SIOUX CENTER—Two Sioux Center Christian School staff have transformed notes from a bus ride home into an adventurous children’s picture book, released in October.
Through “Beloved,” written by Jill Van Soelen and Lori DeJong and illustrated by Lori DeJong, readers are invited to join elementary school-aged Maggie as she discovers what it means to be invited into God’s story.
“Each person is beloved, or dearly loved, by God,” said Van Soelen, director of faculty development at Sioux Center Christian. “It is the deep hope in the teaching for transformation framework, which our school is a part of, that students discover their place in God’s epic love story for this world.”
But how can that message be shared in a way that makes it easy for younger children to understand?
That’s the question Van Soelen and another kindergarten teacher pondered about four years ago on a bus ride back home after a collaboration day with Sioux Falls Christian School staff.
“We started dreaming what it would be like to create a story of a little girl who is invited in to God’s story,” said Van Soelen, who’s held other roles in the past years at the Christian school, including being classroom teacher and school librarian . She’s also a parent of three.
“My deep hope is to help foster in teachers a continued love of learning and growth,” Van Soelen said. “Writing out a story felt like a way to give teachers and parents a tool to show students how they can see themselves as part of the grand narrative of God’s big story and that God has a purpose and plan for them in that big story.”
Lots of meetings and revisions along the way developed the story, yet Van Soelen said it didn’t feel complete without any visuals. That changed after fifth- through eighth-grade art teacher DeJong spoke at a school chapel about what it meant for her to be made in God’s image and be a creator.
“Hearing her speak, knowing she has such a passion for art and students — she felt like such a natural fit for possibly creating art for this book,” Van Soelen said. “Lori took this book from clip art to fabulous. Her eye for detail is so evident in this book.”
Being approached with illustrating a children’s book filled a dream DeJong had had for almost a decade.
“I have a stack of books on how to go about illustrating a children’s book,” she said. “It’s information I poured over years ago but life with four children and teaching was the main focus. I had always hoped to illustrate a book some day, so when the idea of illustrating this book was presented to me, I knew I wanted to give it a try.”
DeJong was inspired by her four children, her adventures, God’s creatures and her backyard for creating illustrations for this book. In fact, the book’s main character Maggi is specifically inspired by DeJong’s daughter, Micah.
“My daughter was about the age of the little girl we had in mind for the book, so I actually had my daughter pose for pictures doing various activities because a big thing about a children’s book is showing action, movement, life in a character, DeJong said.
Set in spring, DeJong’s illustrations help show the passing of time as the character reflects on her personal invitation from God in the story alongside her discovery of a caterpillar and its growth and change into a butterfly.
Thanks to one of her son’s interest in insects, there have been a few caterpillars in the DeJong home she’s watched transform, giving her personal observations she could incorporate into her illustrations.
“It was fulling to have a lot of my family be part of the inspiration for the illustrations, and I feel that’s why it’s illustrated well — because it’s authentic,” DeJong said. “As an artist, you create what you know. This book felt so natural to me because I know these things because I’ve lived these things.”
Once the painted images were complete, the duo invited other Christian school staff and a few community members to review the pages of the book for feedback before approaching Dordt Press for publication. The book officially released the first week of October.
“Timing is really great,” DeJong said. “We had the opportunity to share with teachers at the fall conference and putting out a book this time of year provides an option for people looking to bless others with a gift. My prayer is that this story is a blessing to families.”
“And our names may be on it, but this was truly a team effort; there have been many different voices sharing input along the way to create this final book,” Van Soelen said. “God is so good.”