The story opens during the Christmas season as CHARLIE, a young 11 year old girl, struggles to adjust to life in the weeks that follow her sister’s departure for a prestigious boarding school. In the opening scene she discovers that she has been transported to a mysterious forest where key characters on one side of a growing conflict greet her as one of many “outworlders” that are appearing in this mysterious world where animals are sentient. Confused and angry, CHARLIE takes her own path through the forest where she is captured by MILLICENT, a magical and menacing Great Blue Heron seeking her locket to unlock the barrier between worlds.
In the real world, CHARLIE’S absence is discovered, and as her Aunt Nonie searches the housing tower, word reaches the building manager, JINX, who calls child protective services to take CHARLIE away. With the help of an old man named RUPERT, Brian the maintenance chief and a neighbor, JOAN extends her search for CHARLIE as the slum lord MR. KETTLE puts plans in motion that could leave CHARLIE and JOAN homeless even as Christmas approaches.
After CHARLIE’S escape with the aid of newly formed friendships the small team discovers that the stolen locket has already been used by MILLICENT to awaken the STONE ARMY. Falling into a trap in the midst of a raging battle, MILLICENT attempts to coerce CHARLIE into acting as a conduit to unleash the Ancient powers that will shatter the veil between this “dream” world and CHARLIE’S world.
As ADELINE and MILLICENT vie for CHARLIE’S attention, the small group of companions fight valiantly to protect CHARLIE, ending in MIFT’S sacrifice, which provides CHARLIE with the final impetus she needs to overcome her own personal sense of loss, and return her to her bedroom. Reunited just in time for Christmas, JOAN and CHARLIE are offered a new home near CHARLIE’S sister’s boarding school and on the eve of her sister’s return for the holiday season.
Ultimately, Charlie Saves Christmas investigates the themes of loss and love.
Nichols cuts between Charlie’s adventures in a majestic, post-apocalyptic forest and the events in her depressed hometown, where struggling families face endemic corruption. Chapters centered on Joan Willard-Stewart, Charlie’s Aunt Nonie, prove the most affecting, portraying a compassionate and indefatigable woman still haunted by her sister’s disappearance (with hints of secret family ties to Eridul). Sisterly bonds are key to the narrative, including the antelope Adeline and great blue heron Millicent, once as close as siblings, and now the leaders of opposing forces in Eridul. The men around Joan, who range from venal to benevolent, embody the fears and promise of the Christmas season, but feel disconnected from Nichols’s fantasy world-building.
Charlie Saves Christmas debuted as a podcast, and Nichols masterfully uses dialogue to establish character traits. Reclusive Old Pete, a world-weary kakapo, declares: “Terrible news, you say. How delightful…I haven’t heard news in such a long time, good, bad, terrible, or otherwise.” By contrast, Nichols’s descriptive sentences at times are overstuffed with unnecessary detail. Juxtaposing holiday morality tales of just rewards for good behavior with a magical realm where animals unite to save their dying world, Nichols’s series prelude offers young readers a vision of triumphant goodness–one that doesn’t come without a fight.
Takeaway: A young girl discovers her own power and the true meaning of family in this epic adventure.
Great for fans of: Tamora Pierce’s Alanna: The First Adventure, Liz Braswell’s A Twisted Tale series.
Design and typography: A
Marketing copy: B