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A writer's life

Lifestyle/Technology | A long apprenticeship prepared Sally Lloyd-Jones to create stories pitched for children and centered on God

Issue: "Not over till it's over," Nov. 1, 2008

Sally Lloyd-Jones wanted to write a children's story Bible where "God is the hero"-rather than the typical kind that strings together moral tales featuring exemplary people. "We go to the Bible for grace, and comfort, and strength," she says. And she wanted children to find those qualities in a Bible aimed at them.

The result is The Jesus Storybook Bible, which has sold over 100,000 copies since publication in March 2007. I love its brightly illustrated pages and particularly the way its 44 stories tell what Lloyd-Jones calls the "through story" of creation, fall, and redemption: "There are some [stories] you just have to have, don't you? . . . I had to be very clear in my own mind. Each story had to paint a picture of Jesus. Then I would pray about which ones to put in."

Lloyd-Jones served a long apprenticeship before she was ready to produce something centered on God and perfectly pitched for children. She came to the United States from the United Kingdom in 1989 to take a job with a "packager" that produced "unusual format" children's books-books cut in distinctive shapes with flaps and doors and acetate windows. In that kind of book, the format and visuals come first and the text follow, and after a while Lloyd-Jones was designing and writing the books. The company put out several special format children's Bible storybooks, so Lloyd-Jones "had good practice distilling Bible stories."

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By 2000, Lloyd-Jones was working for Reader's Digest-until her whole division was axed. She looks back and sees God's hand in the timing (technology was making it increasingly possible to work from home) and the provision of a severance package that allowed her time to develop her own writing projects. At first she set out to be a sub-packager, developing unusual format books for publishers and doing all the pieces except the printing. But one day as she was working on the text for a special format book she realized the text was good enough to stand alone-it didn't need to take a back seat to the format.

Time to Say Goodnight, Lloyd-Jones' first traditional children's book, gave her confidence to focus on writing rather than packaging books. Since then she has written many others, including Old MacNoah Had an Ark, The Ultimate Guide to Grandmas & Grandpas!, Handbag Friends, How To be A Baby . . . By Me, The Big Sister, and Little One, We Knew You'd Come.

Lloyd-Jones is modest about her ability: When she tried writing at the New York Public Library she found the atmosphere and the people intimidating because she told herself, "Oh, they're writing a very good novel." Now she usually writes at a big wooden desk in the living room of her one-bedroom apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Her laptop sits on a stand in the center of the desk. Over it hangs a bulletin board dotted with objects that inspire her, including pictures of her two nieces and a nephew to whom she dedicates her books.

Some of the pictures are strips of black and white photos of them taken in Cornwall-with a toy camera that diffuses the light-at the same place she vacationed as a child. A postcard of Millet's painting, The Angelus, which depicts a peasant farmer and his wife in a field, reminds Lloyd-Jones that her books are like seeds, and that she has no power over what comes from them. A quote from the artist Hans Hoffman states, "the ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak."

When she looks around her living room she sees books all over: They overflow two tall bookcases on either side of a fireplace framed by tiny white Christmas lights. A corduroy sofa is draped with an orange quilt in the "Mental Block" pattern: "When I have a mental block I can go sit on it." When she's not working at home she prefers a lively coffee shop: "I'll go to a café and take headphones and put on a playlist that puts me in a certain mood. . . . I have to make it playful."

A perfect day for Lloyd-Jones is being up at 6 a.m. and writing by 7. She starts her day with "a cup of tea, of course. You always have to have a cup of tea." She has a goal of writing two pages a day, however long that takes. Then she runs. She belongs to a runner's club and has completed several marathons. She currently runs five to six miles a day and is more likely to spend her running time praying than consciously thinking about a writing project. Still, she finds, "You solve problems as you run. . . . The benefits come when I get back."

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