Truth be told, I almost always avoid standard religious children’s books, as I find the majority of them trite, preachy, or overly sentimental. A picture book about Jesus could easily fall into one of these categories; could be a sentimental, moralistic depiction with a didactic message. But in the hands of author-illustrator John Hendrix, the story of Jesus feels simultaneously miraculous and true. Through Hendrix’s words and illustrations, the old familiar stories take on a new life. The manner in which Hendrix depicts Jesus’ life is beautiful, authentic, accessible, and paradigm shifting. And aren’t these qualities reflective of the miracle man’s manner and message themselves?
BEAUTIFUL: The words of Jesus: arguably some of the most well-known and life-changing words in all of human history. Hendrix addresses the importance of Jesus’ words by making them into works of art. Jesus speaks, and his words become part of the illustrations — as rocks, as buildings, as butterflies, as lightning bolts, as tree trunks. Jesus’ life-giving words stand in sharp contrast to the tentative words of the disciples, which appear in speech bubbles, giving them a constrained appearance. Read through the book focusing only on the words of Jesus. He commands the storm to “Be Still” in bolts of lightning. After the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus promises the people, “With me there is abundance forever,” with the word abundance spelled out in loaves and fishes. My fourth grade students and I discussed whether these artistic words were text or illustrations. The discussion ended when a girl raised her hand and commented, “I don’t know if they’re text or illustrations, but I do know that they’re beautiful.” Indeed, not only is Hendrix’s illustrated text beautifully distinctive, but it reminds us that Jesus’ words are beautiful. Case closed.
Beauty and excellence in quality are also exemplified through Hendrix’s use of color, white space, and texture. A strong color palette with varying degrees of pink, brown, yellow, and teal give the illustrations an electric energy that is appropriately restrained for illustrations depicting more somber moments. The subdued and muted opening spread shows a dry and dusty land in need of “healing” and “a kind of water that would last forever.” The page-turn brings immediate color in the form of colorful birds and butterflies against a white background. When your eye wanders over to the verso page, you encounter Jesus for the first time. You see that it is his finger that is the source of the color. Hendrix’s use of white space is effective, with double-page spreads with white backgrounds interspersed with full-color spreads. On some spreads, the white background simply allows the eye to focus on the vignette-style illustrations. On other spreads, the white space becomes almost a character in itself. The spread showing Jesus staggering under the weight of the cross on his way to his crucifixion uses white space to emphasize just how alone he is. And the textures created with watercolor, stippling, shading, and other mixed-media techniques add yet another layer of depth to the illustrations. In short, the book’s design (be sure to peek under the jacket) is as beautifully intentional as the illustrations.
AUTHENTIC: Hendrix’s attention to cultural and historical accuracy is notable. The image of Jesus most of us bring to mind is one that has been constructed by Western ideals. Miracle Man breaks this stereotype by depicting Jesus as a Middle Eastern man in a well-worn tunic. The disciples, soldiers, and “rich taunters” wear turbans, uniforms, and gowns that are authentic to the period. In the back matter, Hendrix explains that though his illustrations were inspired by several generations of biblical artwork, he anchored Miracle Man not in a European setting but rather around the Sea of Galilee and Jerusalem. He relied on research of “what people looked like, what clothes they wore, how buildings — especially rooftops — were constructed and even if there were butterflies in the region!” Attention to historical and cultural authenticity can be an afterthought in picture books. Hendrix’s intentional decision to attend to these details is worthy of Caldecott committee discussion.
ACCESSIBLE: Miracle Man “displays respect for children’s understandings, abilities, and appreciations,” presenting the story of Jesus and his miracles with a simple and straightforward reverence. Jesus’ humility, power, and compassion are clearly conveyed through body language, facial expressions, and page placement. A vignette of Jesus sitting cross-legged, eye-level with a smiling little girl, is one of the most poignant images in the book — showing (not telling) how Jesus sees and cares for children. Reading Miracle Man aloud in my classroom resulted in a rug full of wide-eyed children. On the Garden of Gethsemane spread, I paused and asked the children to tell me what they noticed. One child pointed out an apple and serpent on a neighboring rooftop. Another child noticed how Jesus isn’t evading his arrest, but rather “letting the soldiers capture him.” Big truths conveyed solely through illustration.
PARADIGM SHIFTING: The manner in which Hendrix presents the life of Jesus is paradigm shifting. Gone are the moralism, didacticism, sentimentality, and (dare I say it?) mediocre illustrations present in the majority of picture books about religious figures. In their place is a picture book with illustrations that distinctively capture the mystery of Jesus’ humanity and deity.
If Miracle Man wins the 2017 Caldecott Medal, it will not be by a miracle — but by merit.