Twenty-Five Picture Books for Grown-Ups

Enjoy the Work of Sally Lloyd-Jones, Hildegard von Bingen, Lynd Ward, Makoto Fujimura, and others.

Guest Contributor / 1.21.20

Grateful to Mandy Smith for compiling this.

“You must never illustrate exactly what is written. You must find a space in the text so that the pictures can do the work.”

– Maurice Sendak

It’s said that medieval churches had stained glass windows for the illiterate masses. But I’m starting to think that, even in our era of much-improved literacy, we still need to get lost in color and shape. Recently, reading has become less and less enjoyable—after a day spent trawling through emails and skimming online news, words begin to swim before my eyes. So it’s no surprise that the pile of books by my bed includes many with illustrations. When my reading brain is tired, my childlike self is still ready for an adventure. It’s a spiritual instinct.

This also makes sense in the year my children turned 18 and 21 since one of the things I miss most from their childhood is the time spent together in picture books. If we can’t enter the kingdom of heaven unless we’re like children, perhaps time “wasted” in illustrated books (whether or not they’re intended for children) is a way to relearn those old habits? This lesson is available to us alone but if we’re lucky enough to have children willing to wander in the pictures with us, we remember together that growing up into adults doesn’t have to mean becoming numb to color and wonder.

Here are some favorite illustrated books for adult Christians:

The Faces of Jesus. Text by Frederick Buechner, photography by Lee Boltin (1989)

In large yellow letters the back cover of this book declares why we need books with pictures: “He had a face…” While plain text on white pages can certainly invite our imaginations, if Christian experience comes only through printed word, it’s easy for our faith to become entirely conceptual. But God himself was not content with concepts so broke into our experience with all the color and shape of creation, including the color and shape of his own bodily form. The Word is words and flesh. His message comes with illustrations. Buechner’s wonderful prose presents these images of Jesus from many times, cultures and media—from Byzantine gold coins to African ivory and Chinese silk, even a few contemporary crayon drawings by children. As Buechner writes in his introduction: “It is tempting to say that this is a dream book, a book not about the face of Jesus as it really was but about the face of Jesus only as for twenty centuries men have dreamed it was. Yet in the last analysis, this is a distinction that is hard to hold. When it comes to the real truth of a face, the truth that finally matters, who is to say that a dream does less justice than a camera can?” A beautiful way to get lost in the face(s) of Jesus. – Mandy Smith

The Boy, The Mole, The Fox, and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy (2019)

Sometimes pictures are seen as childish, but that is not the impression I get from The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy. This book is simple and profound. Open to any page and you will see a work of art. The handwritten words, paired with the gorgeous pen-and-ink drawings, are striking. Charlie Mackesy’s intro confesses, “It’s surprising that I’ve made a book because I’m not good at reading them. The truth is I need pictures, they are like islands, places to get to in a sea of words.” But it’s not just the aesthetic of this book that I love; it’s also the message of love it conveys. As the title says, it’s about a boy, a mole, a fox, and a horse who meet out in the wild. They are on a journey, but it is not clear where they are going—kind of how life feels. The message is optimistic while also acknowledging difficulty. My favorite part is when the boy and the mole first meet the fox. The fox says, “If I wasn’t caught in this snare I’d kill you.” The mole says, “If you stay in that snare you will die,” and then he chews through the wire with his tiny teeth, risking his life to save the one who wants to kill him. One of the next pictures shows the boy and the mole sitting on a tree branch, and down below the fox has made a heart in the snow with his footprints. What a beautiful picture of love. – Juliette Alvey

Sacred Passion: The Art of William Schickel by Gregory Wolfe (2010)

