In his acclaimed two-volume The Story of Christianity, Justo Gonzales writes, “Every renewal of the church, every great age in its history, has been grounded on a renewed reading of history.”
Though few Christians would deny the importance of church history in theory, how many of us do exactly this in practice? And when it comes to our kids, are we communicating to them the value of learning from those who have gone before us?
Intended to introduce children to significant figures in Christian history, Simonetta Carr’s Christian Biographies for Young Readers series (Reformation Trust) is an excellent primer. Her latest volume, Anselm of Canterbury, is the series’ sixth installment (others include Athanasius, Augustine of Hippo, John Calvin, John Owen, and Lady Jane Grey). With historical care and beautiful illustrations, Carr and illustrator Matt Abraxas bring these individuals, their stories, and their significance to life.
Born in Italy, Carr has lived and worked in different cultures, written for newspapers and magazines around the world, and translated the works of several Christian authors into Italian. I corresponded with the former elementary school teacher about how she got started writing biographies for kids, how she chooses which events to include and omit, what she’s learned, and more.
What led you to begin writing biographies of historical Christian figures for children?
I saw a need for this type of book and desired something comparable to the many good biographies available about presidents, artists, musicians, and so on. I wanted information rather than hagiography, and I wanted quality and visual appeal. I also wanted something for readers younger than 12, since few Christian biographies exist for that age group. As the 500th anniversary of Calvin’s birth approached (in 2009), I made a mock-up biography with some childlike illustrations and tried to convince someone else to write it. Finally, someone suggested I just write it and send it to some publishers, which I did. I’m grateful for the staff at Reformation Heritage Books, who carried my initial vision even further.
Why is church history necessary—even for young kids?
You can get a fuller answer to this question here, but in a nutshell church history is necessary to help children understand God’s providential hand on his church and on the development and refining of Christian doctrine. With my books I want children to understand their heritage and their ties with Christians of the past, and to appreciate how the church has worked to formulate its doctrines and protect believers from error.
How do you go about researching for and writing these books? And given the youth of your intended readership, how do you choose which events to include and which to omit?
Some people are surprised by the amount of research that goes into each book. This is largely because I’m first a mother, not an author. And without a degree in church history, I can’t rely on anything I’ve learned before. Each time I begin a new title I get every book I can find on my character and his or her times. It’s fascinating study, and I love every minute of it, even if the amount of information and different takes on various issues can at times feel overwhelming.
After I have a pretty good idea about my character, I read some of their writings—especially their most significant works. I also read some letters or sermons to help me get a better understanding of their thoughts and passions, which is what makes a biography come to life.
While reading this extensive amount of literature, it’s crucial to keep focusing on the book’s purpose. I keep asking: “Why am I writing about this person? Why is he or she important to us today?” I aim to consciously focus on each character’s importance to the church and development of doctrine. I also contact experts in the field who graciously agree to help me as I write and to read the manuscript to ensure it’s accurate.
Since each book is only about 63 pages (including photos and illustrations), I have to keep the story simple. For example, while writing about John Knox (the next title in the series), I had to skip his controversial ministry at Frankfurt because it didn’t really move the story forward. In other books, however, I covered controversial issues because they provided a clearer picture of the situation or had repercussions on the later development of the church or its doctrine.
After the manuscript is complete, the research isn’t finished because I still have to give instructions to my illustrator, Matt Abraxas, and so many funny questions come up at that time. Did Anselm have a beard? There are no pictures of him from his time, but we know he shared the Normans’ dislike for long hair on men. And since Normans generally disliked beards, we opted for no beard in most of the pictures.
What have you learned as you’ve written these books?
On a practical level, I’ve learned to check and double-check every fact, even if I have an excellent editor. I’ve also learned not to rely too comfortably on the advice I get from experts. I normally consult at least two experts for each book, and I’ve learned (the hard way) that if one gives a bit of information I’ve never heard before, I should check with the other.
On a personal level, I’ve come to appreciate more than ever the men and women of our Christian tradition. Delving into the intricacies of our past—good and bad—has helped me gain a deeper grasp of certain issues and situations instead of remaining content with superficial and often simplistic views. This has given me a much greater appreciation for the work of God’s providence in the preservation of his church and its doctrine.
Also, reading these characters’ writings instead of just reading a simple account of their lives has helped me acquire a better idea of who they were and how they felt. As C. S. Lewis said in his introduction to Athanasius’s On the Incarnation:
The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator.
Writing these biographies has also helped me become better informed in discussing issues related to our past and to handle with greater competence the perennial criticism of Christianity that finds justification in the abundance of human mistakes. In fact, I have a strong desire to bring these books outside Christian circles. I discuss the issues in each work with my students (I teach Italian to adults). Two of my books have also become finalists at the San Diego Book Awards, which has opened the door for their inclusion in public libraries.
I pray the Lord will continue to use my books to instruct and inspire young readers for his glory.