William Joyce,
Santa Calls
(HarperCollins, 1993)

This is a sweet and quirky Christmas tale that manages to capture the spirit of the season.

Art Atchinson Aimesworth is an orphan living with his little sister Esther -- to whom he isn't always very nice -- and their aunt and uncle, who run a Wild West Show and Animal Phantasmagoria. Art has dedicated himself to making inventions, having adventures, and fighting and smashing crime, all pastimes which serve him well around Christmas in 1908.

That's the year a mysterious box arrives just before Christmas, bearing the initials "S.C." A note instructs Art, Esther and Art's best friend, Spaulding Littlefeets, to "Open the box. Assemble the contents. Come NORTH." They do so and head off to the North Pole, where, after a crash landing, they are met by Ali Aku, Captain of the Santarian Guard, who whisks them to Toyland, although not before an encounter with the Queen of Darkness and her Dark Elves.

Arriving at Toyland unscathed, the trio meets Mrs. Claus, who escorts them to meet Santa. Without much ado or explanation, Santa bustles them into his sleigh and they take off, only to encounter the Queen of Darkness again. This time, the Queen captures Esther.

Art is aghast. Refusing to let Santa handle it, he plans and executes her rescue. Santa arrives in the "St. Nick" of time and carries them home to Abilene, safe and sound. Art never finds out why they were called north; Santa only says that "some secrets are best left unsolved." But the reader knows, thanks to two letters attached in the back of the book: the only thing Esther wanted for Christmas was to have her brother be her friend, and Santa is happy that their "little adventure did the trick."

The simple story is charming, but Joyce's marvelous art deco style illustrations steal the show. There is a remarkable old-time flavor to the paintings, as if an old radio show come to life and combined with one of the Oz books. Joyce employs vivid jewel tones effectively, and the pages are packed with irresistible details, each of which adds to the dreamlike quality of the book. Joyce upholds his well-deserved reputation for offbeat and original picture books with Santa Calls.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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