Santa’s Secret Helper, by Andrew Clements, illustrated by Debrah Santini (1990)
For this eleventh review, we’ll read about Santa’s eleventh hour assistant that helps him get the job done!
The elves are extra busy getting two sleighs, two teams of reindeer, and two red and white suits ready…because Santa has a secret helper this year! Santa’s secret helper and Santa split up and head east and west to deliver toys and treats all around the world. Santa’s secret helper does all the things Santa would do, from eating cookies and leaving notes to say thank you, giving the reindeer a rest when they get tired, and waving and calling, “Merry Christmas!” to a few parents who see the sleigh from their windows. When the last gift is delivered in the wee hours of Christmas morning, Santa’s secret helper heads back to the North Pole and gets ready for bed. Surprise–it’s Mrs. Claus! Santa wants to know all about her night, but she’s too tired from her busy trip, so she just puts on her nightcap, says her prayers, and goes to sleep…”just what Santa would have done.”
I believe the art is done in watercolor (as are the other books illustrated by Debrah Santini that have a similar appearance), and the story starts right inside the front cover with a full-spread illustration of many elves busy at work in the reindeer stable on the 24th of December (according to the wall calendar), packing bags and harnessing the reindeer. The first page of the actual story brings us back to the 23rd as the elves are preparing two sets of everything, and each illustration gives plenty of things to notice: the changing calendar, elves doing unusual things (or usual things in an odd way), stray pieces of candy, Santa’s secret helper’s feet disappearing up a chimney, or hoof prints and sleigh tracks on roofs in the background. The attention to detail doesn’t clutter the page, but it certainly allows for new discoveries with every reading. I found myself looking for clues to Santa’s secret helper’s identity and not finding any! (I also read back through and realized that no pronouns were used for the secret helper, so there was no hinting about she versus he!) The back endpapers are my favorite of the illustrations; they show the aftermath of Christmas Eve in the reindeer stable: yawning reindeer, strewn paper, drooping lights, and napping elves scattered all about!
GirlChild and BoyChild’s Reactions: GirlChild didn’t even think to question the identity of the secret helper (she really needs to think more as she reads instead of just enjoying the reading and not processing the story…), so I tried piquing BoyChild’s interest as we read it, but he was, of course, more interested in the illustrations than the story. (He is really cued in to facial expressions (a result of early hearing problems from frequent ear infections), and the style of the painting didn’t lend itself well to clear faces, so he was confused a few times about why a person would be feeling angry (because of a resting frown and defined eyebrows–his indication of anger) or some other nebulous expression. If he were to pay attention to the text, he might be really good at using pictures for context clues!) I read it to both of them together, and a reread seemed to help GirlChild notice more of what was actually going on. She even self-selected it to read again later! The book never says why Mrs. Claus helps Santa out this year, so a great inference activity might be to have students come up with a backstory about what was going on that year that led to what happens in this book (like maybe there were a lot of extra kids on the nice list, or maybe Mrs. Claus just wanted the experience, or maybe Santa was training her as a backup because he almost missed Christmas the last year because of an injury or sickness or something). I tried this with GirlChild, but she might still be a little young for that level of thinking (or maybe just needs more practice!), and she couldn’t think of any reason why. Maybe next year. 🙂 I couldn’t find a publisher-recommended reading level, but I think that preschool to early elementary (the Santa-believing years) would be a good choice, and judging from GirlChild’s weak interpretation, I think a read-aloud is probably the best way to share the book with its intended audience. (For the inference activity, you can probably go a little older–they’ll probably be more creative about what might have led up to the story anyway!) If you’re into doing Santa with your kids, this story might help you explain why there are different “Santas” all around–he’s just got a lot of secret helpers!