The author and illustrator of a beautiful children's book discuss the need to teach scripture early
Having blogged recently about a lovely illustrated book for young children titled God the Father’s Loving Plan, designed to introduce them to the Bible, I have caught up with its author, Jean Ann Sharpe and its illustrator, Roseanne Sharpe, her daughter. In that earlier blog I admitted that as a cradle Catholic I had not grown up with Bible stories. What is Jean Ann’s own faith background?
She tells me that she grew up as part of the Swedish Baptist Church, an evangelical denomination brought to the US from Sweden by immigrants in the early 20th century. “Within this close-knit church family of the 1950s and 60s, I regularly attended Sunday School, the Sunday morning service, a Sunday evening service and Wednesday night Girls Missionary Guild. There were also summer Bible camps and vacation Bible schools”, she recollects.
“I grew up loving Jesus and accepting the Bible as an important element in daily life. During the Jesus People Movement of the late 1960s and early 70s, I began making meaningful connections of the various aspects of the Bible narrative.”
Jean Ann and her family, alongside their community, the Bethlehem Community, all became Catholics in 1993. She relates that “it was time to integrate my appreciation of the Scriptures with a doctrinal and Catholic understanding” adding “This has not been an easy road. For one thing, the Evangelicals’ relation to the Bible is a pretty personal one, in which one expects God to speak clearly and lovingly to individuals. Cradle Catholics, on the other hand, recognising that the Bible is part of a larger ecclesial context that includes the Magisterium and Tradition, tend to be more cautious in their approach.”
Jean Ann comments with a smile: “I am still working on finding a balance in relating to the Scriptures in a personal, Catholic way!”
Thinking of how she approached writing her book, she says that her childhood religious experience taught her that “not only did Jesus love me and know me, but that I could love and know him in return.” She emphasises, “Each baptised child has the Holy Spirit within, ready and waiting to teach, guide and transform that potential into a living likeness of the Creator. A child is never too young to be exposed to the richness and reality of God’s word.”
This background has deeply influenced her writing. She says thoughtfully that “As a young adult it had become important to me that we find ways of sharing the Good News with children that did not undervalue their inherent openness to God and which presented Christ in a living way.” Within the newly formed Catholic Bethlehem Community “We continued to explore ways to adapt and integrate familiarity with the Bible for children alongside the beauty of Church teaching.”
Jean Ann is convinced that young children “respond to God through beauty and truth, and the less watered-down the better.” Her own early exposure “to the language of the King James Bible and later to that of the Revised Standard Version, had left me with multi-layered impressions of words, events and concepts that, though I did not understand it all fully at the time, remained with me, laying down a foundation of language that proved key for my ongoing intellectual and spiritual life.”
Reflecting on her book, the author tells me that “it was a matter of choosing and organising Bible stories that coincided with the salvation history outlined by the Church – while keeping it short enough to qualify as a picture book. The language used in the text draws from both the Scriptures and the Catechism of the Catholic Church.” She adds, “It is difficult to make complex thoughts truly simple while staying true to the essential meaning – but what we have going for us is the fact that God wants to be discovered and has given us the Holy Spirit to help in every way.”
How has the book been received within her own Community? Encouraged by the feedback she has received, Jean Ann tells me that their “educational philosophy tends to rest on the principle of children and adults learning together; that is, the adult, or parent, does not have to be an expert before he can approach a new subject with a child. Sometimes a book such as this can give a Catholic adult a picture of salvation history for the first time. We always say that a good children’s book is for everyone of any age.”
Jean Ann is emphatic that “It is very important to expose children as early as possible to the Bible and its stories – and as Catholics, it seems that finding ways to help a child connect what is read in the Liturgy of the Word with its source, sacred Scripture, is key.” She believes that “Memorisation of Scripture is also something that can begin when a child is very young. One never knows when the word that has been “hidden” in one’s heart will come to the fore in times of trouble or need. And it is much easier to memorise as a child!”
Jean Ann’s daughter, Roseanne, who illustrated the book, explains that, being new to icon painting she enlisted the help of Brother Claude Lane OSB, a full-time iconographer at Mount Angel Abbey, Oregon. “He gave invaluable advice at key moments in drafting the images, such as in the Visitation picture employing the visual device of circles framing the small figures of Christ and John the Baptist to show we are viewing them inside their mothers’ wombs.” She adds that “Brother Claude also encouraged me to create peaceful images, which helped me scale back on my tendency to favour dynamic lines.”
Roseanne Sharpe considered it “a privilege and very enjoyable to work in an apprentice-like style with Brother Claude, whose masterly work and constant encouragement during the process were key ingredients in bringing the illustrations to fruition.”
Why did she choose an icon style of illustration? She explains it is “because of the rich symbolism found in Eastern iconography, a sacred form that has remained remarkably consistent across nearly two millennia.” She hopes it will give children “at least a taste of its symbolic language in the hope that it may pave the way for later appreciation and understanding of icons and sacred art more generally.”
Roseanne concludes by saying that “The content of the images themselves kept constantly before my eyes that God deals in details, in the concrete actualities of human life: in salvation history he speaks to the person, brings about this event, enters this moment in time. Throughout the project I experienced this discipline of the specific as I wrestled with a particular picture, concept or application of paint and discovered the faithfulness of God in these little things at each step along the way.”