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Saving Santa

Eric Carpenter The Orange County Register

YORBA LINDA, Calif. – Ethan Matsuda, 7, is worried about the future of Santa Claus.

His eyes light up, his voice rises with urgency as he describes what he says is the “dilemma. That means problem,” he clarifies.

The Yorba Linda, Calif., second-grader isn’t shy about talking to readers, reporters – even a congresswoman – about his children’s book that he hopes will help save Santa’s home.

It’s called “The North Pole Is Sinking!”

Ethan is a science fan, an enthusiastic reader of “National Geographic Kids.”

He’s been reading about global warming and concerns that pollution and reckless energy use could be warming the earth’s atmosphere.

And that, he concluded, could be threatening the ice around the North Pole.

“There’s a lot we need to do,” Ethan says. “People should be thinking about Santa.”

Ethan’s book, self-published and co-written by his dad, Michael Matsuda, began in August with a simple question.

Along with his subscription to a science magazine, Ethan received an inflatable globe.

His mom, Xuyen “Suzie” Dong-Matsuda, was on a business trip to Taiwan, so he blew it up to pinpoint where mom was traveling.

Then, he looked up at the top, near the blowup nozzle that marks the North Pole.

“Why isn’t there ice up here?” he asked his dad.

“I’m not sure,” his dad responded. “Why do you think?”

Ethan scratched his head for a moment, then an idea came to him.

You think it’s because of global warming? What about Santa?

Ethan was intrigued. The questions kept coming.

“I’m amazed at how Ethan is able to connect the dots for himself if you just keep the conversation going,” says Michael Matsuda, a high-school English teacher and teaching mentor for the Anaheim Union High School District.

“As teachers, we struggle to encourage kids to build bridges and think about issues on their own.

“As we talked through this issue, it became clear it would make a good story.”

Ethan is an only child, born to a third generation Japanese-American father and a mother who emigrated to the United States from Vietnam at 17.

She is a mental-health therapist with the Orange County Health Care Agency. She considers herself Ethan’s emotional support. Dad is more a playmate.

They try to limit the amount of TV Ethan watches. But he’s fixated by documentaries on the Discovery Channel and PBS.

In first grade at Raymond Elementary School in Fullerton, Calif., Ethan entered the science fair with a display on how to build a rocket. He asked his dad to print him up some business cards that read, “Ethan Matsuda, Rocket Scientist.”

“Our goal is to really give him the tools to nourish his education,” his mother says. “We don’t want him to fulfill our dreams for him.

“We want him to discover dreams of his own.”

It was that attitude that led to the idea for a book.

A few days after the initial conversation, Ethan and his dad headed north to meet Suzie at a conference.

On the way, Ethan continued to ask questions about global warming. So dad would ask, “What do you think Santa would say?”

Pretty soon they were building a story.

Santa flies from the North Pole looking for help. Somewhere over Southern California, Santa and his reindeer hit a cloud of smog and crash onto the roof of a home occupied by a boy named Ethan.

The character – who the real Ethan excitedly admits was inspired by him – asks for help solving the problem from his teacher, “Mrs. Counts” – named after his aunt Jackie Counts, who teaches at South Junior High in Anaheim.

Ethan considered what the teacher might say to help. And he remembered reading about alternative energy sources and giant wind generators of Denmark in that month’s “National Geographic” – the one for big people.

So Ethan incorporated that into the story, too, having students write letters advocating the use of clean energy to “Mrs. President.”

“That’s because there’s never been a woman president,” Ethan explains. “And there should be.” (Mom insists he came up with that character twist on his own.)

Ethan’s parents weren’t worried about trying to explain both sides of the global-warming debate. This was Ethan’s book and it should be his words, they say.

Inside a Monterey, Calif., motel, Ethan dictated the story while dad took notes, asking more questions to fill in the dialog and any holes in the story.

Matsuda worried that sitting in a motel room far from the beach might not be a 7-year-old’s ideal vacation. Until Ethan, snacking on a bag of Cheetos as he told his story, looked over and – out of the blue – said, “Dad, this is the life!” holding his hand up for a high five.

Once the story was complete, Ethan asked about sharing it with others.

So Matsuda hired an art student, Vanessa Lam, at UCLA to illustrate the story. And paid a Garden Grove publishing company to print 1,200 copies. In all, the family invested about $10,000.

They’ve sold about 400 copies and received e-mails from across the country as bloggers have discovered their Web site –

Earlier this month, Ethan held a book signing at Libreria Martinez bookstore in Santa Ana, where Rep. Loretta Sanchez interviewed him. He printed “Ethan 2005” on dozens of books.

“And kids in my class have been really nice to me too. I’m proud of myself and my dad,” Ethan says.

He hopes children who read it will take the message to heart and write letters on Santa’s behalf.

But like any good writer, he’s already thinking about his next project.

“I’ve got an idea that involves the Easter Bunny,” Ethan says. “But that’s next year.”

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