In 1981, for the first time in years, more than three million American babies were born; the tally hit four million in 1989; and more American babies were born in the '90s than in any previous decade except the booming '50s. For evangelical Christian publishers, the rising birthrate was a call to action. Midway through the '80s, "children's Bibles"--not actual Scripture, but storybooks retelling biblical stories from Genesis through Revelation--began appearing. Late in the decade, actual Bibles annotated for children hit the market. General publishers, noting that parents of many traditions want to introduce their children to the Bible, added Bible story picture books to their lists. Today the flood of Bible-related products continues unabated, and many Bible story books are bankrolling their companies.

Blockbuster Bibles

In 1985 Lion, a British co-edition specialist, published one of the first story Bibles to catch the American eye. Initial sales of The Children's Bible in 365 Stories by Mary Batchelor, illustrated by John Haysom, were impressive, and lifetime sales of the U.S. edition, now distributed by Cook, have reached one million. By 1990, a variety of story Bibles had hit the market, and throughout the '90s publishers continued to develop or import new ones.

Today, the CBA bestseller list includes a separate category for Bible story books. Leading the list for September 2001 is Zonderkidz' The Beginners Bible by Karyn Henley, illustrated by Dennas Davis, which has sold nearly four million copies since its 1989 publication. In second place, also from Zonderkidz' backlist, is Read with Me Bible by Doris Rikkers and Jean E. Syswerda, illustrated by Dennis Jones. Published in 1993 and revised in 1997 and 2000, its lifetime sales approach one million. Oddly, none of the current bestsellers were published this year. Is the market finally glutted? Mark Gross, manager of John's Christian Store in Wheaton, Ill., doesn't think so. "There's always going to be a demand, as long as there are children growing up," he says.

Publishers may be hedging their bets, however: most of the newer story Bibles are derivative, not original. In July, Baker expanded its Little Girls and Little Boys series, which has sold a total of a million units since its inception in 1998, with Carolyn Larsen's Little Girls Tiny Bible Storybook and Little Boys Tiny Bible Storybook, both illustrated by Caron Turk. In August Tyndale Kids added another Karyn Henley book, Before I Dream Bible Storybook, illustrated by Taia Morley, a follow-up to its 2000 Before I Dream CD. Similarly, next April Tommy Nelson plans to capitalize on popular novelist Frank Peretti's year-old audio series, Wild & Wacky Totally True Bible Stories, with a Wild & Wacky Bible Storybook, illustrated by Bill Ross.

Two handsome exceptions to this year's me-too offerings are packaged as thick picture books rather than as learner Bibles. Anne Elizabeth Stickney wrote and Helen Cann illustrated The Loving Arms of God (Eerdmans, May), a 164-page collection of 42 stories. Theological but not preachy, the text emphasizes God's persistent love. Lois Rock, in the 224-page Everlasting Stories (Chronicle, Nov.), winsomely retells 100 Bible stories; the gilded illustrations are by Christina Balit.

Meanwhile publishers of full-text children's Bibles may be retrenching. "For over a year, we haven't sold any proposals for children's Bibles," says Bruce Barton, president of Livingstone, packager of the megaselling Life Application Bible and more than a dozen children's Bible products. "I don't know if there are too many products, or if publishers just don't want to take a chance with new product right now." Barton notes that some publishers, rather than taking on new projects, are repackaging old successes. (See "We Need Them Now ")

Noah and Jesus

Others, especially smaller evangelical publishers and general publishers with small religion lines, favor Bible story series or individual picture books. Next February, Adams Media releases four new titles in its Everything Mini Book series: Bible Heroes, Bible Prayers, Bible Proverbs and Bible Stories. Packaged by Snapdragon and illustrated by Barry Littman, the 192-page chunky books measure 5"×4". Also in February, Tommy Nelson will publish four titles in the I'm Not Afraid series, retold Bible stories in rhyme by Dandi Mackall. The illustrator, Elena Kucharik, is known for her Care Bears and Little Blessings.

In September, Crossway published A Treasure Beyond Measure, the fifth title in its parables series by Melody Carlson, illustrated by Steve Björkman. The sixth and final title is planned for spring 2002. The same month, Penguin Putnam/Phyllis Fogelman released Mary Hoffman's Miracles: Wonders Jesus Worked, illustrated by Jackie Morris, a sequel to last year's Parables: Stories Jesus Told by the same duo. Also in September, Ideals/Candy Cane Press published The Story of Zaccheus, fourth in its board-book series by Patricia A. Pingry, illustrated by Stacy Venturi-Pickett. The first two books in the series, The Story of Noah (1997) and The Story of the Ten Commandments (1999), each sell more than 60,000 units a year.

Individual picture books based on Bible stories continue to appear, particularly if they are about Jesus, creation or Noah. Two new books about Jesus came out in time for this summer's CBA International convention: Augsburg's Jesus, This Is Your Life: Stories and Pictures by Kids, edited by Jeff Kunkel, and Tyndale Kids' Tell Me the Story of Jesus by V. Gilbert Beers, illustrated by Cheri Bladholm. Concordia's The Very First Christians by Paul L. Maier, illustrated by Francisco Ordaz, was released in August; Maier's 1999 title, The Very First Christmas, has sold over half a million copies.

The first two chapters of Genesis inspire Kathleen Long Bostrom's poetic Song of Creation (Westminster John Knox, Oct.), illustrated by Peter Fasolino. Sandy Eisenberg Sasso continues the story with Cain and Abel: Finding the Fruits of Peace, illustrated by Joani Rothenberg (Jewish Lights, Oct.), a springboard for conversations about dealing with anger. Author Eric A. Kimmel and illustrator Allen Davis introduce children to an ancient legend in Why the Snake Crawls on Its Belly (Sept., Pitspopany).

No biblical character gets more press than Noah, though many books about the flood are whimsical animal tales barely resembling the biblical account. Recent floating zoo books include Sting's adapted lyrics, Rock Steady (HarperCollins, Mar.), illustrated by Hugh Whyte; the biblically faithful Noah and the Ark (Kregel/Candle, Aug.) illustrated by Moira Maclean; Sylvia Rouss's imaginative The Littlest Pair (Pitspopany, Sept.), illustrated by Holly Hannon; Patricia Hooper's hypnotic A Stormy Ride on Noah's Ark (Putnam, Oct.), illustrated by Lynn Munsinger; and a novelty book for preschoolers, Little Hamster and the Great Flood (Kregel/Candle, Oct.), illustrated by Caroline Jayne Church.

So does the season offer only retreads and rehash? Tiny Saint Vladimir's Seminary Press rides to the rescue with Christ in the Old Testament. The words are familiar Bible passages, but the illustrations are highly original. Niko Chocheli, an immigrant from the Republic of Georgia whose permanent residency status is "alien of extraordinary abilities," mixes Eastern Orthodox icons, apocalyptic beasts and scenes reminiscent of El Greco with the occasional fuzzy kitten. Though his style may appeal more to adults, it may also revive kids who are bored with cheerful cartoon saints in primary colors.