Celebrating St. Nicholas: New Picture Book Review

By Jennifer Gregory Miller (bio - articles - email) | Nov 28, 2014

One of the most popular saint days of Advent is the Optional Memorial of St. Nicholas of Myra. St. Nicholas is a contemporary of St. Martin of Tours, Nicholas being the saint of the Church in the East and Martin the saint of the West. Both are the first of the class of "confessors" and non-martyr saints. These bishops of the 4th century lived during the transition from persecution to living Christianity openly in the world.

Despite living so long ago, St. Nicholas is still a universally loved saint. The types of celebration for his feast on December 6 vary, but almost all ways of honoring St. Nicholas emphasize his patronage for children.

My family is no exception in loving St. Nicholas. We place our shoes at the hearth for St. Nicholas to fill with small gifts (usually books and videos) and candy and speculaas cookies we baked earlier in the week.

And books are an integral part of celebrating any feast days of the saints. I'm particularly on the lookout for good books on St. Nicholas, especially since one son claims St. Nicholas as his namesake.

My criteria for books on saints' lives have become more stringent over the years. As both my children are now reading, I can't adjust the text as I did when I read all the books aloud. For new books I try to apply the guidelines on feasts of saints from The Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy:

231. It is always necessary to ensure that the feast days of the Saints are carefully prepared both liturgically and pastorally.

Such requires a correct presentation of the objectives of the cult of the Saints, i.e. the glorification of God "in His Saints"318, a commitment to live the Christian life following the example of Christ, of whose mystical Body the Saints are preeminent members.

It is also necessary to represent the figure of the Saint in a correct manner. Bearing in mind the prospect of contemporary society, this presentation should not only contain an account of the legendary events associated with the Saint, or of his thaumaturgic powers, but should also include an evaluation of his significance for the Christian life, the greatness of his sanctity, the effectiveness of his Christian witness, and of the manner in which his particular charism has enriched the Church.

My Saint Book Criteria:

I keep these thoughts in mind when choosing children's books on the saints, whether it is a picture book, chapter book, or a collected lives of the saints. These criteria are more applicable to picture books. Since so few books make a perfect grade, I have to compromise in some areas.

  1. Beautiful and Well-Written. For picture books, I look for books that have beautiful illustrations.  I dislike cartoon-like drawings. If the images are well-done, they can stand alone to present the story. For any of the saint books the text should properly portray the saint without stilted or overly simplified language. I especially avoid books with overt moral or religious lessons. There should be room for the child to ponder and make his/her own connections.
  2. No Fairy Tales. Young children perceive stories as imaginary. But saints are real persons. It is important to ground the saints' lives in reality so a child doesn't confuse myths, legends and fairy tales with lives of the saints.
  3. Legends and Miracles Point to God. While it is a natural outpouring of love to share legends and wonders of a saint, they shouldn't be expressed as magical or superhuman acts. The miracles are performed through the saint, but worked by God. The saint is the humble instrument that God uses.
  4. Saints Are Our Heroes. Saints are true heroes.  They aren't imaginary, like comic book superheroes. Saints are part of history; they are flesh and blood people who lived before us. They combated human weakness, struggled against sin, sought to love God above all things and now live in triumph in heaven. The child should see the saint as a brother or sister in Christ and a true hero to imitate.
  5. Elevating to the Supernatural. There are many books that relate lives of saints on a natural level. These "feel-good" stories illustrate love, joy, peace, etc.  on a natural level, or present God as a vague New Age reference. Instead of this approach, the writing should recognize the supernatural aspect in the saints' lives. Without God's grace there would be no saints.
  6. Priest, Bishops and Religious. Vocations of the saints is nothing to hide. It is important to portray the saint as a priest or bishop or nun, not just a holy person. This is a common problem in picture books, as authors from other faiths are writing to appeal to wider audiences. But we are Catholics, and the saints are part of our Catholic heritage. We don't need to hide the saint's connection with the Catholic Church.
  7. Life Overview. There are many children's books that feature one aspect or story from the life of a saint. As there are different levels of readers, a younger child can handle more easily a shorter book with only one story. But I prefer having a book that gives an overview of the entire life of the saint. It should portray how the saint lived in his/her daily life as a Christian and how he/she followed the Gospel and spread the Faith by good examples.
  8. A Saint to Imitate? A Saint for Intercession? Finally, will the book inspire the reader? Does it influence a child to imitate the saint and turn for his/her intercession? Will a child want to grow in love for God like this saint?  Does the book motivate a child to work at becoming a saint?

Grade A St. Nicholas Book

To my utter delight, I recently discovered a new book that meets my criteria almost completely:

The Legend of Saint Nicholas by Anselm Grün, illustrated by Giuliano Ferri, published by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, originally published in German.

This picture book (24 pages) appeals to all ages, and is a perfect book to read aloud together without losing interest of younger listeners. The story is short but reverently captures the essence of St. Nicholas as a saint, a  shepherd/bishop, and intercessor.

I think the title should be "The Life and Legend of St. Nicholas" because, unlike other books on this beloved saint, this one briefly spans his life and cult after death and shares several legends.

The book opens with the birth of St. Nicholas to Christian parents of Patara who had prayed for a son. Thankfully the childhood legends aren't included; I have always been unnerved by the idea of a saint as a day-old infant standing in his bath to pray and later as a toddler fasting on saints' days. If a saint is perfect and holy from the moment they are born, it can be completely defeating to the reader.

Nicholas answers God's call to be a priest, and is chosen as bishop of Myra. This is the language used; there is no hiding the fact that St. Nicholas was a member of the Catholic clergy.

The only area that isn't perfect is the illustrations. They are lovely, but I do not find them breathtaking. It bothers me a bit that the humans all have rounded shoulders or no backbones. What I do love is that the priests and bishops are all portrayed wearing their clerical garb and vestments. St. Nicholas is a proper bishop holding his crosier and miter. There is no adjusting his image to make him round and jolly and to look more like Santa Claus.

One of the legends presented is St. Nicholas saving a ship from sinking. The sailors return to Myra and thank St. Nicholas for his help. The bishop does not take credit for the miracle: "You should not thank me, but God. It is he who saved you." This wonderfully illustrates that St. Nicholas recognizes that he is God's instrument, and does not have personal supernatural powers.

Since the book was originally written for Germans, the concluding pages highlights the Germanic custom of St. Nicholas visiting and giving gifts on the eve of his feast. The description is not exclusive, so any child who honors St. Nicholas will feel included and inspired. For those that believe in Santa Claus this book will not confuse their family custom.

The short summary: two thumbs up. This book captures the essence of St. Nicholas as a historical figure (without too many details, leaving room for personal research), a saint and powerful intercessor.  If I had to pick only one picture book to briefly but accurately capture St. Nicholas for my children, this book would be my choice.

Jennifer Gregory Miller is an experienced homemaker, home schooler, and authority on living the liturgical year. She is the primary developer of CatholicCulture.org's liturgical year section. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Litlflwr2800 - Dec. 05, 2014 10:35 PM ET USA

    Thanks for letting us know about this beautiful book! I ordered it based on your recommendation and read it to my class and kids today. It was a huge hit! The illustrations are beautiful and the story pleased all the children, from ages three to ten. Great choice!

  • Posted by: amber3287 - Dec. 02, 2014 8:26 PM ET USA

    I love your criteria - it is so much like my own! And my goodness is it hard to find decent saint books... I don't want to seem a book snob, but still, I feel like saint books are an area where I really shouldn't be compromising. And the issue is compounded by the fact that I live in a rural area, so there's no way for me to actually look through most books before buying them.