Saint Nicholas and the Nine Gold Coins
Jim Forest (Illustrated by Vladislav Andrejev)
Yonkers NY: SVS Press, 2015
Saint Nicholas and the Nine Gold Coins, written by Jim Forest and illustrated by Vladislav Andrejev, dramatizes the most famous story in the life of Saint Nicholas, in which he tosses gold coins through the window of a poor family so that the daughters can marry. As the story unfurls, the readers are invited to consider alongside Nick what, if any, responsibility he bears towards those in need. The Byzantine-influenced illustrations reference iconography, proposing an entire world populated with people recognizably similar to icons of saints in many Orthodox art traditions.
Positioned between “Once upon a time” and the present, the text reminds us through the classic fairy-tale opening and the references to mermaids and sea monsters, paired with hagiographic notes at the back of the book, that we paint a received story full of details. Implicitly, the text contrasts fairy tale conventions of adventure with the adventurous journey of a faithful life. Less imaginative than the pictures, the prose is nonetheless clear, deploying stock phrasing to provide a familiar sounding rhythm to a story illustrated in a style unusual for picture books. This marriage of familiar story language with versions of the human figure familiar (if at all) primarily from icons asks the reader to reckon with a world to be treated as if all present might be saints. The information on the historical Saint Nicholas at the back of the book serves as an excellent springboard for further exploration. My own reading rambled outward from the story, turning up modern discussions on the verifiability of relics (St. Nicholas’ are thought to archeologically match the hagiographic profile quite well) and national versus ecclesial claims to relics.
Like the text, the illustrations are richly layered, providing space for questions about art styles often seen in churches, as well as delight in the play with perspectives. The images provide a distinct sense of entering a world differently ordered and arranged from our own—which mirrors the strangeness of entering an Orthodox church for a modern Western audience. The fantastical, evocative illustrations encourage rereadings for audiences older than the proposed K-3rd grade crowd, so I would extend a recommendation of this book to include adults. The minutely detailed illustrations make this book one my childhood self would have pored over for hours, and this experience is one you can offer a friend of any listening or reading level.
A timely gift for the Nativity season and a lovely way to foster appreciation for Byzantine-style art, this delightful book is a charming story of trading personal security for extravagant generosity.
Saint Nicholas and the Nine Gold Coins can be ordered from the publisher in time for Christmas.
Annalise Wolf is a lifelong lover of children’s literature and a PhD student in English at Fordham University. Her research focuses on medical and religious understandings of bodies. She holds an MA in English from the University of Kentucky in Lexington. She and her husband attend the Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Virgin Protection (OCA) in downtown Manhattan as inquirers. She has written previously for Orthodoxy in Dialogue.