In writing her first children's book, Anoka author Lora Johnson changed the name of the main character to protect the guilty: her son, Isaiah. But the anonymity disappeared when she decided to add a postscript explaining how "The Night I Met Santa" came to be.

"I gave it away," she admitted with a laugh. "Fortunately, Isaiah is OK with that."

The real-life part of the story took place a week before Christmas three years ago. When the misbehaving Isaiah, then 4, refused to obey his frazzled mother, Johnson took down his stocking and announced that he had been moved to Santa's "naughty" list. There would be no presents for him, she said, and he ran off crying.

When emotions cooled, she faced a dilemma: She wanted him to get his presents, but she also wanted him to learn a lesson. It turned out to be a Bible lesson. The greatest gift anyone would ever receive, she told him, is the grace of God brought by the birth of Jesus.

Her husband, Neil, encouraged her to use the experience for a book, which turned out to be easier said than done. A rambunctious boy named Jeremy (wink, wink) is sent to bed on Christmas Eve by his angry mother, who warns him that Santa probably will not drop off any of the toys he requested. Jeremy wakes in the middle of the night to find Santa in his living room.

"I wrote the first part right away, but then I got stuck where the boy meets Santa," Johnson said. "I wanted to work God's grace into the story, but I had no idea how to combine that with Santa's story."

It was the following summer before she came up with a solution. A longtime friend, illustrator Christine Ann Edwards, did the accompanying drawings, and they rushed the book to press. It wasn't quite fast enough. They managed to get only one bookstore, Borders in Coon Rapids, to carry it, and they didn't get any copies until the first week of December.

Nonetheless, the store sold 80 of the books, enough to persuade all the Borders locations -- as well as other bookstores -- to carry it this year. (It also can be ordered online for $17.99 at

Johnson doesn't have much more time to promote the book this year than she did last year. She had a baby two weeks ago.

"I'm sleep-deprived," she admitted.

A repeat performance

For the second time in as many years, Rabbi Morris Allen is on the list of the nation's 50 most influential Jews. For the second time in as many years, he's giving credit for that to just about everyone but himself.

This year he isn't just on the list, which is assembled by the Jewish Daily Forward Newspaper in New York City. He's among the top five Jews in the country, a position he shares with the likes of Rahm Emanuel (who will become the White House chief of staff for the Obama administration) and comedian Sarah Silverman.

In July, the rabbi for Beth Jacob Congregation in Mendota Heights found himself in the middle of a controversy over charges that immigrant workers were being exploited at the nation's biggest kosher slaughterhouse, Agriprocessors Inc. in Iowa. He got involved as the creator of the Hekhsher Tzedek (justice certification) program that calls on companies producing kosher food to attest both that the food was prepared according to Jewish law and "in a way that demonstrates concern for those who produce it."

Allen argues that the attention "really is for the project, not me. This represents the best of what we as Jews are capable of, the proof that we can respect both ritual and ethical law."

Asked if there were even a small shred of this for which he was willing to take credit, he somewhat grudgingly admitted, "I'm excited that the project began on a synagogue level and now has taken on a national presence." To which he quickly added: "But there are a lot of other people who deserve the credit for moving it forward."

Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392