The Little Jetts sprang into being one Sunday afternoon when Mama was away and Daddy had to keep some little folks from missing her too much. He knew Mama had been in the habit of telling them Bible stories on Sunday afternoons, but dared not attempt to duplicate her style, knowing he would be “weighed in the balance and found wanting.” Thus came the necessity to offer novelty of some kind, and, with fountain-pen in hand, he set out upon the rather hazardous experiment (for a novice) of telling illustrated stories. Two things, however, were at once in his favor–a child’s wonderful imagination, which has no difficulty in seeing people in straight marks, and the delight of a child at seeing anything drawn, however crude.
The Little Jetts appeared at a time when a “chalk talks” (a sermon or talk presented while drawing) were very popular in America. Invented by a Methodist artist, Mr. Frank Beard, chalk talks soon spread to vaudeville and to Chautauqua gatherings. Eventually, this interest in watching drawings come magically alive would lead to animated films (through artists such as Winsor McCay), and eventually to Christian cartoons.
The Little Jetts Bible sat on a shelf in my parents’ bedroom and, peering at those pictures in the days before I could read, the Little Jetts always seemed a bit ant-like to me. The illustrations were small and intense and there was a lot of action that I couldn’t always interpret–which I suppose is what put me in mind of watching ants working in the back yard. I think I was also used to more elaborate children’s illustrations and Disney cartoons, so I didn’t perceive all the detail that was available to me.
Now that I can read the accompanying text, and can view the less sketchy book that’s available via the Internet Archive, I see what all the fuss was about. By showing us little, by suggesting much, the artist brings us into the storytelling. Wade C. Smith hoped that children might be inspired by the Little Jetts to draw their own pictures–perhaps right in the book!–to make a keepsake of their childhood familiarity with Bible stories.
Thinking about the Little Jetts put me in mind of another illustrator, the wonderfully talented Annie Vallotton. In the 1960’s, Vallotton created roughly 500 line drawings to illustrate the American Bible Society’s Good News Bible. A paperback copy of the New Testament–Good News for Modern Man–was one of my go-to translations during high school and college, and Vallotton’s illustrations added much grace and lyricism to my experience of reading scripture.
I suppose that Annie Vallotton’s drawings were for me what the Little Jetts were for their time: something different, something that felt modern, something that made the Bible seem more like a great story and less like scripture. They were respectful, but not typical–which is a fine line to walk.