Children’s books on the lives of the saints aren’t hard to find. The market is full of them—some good, some mediocre, some dreadful. The caliber of the writing varies wildly, as does the quality of the illustrations. When looking at books for my own children, I seek out collections that feature unusual, lesser-known saints, or those that don’t generally find their way into kids’ books; in addition to the “heavy-hitters” or those deemed particularly kid-friendly, I want my kids to get to know some of those saintly odd-balls, the ones whose stories may seem a little strange, or outlandish, or even gruesome to our contemporary tastes.
Stories of the Saints: Bold and Inspiring Tales of Adventure, Grace, and Courage, written by Carey Wallace and illustrated by Nick Thornborrow (Workman Publishing, 2020), features many of the children’s-book favorites: Francis of Assisi, Nicholas, Patrick, Joan of Arc, Thérèse of Lisieux. However, it also includes many saints less frequently highlighted in books for young readers: Polycarp and Catherine of Alexandria; Pachomius and Simeon Stylites; Stanislaus, John Nepomucene, Camillus de Lellis, and Josephine Bakhita, among others. In all, the book covers the lives of 70 saints, from the early days of the Church through the 20th century. Geared toward middle-readers (ages 8-12), the stories emphasize the more fantastic elements of the saints’ stories; perhaps surprisingly for a book put out by a secular publisher, Stories of the Saints revels in the miraculous and mysterious, and makes no attempt to downplay the close, intense relationships these holy men and women had with their Heavenly Father. The book doesn’t shy away from some of the gorier aspects of the saints’ lives, either; as the stories appear chronologically, the book leads off with several early Christian martyrs and the various brutal attempts made by their persecutors to shake their faith and terrify those who would follow their footsteps.
Wallace’s prose is simple and direct, and avoids the flowery or overly sentimental language of many children’s books about saints. Her straightforward style is usually a virtue, though there is occasional clunkiness, such as when St. Patrick is described as using a shamrock to explain “how God can be three people in one.”
While Wallace’s storytelling gets the job done, Nick Thornborrow’s illustrations really steal the show; my family gasped at several of them as we flipped through the pages. Highly stylized and rich with symbolism and detail, they capture the drama of a life devoted to Christ, as well as the uniqueness of each saint’s story. They invite the reader to consider familiar saints in a new light, and fire an interest in those less well known.
Thornborrow’s experience as a concept and storyboard artist for video games is evident in many of his illustrations; others images bring to mind Tomm Moore’s animated films The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea. Several offer interesting interpretations of traditional artistic renderings of their subjects, such as the illustration of Teresa of Avila; others present a true re-imagining of familiar figures, such as the stocky, long-haired, decidedly tonsure-less Francis of Assisi who graces the book’s cover.
Some of Thornborrow’s artwork may go too far afield from traditional depictions of the saints for some Catholic readers; some might object to Thornborrow’s svelte St. Thomas Aquinas or frankly boyish St. Clare. Catherine of Siena is shown in a richly embroidered gown and veil, rather than the simple robes of a Dominican tertiary, and Our Lady of Lourdes is depicted, not in the white veil and golden roses of St. Bernadette’s description, but in dark blue. Some may take a negative view of these departures from tradition; others will find them fresh and exciting.
The overall effect of Thornborrow’s artwork is breathtaking. Young readers—particularly if they are already familiar with more traditional renderings of these saints—will find these images arresting. They invite a renewed consideration of many saints already known and loved, while sparking an interest in holy men and women whose stories deserve to be better known.
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