The Greatest Gift: A Christmas Picture Book for All Ages
In 1896, an American pastor and poet named Henry Van Dyke captured the spirit of Christmas in one of America's enduring Christmas short stories, The Greatest Gift: The Story of the Other Wise Man. Author Susan Summers adapted this favorite tale and simplified it for modern audiences.
Van Dyke's lengthy short story does not spare words and jumps to life with rich, dramatic imagery, moving scenes, and a quest-style plot featuring Artaban, a magi and follower of the Zoroastrian faith who is seeking the King of Heaven to be born on Earth. Artaban's sect looks for signs in the night sky, and its followers seek for wisdom. Van Dyke's story has inspired millions of people during the last 100 years with its message of giving service to the poor, the sick, and the downtrodden while sacrificing the very gifts Artaban meant to give to the living Christ at the end of his quest.
Susan Summers' new picture book format uses jewel-toned images by artist Jackie Morris to turn this abridged tale into a keepsake picture book that can be read Christmas after Christmas. Summers' shortened version of the tale begins much like Van Dyke's original, but soon breaks off into a more modern retelling of Van Dyke's story, staying true to the original story's three-part quest format, but omitting superfluous details such as the lengthy meeting of the Zoroastrian elders who are deciding if they want to participate in a trip to visit the newborn King. This particular scene at the beginning of the story included a lot of dialog that didn't necessarily move the plot forward, so a reader of Summers' version of the story will not miss it.
Summary of The Greatest Gift
This book about the quest to find the true God is about a Zoroastrian astronomer, a wise man who studied the stars, named Artaban. Artaban's quest takes him on a journey that spans thirty three years.
Artaban is man who has everything: a palatial home furnished in luxuries of every kind, an overflowing library, and an honored place in his religious sect. But Artaban and his friends have been watching the skies, and they know that the new star points to the birthplace of the King of the Heavens. Without hesitation, unlike the Rich Young Ruler in the New Testament tale, Artaban the Magi sells his magnificent palace and buys three priceless jewels to give to the newborn King. He sets off on a journey to meet up with his three friends who are planning to go and worship. But Artaban is delayed on three different ocassions so that first, he misses the other three wise men, and then he just misses the Christ child in Bethlehem, and finally, after years of searching for Christ, misses his one last chance to see Him in Jerusalem. During each pivotal turn in the story, Artaban must decide whether to give away a precious jewel to help a person in grave danger, or to hold on to the gem to give to Christ later.
Any good student of the Christian faith knows that Artaban chooses to help a fellow being who is suffering rather than hold back. At the end of the story, Artaban is bereft knowing that he has failed in his quest to meet the King of Heaven and to give him his greatest treasures.
But in giving away his treasures he comes to know God in a way that he never expected. The tale ends with these memorable lines taken directly from Matthew 25:
"Verily I say unto thee, Inasmuch as thou hast done it unto one of the
least of these my brethren, thou hast done it unto me." His journey was ended. His treasures were accepted. The Other Wise Man had found the King.
--Henry Van Dyke, The Story of the Other Wise Man
Allusions to Scripture
The Fourth Wise man makes many obvious allusions to Biblical passages of scripture. While the story itself is a fictional work and not based on a scriptural account, the story places its characters right in the middle of the New Testament action.
Like the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10, Artaban attends to a sick man who needs his help. Artaban comes to this man's aid on the roadside, then gives the man one of his precious jewels.
When Artaban finally enters the streets of Bethlehem, he discovers that the newborn King's family have fled to Egypt. Then Artaban remains in Bethlehem when King Herod's army comes in to slaughter all the first born children. This story can be found in the Bible in Matthew 2.
A Book to Celebrate Christmas
Artaban's quest to find Christ begins as a simple Nativity story but becomes much more. Its message suggests that in seeking out Christ and giving service and sacrifice, Artaban receives a much greater gift than he could ever give. This message of selfless giving fits perfectly with a Christ-centered Christmas. This book has so much to offer a family seeking to keep their Christmas focused on the Savior.
I listened with 30 young children last year as a fellow teacher in our children's Sunday School related this story as part of a special Christmas lesson. As she told the story of Artaban and his three-part quest, you could have heard a pin drop in a room full of children ages 3 to 8. This story truly has an ageless appeal, and would be a welcome addition to a family gathering or a church setting.
- Henry Van Dyke, the original author of this story, wrote The Other Wise Man in 1896.
- Over 100 years later, Susan Summers adapted the Van Dyke version to a picture book format.
- Summers collaborated with Jackie Morris, whose watercolors depict the ancient Holy Lands with jewel-toned blues and greens, and deep royal reds.
More Children's Book Reviews by Wannabwestern
Please feel to explore some of my other favorite children's books listed here!
Animals Should Definitely Not Wear Clothing by Judi Barrett · A Chair for My Mother by Vera B. Williams · Babies by Gyo Fujikawa · Brown Bear Brown Bear What Do You See by Bill Martin and Eric Carle · Charley Harper's ABCs by Charlie Harper · Christmas Cookies: Bite-Size Holiday Lessons · Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes · Daughter of a King by Rachel Ann Nunes · Excuse Me! By Lisa Kopelke · Gregory the Terrible Eater by Mitchell Sharmat · Harry and The Terrible Whatzit by Dick Gackenbach · Hilda Must Be Dancing by Karma Wilson · I Need My Monster by Amanda Noll · I'd Choose You by John Trent · Joseph Had a Little Overcoat by Simms Taback · King of Kings by Susan Hill · Ladybug Girl by Jacky Davis and David Soman · Lily's Purple Plastic Purse by Kevin Henkes · Llama Llama Mad at Mama by Anna Dewdney · Llama Llama Misses Mama by Anna Dewdney · Mister Seahorse by Eric Carle · No David! by David Shannon · Olivia by Ian Falconer · Out of the Ocean by Debra Frasier · Snowballs by Lois Ehlert · So Much by Trish Cooke and Helen Oxenbury · Souperchicken by Mary Jane and Herm Auch · The Gingerbread Boy by Paul Galdone · The Grouchy Ladybug by Eric Carle · The King With Six Friends by Jay Williams · The Little Red Hen and the Passover Matzah by Leslie Kimmelman · The Little Red Hen Makes a Pizza by Philemon Sturges · The Littlest Angel by Charles Tazewell · The Patchwork Quilt by Valerie Flournoy · The Red Shoes a Fairy Tale by Gloria Fowler and Sun Young Yoo · The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats · Tikki Tikki Tembo by Arlene Mosel · Too Many Pumpkins by Linda White · Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak · Yoon and the Christmas Mitten by Helen Recorvits