Here’s the assignment: Read the story of Cain and Abel (King James version please). With the text reprinted on lovely thick stock, draw one marginal illustration.
Here’s what you probably will not draw: Two young men seated facing each other, one stroking a goat, the other cradling a bowl of fruit. Their gaze is cast downward, their costume nineteenth-century rural romantic. An immense quiet surrounds them. This is the moment before the cruelty and shame of the story itself: two brothers sitting together as they must have done for days and years before the story.
That drawing and angle of vision are the particular genius of Lisbeth Zwerger, one of the great living children’s book artists. She has just brought out an illustrated bible, Stories from the Bible (North-South Books, $19.95, 160 pp., all ages) that, no exaggeration, will change the way you read the book.
For a month I have been sitting with Stories from the Bible thinking about why it is so beautiful and true. Zwerger bases illustrative choices on her regard for poetic knowledge or what might be called the wisdom of images, and that makes all the difference. Illustrators have many ways to build bridges between the biblical world and our own. One strategy, taken by DK publishers, is to do so empirically: sidebar illustrations show what people at the time wore, what coins they used, how sacrifices were practiced. More to the center of...