Word and Flesh

Story is foundational to the Christian faith, and it is told through both words and illustration. When approaching children’s literature as a parent, the importance of story is always before me. Yes, I want my children to achieve scholastically and yes, I offer them books that model virtue and will bring them delight; but, primarily, I just want them to love story. I want them to engage with stories that show truth (though I’m certainly not thinking of only non-fiction); this can be the battle of good and evil, delving into a character’s emotions or understanding creation a bit better. I firmly believe that by helping them to understand and love stories they will better understand the big Story – capital ‘S’ – and their place in it.  Through story, they will have a better understanding of what it means to be human in a world made by a loving God.

The Christian story is just that – a story; one can not understand God and his plan for his people through statements alone. Anglican theologian W. H Vanstone writes: “the meaning of story can be received only from the story itself; it cannot be distilled or encapsulated adequately in statements or summaries of ‘what the story means.’” But he also goes on to say, “Nevertheless we can help one another to understand what the story means. Just as a teacher can help students to understand what a poem means, so we can help one another to understand what the story of Jesus – or any other story -means. We can draw the attention to the resonances of particular words and phrases; we can draw attention too to ‘silences’ within the story – to facts or incidents of which the story makes no mention.” [1]

“The word became Flesh and Dwelt among us,” something that could be seen and touched. It is in Christ’s incarnation that God’s story became brilliantly illustrated. So often in conversations on children’s literature there is an assumption that picture books are only for the youngest among us. And yet, illustrations can help word to become flesh for all of us.  They can, as Vanstone states, “draw the attention to the resonances of particular words and phrases; we can draw attention too to ‘silences’ within the story – to facts or incidents of which the story makes no mention.” And often images tell stories, as well as, if not better than words can. One can learn to read image just as one reads a text and the illustrations often tell a story all their own.

We show the youngest child board books (hopefully well-illustrated ones), and they begin to associate word with image. [2] As they age, we introduce them to classic picture books that use illustrations to fill out the story and add to it. [3] And somewhere along the way, we also begin to show them books with great art (in this case hopefully paired with lively text), and they learn how to read images. [4] The images put flesh on the words that they are reading. Or, in the case of wordless picture books, they tell a story all their own. [5]

In recent years, there has been more and more recognition that the importance of illustration continues on through life and that images themselves can tell a story. In 2008, the Caldacott Medal was awarded to Hugo Caberet, which unlike most of the picture books that receive the medal was not aimed at young children but at middle to upper grades. His book is 550 pages long and has many wordless pages. Even the author/illustrator’s acceptance speech contained a portion simply told through illustrations. The market for graphic novels and picture books continues to grow. And yet, reading images is certainly not new – one has only to look at the marvelous stories told in stained glass, classic art work and in biblical illumination to realize the tradition of illustration.

Defining literature too narrowly is not helpful. Word and image can work together to tell story. Images can tell stories all of their own. Great children’s literature will use both word and image, and it will cause our children to fall in love with story and help them understand who they are in light in the larger story of God’s creation.

1 W. H. Vanstone, Fare Well in Christ (Darton,Longman & Todd Ltd, 1997), 57.
2 Some favorite illustrators for the very young (lovely work with simple word and image association)- Margaret Wise Brown, Eric Carle, Charlie Harper, Janet and Allan Ahlberg, Helen Oxenbury, Mem Fox_
3 A few favorite illustrators with longer stories (these do a particularly good job of telling more of the story or helping one delve into the story through illustrations): Maurice Sendak, Jan Brett, Mo Willems, Virginia Lee Burton, Kevin Henkes (particularly his more recent work)
4 Looking at great Art in Books: James Mayhew’s Katie Series (a little girl journeys into paintings discovering their stories), Vincent’s Colors (uses Van Gogh’s own words with his art), The Mini Masters Collection (the words in these are poetic and work well with the paintings), Touch the Art Series (touch and feel board books with classic paintings and rhyming text),  Art Up Close, Can you find it… series
5 Some favorite Wordless Picture Books: Flotsam by David Wiesner, The Red Book and others by Barbara Lehman, Noah’s Ark by Peter Speir, Wonder Bear by Tao Nyeu, seasons board books by Gerda Muller_


  • Wesley Vander Lugt says:

    Thanks for this post, Emily! Depressingly, most books I read as a theology students only have one image or illustration–the cover–and sometimes that’s not even very good. There are exceptions, of course, and I’m thinking specifically of Alistair McGrath’s series on Truth and the Christian Imagination, which separate volumes on creation, incarnation, redemption, resurrection, and the Christian vision of God. Do you know of any other good examples of this?

  • Emily says:

    Wes, thanks for the comment. Unfortunately theology books aren’t a genre in which I’ve encountered much illustration. I do think of many great art pieces through history that can be ‘read as theological text’ and that certainly help us enter imaginatively into stories from church history or the Bible.

    I’m interested to look up the McGrath series you mention as it would be great to see how he works the writing and illustration together. Thanks.

  • Sue Watkins says:

    Hi Em

    I was thinking about how book illustrations when we are young, feed our imagination and the visual images we have in our head. So that, when we are adults reading fiction, our imagination provides the illustrations for the book. When I am deeply involved in a book, I only see images in my head not the words. Are other adults like that? And what does that say? That I am wierd or does it say something about God and how the illustration is so important to HIm that He would gift us with that capacity?

    What do you think?

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