Children’s Book Chronicling Saints’ Lives Shows They Were ‘Relentlessly Human’

A child opens to an illustration of St. Joan of Arc in "Stories of the Saints: Bold and Inspiring Tales of Adventure, Grace and Courage" by Carey Wallace. (CNS photo/George P. Matysek Jr., Catholic Review)

By  George P. Matysek Jr.

BALTIMORE (CNS) — Serenely peering out from stained-glass or standing atop pedestals while piously presenting the instruments of their martyrdom, the saints can often appear otherworldly in church art.

Carey Wallace’s new children’s book, “Stories of the Saints: Bold and Inspiring Tales of Adventure, Grace and Courage,” shows that holy men and women — whose miraculous deeds, charitable works and battles with armies, beasts and demons she chronicles with gusto — also were what Wallace calls “relentlessly human.”

“The saints are often scared,” said Wallace, a novelist based in Brooklyn, New York. “The saints often don’t know what to do. The saints are often running away from responsibility. They don’t feel like they are qualified for what they’ve been asked to do. The saints are very, very much like us.”

Wallace pointed out that some popes, including St. Gregory the Great, fled when they were elected to the papacy. Other saints, such as St. Jean Vianney, failed in academic work. St. Teresa of Kolkata, the great 20th-century missionary who founded the Missionaries of Charity, often felt alone and sometimes wondered if God loved her.

Yet the saints refused to let their shortcomings stop them from doing God’s work in a great diversity of ways.

“You get some saints who refused to fight in battles because of their faith and some saints who lead people into battle because of their faith,” said Wallace, who grew up in Michigan. “You get some people who manage their wealth very wisely and some people who refuse to even carry money when it’s given to them.”

The author found that despite their different approaches, saints over two millennia tended to share two qualities: profound love for the poor and a true love for God that is different from a love for the Bible or for church “rules.”

“That’s what animates all of these stories in my reading and telling of them,” Wallace told the Catholic Review, the news outlet of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

Wallace’s book is arranged chronologically, providing lively narratives of 70 saints beginning with St. Polycarp and ending with St. Teresa of Kolkata.

It includes familiar figures such as St. George, St. Francis of Assisi and St. Joan of Arc, but also lesser-known saints such as St. Angela Merici, St. Camillus de Lellis and St. Josephine Bakhita.

Produced by Workman Publishing,, “Stories of the Saints” is geared to children between 8 and 12 but is also appropriate for teens and adults. Nick Thornborrow, a video game artist, dramatically illustrates the book with contemporary images of the saints that sometimes take up two full pages.

Unlike other children’s books about the saints that can be heavy-handed in imparting spiritual lessons, Wallace’s work relies on the stories themselves to leave their own impressions. They incorporate both legend and historical facts.

“We wanted to sort of let children and adults who come to this book find whatever is there for them at that moment without trying to tell them what that should be,” Wallace said, adding that she also wanted the book to be accessible to those who were just looking for fantastic adventure tales.

In researching and writing the book, Wallace said the saints gave her hope she could be like them.

“I could no longer tell myself these people were so much better than me,” she said. “It lays some of the responsibility on your shoulders that you might otherwise want to squirm out of — that you, too, might be capable of doing some of these things that really change the world if you follow God and love him.”