In the 1960s Thomas Merton served on the committee of monks tasked to find a designer who would reimagine the sanctuary of their abbey in Kentucky. They found stained glass artist, painter and architect, William Schickel, who stripped back the heavy plasterwork to discover bricks that monks had laid a hundred years earlier. After taking in the simple beauty of this space (the purest, most beautiful liturgical space I know) at a recent retreat there, I found this book in the abbey library. In the same way that the sanctuary had shaped a space for reflection, the images and words (by Gregory Wolfe, editor of Image Journal) welcomed me into a space of simple beauty. “Sacred Passion” invites us to explore the kind of timeless work—liturgical space, murals, stained glass, painting—that can be created under the Benedictine banner of “ora et labora” (prayer and work), how nature’s beauty enters into institutional sacred spaces and how the sacred enters into daily life of work and family. Schickel’s art shows a deep faith in the possibility that his work as an artist is only part of the creative process. His creative choices reveal to me a deep trust that his work begins something in the participant (as a designer of sacred space, he invites more than simply a viewing) which he, as the artist, did not create, an engagement with the One who also began the work in him. It feels like trust not only in God but in us as participants, space to explore and discover God at play in all things. – Mandy Smith

Jesus Storybook Bible by Sally Lloyd-Jones (2007)

Sally Lloyd-Jones reinvents the genre of children’s Bible by rejecting the idea that children need moral tales to teach them how to live. Instead she tells them a fairytale—a true one—of a rescuer King, and a plan to make everything sad come untrue. As you read aloud the 44 stories covering the entire Bible, it is easy to forget that this is a book for kids. It seems her plan is to tell each story in such a way that they would sneak past our adult defenses to remind us again of what has become too familiar. Story after story, we are told of His never-ending, never giving up love that is the central theme of The Bible. I can think of nothing more necessary for anyone, but maybe it should be especially required for followers of Jesus who might be becoming middle-aged in their theology. This book draws us out as children, encouraging us to run freely into the arms of Jesus with every story. The lover of our soul, the one all the stories are about, is making all things new again. – Andrew Gauggel

Hildegard von Bingen: A Journey Into the Images by Sara Salvadori (2019)

For years, books about medieval abbess and mystic Hildegard von Bingen have had less-than-glorious illustrations—unfitting for such a colorful character. But finally, in 2019, we have for the first time a book that explains her prophetic text, Scivias (“Know the Ways”) in the way she originally created it—with her full-color illustrations, reproduced in their original size. This work, the fruit of seven years of research, offers analysis of her visions and the meaning of her writings along with a grammar of the symbols and themes. You can begin by reading if you like, but I succumbed first to the temptation to sink into the gorgeous color plates, and then curiosity lead me to the text for answers to the many questions that arose from the imagery. The opening chapter highlights her significance—her place among the saints, her polymath prolificacy—she founded an abbey, was a gifted painter and composer, a writer of theology and doctor of natural medicine. The rest of the book allows you to experience it. (Hildegard invites multi-media engagement, so as you take in her artwork, you may want to also listen to David Lynch’s 1998 rendition of her musical works in partnership with vocalist, Jocelyn Montgomery.) – Mandy Smith

Every Moment Holy by Douglas McKelvey and Ned Bustard (2017)

This book is an incredible opportunity for rest and reflection. It opens the door to grief, joy, ordinary moments, and allows us to step into a sacred space with God. Every Moment Holy has turned normal, everyday chores, like changing a diaper or washing laundry, into a worshipful experience where we can meet with God and see a bigger purpose in the mundane. It offers a moment’s pause for reflection during meals, the purchase of a new home, drinking a cup of morning coffee. This book offers an opportunity to seek peace and purpose in everyday life, putting beautiful words with unique pictures to pull together parts of life that seem so separate, like grief and peace, harmony and strife. The title really says it all, turning Every Moment Holy.  – August Crosby

What Do You Do With An Idea? by Kobi Yamada and Mae Besom (2013)

This metaphorical tale follows a young boy who hatches an idea, which looks akin to a golden egg. Soon the befriended idea literally colors the world around it. This sweet story will enchant grown-up children familiar with the fears and challenges of holding onto our own ideas, identities, and dreams; and will tickle children who see the egg grow legs and begin to transform the pencil illustrations into full color. (Other titles in the series by the same author/illustrator: What Do You Do With a Problem? and What Do You Do With a Chance?) – Maddy Green

