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Cook: This holiday story could give you a blue Christmas
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‘The Paper Bag Christmas'

By: Kevin Alan Milne
Price: $14.99
Rating: Three out of five bookmarks

With all the stress of shopping, decorating, traveling and just making time to enjoy the holiday season, one can see why we are drawn to Christmas stories that make us feel good. The most memorable holiday movies, television specials or books are the ones that make us smile and laugh year after year.

So in hopes of finding some warm holiday cheer, I picked up "The Paper Bag Christmas," a story about two young brothers who are taught the true meaning of the season.

Instead of the huge list of toys that the boys ask for, a mysterious Santa Claus-type figure shows them the joy of generosity by having them help two special children in need of companionship.

Through the experience, the brothers learn about friendship and kindness, while the children they help learn that no wish is too impossible to come true.

Sounds uplifting, yes? While the book certainly starts that way, the reader finds out that any warm fuzzy feelings are absent. To understand the kind of humor this book has, our main character, a 9-year old boy whose grown-up self is the narrator, is named Molar because his dad is a dentist. This might only give you a little chuckle at most, but when compared to the absolute depression that is strewn throughout this story, you treasure the silly bits when you can.

The Santa Claus figure is a Scottish physician named Dr. Christoffer Ringle — you can probably already predict the significance of that name — who lost his legs a while back and when he dresses up as a mall Santa, he uses inflatable ones to hide this fact. He laughs hysterically when the two boys accidentally pop his fake legs and are completely terrified out of their minds.

Nice one, Santa. Traumatize the boys early on, because they're in for a lot more mental scarring throughout this story.

Also, the special children that the brothers are encouraged to get to know? They are all kids in a hospital ward for the terminally ill.

One is an East Indian boy named Madhu, who was probably the most likeable character, and provides most of the book's "funny" moments due to his religious curiosity. He keeps a very optimistic view on things despite his dying of liver disease.

The other, a girl named Katrina, believes she is so ugly and deformed from her countless surgeries that she refuses to be seen without a paper bag on her head to hide her face. And both of her parents are dead. Wow.

I don't have any problem with stories about terminally ill children and how they come to cope with their situation. I think it's important for people to know what they go through. But these particulars did not help develop the characters in any way, but seemed to be placed there simply to set up the eventual tear-jerking scenes that ensue.

What's more — what is wrong with the doctors at this hospital? Not only do they apparently not offer any kind of emotional counseling for these poor kids — and instead rely on a couple of little boys who don't even grasp what "terminally ill" means to comfort them — but they don't seem to be aware that the kids sneak away at night to a "secret floor" in the hospital to race their gurneys down a ramp in which one of the children is severely injured. One of the nurses even derides the children in their beliefs about Santa Claus, insulting them for believing he's real. Who hired these people? Ebenezer Scrooge?

But I can't say there's nothing to be taken from "The Paper Bag Christmas." It does emphasize the value of life and how we take for granted the everyday things that mean everything to someone who is less fortunate. But many Christmas stories manage to teach us this without dying children involved.

So if you are looking for something sentimental for your holiday reading and want to give this book a try, have one of those happy Christmas cartoon specials on hand to watch afterward ... because no amount of eggnog will cure how this book will make you feel.

Alison Reeger Cook is a Gainesville resident whose Off the Shelves book review runs every other week in Sunday Life. Know of a good book to review? E-mail her to tell her about it.

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