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Ann Engelhart did an interview with the Brooklyn Diocese television network – it’s a great introduction to the book, with a peak into her studio.

For more about our books:

On our first, Friendship with Jesus.

The second, Be Saints!

Then last year’s release, Bambinelli Sunday

And finally, more about Adventures in Assisi here and here. 

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Two years ago next month, my younger sons and I spent a few days in Assisi.  There’s no way I could have written Adventures in Assisi without that trip.  Here’s a bit more about the journey.

It was part of our massive, sort of crazy three months in Europe the fall of 2012.  Why did we go? Because we could and also because it was a way to force us all into homeschooling.  Pretty dramatic, eh?  I had been knowing that we should be homeschooling for a while, but they were a bit resistant, as was I (mostly for selfish reasons).

As the late winter of 2012 wore on, and I grew more and more dissatisfied with institutional school in general, the notion of a big journey took hold.  My father had passed away the preceding fall, I had the means, I was hitting 52 years old soon…why not?

So we did, and while during the trip, I always told the boys that they could certainly return to school in January…when it came time…they decided…nah. 

(For the record, two years later, my older son, who is 8th grade, is back in school, and it’s going great. The younger son is still home, in 4th grade, and might return to school in 6th…might.)

Anyway. 

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Student protest passing by our apartment in Padua the morning we left for Assisi.

Not to recap the entire journey, but we had landed in Paris on September 11, spent almost 2 months in France – the first chunk in western France and Provence, and then October in Paris.  In early November, we left Paris on the train, spent a couple of days in Lausanne, Switzerland, then about a week in Padua and then finally…Assisi.  

(After Assisi, we were in Rome for 10 days, then…home.)

I really liked Assisi a lot, although it’s a bit of an odd place.

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It’s your typical Italian hill town, in a way, but not, because it’s spotless to the point of antiseptic.  Ironically, no begging is allowed in Assisi.  For hundreds of years, pilgrimage has been the primary point of Assisi, and it shows – it works like clockwork, everything geared to the pilgrims.

The train station for Assisi is not actually in Assisi – it’s in Maria san Angeli at the bottom of the hill.

We arrived in the evening, caught a taxi and were taken up the hill. And then another. And then another, to our hotel.

I think I read later that the hotel had been a monastery in a previous life, and that explained a lot.  Well, at least it explained the bathroom.

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You would not believe the contortions I had to go through to get this photo, but I was determined.

Obviously not original to the structure, obviously squeezed in.

Yes I was mean, and there was schoolwork done, in the top floor lounge, before we set out on our journeys.

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He’s making an “A” in Algebra in 8th grade now, so I guess we did something right.

Assisi is…hilly.  You get quite a workout there.

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Here’s where Francis was baptized – the Cathedral.

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This is the castle looming above the town.  The best views.

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The church of S. Chiara – this is the church of the Poor Clares, and is where the San Damiano cross is kept now. (no photos inside)

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And this is San Damiano – the way down the hill from the town is lovely, lined with olive groves.  The church which Francis rebuilt, where he experienced the call of Christ in a profound way, and where the Poor Clares first lived and prayed, and where St. Clare died.

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The main piazza in the center of the town – Francis’s birthplace is on this square, hidden behind the tourism office.

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The basilica, where the tomb of Francis is located, and of course, the site of the amazing frescoes by Giotto and others.  A place of profound prayer.

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Playground outside Assisi walls

Then back to Santa Maria degli Angeli, the location of the Porziuncola, the site of one of the early settlements of the friars and the place where St. Francis died. (again, no inside photos allowed – but look up the images – the tiny church in the midst of the big basilica…)

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I think of all the sites, being in that spot where Francis died in the midst of such physical suffering, his brotherhood already in some disarray,and pondering the  tension between humility, poverty of spirit and the majesty of the basilica..was the most thought-provoking.

Last year, I wrote about another encounter I had in Assisi, and its relation to the whole homeschooling thing…..

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Well, happy feastday!

(In honor of his feastday…try reading some his actual writings.  You might be surprised at what you find.)

I was going to write a post about the genesis of Adventures in Assisi, but Lisa Hendey saved me the trouble by requesting an interview with us.

So here it is!

Q: What prompted you to write/illustrate “Adventures in Assisi” and what will our readers discover in this book?

Amy: I love history and I love to travel and the saints are central to my Catholic spirituality. In my teaching and writing, I’ve always particularly enjoyed bringing Catholic tradition and history to readers and listeners and many of my books reflect that interest.

"amy welborn"St. Francis of Assisi has always interested me not only because his is a truly compelling, radical figure, but also because he is  rather mysterious.  The radical nature of his conversion and the singularity of his journey is unique, but the legends and stories that have grown around him over the past eight hundred years have only added to the mystique and have always piqued my curiosity.  My earliest encounters with Francis were both quite memorable, although both were rooted, I now understand, in more fiction, personal ideology and a cultural moment than fact – reading NIkos Kazantzakis’ St. Francis as a teenager and seeing Brother Sun, Sister Moon with my friends from the Catholic campus ministry in college.  Despite the serious limitations of both, what moved me in these works was my vivid and thought-provoking encounter with the possibility that radical sacrifice was, paradoxically, the path to fullness of life.

