Book Review: Wallace and Thornborrow, Stories of the Saints

“Read us another saint story!” is a common refrain heard around our home. And who am I to resist my older children (ages 6 and 4) wanting to learn more about church history?

This, ultimately, is the triumph of Stories of the Saints (Workman Publishing, 2020), which bills itself as a collection of “bold and inspiring tales of adventure, grace, and courage.” For not only does the volume serve as an introduction to some of the most famous Christians of all time, but it promotes, across all of its stories, the power of prayer and faith, the rejection of materialism and self-comfort, and a call to live for something greater than oneself. What’s more, it introduces topics such as monasticism, martyrdom, and mendicancy (topics that won’t come up in your average Sunday School class!) in an accessible way for children.

Both contributors to the volume excel in their respective tasks: Carey Wallace does a great job of rendering the lives of the saints in a brief and accessible manner (no small feat!), Just as impressive are the illustrations of Nick Thornborrow (I especially like his renderings of Jerome, Benedict, and Francis), which remind me of a cross between a graphic novel and the work of the Israeli artist Bracha Lavee. Workman Publishing brings it all together through high-quality pages and make good use of shiny gold detailing. The volume itself, then, feels like a piece of art and a “special” book for our family that we keep safe between readings.

Supernatural events abound in the stories of these saints. Some might prefer a more purely “historical” introduction rather than one that feels more “legendary” or “mythical,” but Wallace nails the book’s perspective in the introduction:

“Are these stories true? That depends on what we mean by true stories. […] But just because we can’t be sure a story didn’t happen 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)

The breadth of saints selected is impressive, extending chronologically from Polycarp (d. 156) to Mother Teresa (d. 1997), covering both the Western and Eastern Churches, and providing a great balance of male and female, well-known and more obscure saints. The perspective and selection, especially of the modern saints, is decidedly Roman Catholic, as would be expected, and therefore leaves something to be desired from an Anglican perspective: even if it would be unreasonable to expect John Wycliffe or the Oxford Martyrs in a volume like this, I would have loved to see Augustine of Canterbury or Edward the Confessor. On a related note, it would have been nice to see St. Michael the Archangel included somehow; I’m sure Thornborrow could have done something really impressive with him and it would have been a nice story to read for Michaelmas.

One other minor criticism: the scholar in me would love to have a little more idea of which resources Wallace consulted for constructing her account of each saint’s life; the “further reading” at the back of the book is a nice start, but more specific references would be useful to at least some adult readers working through this book with their children.

These minor critiques aside, this outstanding book will be well-loved by parents looking to form in their children (and in themselves!) an appetite for what is good, beautiful, and true.

About krhughes14

Smyrna, Georgia
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