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Find more Faith and Bravery
John Hendrix has woven his Christian faith into several impressive works, most recently, The Faithful Spy: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Plot to Kill Hitler. Today’s publishing market does not always support books with religious themes, but that doesn’t worry Hendrix, who notes he couldn’t change the stories he was interested in if he wanted to. “I just hope that if they are compelling to me, I might be able to transmit some small part of that joy and wonder to others.”
COOPER: This book is such an innovative mix of story and art. How did you go about producing it? What aspects were harder (or easier) to get a handle on? There’s an excellent balance between the words and pictures. How difficult was that to achieve?
HENDRIX: The earliest notion for the visual experience of this book was that it was a “sketchbook come to life”—a robust integration of word and image relationships. Though it changed through the process, much of the spirit of that initial framing survived into the final form. I wrote the book first, but that isn’t entirely true, because before that, I made some thumbnail drawings of images/moments I wanted to capture in the book and made sure to find a spot for those visuals in the writing. This is all to say: it was a mess! Very organic—and the book evolved continually as my writing and thumbnails were changed. The most challenging aspect of this book was not what to include but what to leave out.
COOPER: Along with Bonhoeffer’s story, you discuss German history, two world wars, and the rise of Hitler. Did all of this seem overwhelming at times? What was your research process?
HENDRIX: What I realized very early on was that in order to tell Dietrich’s story well, I had to lay out the context of the world he was in; otherwise, his choices don’t really land with the right weight. But each time I went backward to explain, I kept having to go further and further, until I realized I had to outline, in clearest and simplest terms, the fall of Germany from the Kaiser through WWI and the armistice/Treaty of Versailles. The process started with reading, and more reading! Then I went to Germany in 2016 to do some on-site drawing and research. I visited Bonhoeffer’s home in Berlin, his church, saw his personal archive of letters and papers, and then drove to Flossenbürg KZ (concentration camp) to visit the site of his execution, in 1945.
COOPER: Special care is obviously taken with page colors, textures, and fonts. How did you work with the book’s designer for the unique look?
HENDRIX: Well, this is a pretty unique case where I was the designer and the illustrator. Chad Beckerman, my art director, graciously allowed me to design the whole book, the grid, the page layout, folios, type design, colors—I got to control all these elements, which was overwhelming but ultimately allowed flexibility for me to design and edit on the fly when my images changed. The text itself is a typeface I commissioned from my own handwriting. It has four different “glyphs” for each character. Meaning each capital A, for example, has four different versions, and they swap out at random, so it looks more organic.
COOPER: There is a subtle message in the book for our times, which you allude to in your author’s note. How much was this on your mind as you wrote?
HENDRIX: I began the book in earnest five years ago, with an idea in my sketchbook and a rough outline of the story. I had no idea that in the years since, the content would become much more relevant than I could have imagined. Not only did we have alt-right nationalists waving flags with swastikas on American soil but we have a situation where big sections of the American church are being mobilized to the ends of political power from the party leaders. Certainly, the book is, sadly, relevant in a way I couldn’t have imagined.
COOPER: What was your personal takeaway from Bonhoeffer’s story? I imagine this wasn’t always an easy story to live with as you wrote it. How did writing it affect you?
HENDRIX: There are many takeaways from learning about Bonhoeffer. Beyond the bigger issues of resisting the Third Reich, the real lesson that Dietrich’s story offers is a cautionary tale to the church, or any organization that capitulates morality to the desire for power. Dietrich couldn’t believe how so many good men and women could turn the other way, because the way of resistance was too uncomfortable. Some of his enduring legacy includes the idea of “civil courage,” how and when citizens, and specifically the church, resist power. But if you had to boil his life down to one singular idea, it is the cost of sacrificial love. He wrote about how “the other” figures prominently in the concept of the church—and without love for others, you can’t really be living out the mission of Christ and his church. Dietrich could have escaped his fate several different times, but he chose to live and to die in service of love for the other.
COOPER: Christianity often informs your books. Can you discuss why this is so and how does it reflect your own beliefs?
I am a Christian, and it is impossible for me to separate that from my work. You could say the same for anyone, their work should integrate their most deeply held convictions. Everyone has their own “first principles” that they operate from, and mine are a belief that Jesus was who he said he was. When I’m coming up with my book ideas, I am aware that the world is a big place, and not everyone is interested in religious stories. Though I never change my ideas to fit a marketplace, I am very aware of the apologetic nature of religious stories- and I work to make my books connect with all kinds of people for all kinds of reasons beyond religion. For Dietrich’s story, there is so much to learn and enjoy about him, even if you have no interest in German theology. But, conversely, there is a strain in our present thinking that can often dismiss the motives of historical figures if their first principles are religious. But, if we are to truly understand them and their time, we must really grapple with what moved their hearts—readers must try to see what anchored their lives, even if they don’t believe it themselves.
My works, in particular John Brown: His Fight for Freedom, The Faithful Spy, Shooting at the Stars: The Christmas Truce of 1914, move me and inspire me, and I realize that Christianity as a subject matter in children’s literature may impact how popular they are, to some degree, but I’ve never worried too much about that. The truth is, I couldn’t change the kind of stories I’m interested in spending 5 years working on, even if I wanted to! I just hope that if they are compelling to me, I might be able to transmit some small part of that joy and wonder to others.
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