I’m really happy that I read this just coming off of my experience with the Oz books. For while this book is approximately the same length as Dorothy of Oz, it is a wildly different experience. UPDATE 4/23/13: Here are my reviews of the next two books, E. Aster Bunnymund and Toothiana, as well as my review of the Rise of the Guardians film.
Nicholas St. North and the Battle of the Nightmare King, By William Joyce and Laura Geringer. Originally published in 2011. First in The Guardians of Childhood series.
Rise of the Guardians, DreamWorks. Release Date, November 21
Fantasy (unless you still believe Santa is real)
5 and up. The language may be a little complex for early readers even to comprehend, but the wonderful illustrations help to compensate for that a bit. A great “read-to” book through the 2nd grade reading level, then a fantastic “read with” after that. There are some moments that might, during the reading, scare young children (some major characters seem to die), and the concept of a villain that feeds off of scaring children could be a little dark. But the telling of the story really does mitigate some of those feelings, especially the notion that this happened long ago. There is a considerable amount of battle, but the violence is not described in any graphic nature (save a scene with St. North and a bear, which is not graphic, but more realistic)
Good for Grown-Ups?
For children of all ages. A rich and dream-like tale written with astounding imagination. This story of the Santa we never knew about, and the origins of childhood heroes is worth reading whether you have children or not.
Not available in electronic format. Widely available in print.
Quickie Plot Synopsis
A long time ago, a moonbeam, dancing to earth with its mission to illuminate the good feelings of the world’s children, stumbles accidentally on a dark secret long hidden. Its luminescence suddenly trapped inside a magical dagger, a shadowy boy wrenches free from a larger, darker figure. Pitch, the ruler of the fiendish Fearlings and Nightmare Men has been awakened, and his quest to bathe the cosmos in terror has awakened with him.
With hair like that, he must be evil
Only one man on earth seems to sense something is wrong. In the distant Russian land of Santoff Claussen, a great wizard named Ombric has created a world of joy, wonder, and discovery for its denizens, most particularly his adopted daughter Katherine. In a world where science and magic, technology and alchemy are celebrated with equal fervor, the sorcerer has protected the town from the dark and greedy eyes of the outside world with the power of cosmic rays, spirits, and a bear the size of your average motor home.
But when Pitch infiltrates Santoff Clausen, reinforcements are needed—and a very unlikely hero is chosen. Nicholas St. North, prince of thieves, is brought to the town and, lone among his band chooses bravery over riches. In that choice comes a battle that saves Santoff Clausen, and begins the metamorphosis of this rouge brigand into the jolly red-suited fellow that my ten-year-old son still believes in (more or less—given he just outed the Tooth Fairy).
When technology and magic collide
What ensues is an adventure where Ombric, St. North, and Katherine work with such forces as the Man on the Moon, Abominable Snow Men, and even a Night Light to find the magical items that will force Pitch Back into the shadows. A sleigh, a robot, and reindeer feature prominently as Katherine is forced on a desperate rescue mission when St. North and Ombric are enslaved by Pitch. But even with victory, there seems no way to do more than delay Pitch’s evil plan to darken the dreams of all children and feed on the power of their nightmares.
I’m a sucker for a good origin story, and this book is about eight origin stories tied into one amazing bundle. The whole initial concept of a battle for the dreams of children is inventive enough as it is. Now add a surprising layer of science fiction (hint, the moon isn’t what you think it is) atop the magical battle against the shadowy forces of fear, and you have yourself a classic.
St. North himself is a wonderful character, a rogue, bad but not evil, and truly a lost soul. His relationship with Ombric, but especially Katherine is just a heartwarming tale of people who complete each other. Indeed, the whole book feels like pieces of a puzzle that you can only see as they come together. As more mystical characters of our youth are introduced, they fee like they just seamlessly fit into the fabric of this story, and our own dreams.
Unlike the Oz books, I feel Joyce and Geringer paint an amazingly vivid picture of their magical world in such a short amount of space (I could take a lesson or two). The story really clicks by and the short chapters help to hold interest and allow for location changes that keep the story from dragging.
And I haven’t even mentioned the wonderful illustrations that Joyce has done. The ethereal quality of the pictures are simply magical, but his clever use of reverse coloring some sequences, turning the pages black with white illustrations, helps to underline the particular mood and the dream-like quality.
