One of the very first things that Haley and I look at, before we read any words in a children’s book, is the artwork. We have been known to pass a book back and forth dubiously, groaning over cheesy and unappealing pictures. We’ve agonized over whether to review a book that is well-written, but is lazily illustrated in the corny-Bible genre (i.e., lots of indistinguishable robes and a suspiciously pale, benign Jesus). And we’ve flat-out passed over books that are garishly drawn or cartoonish.
It might seem like we’re being overly fussy or perfectionistic. I’ve come across a few books myself that are indifferently illustrated, or worse, and I’ve thought: “why not just give it a pass and review it? Pictures aren’t the most important part of a book anyway.” But here at Aslan’s Library, we’ve maintained since day 1 that the beauty and the truth of a piece of art – and children’s books are art! – are inseparable. I was reminded afresh why after spending some time this week in Amsterdam.
Yesterday afternoon, I made my way to the Rijksmuseum, via a long self-guided Rick Steves walk. (I love Rick Steves.) The main portion of the museum is closed for renovation, but they have a wing in the back displaying some of their most well-known pieces. I made straight for the Rembrandt rooms.
As we’ve traveled this past year – and we’ve been in the sky a lot – I’ve had the blessing of spending a lot of time in art museums. And while in general I usually haunt the medieval and modern wings, I’ve started looking for Rembrandt everywhere I go. At the Met this spring, I saw a few of his self-portraits side-by-side. They stopped me in my tracks. It was hard to tear myself away. I realized: this is a man who can tell a story, evocatively, with just a brush, a palette knife, and some paint. Here is a man who can tell the truth on canvas (or wood).
At the Rijksmuseum, several of his paintings were displayed alongside those of friends and fellow Dutch painters – all good and honored artists. But there is an evocative beauty- a life – that draws you into a Rembrandt piece, and it made the others look stilted and two-dimensional alongside. And the glory is that, as with all great art, you feel like you’re never done with it. You want to keep going back again, to see what else you find.
That’s what art is about: taking what we see all the time, and trying to render it more truthfully. Though we rarely notice, God’s world is filled with arresting, captivating beauty. Often it’s in unexpected places, blossoming out of ugly brokenness. If I want to be able to imagine how God is working and how he is calling me, I need to learn to see. Art helps us do that.
And that is why the art in our children’s books matters. I don’t mean to say that only great masterpieces will do – though a steady diet of those is healthy. What I’m after are illustrations that attempt to render another dimension of the truth that is printed in the words, Because honestly: words can’t tell the whole truth.