God’s Enormous Love Expressed in Tiny Truths: An Interview with Joanna Rivard and Tim Penner
How can you help your young children understand that the stories in the Bible can be connected to each other as tiny truths to teach one grand lesson: the story of God’s love for his children, starting with the magnificence of creation and including Moses parting the Red Sea, Jonah being swallowed by a giant fish, and ultimately the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the rescuing King?
Explain the uniqueness of this storybook Bible and what your objectives are.
Joanna Rivard and Tim Penner: It all began with the very simple idea to introduce kids to the Bible as one huge and deeply exciting story that, at its core (despite its complexity and depth), tells us three simple things: who God is, who we are, and what we were made for.
We had seen a lot of Bible stories and kids’ Bibles that felt more like a collection of individual short stories and we wanted to present it as one big, shared story—the story of God’s great love for us.
We also wanted to convey that the story is one which is still unfolding, in which we have a role to play. Eventually God will restore all that has become broken in this world, but it’s so exciting that by following Jesus’ example we get to participate and help bring about that restoration, in whatever small ways we can. And we can only do that through the same grace, forgiveness, and love that we’ve been offered.
Joanna, how (and why) does a person with a PhD in French existentialism end up preferring to write children’s stories?
Joanna Rivard: The long answer to this question requires a few coffees, but the short answer is this: existentialism (broadly put) tells us that we define ourselves through our actions. As such we have no innate essence or meaning. The Bible (for me) tells a much better story—that we’re defined by love and made for love. We don’t have to create that meaning for ourselves—God has given it to us and it’s a gift. That’s the story I want to tell my kids as they grow up. Although I’m also teaching them about French pastries.
Why did you decide to create the characters in this resource with skin tone color that is more shaded than in other storybook Bibles?
Joanna Rivard and Tim Penner: We both grew up with Sunday School lessons featuring a Jesus who looked more Western European than Middle Eastern. When we began this project it was one of the first things we talked about because we were so excited to be able to do things differently. Though it wasn’t much of a conversation, because, for us, it was simply about historical and contextual accuracy. It seemed obvious that stories taking place in the ancient Middle East and Africa should feature characters that look as if they live in those places.
Truthfully, it’s a bit discouraging to us that at this time in history, accurate portrayals of these characters still feel novel enough for people to notice it, but we’re excited to be counted alongside everyone else who is trying to change the way the characters in the Bible have often been represented.
What story of the Bible did you have the most fun illustrating?
Joanna Rivard and Tim Penner: There wasn’t necessarily one single story that was the most fun to illustrate, but the characters that were the most fun to design always seemed to be women. Their clothes and hair were more interesting and colorful than most of the bearded men in robes (except for John the Baptist who is also one of our favorites), so it was always a treat. Two of our favorites are Rahab and the Queen of Sheba.
We tried to do everything we could to get as many women into our Bible as possible, but it wasn’t always as easy as we would’ve liked. We’ve been talking recently about how much fun it would be to do a project featuring all the prominent women in the Bible. There are some pretty cool stories that we weren’t able to include that would be amazing to introduce kids to.
How do you communicate to children the messages of violent stories expressed in the Bible?
Joanna Rivard and Tim Penner: Considering the age of our intended readers, the violence in the Bible can be tough to manage, but stories like the Israelites’ escape from Egypt and of course the crucifixion are probably the two most central moments in the Old and New Testament, respectively, so you can’t avoid them.
We tried to tell stories like these in a way that gets the point and message of them across without getting into all of the details which for young kids (at least in our opinion) are just too much. We like to think that we hint at the fact there is more to some of these stories than we’re telling, but we’ll leave those details to the judgment of each individual adult reader.
Our hope is that each story in our Bible is just a starting point for ongoing conversation and questions that will set kids on a path of life-long learning and engagement with these texts as they continue to grow, learn, and be given new information. Certainly for us that process never ends!
Why is it important for parents to read the Bible to their children?
Joanna Rivard and Tim Penner: Whoever we are, and however we grew up, we all tell ourselves (and, of course, our kids) a story about who we are and what our place in the world is. Often we seem to get it quite wrong. For us, the Bible is the best, most important story in the world, because it tells us the truth of who we are and what God made us for.
It’s also a fantastic collection of stories woven together: stories of love and loss, of hope, sacrifice, brokenness, forgiveness, and redemption. These are all things we encounter in our lives, and when we read the Bible with our children we’re showing them their place in the biggest story of all time, and helping them to understand how to wrestle with the big questions of life. What could be more important (or more exciting) than that?
How should parents use this resource to get the most out of it?
Joanna Rivard and Tim Penner: This may sound too simple, but we think you should read a little every day and then talk, talk, talk! Ask your kids questions and encourage them to do the same.
Faith is an ongoing conversation and it’s best lived out with those around us. If the Bible is part of our kids’ lives, its truths will be infused into them as they grow, develop, and discover their place in this wonderful story. We should celebrate the joyful parts together and wrestle with the difficult ones. Help your child find their place in the story and understand what that means for them.
What is a favorite Bible passage of yours and why?
Tim Penner: I don’t really have one favorite verse but just recently I came across the first two verses of Psalm 131 that so perfectly articulated what I’ve been feeling lately—and not coincidentally as a result of making this Bible—that I’ve been enthusiastically telling everyone about them. They say: “My heart is not proud, LORD, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me. But I have calmed and quieted myself…like a weaned child I am content.”
It’s poetry so I feel like I’m allowed to project onto it a little because David could be talking about his own ambition. But what I see here is a childlike faith that has let go of the anxiety we can carry around with us as we try to solve a lot of the big questions around God, our own spirituality, and life itself.
In simplifying the Bible and its message to a point where a child can understand it for the sake of this project, I’ve started to realize that maybe it actually is, and can be, that simple. I find great comfort in a verse that seems to imply it’s okay to calmly and contently let some of that anxiety go and live in the freedom we have in Christ to have that simple, joyful, childlike faith Jesus says we should anyway.
Joanna Rivard: One of my favorites (there are a few!) is this one: ‘My heart has heard you say, “Come and talk with me.” And my heart responds, “Lord, I am coming”’ (Psalm 27:8). To me, it’s so beautiful that God’s desire is for us to come and talk with him. How amazing is that!
What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway and the Bible Gateway App and Bible Audio App?
Joanna Rivard and Tim Penner: We love Bible Gateway! I bet 80 percent of the reading and research we did for this project was done using the Bible Gateway App and the Bible Gateway site. It’s an amazing resource and tool!
The Tiny Truths Illustrated Bible is published by HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Inc., the parent company of Bible Gateway.
Bio: Joanna Rivard grew up in Nigeria and England and studied French at Oxford University. She has a PhD in French existentialism from the University of Michigan, but (given the choice) prefers writing children’s stories. She lives in Toronto with her husband and two children who refuse to share her accent.
Tim Penner is an animation director, illustrator, and writer who lives in Toronto. Before art and film school he picked up a degree in theology just in case the opportunity to bring it all together and make a children’s Bible ever presented itself. Tim and Jo are a creative team and have been making fun things for kids together since 2011.
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October 23, 2019
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