Review: Brian Wildsmith's Illustrated Bible Stories by Brian Wildsmith (Illustrator) and Maryanne O'Donnell (Author)
By Andrea Perkins
Brian Wildsmith was a prolific children’s book author and illustrator and winner of the British Kate Greenaway Medal for children’s book illustration. Our family has enjoyed Wildsmith’s books for many years. Last year for the Feast of The Annunciation I reviewed his beautiful book on Mary. A few other favorites in our home library are The Easter Story and Exodus, and we have enjoyed many others via the local library (Saint Francis, Joseph, Jesus, A Christmas Story, as well as many of his non-religious titles).
Unfortunately, many of his books have gone out of print, but, as I was reviewing Mary, I learned that Wildsmith’s children have been working to bring his work back into print. (The engaging “illustrated life story” they put together outlines his legacy and explains the genesis of their project as well.) One of the fruits of their efforts is Brian Wildsmith's Illustrated Bible Stories, just released last month by Star Bright Books!
Originally published by Watts, New York in 1968 with Bible stories written by Philip Turner, the 2022 reprint of Brian Wildmith’s Illustrated Bible Stories features stories written by Maryanne O’Donnell. Although the finished product acts as a cohesive whole, the art and the narrative can also be appreciated separately, and my review will consider each in turn.
A cradle Catholic, Wildsmith understood the weighty project of bringing the Bible to life for children in art and story. “In accepting this assignment,” he said, “I realised that I was facing the greatest challenge an artist can have: the Old Testament alone covers over 4000 years of history and a multitude and great variety of characters and motivations. This means that each picture has to be a distinctive creation by itself.” This collection of fifty-four Bible stories with accompanying artwork accomplishes the task he set forth. Each image is a feast for the eyes and the mind — combining an easy accessibility for children with a depth of beauty and detail that will reward sustained contemplation.
I was surprised to find that the illustrations in this collection are much different from the clean, bright, and colorful style of his other books, such as Mary or The Easter Story. Here the drawings and paintings stay true to his “folk-art” style — but they are darker and more moody or evocative, and the brushwork and blending of the watercolors are more visible than in other works.
Many children’s Bibles are illustrated with cartoon-like figures and landscapes that, while eye-catching and entertaining for children, rarely rise to the level of true beauty. Even when they are not downright kitschy, the illustrations in children’s Bibles rarely reward sustained and mature engagement. At first glance, Wildsmith’s paintings and sketches are inviting and even child-like. Many scenes include large sections of simple line drawings that invite children to copy and emulate his work. And yet, without losing that touch of child-like wonder, the illustrations are gorgeous and reflect a depth of technical skill. His color palette is dark and vivid (my children especially like the colors in the scene of Moses and the burning bush). Intriguingly, Christ is usually left unpainted or tinted in very light shades of cream — with the notable exception of his depiction of The Ascension, in which Christ is brilliantly arrayed in a golden robe with scarlet highlights. This collection truly is a gallery of Biblical art!
As Wildsmith noted in taking on this project, children’s “story Bibles” are inevitably selective. The nature of any given story Bible, then, will be heavily influenced by the selection of stories. This collection hits all the “major” ones typically included, but it also features some that tend to get left out, particularly in shorter works: for instance, the Old Testament prophets Elijah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, and the Return to the Promised Land after exile. Likewise, in the New Testament section, three distinct story entries are made for the three temptations of Christ. Dedicating this much space to the temptation underscores the weight of the devil’s pursuit of Christ. In each of the three accounts of Christ’s temptation, Wildsmith brilliantly depicts the devil as the same serpentine figure that tempts Adam and Eve in the garden. Not only does this reflect the consistency of Satanic evil across time, it also helps children begin to perceive Christ’s role as the Second Adam, who succeeds where the first Adam failed.
The way a story Bible handles the account of The Last Supper is always theologically telling. In this case, I was pleased to see that there was no attempt to distort Christ's words in order to reject the Real Presence in favor of 'memorialist' views. Instead, Maryanne O’Donnell safely sticks with Christ’s words: “Take this and eat. This [is] my body.” (Very unfortunately, there is a typo in this reprint edition. Instead of “This is my body”, the text has Christ saying “This in my body.” Hopefully, this will be fixed in future editions).
Of course, no paraphrase or retelling of Bible stories can always stick with the original text verbatim. O’Donnell’s imaginative departures sometimes help children discern the meaning of enigmatic sections of Scripture, although others are more troubling. Two illuminating examples both come from the book of Genesis.
In her account of the fall, O’Donnell describes the “death” that will result from eating the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil as knowledge of “sadness, illness, grief, and death.” In this short phrase, O’Donnell helps children immediately and concretely grasp what only unfolds gradually in the biblical text. Unfortunately, her telling also falls into the common trope of story Bibles in presuming that Adam is absent from the temptation scene. According to O’Donnell, Eve “carried a piece of the fruit to Adam, who ate it,” whereas the biblical account suggests Adam is present but silent ("She took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate” [Gen. 3:6b, NRSV]).
O’Donnell’s version of the Abrahamic covenant is unusual. Instead of the familiar "I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed" (Gen. 12:3, KJV), O’Donnell writes, “I will bless those whom you bless, curse those whom you curse.” This rendering gives Abraham a remarkable amount of authority and agency and could potentially encourage a presumptuous “God on our side” triumphalism. That posture proved to be Israel’s downfall, as various kings ceased to see themselves as chosen and set apart for holiness and to bless the nations and instead began to view God as automatically and necessarily on the side of Israel and against their enemies, regardless of their own fidelity to him. At the same time, the language intriguingly anticipates Christ’s granting of authority to the Church — to bind and to loose (Mt. 16:19), to retain and to remit (Jn. 20:23). Of course, the history of the Church is marked by the same sins of pride and presumption that plagued Israel. For a mature Christian, then, this particular version of Genesis 12:3 offers much to reflect upon regarding the posture of the Church towards the world — but parents may need to guide their young ones in understanding the responsibilities that the blessings of God inevitably entail.
Children’s Bibles require heavy editorial and interpretive work in determining which stories are included and how they are told. No children’s Bible will satisfy all readers from all traditions. The best ones, however, stay fairly close to the biblical narrative and minimize editorial intrusions. For the most part, O’Donnell takes this approach. Most of her interpretive choices avoid excessively prejudicing the reader towards one “take” or another and largely leave intact the "semantic range" of the biblical stories. Some of her more creative renderings help children perceive the bigger-picture meaning. The missteps noted above are ultimately quite minor and do not significantly detract from the narrative as a whole — nor do they in any way diminish the beauty of Wildsmith’s art.
On the whole, Brian Wildsmith's Illustrated Bible Stories makes a fantastic addition to a home or parish library (and would be a wonderful Easter gift!). As Wildsmith rightly identified, “our children are our inheritance and our future.” Because of this, we have a responsibility to provide our children with what is true, good, and beautiful – through good stories and beautiful art! Wildsmith understood how important it is to expose even very young children to beautiful art — and he spent his life producing art for this very purpose. He exhorts us all, “Let us sharpen our wits and pencils and make sure that what we write and paint will fly the child into a world of joy and wonder and imagination. We must write in those books about love, humour, compassion, truth, understanding, justice… profitable wonders that will determine how our children will develop and help build a happier and more peaceful world.”
Andrea Perkins lives in Oviedo, FL with her husband, Fr. Mark, and three children. She is a parishioner at St. Alban's Anglican Cathedral.