Despite it being a rather short story, I never felt cheated. And while I would have loved more dialogue between the major characters, I did not feel that they were slighted or that their decisions in the story were forced. It is a real tour-de-force of children’s literature…or just literature for that matter.
Yeah, I liked it okay.
Overall Read Score: 5 out of 5 stars
Opportunities for Discussion
Well, there’s certainly “How awesome was that story?!?” But Nicholas St. North definitely has even more than that. Here are a few tidbits that I picked out.
All he wanted for Christmas..or Chanukkah
Is Santa Real? Does it Matter? As I briefly mentioned, my 10-year-old revealed after his latest lost tooth that he deduced that the Tooth Fairy isn’t real (he found his old teeth in Mom’s desk). So when Mom/TF was busted, she told Gus that she’d simply give him the money. He wanted none of it. Even though he knew there was no tooth fairy, he wanted us to plant the cash under his pillow anyway. The tooth fairy was no longer a person, it had evolved into something even more important. It was now a tradition.
Not everyone has as wise a soul as my boy to explain why, perhaps, we make too much of a deal out of the reality of our childhood fables. Nicholas St. North and, I am betting, the whole Guardians of Childhood series allows children to explore these treasured icons and gives you room to discuss them with your kids at a level they are prepared for. It’s a great vehicle whether you want to enrich the fantasy or reality of our own cultural traditions.
Science, Magic, and Insatiable Curiosity: Our adult world is so jaded that much of our modern discussion is about “this vs. that.” Most notably, I see the pitched battle between the religious and the secular as rendering opposing and often bloody world views. Abortion, evolution, climate change—all these subjects and so many others prisoner to a “reason vs. faith” paradigm.
This book eloquently brushes away that very premise with a magic (or scientifically sound, if you prefer) wand. Ombric’s world is where science and magic coexist. Mechanical contraptions are powered by supernatural forces. Scientists and alchemists come together for one purpose—the pursuit of knowledge. What is prized more than anything is not what is ancient, nor what is new. Instead it is what you can learn, and what you can do to help make your world a better one.
Well worth a read
I think this book does far more with the subject of Magic vs. Technology than does the most famous magical tale of the age, Harry Potter. One of the great flaws in the Potterverse was the magical world’s dismissal of technology. I found it both unlikely, and hard to fathom that these world were simply separate—it seemed artificial. Piers Anthony in his Incarnations of Immortality series created an interesting world where magic and technology actually competed with each other. But Joyce and Geringer choose to have the worlds live synergistically, which is one of the few times I’ve ever seen it done.
What a wonderful way of validating freedom of thought and expression. What an incredible insight to focus not on where something or somewhere comes from, but what it can do to make things better. Frankly, I think that grown-ups should be reading this book more than kids, because I think children have less to learn from this than we do. It comes back to that wonderful quote from the mother of the child who learns Superman isn’t real. With curiosity, imagination, and an intent to make the world better, today’s sorcery is tomorrow’s technology.
The Power of Empathy: The story of St. North and Katherine’s (perhaps the future Mrs. Claus?) relationship is a fantastic example of truly feeling empathy, as the two orphans help to fill gaps in each other’s life. “Think of how you’d feel if…” is a great way to help children understand what others might be going through. This relationship is a great portal to discussing, or introducing the concept of empathy to a child.
Overall Family Discussion Score: 4.5 out of 5 stars.
What to Expect from the Movie
As you can see by the preview, it looks like the movie will be an amalgam of the Guardians tales (though only the first two are out so far). The animation looks absolutely lovely, and as with most things DreamWorks, the voice talent seems fantastic with the likes of Alec Baldwin as St. North and Jude Law as Pitch. It looks to me like some of the fantastic secondary characters in the first book may be lost, and I could see much of the back-story being sacrificed for quick character introductions and a focus on the conflict with Pitch.
Perhaps it’s the Fearlings talking, but I worry that they are seeing this as something that needs to be contained to a single movie in case it’s not successful, and in doing so will lose the parts that I thought were most amazing, such as the world of Santoff Clausen, Ombric, and St. North’s and Katherine’s relationship. Perhaps some of that will be told in flashback. But I enjoyed this story so much that I’d love to see it told in its entirety on screen.
Next in this series: The adventure continues as adventure awaits with nasty, pointy teeth.