In the subsequent years, I encountered St. Francis here and there.  I taught his story when I taught high school theology.  I wrote about him in the Loyola books. I wrote about his prayers in The Words We Pray.  Over the years, I probably read every existing children’s picture book about Francis to my own children, most of which were about either the wolf of Gubbio or the Christmas creche.

And then, a few years ago, I read the new biography of Francis by Fr. Augustine Thompson OP  – Francis of Assisi: A New Biography.  It’s a tight, compact, rich work, and Fr.Thompson’s insights struck me to the core, so once again, St. Francis moved me…. MORE

Q: Ann, please say a few words on the artwork in this new book. How did you conceive of the characters “look”? What type of research do you have to undertake to artfully depict a venue like Assisi?

Ann: I was able to visit Assisi on two occasions, once with my teenage children and another time alone with my husband. I was able to walk the same paths as the characters in this book as they followed St. Francis’ footsteps.

I took countless photos because the style of my work is quite detailed, and I wanted the reader to authentically experience the exquisite Umbrian landscapes, the extraordinary architecture that is both grand and humble, and the simple beauty of the country roads and olive groves that surround St. Francis’ hilltop hometown….

MORE

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NET-TV – the Brooklyn diocese television station – went to Ann’s house this week to interview her about her work.  I hope it is put online, and when it is, I’ll let you know.

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All right…after Friendship with Jesus was published by the Catholic Truth Society, Pope Benedict visited England.  During that visit, he gave a talk to school children at an event called “The Big Assembly,” and like all of the talks and homilies he gave at such events,  it was rich and so expressive of his skillful way of teaching, which is profound, yet simple..and yet again, not watered down…so…26811_W

Another book!

Again, CTS was a joy to work with.  In structuring this book, we combined the pope’s words with quotations from various saints.  The images are mostly of contemporary children engaged in activities that illustrate the call of Pope Benedict and the saints to follow Christ.  Here’s the text of the entire talk. Some images:

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Ann was interviewed about her work on this book here. 

The book was also picked up by Ignatius and is available here.  A beautiful introduction to the life of a disciple…IMHO.

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Those of you who have been reading for a while know that I have published four books with water color artist Ann Engelhart, including the latest, Adventures in Assisi.

The story of our collaboration goes back years – probably to about 2006 or 7, I’m thinking, when we were still living in Fort Wayne.  I received an email from this artist from Long Island who said she’d been reading my blog for a long time and that she, like I, had been profoundly affected by the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI.   She had read a dialogue Benedict had held with First Communicants in Rome and thought that the conversation would make a wonderful children’s book.  Would I be interested in working with her on it?

I have to be honest with you and admit that I did procrastinate in answering her first and subsequent emails. I had a lot on my plate, Michael was a baby, we were talking about moving.  But Ann, thank goodness, is persistent!

So, again, while we were still in Indiana, Ann and I began working on the book.  We actually finished a version and I started sending out queries.  I queried every Catholic publisher in the United States, and they all said, “No thanks.”  The reasons varied – the expense of publishing a picture book was the most frequently offered.  I was sort of amazed and – to be honest – couldn’t help but wonder if there was some anti-Benedict sentiment lurking there as well, or at least the sentiment that , “We’re not crazy about "amy welborn"Benedict, we can’t imagine people will buy a book for CHILDREN with Pope BENEDICT at the center.” And maybe even a little bit of “He’ll be dead soon, anyway.”

But..who knows.

Then one day, I had a brainstorm, and wrote to the good folks at the Catholic Truth Society in England. I think the Pope’s visit there had just been announced.  They loved the idea, and I kid you not, they had the book out and in print and available within probably five months.  And they did a beautiful job with the layout and reproduction of the art, with no trouble at all. It was amazing, and I’m still impressed when I look at the book’s interior.

Well, in the meantime, we moved to Alabama, Mike died, and in the midst of that, around Easter of 2009, Ann had the opportunity to present a mock-up of the book to..yup…

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What she is giving him, in addition the mock up of the entire book, is one of the paintings she did in which she superimposed an old image of Joseph Ratzinger at his First Communion over a contemporary scene of Bavaria.

Here’s the story, as she wrote it to me:

So we arrived at 8am the next morning and showed the paper to the Swiss guard who kept sending us closer and closer to the platform. When we got to the special section a tuxedoed man checked a list and looked us over and then said “Two of you can sit up in the prima fila and kissa da pope”. We were stunned!

The security was very tight and they kept checking their lists to see that everyone was seated in the proper seats. Archbishop Harvey paced back and forth consulting with various people in anticipation of the pope’s arrival. Finally, a helicopter (on route from Castelgandolfo) flew over the crowd and everyone cheered.

