Reimagining a Classic: Spotlight on Joe Sutphin

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The bestselling illustrator has published a new version of the landmark children’s book Little Pilgrim’s Progress

Pilgrim’s Progress, the Christian allegory about an everyman who embarks on an adventure to find the Celestial City, was first penned by John Bunyan in 1678 and has never gone out-of-print. Translated into more than 200 languages, the work has been transformed into everything from operas and ballets to movies, prog-rock albums, video games, and even a comic book. Some 60 years ago, author Helen L. Taylor adapted the tale for children ages six to 12, simplifying some of the concepts and vocabulary and turning Little Pilgrim’s Progress into its own classic, selling more than 800,000 copies and counting. Now, the heroic quest of Little Christian is reborn again in a new edition from Moody Publishers, reimagined by bestselling illustrator Joe Sutphin.

“Getting to illustrate a timeless and honored classic like Little Pilgrim’s Progress has been wonderful,” says Ohio-based Sutphin. “And being afforded the freedom to put my own creative mark on it was just a dream.”

Known for anthropomorphic animal characters, Sutphin’s work has been featured in bestsellers such as James Patterson’s Word of Mouse and Andrew Peterson’s Wingfeather Saga. In this latest version of the timeless tale, Sutphin reimagines the human characters as woodland creatures: Little Christian comes to life as a small rabbit, who comes upon beautifully rendered owls, badgers, chipmunks, and other wildlife as he travels from his home in search of The King, experiencing the trials and triumphs of faithfulness along the way.

Sutphin was fairly familiar with the original Pilgrim’s Progress, but it wasn’t until he became attached to the project that he began delving into Little Pilgrim’s Progress. “Initially, the goal was to have 80 illustrations in the book,” says Sutphin, noting that the publisher decided to add a backstory for Little Christian and create a new prologue, intermission, and epilogue, told entirely in sketch form. “We ended up with somewhere over 110 illustrations by the end.”

Once the setting was locked in, ideas weren’t hard to come by. “I’ve been inspired by the natural world my entire life,” Sutphin says. “I grew up with a dad who was an artist who painted a lot of farm landscapes and nature scenes, and I loved to be in the kitchen watching him.” One of Sutphin’s earliest drawings was of a baby chick hatching from an egg—created at the tender age of six.

Still, the new edition of Little Pilgrim’s Progress was not without its difficulties. “I think the most challenging images to create were the gardens in the Land of Delight,” Sutphin says. “I wanted there to be a lot of flowers and plants, which doesn’t always come naturally to me.”

Sutphin estimates it took him about two years to complete his work on Little Pilgrim’s Progress. Now that it’s set to be published, he’s working on a new project that sounds right up his animal alley: he and a partner have been chosen by the Richard Adams estate to work on a graphic novel version of the classic Watership Down. Sutphin reports that he’s been working with Adams’s daughters, “including spending some time in England, retracing the rabbits’ steps across Hampshire with them.”

Little Pilgrim’s Progress left a strong impression on Sutphin, as it did on generations before him. “At the start of the project, I started to feel like maybe I was losing sight of myself as an artist,” he says. “But the trust and faith that the Moody Publishers team had in me, to envision this world in my way, was so refreshing to me and fueled me as a creative person. I couldn’t be happier with the product we put together. And knowing that I can share aspects of my personal faith with the world, and in a way that is visually exciting and beautiful, is something I am honored to be a part of.”

Sponsored by Moody Publishers A version of this article appeared in the 07/19/2021 issue of Publishers Weekly under the headline: Reimagining a Classic: Spotlight on Joe Sutphin
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