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Jolly Old Saint Nick, simplified
on December 6, 2007
You might think it would be easy to translate the real story of Saint Nicholas of Myra into picture book form so that it can be shared with children. But the task is more complex than it first appears. If you research the origins of our Santa Claus, you either come up with voluminous information about travels, miracles, and patronage; or you land on a single statement that insists that no confirmed historical facts exist about him. It's tough to boil down the facts, such as they are, and figure out an engaging way to present them to young people.
Dandi Daley Mackall takes a stab at the assignment with THE LEGEND OF ST. NICHOLAS, which puts a contemporary twist on the historical account. The book begins with a boy named Nick who goes last-minute Christmas shopping with his father. Nick is more focused on what he'd like to get for himself, not on presents for his little brothers. But he overhears a department-store Santa retelling the story of Saint Nicholas. He learns a bit about a young man who saw suffering and had enough wealth of his own to help out his friends and deposit anonymous gifts at their homes. When he later saw how much his gifts were appreciated, Saint Nicholas decided to celebrate Christmas in that fashion from that point on. Hearing this tale had its effect on real-time Nick, and in no time he was busy figuring out what to get for his family members.
The plot is nicely done, even if we don't believe that a young person can be turned around so quickly these days. Guy Porfirio's illustrations are rich in color and expression (though the text mentions that Nick is ogling CDs, not the DVDs that he is seen holding in one scene). Children might be stunned at first to see Saint Nicholas depicted as a handsome young man, not much older than themselves. But of course that's the point! And I think it is well made here. Good job!
Mackall and Porfirio are not the first ones to tackle this subject, and they surely won't be the last. Other good picture book treatments include: Marianna Mayer's "The Real Santa Claus," which provides a detailed history of Nicholas' life; Demi's "The Legend of Saint Nicholas," which streamlines a similar history and features iconic illustrations; and "The Baker's Dozen: A Saint Nicholas Tale" by Aaron Shepard and Wendy Edelson, which brings to life a simple and colorful American folktale of gratitude, inspired by the saint. Each one is worthy of sharing with a child during the holiday season.