The audience was filled with the joy of Easter and was special because it was the day before Benedict’s birthday and near to his anniversary. There was lot’s of flag waving and singing in several languages and German oompah bands. The English speaking pilgrims who had been the most reserved began to sing Happy Birthday and everyone else joined in in English. The pope stood and did his customary open arm wave and bow.
 
Then it was time for greeting the cardinals, then bishops and the prima fila. Governor Bill Richardson was there and was among the first to be greeted.
I was really nervous and had tried to come up with a sentence that would get the point across in as few words as possible. I opened the book to the first page with Benedict hugging the child ( I later regretted that I hadn’t opened it to the page with Jesus walking with the children) and I had the print of his First Communion in my hand.
 
He was talking to a German family with four boys who were next to us. He definitely spent the most time with the children. My husband and I were very surprised at how he took his time with everyone…never giving the sense of being rushed.

So Benedict walked over to me, smiling and I kissed his ring. I didn’t introduce myself or my husband…didn’t say where we were from… or anything. I just kept to my script. ” Your Holiness, these are some prints of some paintings I did based on your catechesis with First Communicants” He took my hand and placed his other hand on the print of his First Communion. He smiled with recognition and paused and then looked at the other page. He didn’t actually say any words, he just made what sounded like an approving “hmm”. It is impossible to know what he was thinking, but I almost got the sense that he was touched and perhaps a bit embarrassed in a very humble way. That… or he was thinking, wow, this girl is really a loser (there I go again).
Then he said to me “Is this your work?” (“verk”, actually), to which I responded “Yes”. Then I said “we wanted to have many people hear your beautiful words.” He again responded with a “hmmm”. He paused to look again then someone took the book from him. Benedict then put his hand towards my husband and said to me “and this is?” I responded with “this is my husband and this is my son pointing back to Mark who was dutifully taking photos all the while. I must say that he waved and really beamed at my son who looked so adorable in his jacket and tie, waving and smiling back at the pope. After that was the best moment… he grasped both of my hands and looked me right in the eyes and said so sincerely “May God bless you”. I was almost taken back with the intensity of the moment. I said “and God bless you too” in return. Then he took my husband’s hand and said the same and he responded with “Happy Birthday Holy Father”. (We had a good laugh over that later).
Then Msgr. Ganswein (who really is quite charming) grabbed my hands and said “these are rosaries from the Holy Father for you and for your son” while smiling very broadly. He then gave my husband a set as well. I thanked him and said “Happy Easter”.
Ann adds a bit in 2014:
It is so funny to read the description of my little meeting with Benedict XVI of several years ago! Perhaps over time I have embellished the events in my mind…or maybe I was being somewhat modest in my description of how things happened…But I think I can honestly say (and my husband and son concur) that Benedict’s reaction was more than a “hmmm”. In fact, I would even say that it was a little gasp. Like, “oh my!” He seemed surprised and definitely laughed when he recognized himself as a little boy. Before saying “God bless you” in a very intense and personal way, he said something else to me, but sadly I couldn’t understand it! I have looked at the video many times and I can’t seem to make it out. But the words were affirming – probably something like “I appreciate what you are doing”, or “carry on with what you are doing” or “you are the finest artist the world has ever known” or “this will become the most important book of our time”. Yeah, probably something like that.

So somewhere between a “hmmm” and an “oh!” I experienced an extraordinary blessing that never would have happened if I hadn’t read about that beautiful conversation that Benedict had with the little children, and Amy hadn’t answered my email. I am enormously grateful for having the opportunity to collaborate on these projects with the great hope that they will help young families on their path to “friendship with Jesus”.

Some more images from the book:
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And that’s it – that’s the beginning, not only of a collaboration, but of a great friendship.

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Elizabeth Foss has published a lovely review of Adventures in Assisi – written by her 8-year old daughter!  Go check it out!

And…tomorrow morning at 7:35 am Eastern, I’ll be interviewed on the Son Rise Morning Show with Matt Swain, on EWTN radio – listen if you have a chance. 

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Well, the feastday of St. Francis is a bit more than a week away, so it’s time to start talking about the new book!

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Adventures in Assisi is the fruit of my interest in St. Francis as well as trips both Ann and I have taken to the town.  Ann has been twice, and I traveled there two years ago with my two youngest, on our epic 3-month stay in Europe.

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There are, of course, many books on St. Francis for children, but ours is different in several ways:

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1) It’s set in the present. There are regular allusions to and illustrations from St. Francis’ life, but the children at the center of the story are contemporary children, interacting with St. Francis, his life and his message, in the context of their own lives.

2) It’s not about the wolf of Gubbio or the creche or St. Francis and creation – as great as those are, those stories are the subjects of most of the books about Francis out there, and really, do we need one more?

3) The children, we hope, are physically more representative of most children you see in picture books in general, and in picture books for Catholic in general, who tend to be pretty much all Caucasian.  This was quite important to me.  Given the makeup of the Catholic Church, even just in the US, it’s ridiculous that the demographics of children’s book illustrations don’t reflect that.  The models for these children, incidentally, are Ann’s family members.

More tomorrow!

More info here – with some inside views.

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