“A Small Miracle” is a wordless picture book with a big heart and a healthy serving of humanity. It’s also big on illustrations, 96 pictures in total, each a window into the frailty of the human condition, full of pathos and perceptivity.
An image of a lonely old woman waking up inside a cold, bare wagon house opens this visual story, and we know straight away that her Christmas is one of poverty and hardship, not merriment. She has no food, no wood for her fireplace to keep her warm and no money left in her money box to buy either.
She trudges through the show to a nearby town, hoping to earn a few pennies by playing her accordion to passersby. Her frozen fingers play all day, but nobody stops to give her money. Their own self-preoccupation blinds them to her plight. With hopeless resignation, she reluctantly sells her precious accordion.
On her way home, her money box is stolen by a man on a motorbike. Looking for solace, she goes to the church on the outskirts of the town. At that moment, she sees the same man who robbed her fleeing with the church’s donations to the poor in his hand. The woman snatches the bucket and locks herself inside the church only to find that the church has been vandalised. The Nativity scene figurines are scattered in disarray on the tiled floor. Despite her burdens and sorrows, the old woman returns the stolen donations and finds the strength to straighten everything up inside the church before heading home.
On her way home she falls into the snow – hungry, cold and exhausted. It seems that she is certain to perish, but here is where the small miracle begins…
This book is by the British author Peter Collington, known as ‘the master of wordless picture books’. Peter studied photography but later became interested in illustration and has created several highly acclaimed books. Some of his stories, including “A Small Miracle”, have been adapted for animation. His book “The Coming of the Surfman” won the 1994 Bologna Book Fair Honour Book Award, while “A Small Miracle” was shortlisted for Kate Greenaway Award, the most prestigious British literary award recognising illustration talent in children’s books around the world.
Peter’s illustrations have a haunting quality. His bleak snow-covered landscapes are cold and depressing. You can almost feel the chill in your bones, and you can empathise with every arduous step the old woman takes. I love the small, subtle detail he infuses into each image. For example, there are three images of the old woman playing her accordion outside a cafe. The passing of time is displayed on the changing sign in the doorway. “Breakfast now served”, “Lunch being served” and “Afternoon tea now being served”.
Then there are the old woman’s hairy legs, which shows that vanity and small luxuries have no place in this poor woman’s life. And the poignancy and sense of loss when one lonely tear falls down her cheek as she leans over to kiss her cherished accordion goodbye, having just sold it.
A fusion of realism and fantasy, this story will tug at your heart-strings and make you believe in miracles. “Seeing it once beats hearing about it a hundred times”, an old Russian proverb says. So seek out this book to see, feel and experience it for yourself.
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