Faith-based children’s book publishers, which stand on stories of inspiration, joy, and adventure that are threaded with spiritual and biblical ideas, have had steadily rising sales, from four million copies sold in 2014 to 6.8 million copies in 2019, according to NPD BookScan. This year, critters bounce through board books, anthropomorphizing lessons in kindness and compassion, while titles for tots teach the ABCs of Christian creeds and middle grade books confront issues of identity and sexuality. Additionally, biography, history, mystery, and fantasy titles—often in graphic formats—show real and imagined protagonists’ adventurous, yet faithful, lives.
Facing hard challenges
Somber notes are appearing in the fall and spring lists, with stories that can offer wisdom and comfort during the inescapable challenges of 2020—a pandemic raging, protests in the streets, schools upended, and playmates kept socially distant. And more such books are on the way, publishers say.
“It’s our responsibility to address these topics,” says Megan Dobson, recently named v-p and publisher for Zonderkidz. “We want to speak to children with voices that allow them to open up and deal with anxiety, grief, fear, anger—everything kids are feeling—in age-appropriate ways. We can highlight thankfulness and gratitude for the helpers. And we can show characters who speak up for what is right.”
Books that deal with eternal emotions and questions will always meet the needs of the moment, says Nancy Bryan, v-p for editorial at Church Publishing. While visiting Norway earlier this year, she spotted a 10-year-old book by acclaimed Norwegian author Alf K. Walgermo. It told the story of an orphaned child asking questions about God and faith and finally finding spiritual solace. Bryan acquired the rights, hired a translator, and retained award-winning illustrator Øyvind Torseter to produce Mom and Dad in Heaven (Morehouse, Nov.). “It’s a genuinely human, beautifully written book” that will find an audience as the country struggles with the coronavirus outbreak, she says.
Paraclete Press author John Gray’s new book, Sweet Polly Petals, illustrated by Shanna Brickell (Oct.), zeroes in on an urgent topic as the poor economy continues to push up evictions. It’s a fairy tale about Polly, a little girl who is given four magic wishes and uses them to help as many homeless people as she can. Gray plans to donate a portion of sales to shelters.
At Beaming Books, editorial director Jill Braithwaite says, “Our books are all geared toward helping kids thrive socially, emotionally, and spiritually through life’s challenges. Many of the books find a new level of resonance in difficult times. We see a lot of demand for books that deal with resilience.”
Beaming’s spring titles include When Things Are Hard, Remember, a picture book about a little girl whose family must move, by Joanna Rowland (The Memory Box: A Book About Grief) and illustrated by Marcela Calderón. The girl brings a seed from the tree by her old home and replants it in her new front yard in a tale of change, uprooting, and new growth. She and her father have browner skin than the clearly white children who join her in friendship. Inclusion matters, says Braithwaite. “We publish books with people of color that are about living life and all it entails. We are very interested in books that fight against racism and white supremacy, and we actively seek more creators of color for future lists.”
Quelling anxiety and fear
Several upcoming books are aimed at helping children find a sense of spiritual calm and security. The Bright Light That Defeats the Super Scary Darkness (B&H, Oct.) by theologian Dan DeWitt, illustrated by Rea Zhai, tells children that Jesus, light of the world, defeats the evils they fear.
It’s followed in April by more books from B&H addressing faith and hope in the face of anxiety, such as What Do I Do with Worry by Christian counselors Josh and Christi Straub with illustrator Jane Butler. It tells the story of a little girl of color who struggles with a move to a new neighborhood until new friends show her the biblical way to deal with emotions.
In April, Tyndale will publish What Do You Say to a Dragon, by Lexi Young Peck with illustrator Wendy Leach, which demonstrates for children “how to face fear head on, express their emotions, and use their imaginations to change the power dynamic of anxiety,” according to Linda Howard, associate publisher for kids and youth. She sees it as a title that can cross over to secular audiences while offering an “underlying Christian worldview.”
Three forthcoming titles focus on meditation. Coming from Shambhala’s Bala Kids division in November is Meditation Station by Susan B. Katz with illustrator Anait Semirdzhyan, which introduces an imaginary place where kids can learn to “manage our busy minds, difficult feelings, and frustrations by staying with our breath and in our body,” according to publisher Ivan Bercholz. Bala Kids will also release Sit with Me: Meditation for Kids in Seven Easy Steps (Dec.) by Carolyn Kanjuro with illustrations by Nan Lawson. “There is so much to learn from the wisdom of age-old traditions” when it’s presented in ways accessible to children, says Bercholz.
