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Holiday Storytelling


If there's anything the holidays are good for, it's a heartwarming story, and when the right people are around, a good game. Before he took off to enjoy his holiday, Scott Simon combined both. Playing along with him, Kwame Alexander, writer of many children's books, including "The Undefeated," and Alissa Nutting, author of "Made For Love."


So in a moment of weakness, what made you say yes to this?

ALISSA NUTTING: I was sad and lonely.

SIMON: (Laughter) Oh, Kwame?

KWAME ALEXANDER: I say yes to everything.

SIMON: Oh, God bless. Well, thank you both very much. Let me explain. We're going to play a round robin. I'm gonna begin a story, Kwame will pick it up, Alissa will pick it up when Kwame leaves off, back to me. We will see where it goes, all right?

NUTTING: All right.

ALEXANDER: Sounds good.

SIMON: Let me begin with a kind of holiday story.


SIMON: Harry Hammersley hated the holidays. He thought they were - what was the word his mother taught him? - horrid. He had to dress for school plays like an elf or a penguin, not a pirate or an astronaut. He had to sing songs about snow, sleigh rides, silver bells, all of which sounded horrid. And tinsel, snowmen, and chestnuts roasting on an open fire which sounded horrible.

The horrible, horrid days, Harry called them, the weeks before the end of the year where everybody else in Chagrin Falls, Ohio - Harry Hammersley's hometown - went around smiling even though they frowned and growled the rest of the year. That's hypocritical, Harry told his mother, as soon as he learned the word in the third grade. Maybe, dear, said Harry's mother, but isn't that also nice? Grumpy people grin, candle lights flicker and dance, cookies are warm in the oven. The holidays make people happy. Not me, said Harry Hammersley.

Oh, Harry Hammersley, said Harry's older sister, Henrietta Hammersley. You are being a hippopotamus, too. Hypocrite, he corrected her. Whatever, she said. You ate some warm gingerbread once, Henrietta recalled. I saw you smile. I was making a face, said Harry. It just looked like a smile. You smiled when Teresa Terwilliger, the little girl next door, gave you a card with a bright white star on it. It made me squint, said Harry. The star hurt my eyes.

Hmm, said Henrietta Hammersley, but I bet something will get you to smile during this holiday. Nope, said Harry Hammersley. I will not smile. A whole army of elves could tickle my feet, a whole legion of gingerbread people could slide down my throat, I still won't smile during the horrid days, not once. Hmm, said Henrietta Hammersley. We'll see.


SIMON: OK, Kwame Alexander, take it over.

ALEXANDER: Harry Hammersley's horrendous mood continued at night. You see, he'd had another Belvedere episode, but that's another story.


ALEXANDER: It continued into the morning, also, when he woke to see his front yard had gone from green to glacial. Usually, the ice and snow meant cancel school, which made most children happy. But Harry Hammersley didn't like snow. Plus, the frozen crystal outside his house meant he wouldn't get to check out the next book in the fantasy series he'd been reading. And even worse, he wouldn't be able to escape the nagging of his sister.

Ugh, the day just got horrider. Harry Hammersley groaned as he tumbled down the stairs, expecting to find his sister and mother at the breakfast table - which they were - laughing about this or that - which they weren't. In fact, for once, they weren't even smiling. And they weren't alone.

Harry Hammersley, Henrietta Hamersley called out, with just enough of a frown to make him want to smile, you have a visitor. Perched at the table beside his sister sat Teresa Terwilliger. She stood as he approached. Harry Hammersley, she announced, we have a problem.

SIMON: I can't stand the suspense. Go ahead, Alissa.

ALEXANDER: Dun, dun, dun.

SIMON: Dun, dun, dun.

NUTTING: Dun, dun, dun.


SIMON: Good.

NUTTING: Teresa pointed to the window. Your horrible happiness hang-ups are hatching holiday havoc. Our town is covered in ice. How's that Harry's handiwork, asked Hannah. Teresa rolled her eyes. Does the phrase youthful cheer paradigm mean anything to you? Hannah shrugged. Henrietta blinked. Harry yawned.

Harry's throwing off the seasonal equilibrium, Teresa explained. Holiday physics is a closed system based on children's joy. For example, if the system detects a high amount of juvenile glee, the festive forces fall so as to not go overboard. But when the system detects low joy, Teresa continued, it heightens the holiday happenings to compensate.

