Shedding a tear for the author of ‘Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree’

Gloria Houston, one of North Carolina’s most celebrated children’s writers, died Monday at age 75.
Gloria Houston, one of North Carolina’s most celebrated children’s writers, died Monday at age 75. Jeff Willhelm

For a dozen Decembers now, I’ve read Gloria Houston’s “The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree” – to my children when they were young, to a couple of elementary school classes, sometimes to myself. The story almost always chokes me up.

Houston died Monday at her daughter’s house in Florida. She was 75 and had been fighting cancer for a couple of years. When I heard the news, I dug out my book, which Houston autographed for my kids. It’s my favorite picture book.

If you’ve been a child or read to a child in the last quarter century, you, too, may be acquainted with Houston’s remarkable books. Best known is “The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree,” set in the North Carolina mountains during World War I, about a little girl and her mother carrying on while her father is away at war. Houston set most of her books in the mountains, drawing from the family stories she absorbed growing up in Avery County. For decades, her parents ran the much-loved Sunny Brook general store near Spruce Pine.

Houston was a broke graduate student when she got the idea for “The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree” in December 1984. She named her main character, the little girl Ruthie, after her mother. It was her mom’s Christmas present that year.

Since publication in 1988, the book, illustrated by a Caldecott-winning artist, has become a holiday classic, with some 3.5 million copies in print. It’s been adapted into a musical, an opera and ballet. Ministers have used it for their Christmas Eve services.

Many readers, including Charlotte-Mecklenburg Library Director of Libraries David Singleton, who grew up in Avery County, appreciate how Houston’s stories break stereotypes of mountain people. When “The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree” came out, “there weren’t a lot of books that portrayed the poor rural mountain experience in a way that gave the people the dignity and intelligence that she did,” he says.

I loved Houston’s knack for capturing the cadence, culture and humor of Appalachia. “It was getting toward Christmas in the valley of Pine Grove,” “The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree” begins. “The wise folk said the old woman in the sky was picking her geese, for the Appalachian mountains lay blanketed with snow.”

I should point out that even though this book makes me cry, it’s not sad at all. Just the opposite. Which is why my kids always rolled their eyes when I choked up. But when I interviewed Houston and told her this, she wasn’t surprised. The story never makes children cry, she said. They’re not sentimental. But adults – that’s another story.

She herself only cried once, she told me, while watching a dress rehearsal of the stage version at the Children’s Theatre of Charlotte. It’s the scene where Ruthie’s mama, who has no money, decides to sacrifice her wedding gown for Ruthie, who needs a dress to play an angel in the church Christmas pageant. When Mama ripped that wedding dress, Houston broke down.

“People cry different places,” she told me. “Where do you cry?”

For me, it’s near the end. Ruthie has played the Christmas angel in the church pageant. St. Nick has presented her with a tiny angel doll. As she leaves the church, she’s so mesmerized by it that she doesn’t notice the man in an Army uniform – her father, waiting for her.

“Let me look at you, my pretty young’un,” said Papa’s voice.

And he hugged Ruthie, Mama, and the tiny angel all at the same time.

Singleton told me that’s where he gets choked up, too.

Houston taught in the public schools and also at Western Carolina University. Her obituary says she often identified herself as “first, last and always, a teacher.” A funeral service will be April 3 at the Pine Grove United Methodist Church, the inspiration for the church in the book. It’s on Highway 19E, north of Spruce Pine. Visitation begins at 1:30 p.m. followed by a 2:30 p.m. service.

Survivors include Houston’s brother and his wife, Jerry and Cheryl Houston, of Charlotte; and her daughters, Julie McLendon Floen of Apollo Beach, Fla., and Diane Gainforth of Temple Terrace, Fla.

Pam Kelley: 704 358-5271

Books by Gloria Houston include:

“Miss Dorothy and Her Bookmobile,” based on a Radcliffe-educated librarian who navigated mountain roads to supply books to residents of Avery, Mitchell and Yancey counties when Houston was a girl.

The “Littlejim” series, young-adult books whose eponymous main character is based on Houston’s father.

“My Great-Aunt Arizona,” a picture book based on Houston’s great-aunt, a teacher in the Blue Ridge Mountains who hugged her students, and “taught them words and numbers, and about the faraway places they would visit someday.”

“Bright Freedom’s Song: The Story of the Underground Railroad,” about a North Carolina family that hid runaway slaves on its North Carolina farm.