May It Be So by Justin McRoberts and Scott Erickson (2019) 

Line-by-line McRoberts and Erickson take the Lord’s Prayer and highlight its significance. The prayer is thoughtfully explored by McRobert’s storytelling, coupled with simple prayers and Erickson’s artwork. The intention of May It Be So is to provide an opportunity for contemplative prayer. Erickson’s creative imaginings supply the reader with a timely pause to reflect on the story the image is telling. A simple and yet profoundly moving book filled with forty days of prayer, written in everyday language that helps anyone connect to the practice of prayer. – Jessica Anders

Gods’ Man by Lynd Ward (1929)

Lynd Ward’s Gods’ Man is told through a series of ornate woodcut prints, and is widely considered the pioneer of the modern graphic novel. The narrative itself is centered on a Faustian bargain between an idealistic young painter and a shrouded figure who tempts him with the all-too-easy attainment of his heart’s longings. With the elasticity of a parable, the wordless story is open to a number of interpretations. Is it telling us something about innocence? Artistic compromise? A cautionary tale of disordered desire? All of the above? Despite being published in 1929, the spiritual undercurrent of Ward’s world feels eerily familiar. While the artist’s metropolis is teeming with grandeur, it seems so starved for beauty. We find ourselves navigating a similar paradox daily, enticed by the elemental spirits of our age. Gods’ Man hardly has the ending of a Disney film—but it offers us something better. In its absence of consolation, our longing for good news becomes more fully realized. – Christopher Maier

The Flying Orchestra by Clare McFadden (2010)

“Some days are so windy that even the angels lose their balance from the top of city hall… ” From there the flying orchestra accompanies cities and fields with sonatas and solos for every emotion, every life event, especially a traveler coming home. This textured and exquisitely painted book is hard to find, so get it while it lasts; you will be misty-eyed at the thought of the angel orchestra accompanying you and your babies through the highs and lows of everyday life. A beautiful promise of presence.  – Maddy Green

Beauty Given by Grace: The Biblical Prints of Sadao Watanabe by Sarah Bowden et al. (2013)

This glossy book is filled with striking prints by a devout Christian man, based on an exhibition of his works created in 2013 to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of his birth. Watanabe took a traditional Japanese stencil method, used for dyeing kimonos, to depict biblical scenes relevant to his culture…and beyond. These bold, colorful images, which have been compared to Eastern Orthodox icons, are at once recognizable and new, taking familiar tropes from Western Christianity and presenting them in a way that makes us look again. – Mandy Smith

The Very Persistent Pirate by CJ Green and Maddy Green (2017)

This pesky book took a year to tease from the brains and pens of Mockingbird natives, and offers an adventure and the gospel all at once. The idea of a persistent pirate who chases us after we have stolen his treasure, just to share in our lives and party together, is the kind of gospel we needed to hear in the throes of crash-landing in our own lives. It holds silly rhymes and a prodigal parrot to also delight the younger readers. – Maddy Green

Elf-help Books by various authors, illustrated by R. W. Alley.

In the land between psychology and Catholic contemplation live the Elves of Elf Hollow. “For over thirty years, the Elves of Elf Hollow, with their simple, yet poignant advice, have touched the lives of millions of people around the world. Inspired by the mission of the monks of Saint Meinrad Archabbey, these books…offer strength, help and healing for those who are hurting.” This line of around 40 small books (almost pamphlets) features friendly ink elves, who kindly guide big folk through anger, insecurity, grief, divorce, anxiety, loneliness, even Christmas. Substantive reminders of goodness packaged in a light-hearted way—exactly what we need when our hearts and minds are overwhelmed. – Mandy Smith

