I’m not exactly sure where this journey began. It certainly didn’t start with us as a couple. It didn’t start with little Joe Sutphin drawing pictures on church bulletins with his dad. It didn’t start with little Gina Black singing into her hairbrush wanting to be Amy Grant. It didn’t even start with our parents, or Helen Taylor, or even John Bunyan himself. Parts of this puzzle probably began all the way back before God made humanity. It’s likely rooted somewhere in that space of existence and knowledge that reaches beyond what our finite mind can fathom and understand. I have come to accept that much of this experience we call life falls into that space.
If you are unfamiliar with John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, it is the allegorical story of the Christian. We can theorize that Adam and Eve were the first people to start this journey even though they existed before Christ came to earth. This is because “The Fall” was the catalyst to open the door for all the other allegorical characters to exist and become part of the story. By the time Bunyan penned this famous work, it was the sixteenth century. Life as a Christian, post-Christ, was now a reality for many. But as humans do, no matter what century they exist in, they struggled. And in response to that struggle, Bunyan craftily weaved a journey filled with friends and foes that represented the challenges we face as we try to stay true to following the straight and narrow path.
My first experience with Pilgrim’s Progress was as a child. I remember my mother reading it to us. I recall feeling that it was a bit overwhelming in its portrayal of what I was supposed to be striving towards. It also contained a lot of elements that were a little scary to me as a child. I honestly can’t say what my real take-away from the experience was, once we had come to the end. I don’t remember ever knowing there was a Little Pilgrim’s Progress version of the story that would have made it easier to grasp. I do remember that in middle school I tried to revisit it again through what I believe was an abbreviated version. But it just felt disinteresting. After that I mostly forgot about it. Throughout the years, if it was ever mentioned, I felt nothing more than a vague recollection of the story. But I certainly didn’t feel a connection to it.
And then, several years into our crazy adventure of self-employment as artists, Joe was contacted by someone from Moody Publishing. I remember his first telling of the exchange to me—he wasn’t very enthusiastic about what he thought was being proposed. Drawing people (and lots of them) isn’t Joe’s favorite thing, even though he’s good at it, but we needed a paid project, any project! No doubt it would be a long slog to reach the end.
But as conversations continued, several things came to light. Erik, the contact person from Moody, had actually found Joe through The Rabbit Room. And in further conversation about what drew Erik to Joe’s work, it became clear that he loved the wild woodland creatures and nature scenes that Joe loves to draw. And so, the idea to revamp Little Pilgrim’s Progress into just such a story was born. It was to be based on creatures and the natural world they live in. Within a moment, what seemed like a possibly necessary but dreaded job instead became exciting! Moody rightfully wanted to stay true to the narrative of Helen Taylor’s work and honor what she had done before, but they allowed the changes necessary to enable Joe’s envisioning of the entire world from the perspective of animals.
Our part began shrinking from view, a tiny drop in this grand expanse of time and space, and instead of our accomplishments, I began to see the harvest to come spreading out before my mind’s eye.Gina Sutphin
There’s something about animals that draws us in. Maybe it’s their innocence that endears them to us. Anyone who has ever had a beloved pet knows how that endearment can make us feel close to animals in ways that can sometimes prove difficult with humans. There’s even the likelihood that we extend a little more grace to an animal that is behaving badly than we do to a person. We have this understanding that they are, after all, just animals. It causes us to hold less against them and to be less judgmental. Potentially this is because we start with a more realistic and lower expectation than the lofty ones we place on our human counterparts. So, one unique thing that happens when we anthropomorphize a story is that it breaks down some of our barriers and disarms us of our defenses. This allows us to engage with the story from a relaxed posture, making it easier to reflect and connect with the struggles that these animals are dealing with—which are, of course, human struggles.
Through the course of this project, Joe kept me connected to the creative process. He would share the ideas he was working on and show me each illustration as he finished. Many of them moved me to tears. Sometimes I would recommend a little tweak or give a suggestion that caused him to be more pleased with his final illustration. But for the most part, this world was flowing directly out of Joe’s mind. It was a story we were sharing in as it grew, and for a long time it was part of our daily lives. We were both a little sad when at last the creative process began coming to a close.
Just before the final deadline, I took it upon myself to proofread the entire story. I read all 300+ pages in 2 days flat. I made minor text suggestions and flagged a few typos or omissions. But that was the work side of the task. From a personal standpoint, I was astounded! It was fascinating to watch these many months of labor come together as a whole. I could not believe how this vague beast of a tale from my childhood had been changed into something so relatable, so understandable and transformational. And in those moments of reading, all the hard work, late nights, and sacrifices faded. We became little in the process, so that He became much. Our part began shrinking from view, a tiny drop in this grand expanse of time and space, and instead of our accomplishments, I began to see the harvest to come spreading out before my mind’s eye.
Sure, book releases are cool! It’s fun to see the fruit of all our long hours finally enter the world as a living being. And Joe truly has dedicated himself to his craft and become excellent at it. So yes, of course we always hope a book reaches a wide audience and is well enjoyed. But this one is different. We long for children and adults everywhere to have this story, this truth, this compass on their own individual journey. We pray it reaches far and distant corners of the world. And we pray for the eternal harvest to grow beyond anything we can think to ask or imagine!
For those of you here in this community that we call brothers, sisters, and friends, we are extra excited to share this version of Little Pilgrim with you, because he is one of us—no, not in the same way that Joe and I are members of the Rabbit Room—but rather he, this Little Pilgrim is one of us, in that he is each of us. He is relatable. He is reachable. We can empathize with his plight. We can feel his emotions and be challenged by his journey as it resonates with our own. And companions like Hopeful, Help, Faithful and Great Heart are among us even now. Yes, we are he, and he is each of us. After all, this time, he is a Rabbit!