Q+A: The Story Behind the Jesus Storybook Bible
Sally Lloyd-Jones is not just any children’s author. Like C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, her writing is beloved by children and adults alike, with her bestselling Jesus Storybook Bible selling over 2 million copies to date and ranking as the most popular children’s Bible on Amazon, a position earned by its winsome presentation of the gospel in a storytelling format with a fairytale flavor. A “grown-up” version of her Bible stories hit the shelves last fall. The Story of God’s Love For You merges the text from the Storybook Bible with a fresh, new title and cover.
With roots in East Africa, England, and now a life in Manhattan, Lloyd-Jones developed a lifelong passion for stories that would be beloved by little ones worldwide. Bronwyn Lea talked with the New York Times bestselling author about learning wonder and joy alongside children, pursuing excellence, and rediscovering our vulnerability to the gospel through storytelling.
I discovered the Jesus Storybook Bible with my young children, and it was a deeply emotional experience to read it aloud to them: I laughed and I cried. What was it like for you to write it?
I always go by that saying from Robert Frost: “No tears for the writer, no tears for the reader.” Not that you’re supposed to be moving yourself to tears in a sentimental way, but if writing is not coming from that deep place that moves you, or that you find really funny, then I don’t think it will work. Writing requires truth: truth first for the writer and then it will come across to the reader, whether it’s funny or sad. When I was writing the story of the passion, it just so happened it seemed that I was writing it during holy week, and it was like having a mini-revival.
If you’re going to insert yourself in the Bible, you’re going to have a reaction. Sometimes I would find myself being judgmental towards the Israelites or the disciples, thinking “Ugh, how could they be so stupid? God has told them and rescued them so many times!” And then I would get convicted, and think, “So what was it I was worrying about?”
I noticed that internal “check” as I was reading the Old Testament stories in the Jesus Storybook Bible. There were these little reflective comments that said, “well, we’re just like that, aren’t we?” Hearing your personal reflection helped me to see myself in the stories. How did you decide how much to put of your own voice into the writing?
In the early stages, I came across a quote from Luther from when he was translating the Bible into German and was trying to work out what kind of language to use. Luther wondered whether he should take use the language of universities with its clever people and academics, but his answer was a firm no, choosing rather to use the language of the kitchen and listen to a mother speaking to her children. That image of a mother talking to her children is what guided me without even realizing it. It really freed me up as I wrote, because if you write it without a narrator, you’re stuck. The Bible always was oral, and still is oral as we read it aloud to children.
The Creation story reminded me of Aslan singing the world into being in Chronicles of Narnia. When did you first discover that God was a joyful God?
I think as a child, I knew it. Children have an innate wonder and joy. Today I was walking on the streets of New York and saw a girl beside her dad. He was walking along to work, but she was skipping and jumping at his side—she couldn’t help it. She had such joy. I thought, “That is what we are supposed to be like.” But we get so serious and grown up.
I recently attended the funeral where the eulogy concluded with, “My only comfort is knowing she’s in the hands of the one who loves her with His Never Stopping, Never Giving Up, Unbreaking, Always and Forever Love,” the final phrase a reference to the theme sentence from the Jesus Storybook Bible. How did that wording come about?
Much like the subtitle of the book, “Every story whispers his name,” that sentence just popped into my head. I feel like it was given to me. I feel like the whole book was given to me, although I know we do our part. I don’t have any formal (seminary) training, but I’ve always been fascinated with agape, and how it was unlike any other love, and so not what we are like. Every time God made that promise over and over again to send someone to rescue his people and bless Abraham’s children—combined with the idea of agape—developed into the idea of God’s never stopping, never giving up, unbreaking, always and forever love.
In the best way, writing and being so engaged in the story felt like worship. I think that's true of any work we do —whether we're painting, cooking, in an office, or whatever we're doing that God's given us—if we're doing it and he's our boss.
But work doesn’t always feel like worship or prayer, does it?
No, as I was writing I would sometimes get worried and muddled and think, “What about the reviews?” But it wasn’t so most of the time, praise God! He doesn't mind all our terrible thoughts. God’s not surprised at the way we are with ourselves. I love that about him.
We’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but since the text of The Story of God’s Love For You is exactly the same as the Jesus Storybook Bible, could you tell us how this book is different?
