This is a cumulative tale, all based on the rather unlikely repeated coincidence of a Christmas tree that's just a little too big for its designated space having the top chopped off and tossed—only to provide a tree for someone else. It's literally a tall tale (then a shorter tale, an even shorter tale, etc.)!
We begin following the tree when it is cut down on the page before the title page, hauled down from a mountaintop on the title page, and driven past a bear and a couple of rabbits on the publisher's info page to land on page one with the following text:
Mr. Willowby's Christmas tree
Came by special delivery.
Full and fresh and glistening green—
The biggest tree he had ever seen.
Mr. Willowby, with his large white mustache, dances around as the tree is put up, he's so excited. Then he notices that the tree doesn't quite fit.
Baxter, the butler, was called on in haste
To chop off the top, though it seemed quite a waste.
Baxter proceeds to take the top of the tree to Miss Adelaide, who is Mr. Willowby's upstairs maid. She sets up a table-top tree, but the top of the tree bends against her gable room ceiling. When she clips it off and throws it out, it is picked up, trimmed, and passed along repeatedly, making its way to one more human and three festive animal households before ending up with a tiny mouse family who lives in Mr. Willowby's house not too far from the original Christmas tree.
What makes this book so appealing? It's not the rhymed text, which ranges from adequate to slightly less so. No, it's the outrageous trail of adopters and choppers, along with the wonderful artwork. Each new tree acquisition is greeted with enthusiasm by an intriguing new set of characters. I especially like Barnaby Bear and his family, perhaps in part because they are given extra page time. (Barry must have liked them, too!)
Mama Bear is clearly in charge of this household. When Barnaby suggests slicing the tree off at the bottom because it won't fit on the mantel, "...Mama Bear just shook her head/And sliced the treetop off instead." Barnaby looks a tiny bit dismayed and Baby Bear seems surprised as Mama wields a large and shining knife with sturdy confidence. These subtleties of character are played out differently in each of the homes we visit so quickly. The best illustrators have a knack for capturing personality, and Robert Barry is no exception.
Each new incarnation of the Christmas tree is its own little story, like a miniature chapter in a longer book than this one. We don't get to hang around to see all of the different approaches to tree decorating, but in the Bears' home, it's "bells and honey rings,/Some berries, and tinsel, and popcorn on strings." At the very end, we learn that the Mouse family puts a star made of cheese on top of their tiny tree.
This is a goodhearted, ever so slightly tongue-in-cheek Christmas story, and young readers will thoroughly enjoy finding out where the increasingly small Christmas tree ends up next. It's almost as if the tree were a character, making its way from house to house like a slowly melting snowman. There's a message in here somewhere, but it's not entirely obvious. More than anything, Mr. Willowby's Christmas Tree captures the joy of families gathering to celebrate the season.