Smelling Like George Washington

One of my birthday presents this year was soap. My wife bought me No. 6 soap from the Caswell-Massey company. It is the same soap George Washington, John Adams, and the Marquis de Lafayette used. The scent profile is strange. It smells medicinal, woodsy, and a little floral, and I’ve grown to appreciate it. This morning I used the last wafer-thin bit. As I sit here smelling like the 1700s, I can’t help but notice how wide the imagination is.

The imagination transcends dragons and unicorns. Think about it. Our imagination is so elemental that without it we couldn’t even call a door a door. We’d have to call it a rectangle of wood (or a collection of atoms). Concepts and categories are unavailable to us without the imagination’s ability to group particulars into universals. An ignited imagination will not only lead us through literature, but also through history and theology—not only through Narnia and Middle-Earth, but also through Valley Forge and Galilee.

For the past few months, my showers made me think about the mythic heroes of our American Revolution. Sharing something as pedestrian as a brand of soap with some of our nation’s founders makes them come alive in my imagination. These concrete details are more than trivia. They are often the starting point of a desire to learn.

In 1789, George Washington traveled to his inauguration on a barge. Onlookers followed in a number of smaller crafts. Thirteen men dressed in white rowed the barge, and George Washington smelled like I do now. While I can’t share the smell of soap over the internet, I can share some interesting details about him. Maybe one of them will provoke your imagination and give you a renewed appreciation for this great man.


Seven Steps to a Better Bedtime Story

Here’s another post I wrote some years ago for the Storywarren blog…

There is a calico cat that treads about our backyard like a fancy hobo.  He’s scrawny and haughty both.  I did this picture after a conversation my wife and I had about him.

If you are the parent entrusted with bedtime story duties, perhaps you might conjure up a journey for him and see where he goes.

Those who struggle with meandering bedtime stories might consider picking up a book like Brian McDonald’s, Invisible Ink.  He lists seven steps to a better story.  These structural helps are:

1.  Once upon a time…

2.  And every day…

3.  Until one day…

4.  And because of this…

5.  And because of this…

6.  Until finally…

7.  And ever since that day…


These steps can help you organize events into causally related story moments.

They can turn this interaction:


SON: Dad, can you tell me a story?

DAD: Sure, um.  I skipped breakfast this morning and went to lunch early.  The End.  Get some sleep.


Into this:


SON: Dad, can you tell me a story?

DAD: Sure.

One day when I was a child I discovered I could eat three meals a day.

And every day I ate a meal in the morning, a meal in the afternoon, and a meal at night.

Until this morning.  My alarm wasn’t set properly and I overslept and missed the first meal.

And because of this, I was hungry all morning.

And because of this, I held my stomach, sighed heavily, and scowled at my co-workers.

Until finally, I could bear the hunger cravings no longer, and I got in my car, drove to Panera, and devoured all kinds of meat and bread.

And ever since that glorious meal I have forgotten how to scowl, rediscovered the mysterious art of smiling, and most important of all, I have taken pains to set my alarm properly so that the hungry monster unleashed this morning might never rise again.

The End.

SON: Wow.

DAD: Get some sleep.

SON: Impossible.

The second scenario is entirely plausible.

If you do end up telling a story about a cane-toting, necktie-sporting, top hat-wearing cat, drop me a line and let me know how it went.


Rebel Without A Qualm: The Counterculture of Gratitude

Here’s an old post I wrote for Storywarren some years ago…

I recently read an article urging Christians to be more countercultural. By countercultural I think the author meant that Christians ought to get arrested more often and sing “in your face” anthems at their parents and/or capitalists. Of course, we know that a protest culture isn’t precisely counter to our culture. It’s as mainstream as a discontented child screaming and grasping in a Toys-R-Us. Still, Christians ought to be more countercultural, and certainly this extends to our artistic and creative offerings.  One way to push back at our culture is through the simple elevation of gratitude.

Christians see gratitude as essential to happiness, but in our Freud and Marx influenced culture, gratitude is the undignified badge of surrender. Dissatisfaction is seen as the way to rally the masses to overthrow corrupt Western power structures and bring in the Utopia. Gratitude (much like a Norman Rockwell painting) is perceived as an obstacle for vital social change.

But it isn’t.

Gratitude frees us from a preoccupation with self and makes us take pleasure in the good gifts of our Creator. Furthermore, it gives shape to our desire to help the oppressed. One could go on, but the point is that gratitude is a necessary element to human happiness, it pleases God, and is underrepresented by our culture.

