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When I was a little girl my parents signed me up for piano lessons. I had a series of kind teachers, who never yelled too loudly at me for not practicing. One of the many reasons I found it difficult to practice was that one of my little sisters had a terrible aversion to my playing. Above the sound of my wrong notes echoing through our house floated audible signs of her exasperation. You can imagine, then, that I have never thought of myself as the sort of pianist anyone would actually care to listen to. Still, I cannot help it. I love to play.

One evening, just a few years ago, I opened the front window to let in the cool breeze before I sat down at the piano. I was playing a Christmas carol (as I often do no matter what season it is) when I felt, unmistakably, that someone was staring at me. I knew it wasn’t my husband. He was still at work. I slowly turned my eyes away from the music and glanced over my shoulder. There was a man, a stranger, standing on the sidewalk in front of my house.

For what happened next, I am ashamed. I got scared. I popped up from that piano bench, swooped to the window, and shut it. It wasn’t until I was out of his sight, heart pounding at the top of the stairs, that I realized why the man had been lingering there. Wonder of all wonders, he had probably just been enjoying the music.

About a year later, as I sat beside my baby boy in front of our Christmas tree, I prayed for a Christmas story to write. The picture of that stranger standing before my house came back to me. I began to imagine what might have happened if I had left the window open. What if, instead of being afraid, I had reacted in the true spirit of Christmas? Then, I wrote the story of Kathleen, filling it with all that Christmas means to me.

To my solitary sidewalk listener: If you are reading this, please accept my apology for shutting that window. Your listening ears blessed me. May this book serve as a substitute for the remainder of that song.

1. What song do you imagine Kathleen is playing?
2. When you hear that particular song, what Christmas memory comes to your mind?
3. Why have the neighbors been ignoring Kathleen and George?
4. What story might Mr. Jacobs’ grandfather have told him each year as they searched for a Christmas tree?
5. Describe how Thad must have been feeling when he pounced on his big brother’s bed to wake him up.
6. For four different reasons, each of the four neighbors are in danger of missing Christmas altogether until they hear the music
    wafting from the tattered cottage. What are those reasons?
7. Why is it, do you suppose, that little Anna is the one neighbor who has the courage to knock on the door?
8. When the neighbors are invited into the house, what does the scene remind you of?
9. Mrs. Links hopes the family will be able to exchange her gifts for something useful. What types of things might be in Mrs. Links’ sack?
10. This story celebrates the power of music. Have you ever felt like a song is holding you? Taking you back in time? Explain.

(Yields 1 full, steaming mug or 2 smaller cups)
1 cup whole milk
1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder
2 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons chocolate syrup
marshmallows or whipped cream (optional)

This recipe involves a hot stove, so please ask a grownup to help you.

1. Measure the milk and pour it into a small saucepan. Turn the stove burner to low heat.
2. Add the cocoa powder and stir.
3. Stir in the sugar.
4. Pour in the chocolate syrup and stir until all the ingredients are dissolved.
5. Keep stirring for a few minutes until the milk is hot, but don’t let it come to a boil.
6. Carefully pour the hot cocoa into a mug and top with miniature marshmallows or whipped cream.
7. Savor each sip.
(You may want to double or triple this recipe and share some with your neighbors.)

Tricia Young, for believing in my writing enough to give me two books of stamps
Peggy Schaefer for turning my dream into a reality
Lauren Lanza, for her wise edits
Jim Madsen, for his attention to detail and all those earnest faces
Mrs. Greiner, beloved English teacher and mentor
Dr. John Tait, Dr. James Baird, Dr. Haj Ross, Dr. Eileen Tollett and all the other professors who inspired me along the way
Amy Racine, who read my manuscript and said, "Send it out . . . tomorrow!"
Allison and Haroon, for their help with this site
My husband and my son, for all their love
Jamie Hicks, Jack, Gigi, and Brooke Bullman, Beth Sanders, Kelli Love, and all my other family members and friends, for their support

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