Just Nicholas: An Interview with Annie Kratzsch and Tessa Janes

I'm excited to introduce the gospelcenteredfamily.com readership to a new children's book and family devotional for Christmas. The book is called Just Nicholas (Matthias Media, 2015). It tells the story of Nicholas of Myra, the Christian saint from whom has come the legend of Santa Claus. It's a story older than Santa told in a way that is fun for kids and helpful for parents.

Young children live in a consumer world. Annie Kratzsch and Tessa Janes, two sisters who serve as part of our church community in Louisville, teach children that the true joy of Christmas is found in giving and showing mercy to those in need. We can give like Nicholas gave, because that is how God has given Jesus to us. Here is my interview with Annie and Tessa:

Jared: What is it like writing a book with your sister? 

Annie: It's a dream come true to work with my sister. We've been writing and illustrating things together since we were little girls and always daydreamed about doing a "real" book together one day when we were grown ups. We're also the perfect team because we have a great relationship that allows us to give and receive feedback openly. Growing up as close friends and in the same home, we share a visual and cultural history that puts us on the same page most of the time; and, even when we have different ideas about something, we understand each other so well that it's easy to communicate our vision.

Tessa: Annie and I grew up working on projects together. Plays, books, games, epic paper chains, we were always doing things like that. Doing a book with Annie was sort of like doing a book with a version of myself that is good at all the things that I’m not good at and can read my mind. So it was great.

Jared: What are the top things illustrators should remember when working with authors? What are the top things authors should remember when working with illustrators?

Tessa: I think it’s important for illustrators to remember that authors might not think the same way or use the same vocabulary that they do. Same thing for authors. You kind of have to hear what they’re saying from their perspective, then translate it into your own vocabulary. 

Annie: When illustrators are working with authors, it's helpful to remember to ask lots of questions up front. Pump them for information about the research they did. Ask context questions about age, clothes, time of year, time of day, etc. to build your visual understanding of the particular world in this story. It may seem obvious, but when authors are working with illustrators, they should think about how their story will play out on the page. How will it break down in terms of words per page and how will those words translate visually? Is there an action or image that will move the story along visually? If not, how can you rewrite in a more active way?

Jared: Tessa, you have three books (with three different publishers) coming out this Fall/Winter, the PROOF Pirates Family DevotionalThe Very First Christmas, and Just Nicholas. What did you learn while doing so much illustration this year? What is changing about your work as the demands grow?

Tessa: The more I illustrate, the more I learn. It’s one of those things that I can’t really just practice without having a project because there are so many facets. You have to tell a story, you have to illustrate the context well, you have to be consistent throughout the project, you have to be engaging, you have to make a lot of decisions and they all have to agree with each other. You also have to get better at things you’re not good at because there are so many pieces to illustrating. It’s definitely a challenge and it’s very humbling. I studied art, but not illustration in particular or design, so it’s very much a learning process for me. A lot of people have been very supportive and gracious. I had to ask for a lot of help, especially from my husband and my parents. There’s no way I would have made deadlines without their help and support. I always feel a little surprised when I’m asked to do another project, so I think I’m realizing that this is work that God is bringing to me as well.  

Since working on projects is what gives me practice and experience, I’ve been experimenting more with different mediums and techniques. So really as the demands grow I get more seasoned I suppose. I’ve had to do a lot of self teaching and I have a lot more to do. It’s always invigorating to learn to do something new, or at least a different way than you have been doing it.

Jared: What medium are you using for the illustrations in this book?

Tessa: I used watercolor, colored pencil and ink in this book. I also used a lot of masking fluid and guache. There is a lot of contrast in the dark, snowy night pictures that those two things helped with.

It preserves the magic of the holiday by exploring the transformative power of grace

Jared: Annie, what led you to want to write a book about St. Nicholas?

Annie: A couple of years ago, Tessa was looking for books about Santa Claus to read to her young daughters. She found historical accounts of St. Nicholas and fantastical stories about Santa, but nothing that addressed the truth in an engaging, honest, and non-preachy way. So she asked me to write a book to fill the gap she found and I started working on research and drafting a story.

Jared: Who is this book for? How can Nicholas's story help the child who grows up getting everything he wants for Christmas? How can his story help the child who grows up in poverty--getting very little? How can parents and grandparents use it?

I genuinely believe that this book is for everyone. That's why I'm so proud of it. Parents and grandparents can start reading it to their children from their very first Christmases, yet it remains relevant for older kids and even grown-ups. It is for practicing Christians and for people who are just curious about the origins of Santa Claus. It provides adults with a tool for approaching the 'Santa conversation' without saying "Santa isn't real." Instead, it preserves the magic of the holiday by exploring the transformative power of grace. In John 8, Jesus makes the bold statement that if we hold to the good news of his word, 'you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.' Because of that, I think the story of Nicholas cuts through the gift-based expectations that plague both children and grown-ups at Christmas time. It frees us to be thankful for what we've been given and empowers us to choose radical generosity in our humdrum daily lives.

I'm grateful for Annie and Tessa's work, and their service to the children of our church community. As we enter the holiday season, be sure to pick up a copy of Just Nicholas for the children in your family.