My office shelves are lined with children’s storybook Bibles. Some feature fabulous illustrations along with thoughtfully written stories rooted in rich theology. Others, not so much. The art in several make the biblical characters look like they’ve just stepped off the cover of a romance novel or off the screen of an animated Disney movie. One concludes each story with a moral lesson for the reader—the story of Solomon building the temple ends with two questions: “What should you do in God’s house? What should you NOT do?” Another one all but eliminates the voices of women in the stories.
Although children’s storybook Bibles may retell God’s story from the same source of scripture, they are most definitely not all the same.
You know this if you’ve ever
searched for a storybook Bible as a gift for a loved one,
considered which version your church might purchase for or recommend to its families with young children,
questioned the quality of the books in the stack of donations you found in the church nursery and wondered about the impact that reading them to little ones might have on their faith development.
It’s not surprising, then, that a question we’re frequently asked at Faith Formation Ministries is “Which children’s storybook Bible would you recommend?”
Sensing that a simple checklist to use when shopping for a children’s storybook Bible might be helpful, I met with some of the pastors, parents, theologians, teachers, and children’s ministry leaders who make up the Faith Formation Ministries team for a conversation about what we all look for when choosing a children’s storybook Bible. Turns out that when it came to non-negotiables, we were all on the same page.
Three non-negotiables for choosing a children’s storybook Bible
1. Excellent theology
The ways in which God’s story is written and illustrated in a children’s storybook Bible are shaped by the theological lens through which the author, illustrator, and publisher view Scripture. Look for a storybook Bible that interprets the Bible as God’s story—not a book of morals, virtues, or manners—and that approaches each story as part of the one story of God’s redemption and restoration of this fallen world through Jesus Christ. Ask:
Who is the publisher, and what is their theological approach? (If you’re not sure, check out their website.)
Which stories are included? Look for the stories of creation, fall, God’s covenant promises, Jesus’ death and resurrection, Pentecost and the early church. If all aren’t included within one storybook Bible, you’ll want to ensure that they appear within your collection so that children hear them all.
Which stories are excluded? Along with ensuring that the above mentioned stories are included, you’ll want to pay attention to what isn’t included. In one storybook Bible we reviewed, women’s stories were left out as were the stories of Jesus’ loving encounters with people. In another, the story of the fall was entirely absent.
Do the stories focus primarily on God or on the actions of people? The story of the flood can be a good way to check this: does the story focus on God’s promises or Noah’s obedience?
2. Scripture references
Including the Scripture reference for each story makes it easy for readers to compare the retelling with the biblical text and, if desired, to read the storybook version alongside the Bible passage during family devotions, worship services, and so on. Look through the table of contents and flip through the storybook to check that the Scripture references are there.
3. Appropriate Illustrations
“Like the text, illustrations convey messages about the story, the people in it, and God,” points out Dr. Mimi Larson, educator and children’s ministry catalyzer for the CRCNA. Parent and catalyzer Trudy Ash agrees, noting that she always looks for “thoughtful art” when choosing a storybook Bible, meaning illustrations that intentionally invite readers to think more deeply about the story.
It’s important for children to understand that there’s no one “right” way to visually imagine and depict stories from Scripture. Some excellent storybooks include art from various artists as a way to accomplish this. I also love this idea from Dear Parent co-author and grandparent, catalyzer Laura Keeley: place side-by-side several differently illustrated versions of the same story and invite children to compare the ways in which the story has been depicted. Then wonder about those choices together.
Pay attention to the messages the story illustrations convey. Ask:
Do the illustrations accurately represent the skin tones of Bible characters and the time period in which the stories occurred or were told?
If there are additional illustrations, do they reflect racial diversity as well as gender, socioeconomic status, family structures, age, and abilities?
Additional things to consider
Interactivity: Does the way in which the stories are told invite wonder? Encourage discussion? Invite higher level thinking?
Support for parents and caregivers: Are there helpful notes for parents? For example, does the book contextual information about the story, a glossary of unfamiliar words and/or ideas for how to wonder and explore God’s story as a family.
God Language: God's self-revelation in scripture includes a breadth of images like: father/daddy, king, comforting mother, wind/breath (of the Holy Spirit), judge, mother hen/bear, kinsman redeemer, creator, advocate, a woman in labor...and so many more!!! Each image reveals more to us about who God is and how God relates with us. How does the storybook reflect the breadth of metaphors, images, and language, that scripture uses to reveal God and God's character to us?
Maps and/or photographs: Are there additional visuals which bring the story to life by setting it in a particular place and time?
Children’s storybook Bibles we recommend
So with all that in mind, here are some of our recommendations.
God Loves Me Storybooks (Revised 2015), written by Patricia L. Nederveld; illustrated by various artists. Ages 2-3.
Children of God Storybook Bible written by Archbishop Desmond Tutu; illustrated by various artists. Ages 4-7.
Growing in God’s Love: A Story Bible edited by Elizabeth F. Caldwell and Carol A.Wehrheim; illustrated by various artists. Ages 3-7. Note: Although the story of the fall is not included in the 150 thematically organized stories in this book; its rich storytelling approach makes it an excellent addition to your collection.
The Jesus Storybook Bible written by Sally Lloyd-Jones; illustrated by Jago. Ages 4 and up.
Shine On, A Story Bible, edited by Rebecca Seiling, Anna M. Speicher, and Rose Mary Stutzman; illustrated by various artists. Ages 4 and up.
*New* The Peace Table, a Storybook Bible, written by Chrissie Muecke, Jasmin Pittman Morrell and Teresa Kim Pecinovsky; illustrated by 30 diverse and amazing artists. Worth noting: I especially loved the care that was taken to include the following female stories which are often omitted from storybook Bibles: the midwives Shiphrah and Puah, Hagar, the five sisters Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah (also known as the daughters of Zelophehad), and Abigail. This book is also filled with many fabulous extras such as timelines, ways to pray, maps, information for families on the faith development of children and how to talk about difficult stories. Ages 4 and up.
I Wonder: Engaging a Child’s Curiosity about the Bible, by Elizabeth F. Caldwell. It’s a thoughtfully written book for parents, pastors, and leaders on how to help children learn as they read Scripture. It also includes a wonderfully comprehensive list of the author’s recommended storybook Bibles.
To encourage and equip parents and caregivers to tell God’s story well, provide them with a copy of the wonderful (and free!) resources Five Ways to Retell a Bible Story with Kids and Five Ways to Wonder with Kids. For even more free resources to support Bible reading at home, visit the Family Support page of Dwell at Home.
The way we portray God’s people and tell God’s story to children matters. When choosing a children’s storybook Bible, it’s worth the time it takes to do it well.