Healing Breath: A Guided Meditation for the Planet by William Meyer with illustrations by Brittany Jacobs (New World Library, Aug.) is intended to help young readers foster their connections with the earth and all who live on it. This is only the second children’s book ever released by NWL, following the success of Big Breath by the same creators last year, says executive editor Jason Gardner.
Focusing on inclusion
Though calls for social, racial, and economic justice are in the spotlight now, children’s publishers in recent years have been quietly intent on assuring diversity and inclusion in texts and illustrations.
“We want to be biblical, accessible, and relevant,” says Tim Thornborough, founder and executive v-p of The Good Book Company. The company, which began adding children’s titles five years ago, saw 2017’s God’s Very Good Idea,by African American author Trillia Newbell, sell “a year’s worth of stock in a week this year,” according to Thornborough.
In the company’s Very Best Bible Stories series, which produces about two books a year, “we never illustrated Jesus the same way in each book,” he says. “We don’t want to inadvertently declare, ‘This is what Jesus looked like.’ ” Coming in November are two titles for the series written by Thornborough and illustrated by Jennifer Davison: Deborah and the Very Big Battle and Moses and the Very Big Rescue.
Other forthcoming titles focus on inclusion. Stay This Way Forever (Zonderkidz, Mar.), by ABC News anchor Linsey Davis and illustrated by Lucy Fleming, portrays the innocence and wonder of childhood for children of all backgrounds. Different: A Great Thing to Be! (WaterBrook, June) by Heather Avis, illustrated by Sarah Mensinga, is a rhyming book showing children how to recognize beauty and delight in people with learning disabilities or physical challenges. I’m a Saint in the Making (Paraclete, Oct.) by Lisa Hendey, illustrated by Katie Broussard, presents inspiring examples of saints from around the world with the message that no one must be perfect to care for others and share their gifts.
Love Gave (Harvest House, Oct.) by Quina Aragon, assistant editor at The Gospel Coalition website, with illustrations by Rommel Ruiz, is a Gospel story of forgiveness, told by a Black author. It features child characters of many backgrounds and portrays Jesus as a “dark-skinned, dark-eyed man from the Middle East,” says Kyle Hatfield, the acquisitions editor for Harvest House children and family titles. Hatfield, who is Asian American, says he wants to see books that “can raise up a generation of people who value each other.”
Teaching Christian theology to tots
Hatfield, previously a children’s pastor before beginning his publishing career, says, “We feel it is never too early to teach children important doctrines of the faith. We can infuse these central beliefs into their DNA so, when they get older, it will seem as if they have always known this.”
The publisher’s Baby Believer board book series’ newest addition, We Believe (out now) by Danielle Hitchen with illustrator Jessica Blanchard is the Apostles’ Creed cast as an alphabet primer (“E: Everlasting Life. We Believe in the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting”). Harvest is also releasing A Tale of Two Kings by Gloria Furman with illustrator Natalia Moore (Mar.), which draws connections between Adam and Jesus.
A new title by Sally Lloyd Jones and illustrated by Jago, Near (Zonderkidz, Jan. 2021), is a toddler’s introduction to Psalm 139’s message that “God is always near and knows us and loves us even when we may not see it.” (Lloyd Jones’s touchstone book, The Jesus Storybook Bible, will be issued as a keepsake edition, titled A Christmas Collection, in October.) Harvest House presents an adaptation of the John Bunyan classic The Pilgrim’s Progress (out now) with “kid-friendly verse” by Rousseaux Brasseur, who once turned the tome into a stage musical, with illustrations by Katya Longhi.
Some Christian kids’ titles are pegged to the church calendar. In October, Barbour will publish A Year of Bible Stories by JoAnn Simmons and illustrated by Anita Schmidt. Paraclete aims to help homeschooling parents with lessons for early elementary school-aged children on the key moments in the church year with Breathe: A Child’s Guide to Ascension, Pentecost, and the Growing Time by Laura Alary, illustrated by Cathrin Peterslund (Apr. 2021). And 1517 Media’s Lift-the-Flap Easter Stories (Feb. 2021), by Andrew J. DeYoung and Naomi Krueger with illustrator Megan Higgins, “invites the youngest children to celebrate Jesus’s life after death from the resurrection to the ascension,” according to the publisher.
