By Elizabeth Frazer
The first thing that strikes you about Stories of the Saints is the beautiful cover illustration by Nick Thornborrow. A serene and serious Saint Francis is surrounded by birds, his hand on the tamed wolf, and a halo of moonlight and leafy vines around his head. It’s an inviting image, and with its stylized forms and gilded lettering, achieves a surprising harmony between graphic novel and the manuscripts of medieval hagiography. The book itself is a pleasure to hold: weighty enough to seem special, but not too big for a child’s lap. A Kindle edition just won’t do; in these days of insta-everything, a beautifully designed hardcover sends an implicit message that these stories deserve to be treasured.
And if you judge this book by its cover, you won’t be disappointed. The pages are beautifully designed, with more nods to illuminated manuscripts in the patterned borders, red lettering, and touches of gold. Almost every spread has a color illustration. Some, like the portrait of St. Teresa of Avila pierced through the heart by an angel, and the image of St. Catherine breaking the torturer’s wheel, have a haunting beauty. Others, like the pictures of St. Jean Vianney’s nightmares and St. Stanislaus raising a dead man from his tomb, portray more gruesome episodes. All are filled with dramatic action—they could be stills from an animated movie (The Secret of Kells comes to mind). But these are not just cartoons; they invite a closer look, revealing layers of traditional symbolism and iconography woven into the images.
The illustrations first draw you into the book, but the stories will keep you reading. Author Carey Wallace has chosen 70 saints, organized in chronological order, from Polycarp, martyred in 156 AD, to Mother Teresa, who died in 1997. Each section begins with a text box including the saint's dates, location, emblems, patronage, and feast day. Wallace writes with an engaging, accessible style, perfect for introducing elementary age children to the familiar tales of St George and the dragon, St. Brigid and her cloak, or Fra Angelico and his paintings. But many lesser known saints are included, such as St Pachomius who built a house for hermits on the bank of the Nile. Even adults who know the familiar stories will learn something new—perhaps the story of St. Margaret of Scotland, who restored the monastery of Iona, or Joseph of Cupertino, the flying monk of 17th-century Italy.
The selection is focused on saints of the Roman Catholic church, and some of the figures more familiar to Anglicans are missing. It would have been nice to see Saints Alban, Brendan, Bede, and other Celtic and English saints. But Wallace did include people from a range of cultures, from desert monastics in Egypt—Anthony, Mary, and Moses the Strong—to Martin de Porres of Peru and Josephine Bakhita, who was kidnapped into slavery as a child in Sudan and found freedom in an Italian convent. Cyril and Methodius, 9th-century missionaries to the Slavs, are included, but there are no Russian or post-schism Orthodox saints.
Nevertheless, there are many good stories here. Saints’ lives were never easy, and many endured suffering, persecution, and martyrdom. But while Wallace doesn’t avoid the violence, her storytelling dwells on their faith and courage. Prayer and service to the poor are recurring themes, presented without preachiness or forced moral lessons. Told reverently and simply, the stories speak for themselves, without any hint of skepticism. The historical narratives are seamlessly blended with the miraculous, leaving us free to enjoy them as they are. Even so, the question may arise: “Did that really happen?” Although it may not satisfy everyone, Wallace’s introduction provides a thoughtful answer:
"Are these stories true? That depends on what we mean by true stories. For some saints, like Joan of Arc, we know plenty of history. For others, like Valentine and Christopher, we know little besides their names. Their stories come to us through traditional tales. But just because we can’t be sure a story really happened doesn’t mean it isn’t true in another way. These stories have been told for generations, some for thousands of years. In this book, they’ve been dramatized, but always based on tradition and history. They come from many sources, but they are among the best-loved and most enduring stories in the world because of the deep truths they contain (ix)."
Good stories told from generation to generation—what better way to bring the memory of the saints into our childrens’ lives? Whether you’re already following a calendar of feast days or looking for simple ways to bring the rhythms of the liturgical year into your home, this book would be a lovely addition to your celebrations. Use it as a homeschool or classroom resource, read it together as a family, or just leave it on the coffee table, and I guarantee the kids will pick it up. (One caveat: because some of the stories and pictures could be disturbing, the recommended age is eight and up, so use discretion with younger or more sensitive children.)
The end matter, which includes a map of the Roman empire identifying ancient place names and a list of supplemental books on the history of the ancient and medieval world, could have been a helpful resource for families. However, the books seem irrelevant, and a more useful appendix would have been a list of sources, including other versions of saints' lives for further reading. A calendar of feast days would have saved me a lot of flipping through the pages as well!
But overall, it’s a lovely book with universal appeal—at least in our family. It’s the kind of book everyone wants to look at, and even as I write this, it has disappeared from my desk again. Last time, I found it in the hands of my ten-year-old son, stretched out on the couch reading the story of Saint George, and now it’s with my sixteen-year-old, who’s using it as inspiration for her own artwork. It’s a good thing the stories are short, because you’ll probably have to share.
Elizabeth Frazer teaches at The Ecclesial School at St. Alban’s and is a parishioner at St. Alban’s Anglican Cathedral in Oviedo, Florida.