Founded in 1971, Lion Publishing is a Christian book publisher with a strong children’s list with titles for all ages. What is different about publishing religious titles? Rosemary Stones investigates.
At the younger end of the Lion children’s list, You Are Very Special, is a novelty book for the very young. It has a mirror at the back of the book in which the young reader may see her/himself. ‘God made you just as you are, and he made you just right’, the text tells us, reinforcing the message that whoever looks in the mirror is unique and special. In the middle are books of prayers, stories from the bible published as picture books and as part of anthologies, Christmas titles and picture books with a spiritual theme. At the older end are novels for teenagers with Christian themes woven into contemporary settings. One of Lion’s most recent ventures is The Lion Graphic Bible (discussed p5), a tome the size of a small car battery, illustrated in full colour throughout by Jeff Anderson, a former Judge Dredd artist; it will appeal to everyone from eight upwards who likes comics.
The market place
Once relegated to specialist religious bookshops and bought by people who were perhaps more interested in Christian content than they were in beautiful books, the attitude of the market place to children’s books with an overtly Christian or spiritual message appears to be changing.
With the decline in the number of people who are Christians over the last ten to fifteen years, Christian bookshops are struggling. Meanwhile, the general book trade, which usually always carried at least a children’s bible, is finding there is more demand from the general public for titles with a Christian or spiritual approach.
This trend appears to coincide with a increasing interest in religious and spiritual matters in general. It is quite a coincidence that a bible story, Moses, should have been chosen by Spielberg’s film company, Dream Works, for adaptation to the big screen as The Prince of Egypt. The Policy Studies Institute’s survey, Cultural Trends, reports a 75% increase in the number of mind, body and spirit titles published in the last five years in the UK and an 83% increase in religious title output.
Changes in Christian publishing
An important change in Lion children’s publishing, according to Managing Director Lois Rock, is the need to ‘reflect people’s starting points’. The readership is now seen as book lovers who may be Christian or may have a general interest in spiritual matters, rather than Christians who are not necessarily book lovers. Thus, Lion picture book publishing includes, alongside adaptations of bible stories, stories like The Heavenly Tree or The Minstrel’s Tale which contain references which could be taken as Christian or as referring to archetypes. Young readers are then free to explore ideas in their own way.
In terms of illustrative and production quality, Lion’s children’s titles now compete with titles from other publishing houses. Their artists, in particular, include some with styles that are able to convey emotional and spiritual feelings in a more sophisticated way than heretofore. Bible figures in Christian children’s books are no longer necessarily jolly men in unlikely pajamas.
As church attendance continues to decline, there are many parents concerned that their children should at least know enough about Christianity to recognise and understand cultural references to it. ‘From the beginning’, says Lois, ‘Lion Publishing assumed that people now are less knowledgeable. In our books everything is explained, even who Jesus is. Many readers are without cultural clues.’
The bottom line
But should Christian children’s books be free because they are Christian? Where does mammon fit in? There is a perception, says Lois, that bible stories should be cheaper than other children’s books. At the same time she believes that being a commercial publishing house is a ‘great discipline’. ‘If you have to think about what the market will buy and what questions book lovers ask, it sharpens your sense of what readers want. Within Christian publishing you can find the odd legacy or grant which is excellent if used for a special needs project; otherwise they can lure you into publishing something that no one wants.’
Lion’s commitment to quality illustration means that sharp negotiations are often needed. Lois believes in having such discussions ‘at the right stage’. And Lion children’s books are as dependent on international coeditions for full colour titles as other children’s publishers. The Lion Graphic Bible was a huge investment but ‘if bibles get established, they will stay around for a long time and will pay back eventually’.
There is also, of course, more competition in this area from other publishers. ‘The market area has opened up’, says Lois, ‘There are now a number of publishers with bibles – a huge glamorous array.’
The Lion Treasury of Children’s Prayers
This handsome anthology of over 200 prayers is thematically arranged around the seasons, festivals, the wide world, creatures, at home and so forth. It contains prayers in the form of poems from such poets as e e cummings, Robert Browning, Eleanor Farjeon, Coleridge, Christina Rossetti and Dorothy Wordsworth alongside passages from the bible, particularly from the psalms. There is St Francis’s Canticle of Brother Sun which contrasts with Trevor Huddleston’s rather terse prayer for Africa. Of particular interest are prayers from different parts of the world, eg ‘Prayer from Mexico’, ‘Prayer from India’ and ‘Prayer from Philippines’ – whose language is place specific yet full of meaning. Take ‘Prayer of an African Girl’, for example:
O Great Chief
light a candle within my heart
that I may see what is therein
and sweep the rubbish from
your dwelling place.
Alison Jay’s stylised illustrations have great appeal on the page either as full page artworks or decorative vignettes. Her elongated, rather triangular figures stride up cliff paths in the heat of the sun, plants the fields, enjoy the sea – she is equally at home in the modern world as in the world of the bible or other lands. The soft browns, blue, greens and yellows of her palette are full of reflective depth with shadows, symmetries or depths of tone echoing the mood of the prayers.
A beautiful book that will be enjoyed by children of all faiths or none.
The Lion Treasury of Children’s Prayers compiled by Susan Cuthbert, illustrated by Alison Jay, is published in hardback by Lion (224pp, 0 7459 3961 9, £20).