Christian history and theology for older children
For bigger kids, two publishers offer time-traveling takes on biblical tales. In October, Tyndale House’s Focus on the Family imprint will publish the latest entry in its Imagination Station series, which takes two cousins back in time to experience biblical moments. They are shipwrecked with Paul in Swept into the Sea by Shiela Seifert and Chris Brack, illustrated by Sergio Cariello. Imagine... The Tower Rising by Matt Koceich, illustrated by Simon Mendez, drops a modern girl into biblical times to witness the fiasco at the Tower of Babel (Barbour, Nov.).
Other engaging formats are forthcoming, too. Kingstone Comics will publish The Epic Bible: God’s Story from Eden to Eternity (Oct.), a graphic novel retelling of the Bible’s central story by DC and Marvel comic artists, and Seekers: An Interactive Family Adventure in Following Jesus (NavPress, Oct.), written and illustrated by C.S. Fritz, which includes puzzles, art projects, and an escape room–like mystery. Eerdmans, too, offers an activity-oriented title: Saint Spotting (Or How to Read a Church) (Apr. 2021), written and illustrated by Chris Raschka, turns a visit to a church into an adventurous tour through the stories of saints told in stained glass, symbols, and statuary.
Conservative Christian publisher Crossway sees teens as ready to skip the fun and games and get down to theologically solid straight talk about the Christian worldview and life. 10 Questions Every Kid Should Ask (and Answer) About Christianity by Rebecca McLaughlin (Jan. 2021) takes on questions such as “Why can’t we just agree that love is love?” and “Who cares if you’re a boy or a girl?” from a biblical perspective.
Often the lessons of faith are exemplified in biographies and story collections focused on courageous people guided and fortified by religious values and beliefs. Sometimes the star of the story is someone unexpected, as in Hiding Baby Moses (Flyaway Books, Apr. 2021) by Judith L. Roth, illustrated by Melanie Cataldo, which is told from the perspective of Moses’s sister Miriam. Kuan Yin: The Princess Who Became the Goddess of Compassion (Bala Kids, May) by Maya van der Meer, illustrated by Wen Hsu, is a fictional biography drawn from an ancient Chinese Buddhist folktale about compassion, love, and finding the strength to follow one’s own path. Brave Heroes and Bold Defenders (Harvest House, Oct.) by Shirley Raye Redmond and illustrated by Katya Longhi details the lives of “50 courageous men who put faith into action.” In September 2021, Church will release Absalom Jones: Leader and Guide by Mark Francisco Bozzuti-Jones. “As the church pays attention to its own sins of racism, a book that celebrates the life of a former slave and America’s first ordained Black priest offers encouragement, guidance, hope, and inspiration today,” says Bryan.
The Good Book Company will launch a new series, Do Great Things for God, with two biographies of notable women written by Laura Caputo-Wickham, both publishing in April 2021. Corrie ten Boom: The Courageous Woman and the Secret Room, illustrated by Isabel Munoz, recounts the actions of the Dutch watchmaker, who saved Jewish lives from Nazi persecution. Betsey Stockton: The Girl with a Missionary Dream, illustrated by Eunji Jung, tells the life story of Stockton, born enslaved, who grew up to begin the first educational system in Haiti.
Allegory, adventure, and fantasy
Tyndale is planning a third book in its Sunlit Lands series by Matt Mikalatos next summer, a story that weaves together the life of a gravely ill high school girl who enters a land of elves and dwarfs, secrets, and magical warfare. Ultimately, says Linda Howard, “it’s about how the choices you make can change the world around you. Fantasy appeals to middle schoolers: it takes them away from the craziness around them.”
Howard adds that Tyndale will launch another teen series in 2021, set in a society founded and run by women who are tired of abuse by men. The first two titles in the series, both by Jess Corban, are A Gentle Tyranny (Feb. 2021) and A Brutal Justice (summer 2021). These books raise questions, Howard says, like “Do you want vengeance or justice?” and “Are you okay with dehumanizing someone else?” She adds: “It’s very crossover in appeal, but the underlying values, such as forgiveness, are Christian. We are who we are at Tyndale, and we want to be able to reach a broader audience without compromising. You don’t have to worry about sex and swearing and those kind of things in a Tyndale book.”