The Saint John’s Bible by Donald Jackson

A marriage of calligraphy and artwork establish the Saint John’s Bible as one of the most thoughtful presentations of scripture in our age. Donald Jackson is a world-renowned calligrapher and artist who has handwritten passages of the Bible that will set you back in time. The artistry of the text allows the reader to slow down and reflect on the intention behind the text. As the words of scripture are given a voice, the script alongside the pieces of artwork provide the opportunity to ponder the words and images together. This book invites the reader to slow down and savor the scripture in a new and meaningful way. This is a series of books from the Pentateuch to Revelation and provides creative ways to illuminate the language of scripture. I will be collecting all of Saint John’s Bible! – Jessica Anders

The Sunflower Sword, by Mark Sperring and Miriam Latimer (2010)

The Sunflower Sword tells the story of a young knight who has grown up in a world of endless fighting between knights and dragons. The little knight longs for his own sword so that he can join the fight with the older knights. The boy’s mother won’t let him have a sword, though. Instead, she hands him a sunflower. The disappointed young knight decides to pretend his flower is a real sword. He climbs Dragon Mountain, swooshes his sword through the air, and slays three imaginary dragons. Soon, however, he comes face to face with a live dragon. With no other options, the young knight swooshes his sunflower sword in the face of the dangerous dragon and, astonishingly, makes a new friend. The young knight and the dragon begin to see each other differently, and the other knights lay down their weapons and take up sunflowers instead. Jesus’ example of enemy-love and his commandment that we, too, should love our enemies can be difficult to follow. Like the mother in the story, God offers us gifts much better than swords.  – Amanda Elven

Faithful Spy: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Plot to Kill Hitler by John Hendrix (2018)

I first came across the remarkable, expressive illustrations of John Hendrix when Christianity Today did a story on his Sunday sermon sketches. He’s since published several beautiful books and a series of thought-provoking and winsome “Adventures of the Holy Ghost” comics. But his most recent (and, I’d add, impressive) is The Faithful Spy. This richly-illustrated graphic novel (for teens and adults) is obviously not simply an assignment for Hendrix, but a labor of love. This incredibly digestible (more than simply “readable”) book is an expression of what happens when a deeply thoughtful artist immerses himself in a project—reading, traveling, sketching (see here for his research and notebooks)—and shaping all that into something whole and new. Not only a helpful insight into the person of German pastor and activist, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but a way to step into Bonhoeffer’s seething times, in word and image. Look also for Hendrix’ new book of Jesus’ Parables, Go and Do Likewise, to release in 2021. – Mandy Smith

Come Alive! The Spirited Art of Sister Corita by Julie Ault, David Berrigan, and illustrated by Sister Corita Kent (2007)

I first learned of Sister Corita while I was studying to be a graphic designer at a small art college in Detroit. I was drawn to her work immediately for its bold use of technopop color and clever appropriation of 1960s cultural imagery. Sister Corita invites her audience to see the world anew, challenging us to “look again,” as we dare to see extraordinary in the ordinary. Popular song lyrics, commercial billboard slogans, bible verses, war protest signs—Corita saw the beauty in everyday life and made art from it, all while living and practicing as a Catholic nun. Come Alive! was published on the 20th anniversary of Sister Corita’s death (which also happens to be the day I was born) and is the first volume to examine the life and work of this joyful, unconventional, and revolutionary graphic designer. Look closely at each image…then look again. – Megan Trischler

Restaurant of the Soul by Makoto Fujimura (1999)

