Editor Ruth Jackson spoke to award-winning children’s author, Sally Lloyd-Jones. Sally’s book, The Jesus Storybook Bible, is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year, having sold over two million copies and been translated into 34 languages.
Ruth Jackson: How did you start writing for children?
Sally Lloyd-Jones: I always loved writing. The first book I ever read was Edward Lear’s The Complete Nonsense. It’s full of silly line drawings and limericks, and I realised you could have fun inside books. It was a revelation to me as a seven-year-old because I thought books were all about learning and being serious. I ended up working in publishing at Oxford University Press. I would hear laughter coming from the picture book department and thought maybe I should work in picture books. That’s how it started, then my nephew was born and suddenly I had an actual child to write for. That’s hugely important because then you’re not trying to sound like a writer, you’re just communicating.
They say what you love to do when you were about six or seven, before you start to become what you think everyone wants you to be, will often clue you into the deep desire of your heart and what God will perhaps have you do as a living. It took me a long time, but I have really come back to where I was at seven: having fun inside books.
RJ: What was your experience of church and God as a child?
SLJ: I became a Christian when I was four. I knew Jesus was my best friend from a very early age. I knew he loved me and was on my side. But I wasn’t quite so sure about God. I kind of made God into a disciplinarian, and so while I knew Jesus, I wasn’t so sure God loved me because I knew I wasn’t doing it right. I hated Sunday school. I don’t know why, I’m sure the teachers were really great, but in my six-year-old mind I just decided I’m never going to church when I grow up.
RJ: What changed that perspective?
SLJ: I think getting to know a community of other believers and realising their joy, and then coming to understand the theology of the Old Testament. That it’s not telling us how we’re supposed to live so God will love us. It’s showing us the impossibility of us ever living up to his standards. Now I see the Old Testament as one of the most wonderful records of how God is so patient with his people, and every time they fail he forgives them. They keep promising they’re going to do it better, and they never do. And then, just at the right time, the rescuer comes, and that’s the New Testament. That picture of the Bible transforms everything.
I wanted children to know the Bible isn’t about what they’re supposed to do so God will love them. It’s about how much God loves them and what he has done to rescue them
RJ: Why did you write The Jesus Storybook Bible?
SLJ: Given my background, I didn’t want any child to have the same ideas as I did growing up. I wanted children to know that the Bible isn’t about what they’re supposed to be doing so that God will love them. It’s about how much God loves them and what he has done to rescue them.
RJ: The tag line for The Jesus Storybook Bible is “every story whispers his name”. That’s an important part of the book, isn’t it – that every story revolves around Jesus?
SLJ: If you read a Bible story like David and Goliath as a model to follow, you can think you’re not brave like David and it puts it all on you. But you start to see that every story is there to point to the coming rescuer and a greater David, who will defeat a far greater giant than Goliath. He’s going to defeat death and sin. Things that we could never in a million years defeat on our own. When you read it like that it’s completely different and it melts your heart, because you see God’s love. It’s all about Jesus from beginning to end.
RJ: How important do you think stories are in helping children understand who God is?
SLJ: I think it was Eugene Peterson who said: “Our lives are story-shaped”, and it’s true. We don’t realise how powerful stories are. God rescued us through a story, not a ten-point-plan. I think we don’t really trust stories because they are mysterious and we prefer things we can control. Rules don’t change you, but a story does. God’s story changes you. We need to pick the right story, then we need to trust the story. A story is like a seed; it works secretly when it’s given room and time, and when we don’t explain it to death. The minute we read a story and say: “Well, children, what that story means is…” we’ve killed any other possibility of what God might have wanted to say through that story. The best thing is to try not to reduce it down, but trust the story and give God a chance to work in the child’s heart.
It doesn’t have to just be overt Bible stories. Other stories can feed a child’s sense of worth and belonging. I think maybe we need to make time every day to come together to read something short to equip us. It’s an important part of what we do as adults. We may know where to go for comfort and strength, and we need to remember children also need that.
Rules don’t change you, but a story does. God’s story changes you
RJ: Tell us about your book Thoughts to Make Your Heart Sing.
SLJ: It is basically the follow-up to The Jesus Storybook Bible. I wrote it for my niece, who was a very fun little girl with a wonderful imagination. Then almost overnight she became quiet, as though a cloud was over her, and you could hardly hear her when she spoke. It was as if she was losing her voice and her own self.
We found out she was being bullied at school and, of course, that’s heartbreaking. She told me: “I thought if I stopped being me, I’d stop getting into trouble.” I asked her what she read before school. She showed me this workbook that was some kind of devotional. It was really just a moral lesson - the little boy shared his lunch, and you too must share your lunch - and I just thought that was not helpful when you’re being bullied. I wished she had something to read before she went to school that would tell her what God says about her instead of what these bullies were saying, and so I had to write one.
It’s a book of hope for children. Every entry is short because children are not going to read very much. It had to be very beautiful, so it’s illustrated by Jago (illustrator of The Jesus Storybook Bible). I wanted it to be so beautiful that a child would want it by their bedside table. It is often used by children who have been bullied, which I really believe is a gift from God.
RJ: How can we support the children in our churches?
SLJ: When I think about my own life, I can think of a handful of adults that parented me just by being in my life. I think it’s about loving children, being available to them and respecting them. Treating their fears and concerns with seriousness, and befriending and mentoring them. It may not be in a formal way but we can all recognise the person that made the difference for us; maybe even just one sentence that was one of the things God used to shepherd us.
Inevitably, children have to find their own way. Falling out of church may be their way of coming back so we have to be less scared if they wander away a bit. Some of the greatest ministers had a strange route to being used by God. When we freak out, we tell a child we don’t really have faith they’re going to be OK. I think our job is to keep focus on ourselves and make sure we really are trusting God for our children. Not trying to be God for them. Which is very hard, but I think that’s the way to love people, by giving them the dignity of their own decisions, while being clear about what we think. I don’t want to tell anyone how to raise their children but, as an aunt, for instance, my job is to say to my nieces and nephews, whether through words or not: “I love you, I’m here for you, I believe in you. And God is going to see you through this really hard time.”
RJ: How can we engage with children from a non-church background? Are stories a key part of that?
SLJ: I think so. You can’t really beat stories if they’re good. They stay with you. I like to read picture books that are filled with joy. They may not have any Bible verses anywhere near them. A lot of books I write don’t, but my task is to bring hope to children and light a candle in the dark. If that helps them with abuse or makes them laugh when a new baby is coming along, then I think I’ve done something that will bring them closer to knowing the love of God.