Christmas in July?: a book review

When Christmas rolls around Jolly Old St. Nick is ubiquitous. Malls and movies, storybooks and songs feature a rotund ‘Claus with rosy cheeks. In our home, we do not pass on the Santa legend as fact to our children. Sadly, our kids have concluded that Santa goes to other people’s house but not ours. We don’t have a chimney. But Santa is no mere legend. His historic genesis is  found in a very real saint of the Christian church: Nicholas of Myra, the Wonder Worker. Cartoonist Jay Stoeckl, author of the acclaimed graphic novel Saint Francis and Brother Duck (link to my review) returns with a new graphic novel telling St. Nicholas’s story. As with Francis’s friend the duck, Nicholas has his own animal companion. Saint Nicholas and the Mouse of Myra tells the events of Nicholas’s life through the eyes of a mouse. His name is Cicero and he is a self-proclaimed philosopher and lover of Socrates and Plato. He is out of step with Nicholas’s faith, though he is often conscripted by Nicholas as an accomplice in clandestine acts of charity.

This was a fun read and a great way for people of all ages to explore the real Saint Nicholas. Cicero makes numerous comments throughout the comic which poke at Nicholas’s later association with Christmas (i.e. Reindeer, Christmas trees, gifting toys to all the children, etc). Nicholas always tells his rodent companion that he has an over-active imagination. Still Stoeckl plays with the legend. At the end of the book, we do not read of Nicholas’s death in the mid-340’s. Instead he and Cicero travel ‘North.’ This isn’t a book bent on destroying kid’s belief in Santa Claus. If anything Stoeckl gives strong hints at the Yuletide connection.

The stories and legends of the real St. Nicholas are recorded here with the skeptical Cicero’s commentary. We read of Nicholas paying the three dowries for a poor family so that the daughter’s would not be sold off as slaves. We also read of Nicholas bringing bread  and coins to the poor of Myra, his confrontation with Arius and the paganism of his day, and his miracles. The mystified mouse  doesn’t always know what to make of Nick, but he is won over by the saint’s care for the poor, his unwavering commitment to Christ and his deep humility.

Little is known of the ‘real’ St. Nicholas. Stoeckl  is retelling some of the early storieswe have about the saint. Some of the miracle stories sound more like legend than historical fact (i.e. Nicholas resting his coat on a sun beam). Other stories include Nicholas calming the sea, healing others, multiplying barrels of grain, and destroying a pagan temple through prayer. However Stoeckl does feel it necessary to explain how Nicholas could be present at the council of Nicea (325) to refute Arius, though his name does not appear on the historic list of bishops at that council (Nicholas confronts Arius with words and not with a slap or punch as is sometimes claimed).

This is Stoeckl’s second ‘saint’ graphic novel, and therefore invites comparison with the first. I think Saint Francis and Brother Duck is funnier and a little deeper. Stoeckl is steeped in the Franciscan tradition (he is a secular Franciscan) and we know much more about Francis than we do about Nicholas. But there are parts of this story I found really touching. I liked it and I love the comic book format for making the life of the saints come to life.  This was an enjoyable read which I am sharing with my kids. I give this four stars: ★★★★

Thank you to Paraclete Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Brother Duck’s Tell All Tale: a book review

Francis of Assisi is the world’s most popular saint.  His life, his joy and his connection to creation has inspired millions of people. His commitment to the poor and the least of these offers a radical challenge to our materialist age. There are many biographies, collections of stories and children’s books which pay homage to the great saint, but none quite like this.

Saint Francis and Brother Duck: a Graphic Novel by Jay Stoeckl

Cartoonist Jay Stoeckl was an aspiring cartoonist. After traveling to Assisi he became a secular Franciscan.  Saint Francis and Brother Duck is his graphic retelling of the life of Francis. In these pages we meet the young Francis who dreams of being a  glorious knight. His father sends him off to battle arrayed in fine clothes and armor.  But before he sees much battle he rescues a duck from some cruel boys.  He hears a voice telling him that he misinterpreted his ‘dream.’ In Stoeckl’s retelling, the duck he saved returns home with Francis and remains his companion for the nearly twenty years. The duck narrates this story and in the end this is as much his story as it is Francis’s.

Stoeckl revisits most of the famous Francis stories: the rebuilding the church of San Damiano, his trial before the bishop where he gave  the clothes off his back, back to his father, the first followers in Gubbio, Francis preaching to the birds (including a duck),  Clare joining the order, Francis’s overcoming brother wolf, Francis preaching to the sultan,  and his receiving the stigmata and more.

Brother Duck is a simple and earnest character. He is a faithful friend to Francis and goes with him everywhere but doesn’t always understand Francis. Sometimes he asks probing questions which allow Francis to share his grand theological vision. Other times Brother Duck provides comic relief by being  just as slow to understand Francis as the rest of us. In the end the Brother Duck is a faithful interpreter of Francis’s message and legacy.

The back cover says that this graphic novel was ‘designed to inspire ages 8 & up.’ My children are a bit younger than that, and a lot of this book is beyond them; however I found it a fun and imaginative read, full of good humor.  My favorite piece of dialogue between Saint Francis and Brother Duck is the following:

Francis (F): Brother Duck?  What if all living things were brother or sister to me?

Brother Duck (BD): That would make one really big family!

F: Yeah! and Earth would be our mother.

BD (after a pause)What about alligators?  If alligators eat ducks and a duck is your friend would you say, “Brother Alligator, you just ate my best friend brother duck”?

F: I suppose I would simply say, “Brother Alligator, I am so sad you ate my best friend Brother Duck.”

BD (another pause): What about mosquitoes? What if big, hairy creepy Brother Spider catches obnoxious blood-sucking Sister Mosquito–who had just bitten Brother Rattlesnake as he is slowly digesting slimy, disease-bearing- Sister Rat?

F: And the Lord God made them all!

BD: Hmmm.

I would recommend this book to any lover of St. Francis. The childlike-faith of Francis is showcased in this format. Young readers and old readers will appreciate what they find in these pages. I give the book four stars: ★★★★☆

Thank you to Paraclete Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this review. Click here to read an excerpt from this book.