Sally Lloyd-Jones, author of the bestselling Jesus Storybook Bible, knows from experience that children’s encounters with the Bible can have a lifelong impact on how they view God and his Word. For Lloyd-Jones, her early experiences with the Bible at church left her viewing Scripture as a moral authority that didn’t impart much grace.
"I somehow had the idea that I had to be good for God to love me, and if I stopped being good, he would stop loving me."
“I think a lot of children—and maybe grownups—feel that God is disapproving of us because we don’t match up to what we’re supposed to be. If we’re not all brave like Daniel, if we don’t keep the rules, then God will not be pleased with us. I knew Jesus was my best friend, but I also remember holding my dad’s hand as we walked to church, and in my head, as a 6-year-old girl, I was making a promise: ‘When I grow up, I am never going to church again.’ ”
Years later, when Lloyd-Jones set out to write The Jesus Storybook Bible, she kept her 6-year-old self in mind. She was determined not to introduce even a hint of moralism to its stories. Instead, she wanted children to grow up seeing Jesus’ presence on every page of the Bible. The children’s author had a few Bible storybooks under her belt before she signed on to this project (including the Gold Book Award-winning Baby’s First Bible). But The Jesus Storybook Bible, which has sold more than 2 million copies, is the first one that explicitly highlights the Old Testament themes and stories that show humanity’s great need for a savior and Jesus’ fulfillment of that need in the New Testament.
Finding the Bible’s Story
Although Lloyd-Jones says she loved Jesus as her best friend, she struggled to know God’s love. “God to me was a harsh disciplinarian. But as I grew, I began to understand the Father’s heart of love for me.” She learned through friends, through pastors, and through her church community, who taught her that the Bible “isn’t about what I’m supposed to be doing; it’s about what God’s done.”
She read books by Brennan Manning, John Stott, and Martin Lloyd-Jones (no relation) that—along with Tim Keller’s ministry at Redeemer Presbyterian Church—opened her eyes to grace. Lloyd-Jones describes these teachings as “water on thirsty ground. If we could ever do enough, Jesus would never have needed to come. Seeing the Bible as all about Jesus, rather than me, changes everything. It becomes this incredible, beautiful story that you get to be a part of. I look back and see that I was being prepared to see that the Bible is about the God who loves his children and comes to rescue them.”
When she began working on The Jesus Storybook Bible, Lloyd-Jones had the basic parameters from her publisher: a target number of stories and a page limit. She decided what themes to emphasize, how to frame theological concepts, and which stories to include. “There were certain stories I had to have, like creation and the fall, that were essential to capture the plotline of the Bible. And there were others—like Noah’s Ark—that I just had to include because they are so great from an illustrator’s perspective, which is key for children.” She ultimately decided to thread the foretelling of Jesus, and his arrival and ministry through 21 Old Testament and 23 New Testament stories.
In addition to emphasizing Jesus throughout the biblical narrative, Lloyd-Jones wanted to bring a feeling of cohesion to the stories—something that Bible storybooks often lack. “In many other Bible storybooks, you don’t know why Noah’s there, and you don’t know why Jonah’s there. When I started researching for The Jesus Storybook Bible, I listened to a lot of sermons, and a friend sent me a Bible study called ‘The Progress of Redemption’ that connected all the dots from Genesis to Revelation. I soaked myself in theology. And my imagination caught fire. I was caught up by the idea that I could tell a story with cliffhangers and paint a portrait of Jesus throughout the whole book, so that by the end, children have a chance to meet him.”
At the end of each Old Testament story, Lloyd-Jones points to Jesus. The Tower of Babel concludes: “God knew, however high they reached, however hard they tried, people could never get back to heaven by themselves. People didn’t need a staircase; they needed a Rescuer. Because the way back to heaven wasn’t a staircase; it was a person. People could never reach up to Heaven, so Heaven would have to come down to them. And, one day, it would.”
Lloyd-Jones did not take lightly the task of adapting stories from the Bible. She felt enormous pressure to get this project right. “It was terrifying, especially when I was writing the Old Testament parts that point ahead to Jesus. I had all these imaginary critics and theologians in my head, accusing me of making things up. I got to the point where I had to say, ‘God, you got me into this so you’d better help me. If you don’t, it won’t get done.’ Later I realized that was the place I should have been in all along.”
Planting Seeds over Sermons
As a veteran storyteller, Lloyd-Jones makes a compelling case for letting creativity guide our conversations about biblical truths. “Jesus himself, one out of every two times he taught, told a story. When you’re telling a story, everyone is engaged. “We’re hungry for stories. We need stories almost as much as we need food. I think that’s how God designed us. What do the words ‘once upon a time’ do for a child? You’ve immediately caught their attention the minute you say them.” When we’re teaching children, we sometimes make the mistake of summarizing the story for them at the end. But when you summarize, everyone glazes over—even adults.”
