J. K. Rowling’s The Christmas Pig: An Instant Classic?

Crowning a classic upon publication is a pretty speculative business.  This has not stopped Scholastic from touting J. K. Rowling’s new chapter book as a children’s book icon to-be:

From one of the world’s greatest storytellers comes this heartwarming, page-turning adventure about one child’s love for his most treasured thing, and how far he will go to find it.  With dazzling illustrations from renowned artist Jim Field, The Christmas Pig is destined to become a beloved classic for the whole family.

In spite of the ongoing protests against Rowling, The Christmas Pig began its run for immortality its first week, with sales of over 61,000 copies, making it the number one book.

The hero of this Christmas Eve miracle story is seven-year-old Jack, who looks a lot like the Boy Who Lived in Jim Field’s illustrations. The story proper begins on Christmas Eve when he calls his stepsister a loser and she retaliates by hurling out of the car window his companion and confidant DP, a grubby old stuffed pig.  Angrily refusing the exact replacement she offers as an apology, Jack trashes his room and collapses.

He is roused out of sleep by the voices of things in his room which have come to life and are debating whether Jack ought to be sent to the Land of the Lost to rescue DP  on this night of  “miracles and lost causes.”  Jack swears he loves DP so much that he will do anything to get him back, including accepting the unlikable replacement pig as guide.  As soon as Jack and the pig lose themselves under the Christmas tree, they fall into the Land of the Lost, a country like a vast deep wooden box with holes drilled in the “sky” connecting it to the human world.  They land in Mislaid, the holding center, where lost things are sorted by the value owners placed on them and then shipped out to the appropriate zones.

Things their owners don’t miss are classified as surplus and pushed down a chute to the Wastes of the Unlamented where the Loser, the land’s monstrous ruler will  pick them off at his pleasure.  Things unlikely to be wanted again go to the ramshackle town of Disposable, whose streets are right out of a classic Western.  Useful things whose owners might realize are wanted,  wait in the pretty gingerbread houses of Bother It’s Gone.  Things their owners long to recover travel by train from there across the Wastes to the City of the Missed   The existence of that city, which resembles the dancing sets in Top Hat,  is a closely guarded secret, as is the Isle of the Beloved across the sea, where Santa Claus and precious toys reside in a Barbie beach house Paradise.

The social system is riddled with the arbitrary evils of discrimination.  Once a thing is separated from its owner, an event over which it had no agency, it is treated like a criminal, not a victim.   Its future remains subject to its owner’s whims: if missed, then it might be reclassified and relocated or released.  But every time it is misplaced subsequently, the process starts all over again.  Lost things are mostly  cheap objects made of fabric, yarn, cardboard, paper, plastic, and rubber, hence they are despised.  Things made of metal lord over them. The Loss Adjusters and guards, tools and implements that punch, poke, scrape, grate, and cut, report to the ruler of the country, the robotic Loser, whose gigantic steel body  gleams with bits of cogs, lids, springs, etc. broken off prey’s bodies, after he sucks out every drop of awakeness, or feelings absorbed from owners that make them alive.

Love will prove the strongest weapon against the country’s terrible laws.  Jack and the replacement pig must return home with DP a minute before midnight Christmas day,  or be trapped there forever.   They have the luxury of a little time, because every hour of human time equals a day in the Land of the Lost.  Jack has heroic determination, but few survival skills.  He wouldn’t have gotten far in bare feet and thin pajamas without the resourceful, quick-witted replacement pig, who is surprisingly loyal for no good reason.  Jack learns why on the Isle of the Blessed, when DP explains that it was always the plan of his brother the replacement pig CP to sacrifice himself so the two friends could be reunited.  It was enough for CP to make the boy happy, believing it impossible to ever be loved in return.  Jack now realizes that he cannot leave CP behind and races against the clock to the Loser’s lair, where in the show down he saves CP and releases the surplus things trapped in there and sends them above to be recycled.

Will The Christmas Pig join the circle of classic holiday books within a few years, as Scholastic has so confidently predicted?  The Christmas miracle story is always being reinvented—think of John Masefield’s The Box of Delights (1935), Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1957), Raymond Briggs’s The Snowman (1978), Chris van Allsburg’s The Polar Express (1985).

But Rowling chose not to write an updated Christmas story reflecting the values of diversity, inclusion, and equity that gatekeepers have been calling for.  She has produced instead is a twenty-first century fantasy in which the protagonist grows by coping with familial troubles and resisting systemic injustice to save others.  Although Jack is from a white family of moderate circumstances, Rowling is betting on young readers from different backgrounds being able to relate to his predicaments in the real and imaginary worlds.   His adventures set in a modern dystopia right out of a big box store ultimately lifts up Christian values, striking many of the same chords as the Harry Potter series in the portrayal of self-sacrifice motivated by a deep sense of love.

How her magical moral tale will be received by a multi-generational and diverse readership across classes is beyond my powers of prediction. The noble CP may bring tears to the eyes of any lover of The Velveteen Rabbit.  The escape from Disposable in a lunchbox that smells of egg salad may get a laugh every time.  The royal family’s shocking display of  dysfunction at the banquet may be an homage to the allegorical characters in The Phantom Toll Booth that works for some and but not others.  Rowling’s Christmas miracle story may for some time continue to generate controversy that is not rooted in its literary quality–it remains to be seen if her inspired world building will trump those objections in the long run.