This week I interview the author and illustrator of Bambinelli Sunday – A Christmas Blessing. Learn more about the book here.
PETE: What was each of your inspirations for your work onBambinelli Sunday?
AMY WELBORN: As is often the case, I was inspired by Ann! The idea for the book was hers, but as we hammered out the specifics of the story, I came to settle on the idea of brokenness and the healing that comes from being filled with the love of Christ. It puts into the very specific, concrete terms what we mean when we tell children (and ourselves) that “giving is more fun than receiving.” It’s in giving that we allow ourselves to be shaped by Christ and filled with his love – and all those themes inspired me to craft this story.
ANN ENGELHART: I had heard about the wonderful Roman tradition that brings children with their families to St. Peter’s Square on Gaudete Sunday. The children carry with them figures of the Christ Child—the “Bambinelli”—from their family’s Nativity scene for the pope’s blessing at the Angelus. After reading Pope Benedict’s beautiful prayer several years ago I learned about the custom and thought that it must be a real adventure for a child to arrive in the spectacular piazza of St. Peter’s on such a festive day. In addition, I have always admired the artistry of Italian presepi since I first saw the Neapolitan Christmas tree at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a child. I thought that it would be fun to bring the traditions of the Angelus Blessing and the Neapolitan craft together in a picture book for children. In America, we are inundated with secularized imagery for Christmas and I thought that this story could help children put the focus back on the birth of Christ as the reason for the joy of the season.
PETE: What do you hope children and parents take away from reading this book?
AMY WELBORN: I hope that, aside from the themes I’ve already spoken of, they’re inspired to explore this and the other rich traditions of the Catholic approach to feasts and celebrations. Every culture around the globe that has been touched by Christ through the Church has evolved really interesting and fun ways celebrating feasts, and they are worth rediscovering. I’m hoping that parishes pick up on this tradition as well.
ANN ENGELHART: I think that it is important to show that a desire to make beautiful things to express our love of the Lord is a gift from God that should be encouraged. I also loved how Amy brought out the idea that even though we may be “broken”, like the damaged figure made by the little boy Alessandro, we are perfect in God’s eyes.
PETE: This is not the first book you have worked on together. You have also worked together on the children’s books Friendship with Jesus and Be Saints! What is your process for working together on a book?
ANN ENGELHART: Over the years of working together Amy and I have developed a friendship so it has made our collaboration a very natural and enjoyable one. We brainstorm together and send our ideas back and forth, mostly through email. We first establish the general sense of the plot and then the settings and action of the scenes. I develop a picture file of hundreds of photos, mostly taken by me (Amy contributes photos too) that I will use as references. Then I get to work on the illustrations, which take several months to complete. Amy doesn’t usually finalize the text until she has seen the bulk of the paintings.
AMY WELBORN: We always have something cooking. We’re in the final throes of another children’s book for Franciscan Media, and that book’s title and subject will be made public in the spring. We have a lot of other ideas, most of which are centered on a location in which the beauty of creation and the beauty of what human beings create, using the gifts God has given come together in amazing ways, conducive to both imagery and narrative. And if it involves a field trip for us – that’s a big plus!
PETE: This one is for Ann. What medium did you use for the artwork in this book and why did you choose it?
ANN ENGELHART: Most of my professional work is done in watercolor, although I enjoy working in a variety of media. Watercolor has unique qualities that make it perfect for illustrating children’s books. The delicate washes of color and the transparent layering of textures seem a bit less serious than other methods. Even though there is a tremendous amount of planning and intricate drawing in my illustrations, watercolor allows for a playful spontaneity that appeals to children. I tried to capture the rich colors that are so prevalent throughout the magnificent scenery and architecture of Naples and Rome.
PETE: This one is for Amy. How much research goes into writing a children’s book and how does it differ from writing for the “grownups”.
AMY WELBORN: Writing children’s books is very difficult. People think it’s easy because it’s “shorter,” but anyone can tell you that writing succinctly, yet powerfully and evocatively, is challenging work. It’s a poet’s work, really – which is why so many children’s books are written in poetic form. There was not that much research for me in Bambinelli Sunday, but there was a lot of rewriting and honing and work at trying to get the point across in a way that wasn’t preachy. Our next book does require more research on my part and more importantly, translating the results of that research into an engaging, child-friendly text. But I was a teacher for many years, and many of my books for older children and adults do just that: take what I’ve learned and translate it into memorable reader-friendly terms. It’s challenging, but I enjoy it.
PETE: Time for my signature ending question. This is a blog about books, what is currently on your bookshelf to read?
AMY WELBORN: I’ve been reading Oliver Twist aloud to my children, and for myself, I’ve been reading Mavis Gallant’s collection, Paris Stories.
ANN ENGELHART: I am reading Pope Benedict XVI’s third book in the trilogy, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives. It is an extraordinary work that is both a fascinating and spiritually enriching companion for the season of Advent and Christmas.
Ann Engelhart is an accomplished watercolorist whose work has appeared in other titles. You can find out more about her work at her website http://www.annkissaneengelhart.com/