The Legend of St. Nicholas by Dandi Daley Mackall (Book Review)

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I recently was given chance to review The Legend of St. Nicholas: A Story of Christmas Giving by Dandi Daley Mackall, and since our youngest son shares his name, I jumped at the chance to teach my children a little about the Nicholas of many years ago.  I was pleasantly surprised at this sweet, simple story about the man whose legacy has become so entwined with modern celebrations of Christmas.

The book begins with a boy named Nick who is reluctantly taken shopping to find gifts for his brothers (though he’s hoping to have enough money to buy something for himself as well).  While he’s shopping, he overhears the store Santa telling some children the story of St. Nicholas, who found great joy in using his wealth to give gifts to others.  Before Nick goes home, he not only buys presents for his brothers but also uses the remainder of his money to buy toys for poor children.

It’s a sweet story, and there were many things I liked about it.  Most of the details about St. Nicholas are based on traditional stories passed down about him (like his travels, the wealth he inherited from his parents, and his gift of dowries for three sisters who could not afford to get married).  I loved the way Nicholas turned to God for guidance in a way that was very natural and not at all contrived.

That night, Nicholas talked things over with God.  “Father, could this be the work you have for me?”  As if in answer, the church bells rang.  Nicholas remembered what his mother had said about the wise kings bringing gifts to baby Jesus.  He thought of what his father said about Jesus being the greatest gift.  What better time to give gifts than on Jesus’ birthday!

The illustrations by Richard Cowdrey are beautiful, but I was a little puzzled by the choice to make the pictures from St. Nicholas’ life look like they were set in the 1800’s.  The scene with a fancy horse-drawn carriage and his father in a top hat looked like it belonged in a story set in the time of Charles Dickens rather than St. Nicholas, who lived about 300 years after Christ.  Aside from this anachronism, however, I thought the illustrations added to the charm of the book.  I especially liked the pages at the end when the story transitions back the the present, and you flip from a picture of Nicholas to one of Nick with an identical expression, capturing how the vision of giving had been passed on.

Nicholas and Nick

He could imagine how good it must have felt to secretly give his friends what they had wanted most.  Nick had almost forgotten why people gave presents at Christmas.  He wanted to feel that same joy of giving.

I thought this book did a great job of teaching an important lesson without sounding preachy.  My children mostly enjoyed it because it was about two boys who shared a name with their little brother, but I am glad to have it as a part of our Christmas library to remind them of the joy that comes from focusing on giving gifts rather than receiving them.

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