John Hendrix is a finalist for the 2019 YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award. His book, The Faithful Spy is a biography of Dietrich Bonheoffer, a German pastor who makes the ultimate sacrifice in order to free the German people from oppression during World War II.
Can you talk a little bit about what drew you to Dietrich Bonhoeffer originally and why you chose to write this book for this audience?
I had read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s theology in college, and knew of his journey, … so I have always wanted to share this story, but working primarily as a picture book artist and writer, I couldn’t get DB’s story to fit in that format… so I went with a longer middle grade prose/graphic novel hybrid. Seemed the right fit for the story. There are so many stories from WW2, what I liked about Bonhoeffer was the collision of ethics and action, faith and the world. Being a Christian myself, I think he asks some pretty relevant questions about where faith and action intersect in a broken world
Dietrich Bonhoeffer really began thinking of himself as a theologian as a teen. In an era when much of society tends to be critical about religion in general, and books for teens tend to focus on teens struggling against their family’s religious traditions, what do you think Bonhoeffer’s example offers for today’s teens?
Even if you have no interest in theology, Dietrich has a lot to offer young people. Primarily, he is asking the basic questions of ethics: how and when do our beliefs in our hearts intersect with our actions? You can’t understand Dietrich’s grappling with that question without understanding his Christianity. You can call it religious, but Christianity were his ‘first principles’ and motivated how he navigated his ethical choices. Bonhoeffer wrote about a concept called “Civil Courage” a strength of purpose and character that is grounding in something beyond the self that motivates one to action in the public arena.
How do Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s views about civil courage and sacrifice on behalf of “the other” to teen lives today?
One central theme in Bonhoeffer’s writings were others. His writing about the church, in “Life Together” and to some degree in his Ph.D “Sancto Communio” were a realization that the church is not the church if you are alone, or only interested in yourself. It seems basic when written down, but when lived out it is transformational. Christians believe that Christ is present in the church, and if the church is others-centric, that “otherness” is a central tenet of Christian theology. I think this is important to underscore because ‘religious activity’ is often stigmatized as what you do to ‘save your soul’ or a set of behaviors that prove your ethical “worth” because you follow rules. Regardless of your spiritual leanings, placing others ahead of yourself is a kind of teaching that is so foundational it has laid grooves into the universe… we all live better when we practice them.
In the “Research and Authenticity” notes at the back of the book you talk about omissions. Is there a particular scene or event in Bonhoeffer’s life that you left out that you would love to have included? If so, what was it and how might you have designed it?
So many to have included, one I mention in the end matter was the fact that Bonhoeffer was in correspondence with Ghandi, and nearly went to India to study with him, but felt his work in the Confessing Church was much more important. One of those little overlaps of history that is very noteworthy and sad to leave out. I also did not put much in about Russia and their part in WW2, which was critical to an allied victory, and yet I just didn’t have the narrative space for it.
You made some interesting and effective choices in designing this book. Why did you choose to hand letter the text? Why did you opt for a three-color palette?
The design choices in the book were critical to the storytelling…. the color scheme was intentional to help tell the story in a visual form. I chose the red and teal to help show each of the stories in a clear visual signature, Hitler in red and Bonhoeffer in the teal. The colors are unsettling together, they create a kind of visual vibration, and as the two stories overlap, of Hitler and Dietrich, the colors overlap too, reinforcing the colliding content. The text is my handwriting, but the book is not handlettered (at least the body copy) I hired a designer/illustrator named John Martz to convert my handwriting to a typeface with 4 alternate glyphs per character that swap out at random to create a hand-drawn look. But the typeface offers some more consistency and makes translations to other languages easier too.
You have worked as both an illustrator and an author-illustrator. What are some of the upsides and downsides of illustrating the work of others and being responsible for a complete project?
They each have their own benefits and drawbacks, and I enjoy each equally if you can believe that! When you work with someone else’s manuscript, you are just so easily surprised by what you create. When Tom Angleberger wrote “McToad Mows Tiny Island” I was thrilled to get to draw McToad on a mower throughout the whole book, I just never get a chance to draw animals with hats on! But, I also love the control when it comes to building a visual story that I also get to write. (Of course, sometimes, having too much control over a project is also problematic, when it comes to endlessly being able to change everything.)
You began you career as an illustrator and picture book author. What were the greatest struggles you faced in writing a much longer book? Was there anything you learned along the way that you could offer as advice to aspiring authors/illustrators?
I made some BIG rookie mistakes on my first draft. It is embarrassing to say now, but I just didn’t cite all my quotes in the first draft. I had read the books so closely, I thought I’d just remember where they all came from! Well, when I went to create my references and quotation list, I was in big trouble. I found them all eventually, but just do yourself a favor and cite them as you write. Also, I thought that the writing would be much faster than the art making ( I was used to the art taking so long, I thought that the writing would be much faster in contrast). I was very wrong in that department. Each process is time-consuming and requires tons of revisions. Looking back, that seems like a very obvious conclusion.. but yes, the process was long and full of changes.
Can you tell us anything about your next book or other upcoming projects?
I’m hoping to revisit the longer middle grade format soon, but the project on my desk right now is a classic picture book. I am writing and illustrating a follow up to my 2016 book Miracle Man: The Story of Jesus. This book is a collections of some of Jesus’ parables and teachings, for young readers. Tentatively titled “Go and Do Likewise!,” it is scheduled to be out early 2020 from Abrams Books for Young Readers. I also have an illustrated collaboration with actor/writer Thomas Lennon, called “Ronan Boyle and the Bridge of Riddles” which will be out in March of 2019. That book is a middle grade chapter book about a magical police force in Ireland, and let me tell you, this book is SO funny.