The Santa List, by Kieran Crowley (Scholastic €7.99)
WHAT is the most drastic sanction for dealing with disobedient children?
Withholding pocket money or banning internet use pales into insignificance compared with the ultimate penalty: Telling Santa to put a child’s name on his Naughty List.
Unfortunately for Aisling and Joe, their parents have gone away on a business trip just before Christmas, leaving the errant children in the care of the babysitter from hell, who writes to the great man, asking for their names to be struck off.
It has to be said that Aisling and Joe are no angels. Their recent list of misdemeanours includes creating a waterfall by turning on taps and garden hose until their parents’ office floods, and letting stray goats into the house, allowing them to eat the curtains.
This may go some way towards explaining why all the other local babysitters, and indeed Aisling and Joe’s own grandparents, refuse to perform childminding duties, necessitating the arrival of the formidable Mrs Grough.
She it is who writes the dreaded letter to Santa, setting in train a series of unfortunate events as the children attempt increasingly desperate means of avoiding a giftless Christmas.
Enlisting the help of the school bully and stealing Santa’s list succeeds in making matters far worse, resulting in a race against time to return the list before Christmas is ruined, not just for themselves but for children everywhere.
Standing between the children and the chance of saving the day is the Scrooge-like figure of Mr Grindle, who is “so, so happy” at the prospect of “millions and millions of upset children” that he “can’t think of a nicer Christmas present”.
Between naughty children and bullies, a Grindle/Grinch, an irascible elf, and a draconian childminder, there’s a bunch of baddies here that would have been at home in a Roald Dahl book, were it not for the fact that each of them possesses redeeming qualities.
Author Kieran Crowley (pictured below), who lives near Mallow in North Cork, reflects a range of perspectives on Christmas, and indeed on life in general, inviting pre-teen readers to consider how difficult circumstances may influence a person’s behaviour.
“I always loved Christmas time when I was growing up,” he says, “but that’s not the same for everybody.
“People have different attitudes to it, depending on their time of life as well, so I wanted to reflect that through the various characters - the older guy who’s had a miserable time for years and doesn’t want anybody to enjoy Christmas, then somebody who’s a little bit ambivalent about it; I wanted to reflect all the attitudes.
“The main idea of the book is that we’re all different but we can all get along,” says Kieran.
“When I was very young and reading books, it was very black and white, in that people were either good or bad, rather than seeing the shades of grey,” he adds.
“But as you grow up you can see people who might have been very pleasant and happy when they were younger, but whatever life throws at them can make things a bit more difficult for them. You can understand why they mightn’t be as happy or cheerful and might be a bit more miserable, and I just wanted to reflect that.”
As strict as babysitter Mrs Grough is, with her meals of boiled cabbage and 7pm bedtime rules, even she has a good heart beneath her formidable exterior. “There’s a little bit of Nanny McPhee, a little bit of Mary Poppins,” says Kieran. “She kind of admits her mistakes towards the end of the book but still sticks to her own values.”
Despite its cast of complex cranky characters, the development of ‘The Santa List’ into a naughty-and-nice Christmas tale happened almost unconsciously during the writing process.
“I didn’t decide whether to be optimistic or pessimistic,” says Kieran. “I just kind of let the story develop the way it did as an organic process, almost like a passenger going along with it.”
For Kieran, whose earlier books for children include the chillers Colm & the Lazarus Key and Colm & the Ghost’s Revenge for Cork’s Mercier Press, the decision to write a Christmas novel was a case of the time being right.
“I write for middle grade and my nieces and nephews are getting to the age where they are soon going to be beyond it, so I said if I was ever going to write a Christmas story, now is the time to do it,” he says.
His niece Willow even gets a mention in ‘The Santa List’, which also holds a few location clues for sharp-eyed Cork readers. “It’s any town in Ireland in a way, but there are a few hints and place names,” he admits.
“Mallow did get a mention and there’s a street in Mallow that’s mentioned as well but it’s not actually set in Mallow.”
His two most recent children’s books, The Mighty Dynamo and The Misfits Club having been published by Macmillan, The Santa List was picked up by the multi-national Scholastic, in an editing and publishing process which “went like a dream”, he says. “The whole thing was a very positive process.”
Though The Santa List is a standalone story, Kieran has just finished writing his next children’s book and is about to begin a new project which he hints will be “a little bit of a departure” from his previous work for the pre-teen age group.