by Sam Juliano
Miracle Man: The Story of Jesus is electrifying in theme, design and font scale. Though the subject is perhaps the most visited of any in world history, the approach here is unique in that it showcases the most dynamic interplay between words and illustrations that any picture book could rightly be expected to achieve. The book’s sole creator, John Hendrix eschews a straight biography of Christianity’s Messiah to focus on the aspect of his life that has fascinated historians and humbled the devout most of all. In an afterward Hendrix states: “I have aspired to render him as a man of his time and place and not as a construction of western idealism” and urges readers to “momentarily forget about the trappings of religion around (the story) and see the man at the center. Hendrix also qualifies the decision to abridge the story as the Bible tells it so that the Miracle Man can be the prime focus. As a result characters like Mary Magdalene and Martha are left out. Hendrix himself declares he is a follower of Jesus since a very young age, and that his words as documented in the Bible were soul-stirring. Hence it is clear enough that Miracle Man is a labor of love for the author-illustrator, who begins the story at the time Jesus launches his run of seemingly supernatural phenomenons, and ends it just before the Resurrection.
First up is a swirling tapestry of decay evoking a dusty terrain overcome by drought, famine and disease, a place in dire need of divine intervention. Hendrix ushers in this harrowing scene after the bleed over of the title – crafted with tree branches, and it exerts some visceral power. The Miracle Man is then seen in a glorious double page spread that evokes St. Francis of Assisi, who was born almost twelve-hundred years later, but who revered flowers and insects. The word “alive” is formed by a stunning five letter configuration of butterflies and birds in a metaphysical demonstration of the special power of his words. This swarm of colorful wings is an ultimate expression of the transience of nature. A bevy of hungry fisherman, including Simon -later known as the apostle Peter- have nothing to show for their efforts but empty nets, but the Miracle Man tells them “Cast Your Nets on the Other Side of the Boat!” with conviction, and they end up with more fish than they can handle. The man continues: “Follow me and You’ll Catch Fish of a Different Kind.” What is amazing in these panels and subsequently throughout the rest of the book is the spectacular word enlargements which are made to look like rock cuts, shapes of buildings, wood formations, and bolts of lightening. These is not the tame typography one reads in the Bible or in religious stories, these are Christ’s words, imbued as they are with the all-knowing and all-encompassing authority of God. There is a finality to what is being said and the certainty it will all come to pass.
In a moving scene that recalls the Leper Colony sequence in the 1959 Ben-Hur, where Judah’s mother Miriam and sister Tirzah have become infected, and others stay clear or throw stones; the man touches the leper’s face and wraps his arms around him telling him in answer to a question that he is more than willing to cleanse him. Hendrix turns “I Am” into ornate letter-friendly panels of pink and yellow flowers to denote a panacea created from pastoral properties. The leper is permanently cured of his malady, and the fisherman know then this man possesses ethereal licence. A paralyzed boy is lowered through the roof of the house where the Miracle Man is speaking, and this purveyor of healing and forgiveness says “You are Whole Again” in grand proclamation. But there are of course those in the crowd, whose fancy clothes denote their influence, who mock and challenge Jesus’s claims to be the son of God, labeling him as either a magician or a fabricator. The boy responds to the Miracle Man’s order that he should “Rise and Walk” in letters that are dramatically shaped on the front of ancient buildings realistically. By now Jesus has enemies, jealous and powerful men who eventually will bring false charges against him that will bring about his crucifixion.
Then in an act of supreme celestial might, that which rivals the mythological Zeus with his lightening rods, and Moses, who turned a river red and parted the Red Sea, Jesus saves Peter and other fisherman he had asked to engage in a expedition after Peter cries out “Don’t You Care If We Die?” In the book’s most kaleidoscopic canvas Jesus orders the waters to “Be Still” and Hendrix presents this celestial edict with the power of a tornado. The “still” formed by way of lightning rods is a brilliant touch. The Miracle Man tells the fisherman “I Am the Son of the Living God Who Made the Water and the Winds. Did You Forget Who Was in Your Boat?” Jesus proceeded on a tour through the villages to heal the sick and make blind people see again. Those who touched his robe also found their illnesses disappeared. But Jesus was still of the flesh and he was fatigued. He needed a break from the crowds and wanted to be left alone for a time. The disciples were concerned about his absence and asked questions. One in particular began to lose his faith in the Miracle Man. In one of the most gorgeous spreads in the book, one bathed in orange crush, Jesus prepares a breakfast of fish for his disciples, and speaks to a massive throng in a marathon session. One man urges Jesus to disband the gathering, as feeding them represents as impossible task. White silhouettes of plants and flowers are set on green, while the figures of the crowd are etched in red and tan on white base. The theme of the canvas -feeding the hungry- segues from upper case urgency to a tree of life motif for the vital act itself, To Be Fed.
A good deed performed by a young girl who hands over a basket of bread and fish to the Miracle Man results in an endless bounty that leaves not an empty mouth in the crowd, while leaving Peter practically at a loss for words. Readers may recall Big Anthony’s violation of Strega Nona’s pasta pot in Tomie de Paola’s classic which provided an inexhaustible feast for Italian peasants, but the difference is that Miracle Man’s powers were not from deception but from God. The design of this spread features bread and fish illustrations in miniature and the effect is all-enveloping. Miracle Man states, in words formed by said bread and fish: With Me There Is Abundance Forever. A brooding Flying Dutchman spread again features light on dark silhouettes for the boat with the disciples who mistake Jesus for a ghost. The Miracle Man implores them to take courage and believe him. The pictorial and typographical bombast against fits this larger than life person. In a baptism under fire spread Peter learns that his faith in Jesus is in accepting him as the son of God. Peter Have Faith in My Feet Not Your Own. The dynamic ocean spread has the force of the moment when someone accepts Christ as their savoir after dogged resistance.
The stunning chamber spread of the Last Supper and Judas’ betrayal (shown here as him leaving the building and dashing off to inform the authorities) is sublimely illuminated, contrasting with the starry night. Jesus is then arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, a sedate enclosure envisioned in inky purple, the place where a predicted betrayal came to fruition. Jesus tells those among his disciples who resist to refrain. No More . He is led away, and in the most stark and minimalist drawing in the book is shown carrying his cross. Then a still day evoked in architectural wonder turns into rain as the Miracle Man is taken down from his cross as disciples weep. It Seemed the Miracles Had Come to An End. The somber depiction, free of pictorial ostentation is one of the most arresting in the book. But the final tapestry of Jesus outside the entrance to the tomb after colorful butterflies swarm around his carcass is truly spectacular. Hendrix explains this final miracle with spiritual quietude, employing the smallest font. The butterflies on the final end papers are more buoyant and multi-colored befitting the world’s most celebrated resurrection.
Miracle Man: The Story of Jesus is a masterpiece. It is one of my supreme favorite books of this or any other year, a book that as well as any before it, delineates with power and poignancy the epic life of Jesus Christ. It should be sitting in that tiny stack of the very last finalists next to the Caldecott committee members.
Note: This is the thirty-third entry in the ongoing 2016 Caldecott Medal Contender series. The series does not purport to predict what the committee will choose, rather it attempts to gauge what the writer feels should be in the running. In most instances the books that are featured in the series have been touted as contenders in various online round-ups, but for the ones that are not, the inclusions are a humble plea to the committee for consideration. It is anticipated the series will include in the neighborhood of around 40 to 45 titles; the order which they are being presented in is arbitrary, as every book in this series is a contender. Some of my top favorites of the lot will be done near the end. The awards will be announced on January 22nd, hence the reviews will continue till two days before that date.