In recent years, the Japanese-American artist Makoto Fujimura has become known both for his evocative art and his thoughtful writing and speaking on faith and art. Sadly, due to the cost involved in printing art like his, many of his art books are expensive. However, used editions of his 1999 graphic novel, Restaurant of the Soul are available at an affordable price. And it’s quite an unusual little book. Although the artwork is very little like his iconic style, it invites us into a similar experience—painting the outline of something and inviting us into exploration. It’s a big risk for an artist to leave that much space—the viewer could get the “wrong” reading or nothing at all—but the risk pays off every time the viewer discovers something and owns it. This is a risk that Fujimura takes, both in his expressive paintings and in this mostly wordless graphic novel. We have to look closely to study the character’s faces, watch for recurring themes and listen carefully to the emotions that his imagery draws to the surface of our hearts. I was reminded of Shusako Endo’s Silence and the difficulties of presenting the gospel across cultures. It made me wonder if this way of presenting it—through the story of a young boy and a three-legged rabbit—might be an insight into the Japanese heart. The experience is especially immersive when read with the included CD (the kind of music NPR’s John Diliberto might call “atmospheric textures.”) – Mandy Smith

The Biggest Story by Kevin Deyoung and Don Clark (2015)

I’ve been following Don’s work for several years, so when I heard he was illustrating this book I knew I had to get it. It’s marketed for children but the depth of story in each illustration is created with adults in mind. This book has allowed me to connect with the gospel in a different way than reading alone as these illustrations bring the stories to life. I encourage adults to pick this up and spend time with each illustration. – Steph Landry

Elisabeth and the Water-Troll by Walter Wangerin, Jr., and Deborah Healy (1991)

Pastor, professor, and Sun Dancer Walter Wangerin, Jr. has long been providing literary gifts, and is best known for his novelizations of the Bible and the award-winning Dun Cow fantasy trilogy. His children’s books are less well known than they should be, and this is especially true of Elisabeth and the Water-Troll. Wangerin’s storytelling here is rich, literate, and complex—making it challenging for kids, and perfect for adults. Deborah Healy’s illustrations are fittingly dark and brooding—simple, mostly sad, and revealing of the deeper wisdom that emerges as the drama progresses. Wangerin is a strong believer that children’s books need not be childish. This tale originates in loss and is birthed in the darkness. The biblical resonances are subtle, but serious—grief, tears, and pain seem at first to lead only to anger, fire, and more pain. There is much that reverberates with the tenor of our own time—angry crowds whipping up violence, inept leaders, and a good-hearted but lonely voice, at first outshouted, yet proved true in the end. As it turns out, love really is stronger than death, the water of life will flow, and where it does both life and love will triumph. Also, the monsters are not who you think they are.  – Glenn Paauw

The Bible Beautiful by Alabaster (2019)

I’m a sucker for minimalist design and a great typeface (tuck that away in the “not so strong opening lines for a millennial’s dating profile” file). And as strange as that statement may sound, I trust I’m not alone given the booming success of Kinfolk or Cereal magazines (Alabaster has also used a magazine format). And as we continue to navigate our cultural moment where the aesthetics of something are nearly as valued, if not more valued, than the thing in and of itself, Alabaster’s The Bible Beautiful has done a magnificent work in bringing the beauty of Scripture in harmony with the beauty of design. The photography that is paired with the text invites me to wonder, breathe a little bit deeper, and gives room for the Spirit to continue the work of Inspiration. Alabaster is a helpful reminder for me that the Bible is overflowing with beauty and inspires me to have eyes to see the beauty in the everyday. If the Illuminated texts of the Middle Ages caused readers to wonder in awe of the beauty of Scripture, I wonder if Alabaster can do the same for us today. – Leslie Hall

Old Turtle by Douglas Wood and Cheng-Khee Chee (1992)

What is God like? Each of us has a unique vantage point—a perspective that shapes how we understand and experience God. Each of us has the opportunity to share our experience of God and to learn from others. Often, however, our perspective limits our vision, and our theological disagreements grow into arguments that harm our relationships and our world. Old Turtle tells the story of such a quarrel between the wind, rocks, rivers, animals, and other aspects of creation. The stone imagines God as an immovable rock; the breeze sees him as an ever-moving wind. They argue over whether God is near or far, gentle or powerful, fast or slow. Quiet, wise Old Turtle appears on the scene, pointing to the truth of each being’s representation of God. He is near to us, and he is separate from us, he is gentle and he is powerful. Turtle goes on to tell of complex beings who mirror God’s multi-faceted nature. These people, Old Turtle tells her friends, came, but they forgot who they were, began new arguments over who God is, and used their God-given powers to harm one another and God’s creation. Overhearing the people’s arguments, creation sings out, reminding the people of the truth about God. The story of Old Turtle reminds us of God’s intentions for his world and his people and invites us to know God more deeply through the diversity of creation. – Amanda Elven

