginative.” (Another book idea, based on a single image of an elephant, came from her sister Jackie, who passed away in 2005.)
But The Christmas Toys does conjure up a world that adults can relate to. One glimpses a touch of Velveteen Rabbit, even Toy Story in the book’s focus on what happens to things that are loved, then left behind in memories. If you scratch the surface a bit, it becomes more than a kid’s story—with somewhat deeper resonance.
“I think the underlying emotion is just love, and I guess being home,” she says. “When I lived away, to me, Christmas wasn’t the same as when I was at home with family and people I love.”
Yvette’s daughter, Safiya, pops onto the phone call, wondering what her mom is up to, talking so long about her latest children’s book; her mom assures her it won’t be long.
The Christmas Toys does suggest the longing that toys might have to be played with (in our childhood imaginations, at least), but she points out she wrote her draft long before the Pixar hit movie Toy Story came out. Maybe it’s a universal projection we have as kids: wondering what our toys are thinking.
Some readers claim the book made them feel a little “sad”—perhaps because of the image of a place where toys wistfully contemplate their existence and the meaning of the season. But Yvette explains, “It’s not meant to be sad!”
Vividly written, it’s presented in an ethereal setting of pastel washes conjured by artist Aguirre. Yvette actually only got to meet the artist during the book signing (not unusual in the local publishing industry, actually), and she recalls the publisher, upon reading her original story, felt the illustrations needed to be “more dreamlike.” Aguirre’s final illustrations definitely fit the bill.
I ask her what age level the story works best for. “I think, actually, most adults even relate to it more. Like, people have bought the book, and actually give it to their friends. I guess they can connect with it. For kids, it’s more like ‘Oh, it’s a story about toys’ or, ‘Oh, I just learned this at school, the story of Jesus.’ (EDITOR: Slight spoiler alert!) So yeah, I think it’s up to the parents to sort of make it kind of work for them.”
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You can order The Christmas Toys on Facebook (Yvette Fernandez, Books). Net proceeds from sales of The Christmas Toys go to The Carewell Community Foundation (you can contact Jane at 09985561869).