Nicholas St. North
And the Battle of the Nightmare King
By William Joyce and Laura Geringer
Illustrations by William Joyce
Published Atheneum Books, 2011
Nicholas St. North is the first of the currently quite popular Guardians of Childhood series, a children's chapter book series taking characters such as Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy and recasting them as grand Arthurian heroes. They would most likely fall under the genre of epic fairy tale; while I have not read the others, Nicholas St. North has a distinctly Russian flavor.
Long ago all of the galaxy was ruled by a noble family, the Lunanoffs, that spread wealth and good-will throughout the cosmos. All of the Dark and Evil were captured and placed in a special prison, watched over by the greatest hero of the empire, Pitch. One day, the Dark tricked Pitch into opening the door to the prison just a crack, and this was enough. They overwhelmed him, and filled him with their vileness. With the great hero on their side, the Dark quickly retook the galaxy. The Lunanoffs fled, but Pitch caught them and in the resulting battle all were destroyed... except for the youngest son of the Lunanoffs, who found himself stranded on the galaxy's greatest warship, now a lifeless hulk, orbiting around a nondescript blue and green planet. He passed the centuries protecting the inhabitants of this planet from the remaining of Pitch's henchmen, who took the form of nightmares.
On Earth, something strange has happened. Suddenly the powers of the moonbeams, which have long protected the dreaming youth from attacks of nightmares, are not able to protect the children. In the village of Santoff Clausen the children are fortunate to be under the watchful eye of the great magician Ombric, who talks to the trees and insects, and of course, to moonbeams as well, and who can keep them safe while they sleep -- at least for now. But even his great magic doesn't foretell of the visitor that they are about to have, the greatest bandit chief of all time, Nicholas St. North, a daring young man who might be able to help in the battle against Pitch's fearlings, if he so feels inclined.
Nicholas St. North is a bit more complex than this summary gives it credit for, and a bit more respectable too. It is written in a grandiloquent style that makes it read like a cross between L. Frank Baum and the Brothers Grimm, except more refined. The language is ornate and just a bit old-fashioned, the story bombastic in the grand tradition of tall tales, and full of small surprises that keep the reader engaged.
On the other hand, there is a lot of rather random things going on, and I have to admit that I am not entirely certain what any of this has to do with Santa Claus. I was expecting a book for second graders, but the book information informs me that it is more appropriate to 10-12 year olds, and quite frankly, I feel like I should read it again before I'm fully qualified to review it... in between the chunks of backstory that appear every few chapters and a rather dreamy and magical conception of cause-and-effect, I had a frequent urge to flip back and make sure that I hadn't missed something.
I highly recommend reading this book, especially if you are a kid, simply because it does an exceptional job of capturing a type of fairy tale that is very much embedded in our literary traditions, but that you don't see much of. It is an entire narrative composed of deus ex machina and feel-good magic that works because it is On The Side of Good, and it is written in exactly the way it should be -- so you forgive the bits of magic that happen... well, magically, just because a character has a personal epiphany or because it would be amusing. It is often hokey, but it keeps the hokeyness at a level below that of the Oz books, and wraps it in a layer of Noble Quest that fits it perfectly.
Because this novel has a rather more wide-ranging vocabulary than most children's books, and because by the time most kids get to sixth grade they are starting to get over fairy tales, I would particularly recommend this as a good read aloud book for children 7-10. Unfortunately, most families to not carry the tradition of reading aloud past the stage of Goodnight Moon, but if you are up to some more serious literary enculturation, this might be a good book to start with.
It is worth noting that William Joyce is a very good illustrator, and his charcoal and graphite illustrations are detailed and engaging. While it is hard to describe illustrations in a useful manner, they perhaps fall into the category of 'cute victorian gothic', somewhat reminiscent of Brett Helquist (illustrator for A Series of Unfortunate Events or Keith Thompson (site).
There are currently six books in the Guardians of Childhood series; the second in the series is E. Aster Bunnymund and the Battle of the Warrior Eggs at the Earth's Core. This book continues the battle against Pitch, but introduces a new set of characters.
It is worth noting that before Nicholas St. North there was another Guardians of Childhood book, the The Man in the Moon. This was a shorter book (56 pages, vs. the 228 of Nicholas), but contained large segments of the same story. It is generally considered a picture book, although it has more text than the average picture book does, and focuses on (you guessed it) The Man in the Moon. I have not read it, but it appears to contain about a chapter or two of text that appears, slightly modified, in Nicholas, along with many of the same illustrations, but in larger and in color. It looks to be a very good read, and better suited to younger children.
AR book level 6.1.