The Infographic Bible: Visualising the Drama of God’s Word by Karen Sawrey (2018)

Rather than an actual Bible, this is a colorful companion to biblical study, presenting all kinds of data in infographic form. It includes a chart which breaks down Solomon’s wealth (with different symbols for golden shields and chariots and stone cutters), a word cloud of Jesus’ words for himself, and a fascinating graphic reminiscent of the flight path maps on the last pages of airline magazines, with dozens of arcs connecting Old Testament prophecies to New Testament fulfillments. I smiled to discover some surprises like an infographic depicting all the promised children of scripture and one called “Praise & Worship Stances: Meaning in the Moves” with stick people “yadah”-ing (stretching out hands in thankfulness) and “barak”-ing (kneeling) and “shabach”-ing (shouting). I also loved the two-and-a-bit full page spreads, filled with tiny people to give a pictoral representation of what 3000 people looks like, to fathom the significance of how many turned to Jesus in Acts 2. This ambitious project required collaboration with many missional organizations and research institutions (they even have a diagram at the back illustrating how the workload was shared among all the contributors) and the author warns readers that to pack it all in the text had to be quite small so you may need a magnifying glass. Images are theological (I’m still reflecting on the creative way they chose to depict the Trinity) and I’m sure the more persnickety theological reader will find issue with some design choices. This marvel is a light-hearted, approachable, glossy book for casual perusal and at the same time, a work that deserves attention, even if just to marvel at what it took to compile all the data and design the imaginative infographics. – Mandy Smith

Women in the Material World by Faith D’Aluisio and Peter Menzel (1996)

If we’re honest, we all wonder how other people really live—what they eat, what they own. In this beautiful Sierra Club book, we’re welcomed into the lives of twenty families around the world, through the eyes of their women. Women in the Material World takes time in the worlds of these women, asking their thoughts on marriage, hair, childcare, laundry, water, education, their hopes for their daughters. The glossy images let us see for ourselves how very different we all are and, at the same time, how very much we have in common. If our curiosity is not yet satisfied, Sierra Club has also published companion books—Material World: A Global Family Portrait (where we’re treated to photos of families surrounded by all their possessions) and Hungry Planet: What the World Eats (where families smile for photos before a spread of all their food for the week). A fascinating way to reflect on what it means to participate in this global neighborhood. – Mandy Smith

Coming in 2020:

Poems to See By: A Comic Artist Interprets Great Poetry by Julian Peters

“This stunning anthology of favorite poems visually interpreted by comic artist Julian Peters breathes new life into some of the greatest English-language poets of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.” (From Plough website)

Honorable Mentions:

This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen (2012)

The Medium Is the Massage: An Inventory of Effectsby Marshall McLuhan, Quentin Fiore, Jerome Agel (1967)

Books by Patrol including Luther and The Gospel in Color (2019)

The Bible Project Coffee Table Book(releases March 2020)

Boxers and SaintsGraphic Novels by Gene Luen Yang and Lark Pien (2013)

Strange Planetby Nathan Pyle (2019)

Revealed: A Storybook Bible for Grown-Ups illustrated by Ned Bustard (2016)

Cory and the Seventh Storyby Brian McClaren and Gareth Higgins (2018)

Unflatteningby Nick Sousanis (2015)

Finding Narnia: The Story of C. S. Lewis and His Brother by Caroline McAlister and Jessica Lanan (2019)

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