Lloyd-Jones had that point driven home to her when she was reading The Jesus Storybook Bible to a Sunday school group a few years ago: “When the story was finished and the teacher wasn’t in the room, I panicked. And without thinking, I asked, ‘So children, what can we learn from the story about how God wants us to behave?’ There was a little girl who had been really engaged in the story. She was so excited she was almost in my lap. When I asked that question, she physically crumpled. It was the picture of what happens when we turn a story into a sermon. It’s much better to ask an ‘I wonder’ question instead. ”
“Say for instance, we read the story of the feeding of the 5,000. We could end by saying, ‘Well, children, that story means we must share our lunch.’ Or we could say, ‘I wonder, what would God do if I gave him everything I have?’ Come down on their level, and wonder with them at the amazingness of our incredible God.”
Writing Up for Children
This commitment to inviting kids to wonder guided Lloyd-Jones as she worked to present the Bible in a way that was accessible but not condescending. Deciding how to frame complicated stories and mature themes turned out to be a challenge on multiple fronts. Death is a difficult and scary concept to talk about with children, but it is central to the salvation story. “Without the crucifixion, there is no resurrection; without sadness, there is no joy.”
“Children love fairy tales because they know there are dark things in the world. There are many children who’ve already experienced death through losing a parent or a loved one. Obviously, we can’t go around scaring babies, but unless we tell the truth, how can children trust us? No one is too young for the truth. You have to include those things. There is a way to be age-appropriate and tell the truth.”
Lloyd-Jones believes it’s important not to talk down to her readers. “I love what E. B. White says: ‘You write up, not down, for children.’ Simple and simplistic are not the same thing. Hans Hofmann said, ‘The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.’ It’s hard work. It takes longer to be shorter. You don’t dumb down—you distill.
Distilling Big Concepts
Lloyd-Jones also dealt with the challenge of framing theological ideas in a way that is accessible to children. Explaining the concept of sin was a challenge. Children have firsthand experience with breaking rules and receiving punishment, so it is tempting to focus on obedience when we talk about sin with children. But Lloyd-Jones wanted to explain sin more thoroughly: “Children need to hear that sin is not just about breaking the rules, it’s about breaking God’s heart. It’s about a love relationship. Children’s can understand that.”
“In the book, I talk about sin as running away from God and hiding in the dark; as poison that enters your heart, makes it sick, and stops it working properly; and as breaking God’s heart because he loves you. I used that language in the creation story, and then I had something to refer back to. With the crucifixion story, I was able to show that Jesus took all the poison and sickness in us into his own heart.”
In 2012 Lloyd-Jones published Thoughts to Make Your Heart Sing, a devotional-style book of 101 stories and meditations on faith. She got the idea for the project after she learned that her niece was being bullied at school. “I wanted her to have something that told her, ‘God goes ahead of you,’ or ‘Remember this is what God says.’ So I thought I’d better write it. I want it to be a book of hope for children, so that Emily and children like her will know what God says about them instead of what these bullies were saying about them.”
“My vision early on was that the book should be so beautiful that children would keep it by their bedside table and wouldn’t want to share it. Many times I get feedback from people saying that’s exactly what’s happened. And I love that, because that means it’s become their book. Jago’s illustrations are almost like editorial illustrations. Each entry is only about 120 words, but the image makes you linger on the page, as does the gorgeous design by Brooke Reynolds. The beauty on the page makes you want to stay there. And that’s the whole idea of the book: to slow you down and just give you one thought to lift your eyes to what God says about you instead of whatever the bully in your life says
One of her favorite pieces from the book is a retelling of 2 Chronicles 20, where the Lord defeats the armies of Ammon, Moab, and Mount Seir. In response to the Lord’s assurance that he will rescue Israel, Jehoshaphat sends men ahead of his army to sing the Lord’s praises. “I just love that almost fatalistic response: ‘This great army has come against us, and we don’t know what to do, but our eyes are on you.’ And what is God’s battle plan? He sends a little choir singing his praises. This story reminds us that whatever we are facing, we need to keep our eyes on him. And as we praise him, God goes ahead of us and sets ambushes for our enemies.”
Engaging Children in Discovery
Some of Lloyd-Jones’ more recent books are Bible-related, like Song of the Stars, which tells about the birth of Christ. Others, like The Baby Wren and the Great Gift, exhibit general Christian themes. “Baby Wren is a story about a canyon wren who sees all the wonderful things other animals and birds can do, and wonders what she can do. Finding your place in the world is something that children wonder about. But that is definitely not just a child’s question.”
Lloyd-Jones has observed that children and adults often have the same concerns, even if they manifest in different ways. While she is quick to say that she isn’t an expert in child development, Lloyd-Jones’ interactions with children throughout her career have given her a unique insight into the way children respond to different messages. “The first thing children need to know is that they are loved—that’s true of anyone. After that, children respond to the heroics of the story we are a part of. The Bible’s story has everything in it: the reality of death and suffering, Jesus as the hero who rescues us, and how we live a changed life out of gratitude of being rescued. We’re made for that.”