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Jackie Morris, 1998.
See permission.
The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

The Fourth Wise Man by Susan Summers; ad. from a story by Henry Van Dyke;
illus. by Jackie Morris. Dial, 1998. 32p ISBN 0-8037-2312-1   $16.99   6 yrs up

For children marking the advent of Christmas, Chanukah, or Eid ul-Fitr, the road to celebration can seem endless. With its potent reminder that a journey well traveled is as fulfilling as the destination, this elegant recasting of Henry Van Dyke's The Story of the Other Wise Man promises to be the jewel among this trade season's holiday offerings.

Artaban, friend of the Magi of renown, shares both their Zoroastrian dedication to astronomy and their discovery of the star that heralds "the birth of a great teacher who was to be born among the Jews." The four agree to rendezvous in Babylon and pro ceed west with a well-supplied caravan, but before Artaban reaches the others, he stops along the road to aid a dying stranger and thus misses the meeting. He sells a sapphire, the first of his three jewels, to finance the trip on his own, but in Bethleh em he again provides help to the needy, coming to the assistance of a young mother by bribing a soldier with a ruby to save the mother's son from the slaughter of the innocents. For years Artaban seeks the King "among the poor and the lowly, the sorrowfu l and the sick," leading a life of good works until, on the very day the King's life ends, he ransoms a slave girl with his last pearl and dies in her arms with God's own blessing, "Peace be with you, Artaban. . . . As often as you did these things for t he least of my children, you did them for me."

Adults in charge of guiding children of differing faiths through the holidays find few alternatives to the secularism of Rudolph or the spiritual, if not titular, neutrality of Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Summers offers in this tale of self-sacrifice a most seaworthy vessel in which to navigate the tempestuous sea of interfaith observances. Certainly Christianity impels the story, from the opening, "In the days when Augustus Caesar ruled the Roman Empire and King Herod reigned in Jerusalem," with it s reference to Luke's gospel, to the closing words of God that paraphrase the Last Judgment in Matthew's gospel. The parallel life that inspires Artaban's thirty-three year quest remains, however, discreetly in the background of the action; it is Artaban 's sanctified journey that is central. The protagonist's Zoroastrian faith is far enough removed from the religious experience of most listeners (this will, no doubt, be an introduction, particularly for younger children) as to render him an Everyman who transcends sectarian bounds. If Christians read the parable of the Good Samaritan into Artaban's first encounter with a dying man, Jews will as surely recognize that it is with Aaron's blessing that the young mother sets him back on his journey, and Mus lims will anticipate the Pillar Zakat in his dedicated almsgiving. That Artaban derives wisdom and encounters gracerom the stars and in the streets, from rabbis and rabble consistently overshadows any narrowly religious details in the telling of the tale .

Morris supplies images that ably match the grace and power of Summers' text. Her jewel-toned palette serves as a constant visual reminder of the literal and figurative price of Artaban's mission. In the opening spread, Artaban surveys from his balcon y a city crowned with tear-shaped domes of ruby red and sapphire blue and a landscape that hints at regions beyond the Persian border. Deep sapphire tones dominate hills and sky until the first gem is sold; then the sky turns red and even the earthen wal ls of Bethlehem take on a ruddy hue until Artaban pays off a crimson-cloaked soldier with a ruby "glistening in his palm like a great drop of blood." With only a pearl left in his pouch, the white-robed Artaban himself provides the focus for most of the remaining scenes, until the closing spread reunites the three colors at his death.

The geographical length and chronological span of Artaban's travels are artfully conveyed through the strong horizontal composition of the double-page bleeds. In a pivotal spread that marks the passage of decades, panels depict Artaban feeding the hun gry, clothing the naked, and comforting the dying, as his hair progressively whitens and his skin subtly grays. Figures evince a solid, nearly sculptured aspect, and each act of mercy is cast in a monumental pose reminiscent of classic religious statuary .

If peace on Earth remains elusive at the turn of the year, the story of Artaban assures us that good will toward men is well within our grasp.

Elizabeth Bush, Reviewer

Big Picture Image
December's Bulletin cover illustration
by Jackie Morris from
The Fourth Wise Man,
Copyright 1998. Used by
permission of Dial Books for Young Readers

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This page was last updated on December 1, 1998.