Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

My Favorite Christmas Story: ‘Red Ranger Came Calling’

Red Ranger cover

We have a few Christmas traditions here at Casa MacQ; one of them is the annual reading of Berke Breathed’s Red Ranger Came Calling, a simply marvelous holiday story that I stumbled upon in a Target store about ten years ago.

The cover caught my interest, partly because it’s Berke Breathed, and partly because of the vintage toys all scattered around, so, while waiting for family to find whatever they were looking for, I picked it up and started skimming it. Then I went back and started reading it. I read the whole thing there in the book aisle, looked at the last page and put the book in our cart. That night I read it to my kids, who all swore they were too old to have Dad read them a story. Now they remind me to do all the voices when I read it. (The elf is from New Jersey.)

The illustrations are marvelous (Breathed’s rendering of the protagonist’s boiling rage is a wonder to behold), but it’s really the text that grabs on. Presented as “a guaranteed true story” allegedly told by Breathed’s father, the story reads as an unapologetic “tall tale,” albeit one with an emotional punch.

The story is set in 1939, when narrator “Red” Breathed was nine years old and spending the holidays with his aunt Vy on Vashon, “a damp little island somewhere off the country’s upper left-hand corner,” Red, named not for his ginger hair, but for his idolization of movie hero Buck “Red Ranger of Mars” Tweed, is dispirited and bitter, knowing that there is no way he’s going to ever own the gleaming Official Buck Tweed Two-Speed Crime-Stopper Star-Hopper bicycle in the front window at the Hardware Store. This is the middle of the Great Depression, after all, and disappointment is just status quo.

Red Ranger in space

But then, just before Christmas, Red becomes suspicious of the goings-on at the old lighthouse perched atop Robinson Point; the locals have always claimed that the resident, an elderly recluse named Sauder Clös, is in reality Santa Claus. Naturally, a young man of Red’s maturity and sophistication is not going to believe such poppycock… but then he met an elf heading toward the Clös place.

Red Ranger meets an elf
“Mister, you look like a turnip.”

Determined to prove that Saunder Clös is a fraud, accompanied by Amelia, his aunt’s dalmatian-wiener dog mix, Red intrudes into the lighthouse, and calls out the old man.  Saunder Clös rises to the challenge, against the advice of his friend the elf, who tells him “don’t do it, boss, you’re not 300 anymore.”

Red confronts Saunder Clös.
“I am Buck Tweed, the Red Ranger of Mars, and I do not believe in Santa Claus.”

The story comes to a head when Red feels that he’s been betrayed and storms back to the Clös place to share a piece of his mind. I won’t tell you any more than that, because there are joys to be discovered here. Just go to Amazon and buy Red Ranger Came Calling. Read it aloud to your family after the hot cocoa, and be sure to catch the looks on their faces when they see that last page.

Red stomps off to confront the old fraud.
“…a symphony of childhood outrage so fiery in passion, so shocking in fury that it super-heated the morning air.”

Red Ranger Came Calling is about gratitude and grace, and delivers the message so perfectly, so effectively, that I have yet to read it without getting a little choked up. My kids are amused when my eyes get wet at the conclusion, but I don’t care. Berke Breathed is a magician, and this book is his greatest act.

Merry Christmas, everybody.


  1. Jeff Nettleton

    Love that book, and all of Breathed’s other “picture books.” He really went to town with them; but, may favorite still has to be A Wish for Wings That Work, where Opus longs to be like other birds, only to see that his own abilities can save Christmas (yeah, I know; Rudolph). The illustrations are gorgeous. Then, to my wonder, it was adapted into an animation special that really captured things and expanded, here and there. The support group for flightless birds is a hoot.

    Another great modern Christmas picture book, with a nice retro style, is William Joyce’s Santa Calls. The artwork is very reminiscent of Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland.

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