The Story of God’s Love for You came about from readers’ responses. A friend in publishing said early on that it was sad that with the Jesus Storybook Bible as it was, we had cut out many people who might really want to read it, but couldn’t get beyond the title (which makes the book seem like it’s only for children). She suggested calling it, The Story of God’s Love For You as a title you could give to everyone.
We began to hear from teenagers and missionaries. We heard that pastors were using it to preach, Cru was using it in training, and university students had it as a required text. We wanted to do an edition that was so beautiful that it earned its right to be heard by people who would find it really hard to read something with “Bible” or “Jesus” on it, and would miss the lovely truth that God loves them. There are some people it would be awkward to give a children’s book like the Jesus Storybook Bible to—like the guy who drives me to the airport—but it isn’t weird to give someone The Story of God’s Love for You.
Your writing lacks religious jargon. Can you tell us a bit about why, instead of talking about sin, or wrath, or repentance, you talked so much about emotional responses instead: God’s heartbreak, or our own hearts melting?
Writing for children kept me honest. You know you can't say to a 5-year-old or a 4-year-old “God punished them because of their sin.” I wrote with my nephew and nieces in mind. I set out to describe sin so that it would capture their imagination and move them. I explained that sin is not just breaking rules, it's breaking God's heart, and that sin is like poison: it makes your heart sick and not work properly anymore. Sin is running away from God and hiding in the shadows from him. It could also be thinking you don’t need God and could happy by yourself, but God knows that isn’t possible since happiness doesn’t exist without him.
My goal was help a child see that this was all coming from God's protection. He loves us, and that's why he doesn't want us to hurt ourselves. God doesn't just make rules saying, “Don't do things, do that” on a whim. He made us, and he knows what will bring us joy, and he longs for our joy because he loves us so much.
Do you think adults are less vulnerable to this story if they don’t encounter it first alongside children?
We are disarmed when reading with children, and some friends have said they experienced the text differently without children, as more of a devotional. The stories are only three pages, and because they're so short, they are manageable for a read in the morning.
I had to decide whether I was going to change the text for adults, and it really went against everything I believe in, because it was already reaching adults, and I didn’t want to mess with anything that was already working. As a direct result of the Storybook Bible, I get invited to speak to theological colleges and churches, and I always read my books out loud to adults, too. It’s poignant to read to adults. We all need to be read to, and unless we have audiobooks, we don't get read to much. When you talk, they hear you, but when you read a story, people kind of go into a trance.
In Western Christianity, most of our teaching is didactic: we share truth point by point. Do you think adults are actually more attentive to story than we realize, and are there lessons for us to learn about the way we do ministry among adults?
We are not very comfy with story, are we? I think it's because we don't feel we can control it. Yet stories are like seeds: they work silently. It’s almost none of our business how the story grows. We so often want to put a little lesson at the end of a story and say, “Oh, well what that story was about is...,” but the minute we do that we've killed the story because we've told people what to think instead of letting the story work.
Telling the story of David and Goliath should leave us in despair, wondering what will happen next. But it’s not about me being as brave as David (because I’m not), it’s really a story about the son of David facing all the giants that can really harm us: death, despair and sin. The minute we see that, the story melts our heart because it’s actually a true story about a rescuer who came. But we are so much more comfortable with moral lessons in our teaching, and we forget about the grace in these stories.
When you hear a sermon, what's the thing you remember? It's always the illustrations. It's always the stories. That's how we're made and what we're made for. Stories unmask us.
Sally is Brit who came to the US in 1989—“just for a year or two.” She’s still here. She is New York Times bestselling children’s book writer whose many books include the New York Times notable picture book of the year How To Be A Baby By Me The Big Sister, the ECPA Devotional book of the year Thoughts to Make Your Heart Sing, and her newest book, The Story of God's Love for You. She recently appeared with Amy Grant and Ashley Cleveland in Story in The Round, an evening of stories and songs. She lives in Manhattan and enjoys dividing her time between the front half of her apartment and the back. She can be found at sallylloyd-jones.com.
Bronwyn Lea is a South African-born writer-mama, raising kids in California and raising questions about faith, family and culture at bronlea.com. Find her online on Facebook, and Twitter (@bronleatweets).