‘The Curious Christmas Trail’ Offers Delightful Mouse Nuns and the Nativity
CHILDREN’S BOOK PICK
The Curious Christmas Trail
Written by Haley Stewart
Illustrated by Betsy Wallin
80 pages, $24.95
To order: paulinestore.com or (617) 676-4458
It’s the day before Christmas, and the mice living under the floorboards of G.K. Chesterton’s home are definitely stirring. Not just a mouse or two, but all the mouse nuns of Our Lady, Star of the Sea Abbey — and their students — are rushing to complete final preparations for the great feast.
The little mice cut paper snowflakes and rehearse for their annual Nativity play. Gingerbread bakes in the oven, tucked beneath the floorboards. Meanwhile, upstairs, the Chestertons sing and play games at their Christmas party for children. Amidst all the excitement, elderly Sister Dymphna seems to have wandered away in this child-friendly mystery.
Welcome to the imaginative world of Haley Stewart, author of The Curious Christmas Trail, the second installment in The Sister Seraphina Mysteries series.
“Believe it or not, the idea came to me in a dream,” the author told the Register. “I woke up from a vivid dream about an order of mouse nuns who live underneath G.K. Chesterton’s house. I knew I simply had to write the story.”
The lockdown in the spring of 2020 gave Stewart the opportunity. “It became my happy project that spring and summer,” she said. “Once I got going, I was having so much fun that I couldn’t stop.”
Readers will have fun, too, following Sister Seraphina as she enlists the help of other mouse nuns, all in their robin-egg blue habits, and two St. Wulfhilda’s Academy students, Goldie Mouseweather and Dom Whiskerbright, to find the beloved Sister Dymphna.
As they search for clues, the trail leads them from the safety of the mouse abbey to outside, where low-flying owls glide above the cold, snowy fields seeking prey, and then, back inside and up the stairs to the Chesterton’s party, where children play and the frightening family cat lurks. Adventures and risks abound for the mice, but end happily, as readers will discover.
One of the most appealing qualities of The Curious Christmas Trail is the “realness” of its cast of imaginary characters. Readers meet, for example, the wise but often befuddled Sister Dymphna, level-headed Sister Seraphina, and order-barking Sister Gertrude, “who runs a tight ship” directing the Nativity play. “It was really important to me to show that nuns aren’t cookie-cutter people. I wanted each of the sisters to have her own personality, strengths, weaknesses, and ways of navigating situations that arise,” Stewart explained. In doing so, she hopes her readers might envision what the future might look like if God were to call them to religious life someday.
While The Curious Christmas Trail certainly offers positive and charming images of religious life in this fanciful world beneath the floorboards, the tale also reinforces the reality that everyone is called to live for God — right here and right now.
The mice in this special world provide models of individuals with loving devotion, with their kindness shown in tangible ways: comforting a little one who feels overshadowed, sharing delicious treats with others, dropping everything to find a lost loved one, and even bringing warmth and comfort via the reason for the season.
The best thing about writing the series, according to Stewart, was falling in love with her characters. “I love my mice,” she said, and young readers do, too. Stewart reported that she has received “fan art” — drawings of favorite mouse nuns — from children and has heard that some fans enjoy dressing up as their favorite characters. “It’s amazing to know that my mice live in the imagination of thousands of children,” she said.
Children’s affinity for this treasure trove of characters seems natural. Kids love engaging with literary “miniature worlds.” Likewise, young readers consistently name animals among their favorite story characters. The adventures of Sister Seraphina and friends check both of these boxes, while at the same time offering inspiring tales and rich food for thought about life and faith.
This picture storybook is divided into seven short chapters. Betsy Wallin’s illustrations bring the story of the world of the mouse nuns to life and contain rich visual details that enhance the tale. The somewhat nostalgic artwork is just right for a story set in G.K. Chesterton’s time. Bonus sections include directions for making paper snowflakes, a simple script for a Nativity play, and background information about Chesterton’s life.
Fans will be glad to know that, according to the author, Sister Serafina will be back on the job in 2024, when a new mystery joins The Curious Christmas Trail and The Pursuit of the Pilfered Cheese.
For now, readers will enjoy the characters — both mouse nuns and mouse students — who prove smart, clever and diligent. They set their hopes on celebrating the Nativity, while never wavering in their commitment to show loving and patient kindness as they search for Sister Dymphna. Happy reading!
The Crawford sisters write from Pittsburgh.