“I could talk all day about how wonderful my mom is,” Leah Schoonmaker (‘20) told the Record, her eyes crinkling about a wistful smile. Her mother, Gail Schoonmaker (‘93), will be visiting campus for her 25th reunion during homecoming, and Schoonmaker is the illustrator of children’s Bibles familiar to many of us: the Big Picture Story Bible and later, the ESV Big Picture Bible. Her notable career as an illustrator does not preclude her from being a wonderful mother to four children, who have grown up reading and treasuring their own Story Bibles.
Schoonmaker did not always dream of being an artist. In a Southport, Ind. preschool, she briefly had aspirations of being a doctor, until she had a run-in with her pediatrician and a rectal thermometer. She told the Record in an email, “I decided then and there that practicing medicine was not for me, and I would rather be an artist.
After all, I was never happier than when coloring, cutting, folding and pasting (unless you count eating ice cream, which is harder to translate into a career).” She initiated most of her pre-college artistic training herself, checking out “How to Draw” books from the library, watching Bob Ross and making recycled materials into art before it was trendy to do so. “In high school I took oil and watercolor painting lessons from local artists,” she said.
“While these pursuits did not make me cool, they did make me happy, so it never crossed my mind to major in anything but art.” When she did begin thinking about where to attend college to pursue her artistic goals, Wheaton was not at the top of the list.
Accompanying a friend to Wheaton’s campus as a high school junior, she attended a chapel service and fell in love. Her experience at Wheaton was inaugurated by song: “I sat in chapel with a few thousand young men and women who sang their love to Jesus, and I wept upon discovering that such things happened. I wanted to spend four years learning from and with outstanding people who love God and intend to glorify Him with their lives.”
After her four years studying at Wheaton, Schoonmaker moved with her husband, Keith Schoonmaker (‘91), to Chicago to start a church plant of College Church in the South Side of Chicago. Out of the process of starting what is now Holy Trinity Church, Schoonmaker realized the disconnect between the dozens of separate Bible stories taught to children and the central message of the gospel. Thus, she and the teaching staff of her church designed a program that included catechism, Sunday school curriculum and family devotionals to explain the Bible as a single narrative pointing to Christ.
When Pastor David Helm (‘83) created a Story Bible to replicate this program for young children, he asked Schoonmaker to illustrate it. Although the project started on a small scale (Schoonmaker said that Helm originally asked for “about a dozen” illustrations to photocopy for the children), Schoonmaker told the Record that it eventually, “became a fully illustrated 450-page story Bible first published by Crossway Books in 2004 and subsequently translated into more than a dozen languages.
It was the first in a wave of many excellent single-plotline story Bibles.” Schoonmaker’s goal in illustrating the Big Picture Story Bible was to reflect the larger, cohesive narrative of the Bible. In an April 2013 article written by David Shaw for Volume 38, Issue 1 of Themelios, an international theological journal published by the Gospel Coalition, Schoonmaker’s illustrations are analyzed and praised for their consistency with Scripture.
“Schoonmaker’s illustrations have a strong relationship with Scripture,” Shaw wrote. “First, they are full of biblical detail, supplementing a more stylised and generalised text. Second, they make visual connections very effectively, linking OT promises and typological patterns with their fulfilment. In that respect they are without equal in story Bibles.”
In 2015, Schoonmaker was commissioned to illustrate 226 new paintings for a full-text Bible for older kids (six to nine year olds). She told the Record, “I got to enjoy choosing, studying, meditating on and painting a fresh variety of biblical texts … some scenes, proverbs, laws, warnings and encouragements that I’ve never seen illustrated before. The whole process was one of spiritual growth as I immersed myself in Scripture and prayerfully sought to create images that communicate its truth. It is a wonderful and important thing when a child opens God’s Word, and I want any illustrations included to instruct, confront, delight and encourage the reader to explore further.”
Schoonmaker’s unconventional illustrations seek to spotlight both the good and the bad in Scripture. Too often, children’s Bibles are totally clean of any sort of repercussion for sin, and if they do address some of the darker themes of Scripture, they avoid discussing them in detail. However, Schoonmaker illustrates underrepresented scenes in the Bible, such as Baal and Elijah, as well as non-narrative theological teachings like those in Colossians 3 about putting off the old self and putting on the new self. In an interview published by Crossway on June 18, 2015, Schoonmaker gave an example of how abstract biblical concepts translate into visual art for a children’s Bible: “I chose to contrast Wisdom and Folly. The fool stands with his arms crossed and nose in the air, amid dark images of him shaking his fist and plugging his ears, linking arms with men of violence and drunkenness, cowering in fear and chasing after a seductive woman.
Wisdom, often personified in Proverbs with feminine pronouns, stands in an attitude of praise. She is surrounded by light images of herself reading and praying, listening to an elderly couple, working hard and sharing her bread with others.
All of the images — dark and light — were gleaned from repeated phrases throughout the Proverbs.” Schoonmaker’s main motivations for illustrating are her own children and other young students. She told the Record that her work as a Sunday School teacher for three to five-year-olds has provided an outlet for her to create Bible craft projects to “reinforce each Bible story while simply adding to kids’ delight in church attendance,” which Crossway is now marketing as a collection. “Nothing beats watching them listen on the edge of their seat, hanging on my words as I tell them stories from the Bible. It brings home God’s Word, ‘Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.’” Leah Schoonmaker agrees: Her favorite part of her mom’s job is the fact that she gets to see young students in the church grow up reading, discussing and learning from the well-rounded and beautifully illustrated Story Book Bible.