Teresa walked to the sink, filled a glass with water and handed it to Hannah. Smell this, she instructed. Hannah sniffed, and her eyes went wide. Peppermint, she whispered.

SIMON: Oh, you've got me totally now. All right, I'll pick it up for a couple of moments.

Peppermint, Harry groaned. I'll never take a bath again. How would we ever tell the difference, Harry Hammersley, Henrietta asked him. But these holiday physics present a problem. You see, Harry, explained Teresa Terwilliger, the more hideous and horrible you feel about the holidays. Horrid days, Harry corrected her. The more the youthful cheer paradigm has to compensate for your crossness, crabbiness and irascibility. I thought the one good thing about these horrid days, said Harry, is no vocabulary tests.

When Harry looked out the window, the scene was more horrid than ever. The snow is falling from the sky in big, fat flakes like powdered sugar, groaned Harry. Kids are making snow figures, not doing something useful, like putting bugs on their sister's toothbrush. The trees at the park are wrapped like candy canes.


SIMON: They heard a knock on the door. Why don't you get that, Harry, dear, asked Hannah Hammersley. Harry opened the door and looked down. There were half a dozen small golden figures in front of the door with wide eyes and smiles and red candy dot eyes. Gingerbread people, Teresa announced, going door to door. You see what your low joy is doing to Chagrin Falls? Just try a smile, Harry, she said. But Harry Hammersley didn't crack.

OK, Kwame, where do we go?

ALEXANDER: The next day, the snow had melted.


ALEXANDER: School was back. Harry loathed school. He loathed all of his classes, especially the one with Miss Ratner, who was always smiling. In fact, the kids called her Happy Holly - behind her back, of course. Today we're going to learn about poetry. Urgh, that was another thing Harry loathed. Do you know poetry, Miss Ratner said, is a way for you all to deal with your feelings, to express yourself? No one wants to express themselves, to deal with their feelings, Harry thought. But he'd give it a shot. In fact, he knew what he was going to write about. She gave them 30 seconds to craft a poem.


ALEXANDER: A monster lives inside my room. His name is Belvedere. He wears a flaming purple tux and loves to chant and cheer. I've asked him to be quieter so I can fall asleep, but when I close my eyes each night, I often hear him creep. One night when I was fast asleep, he bellowed out a song. I woke up with a bright idea. Perhaps I'll sing a song. He said my voice was so dreadful it made him start to wince. He got upset and drove away. I haven't seen him since.

SIMON: Harry, that is outstanding.

ALEXANDER: Thank you, Happy Holly.

SIMON: OK, Alissa.

NUTTING: Harry finished his poem and looked out amongst his classmates expecting thunderous applause. But instead, they all started to snicker.


NUTTING: Harry, embarrassed, ran to the bathroom, shut the stall door, started weeping, then all of a sudden saw two wet, large feet stand in front of the door. It knocked gently. He opened it. Harry, the man said, I'm Simon Sawwell. I'm Santa's second cousin. I don't get to go through the chimney, Harry. How do you travel, Harry asked. You don't want to know, said Simon. But close your eyes, and take my hand. I've got something to show you.

So Harry took his hand. He closed his eyes, and Simon said, you better plug your nose and hold your breath, too. So Harry did, and he felt something very wet. And he swam, and they swam. And when they came out, he turned to Harry and he said, we're here. Harry opened his eyes in the basement of the North Pole.


NUTTING: Harry saw all of the joy, all of the merriment, everything that throughout the year Santa hordes and keeps to himself. And Harry said, I think I feel a smile.


SIMON: Do you want to try and pick that up, Kwame, or have we ended?

NUTTING: Oh, we can't end in the sewer of the North Pole.

SIMON: Yeah. If we turn the last page of the book, what's on the final page?

NUTTING: Harry runs into his home with wet hair on Christmas morning.

SIMON: Saying it was all a dream.

ALEXANDER: Guess where I've been?

NUTTING: I'm back, family. I'm back, and I'm smiling.

ALEXANDER: Where'd you go, Harry?

SIMON: Oh, you would never believe it. As a matter of fact, I almost don't. Then he turns to his sister and says, but I was there. We both know it.

NUTTING: And she says, you smell like joy.

SIMON: (Laughter).

ALEXANDER: And he says, don't push it. I'm still Harry.

SIMON: Kwame Alexander and Alissa Nutting, it's been a pleasure playing our unnamed game with you. What a distinction and an honor. Thank you.

NUTTING: Thank you, Scott.

ALEXANDER: Our pleasure.