In October, B&H will release the novel Echo Island by Jared Wilson, in which four teens confront myth and mystery, question the nature of reality, and learn to submit to God’s story, according to the publisher.
WaterBrook & Multnomah will release four new titles in its Wingfeather Saga series by Andrew Peterson: The Monster in the Hollows and The Warden and the Wolf King (both Oct.); Wingfeather Tales: Six Thrilling Stories from the World of Aerwiar (Mar. 2021), with coauthors Jonathan Rogers, N.D. Wilson, Jennifer Trafton, Douglas McKelvey, and A.S. Peterson; and Creaturepedia (Sept. 2021).
Peterson says the Wingfeather story arc “isn’t overtly Christian—but it is deeply Christian, because hopefully it gets down to the bone-deep realities of human brokenness, selfishness, despair, and the even deeper realities of forgiveness and sacrificial love.
Love all around
Toddlers and readaloud parents alike will find books that are as cozy as lullabies and cheery as a holiday this year, including All the Colors of Christmas (Convergent, out now) by Matthew Paul Turner and illustrated by Gillian Gamble. The book explores the colors that make the season “magical and personal,” according to the publisher.
WaterBrook & Multnomah also has sweet titles for young readers. What a Beautiful Name (out now), written by singer-songwriters Brooke Ligertwood and Scott Ligertwood and illustrated by Ben Fielding and Karalee Fielding, is based on Hillsong Worship’s Grammy-winning hit song about discovering all names are linked to Jesus’s name. Hand to Hold (July 2021), based on popular songwriter J.J. Heller’s beloved lullaby, with illustrations by Alyssa Peterson, reminds children they can “trust their parents to love and be their champions, whatever else may be going on in the larger world, says Laura Barker, v-p and publisher for WaterBrook & Multnomah. And in Flashlight Night: An Adventure in Trusting God (Feb. 2021) by author and former TV host Elisabeth Hasselbeck and illustrated by Julia Seal, a little boy writes down his fears, and his mother shines a flashlight on the list to show him God knows his cares and prayers, Barker says.
Critters are spiritual stars
Animals are frequently stand-ins for kids—erasing any subtle visual implication that one race or ethnic group has an inside track on spirituality in storytelling.
Prolific author Lisa Tawn Bergren carries on her God Gave Us series with God Gave Us Prayer (WaterBrook, out now), illustrated by David Hohn, featuring Mama Pup teaching Little Pup about how and why to speak to God. Bala Kids has Bailey the Bear, Katie the Kangaroo, and Ricky the Rabbit star in The Mindful Kids Activity Book (Apr.) by Louison Nielman with illustrator Thierry Manès, a book designed “to help kids learn about anger, anxiety, and stress, and how to deal with these challenging emotions,” according to the publisher.
Forthcoming from Tyndale House is My Arms Will Hold You Tight (Jan. 2021), a board book by Crystal Bowman and her daughter Teri McKinley, with Anna Kubaszewska’s illustrations of adorable baby llamas, elephants, sloths, and more. Mike Nawrocki, of VeggieTales fame, features animal characters in a Tyndale series titled the Dead Sea Squirrels (a play on the Dead Sea scrolls), illustrated by Luke Séguin-Magee.” The series stars Merle and Perle, miraculous squirrels who once heard Jesus preach, lay hidden in caves for centuries, and then came to life again to share the gospel—and fun adventures—with contemporary kids. Two new Dead Sea Squirrels titles, Merle of Nazareth and A Dusty Donkey Detour, will release in April.
Little Ewe (1517 Media, Feb.) by Laura Sassi, illustrated by Tommy Doyle, stars a ewe in the Gospel parable of the lost sheep and the persistent shepherd. Before Margaret Met the Pope: A Conclave Story (Paraclete Press, Apr. 2021) by publisher and author Jon Sweeney, with illustrator Roy DeLeon, is a prequel to Sweeney’s The Pope’s Cat series that follows Margaret as a kitten in Rome’s Vatican City, home of the Catholic Church. The Spider Who Saved Christmas (Sophia Press, Oct.) by Raymond Arroyo with illustrator Randy Gallagos features a spider who distracts Herod’s soldiers from the Holy Family hiding in a cave.