Let me give you an old-school Dorothy Aldis poem written for children in the 1950s that assumes the pleasure of gratitude. See if the assumptions in this poem don’t strike you with a pang of rightness.

Aldis assumes that the reader treasures the smell of flowers and the smell of cookies, then she suggests that the reader make room in their circle of gratitude for ironing smells.

If I may steal a theme from Chesterton, it is magnificent to look at the world through a telescope but it is also magnificent to look at the world through a microscope. Tolkien tempered his orc battles and giant spider threats with meditations on the Hobbit’s love of good tobacco and food. Lewis tempered his fantastical never ending winter with the domesticity of the Beavers’ tidy house.  Jane Austen novels, The Little House on the Prairie books, Henry and RibsyThe MoffatsFrog and Toad; all these stories assume the pleasures of gratitude, and the reader gets to enjoy them by proxy.

Thankfully, these books are still widely available, and if you want to provide your children with an emotional affirmation of the statement “be grateful,” then you might think about importing these values from earlier literature. That’s not to say they are totally absent from contemporary writing, but they are mostly absent.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that a poem that zeros in on the appreciation of ironing aromas and the glory of domesticity elevates gratitude. Gratitude is essential for children who will one day build and preserve a society. It is absolutely unessential for those children who wish only to deface society.


The Angel Knew Papa And the Dog cover

I had the privilege to do the cover for the Rabbit Room re-issue of Doug McKelvey’s book The Angel Knew Papa and the Dog.

This book is excellent and a beautiful read. Doug spoke about the book a little over the phone before I started the sketches. He mentioned something about the book’s frontier quality and the previous cover had a Little House on the Prairie vibe. Doug is a lyricist and he makes sentences that are nice to hear. Many families who like Little House also enjoy this book as a read-aloud. I guess that kind of stuck in my mind, and so I did these rough sketches.

Doug immediately told me to forget the Little House on the Prairie thing. He suggested something more consciously symbolic feeling–something stylized and dramatic. I did these two.

He seemed uncertain, but I didn’t like them. I managed to convince him that a simpler approach might work better for online sales. Amazon and other sites have small thumbnails of the covers and it’s often good to have an image that can reproduce well small. He told me that he liked an image I did of Freya.

He liked that she was stylized and thought she communicated a metaphysical reality. He wondered if the girl’s anatomy could be slightly caricatured.

I gave him some options and he liked the blue one.





This was the one I took to final. This project was a pleasure and I’m happy to have been a part of such a lovely book.




Can’t believe 2017 is already over. Here are some things I did this past year.

I continued doing freelance this year. Below is the cover for the latest installment of the Green Ember series, Ember Rising.

I also did around 20 interiors.

Heather and Picket spend a lot of time separated, and it was difficult to come up with a scene that included them both in the same space. My wife talked me through the composition above, which ended up working great.

I got to do another cover for a Green Ember Prequel, The Last Archer.I did this cover in a week, while I was working full-time and also teaching. I’m pleased with how it turned out.

I also had the chance to Illustrate Doug McKelvey’s beautiful book, The Angel Knew Papa and the Dog.

This is a beautifully written book and I’m happy to have played a small part in it.

I also continued working at BJUPress illustrating textbooks. Here is a sampling of some illustrations for the upcoming British Literature Text:

Here are a few from the Textbook Stories of the Old Testament

And here are a few from a 5th grade Reading Story.

As I mentioned earlier, I also taught a digital illustration class at Furman University. It was a full year. Glad it’s over.


2016 Year in Review

Here we are at the end of 2016. Let me tell you a little about what I’ve done this year.

Ember Falls, the much anticipated sequel to the Green Ember, released. I did the cover and interiors for that project. Below are a few.
I love these books. They’re tremendous fun to work on, and they’re excellent stories. Check out for updates and additional information about the world of the Green Ember.

I did a cover and some interiors for Crossroads In Gallilee the next book in the Choose Your Journey Series from Journeyforth. Below is a sampling.

I completed a project for Biblical Visuals International called Depths of Grace about John Newton, who wrote the song Amazing Grace. There were a number of illustrations (like 40?). Here are 6.

I did an illustration for Cobblestone magazine’s October Alexander Hamilton issue. It’s a good looking magazine, and if you’re interested in American History for children, check it out.

I also wrote some articles for StoryWarren. One is about Boy’s Reading. The other concerns George Washington’s soap.

This year also brought a few events. I attended the Great Homeschool Convention in Marchwith my friend Sam Smith and his brother Josiah. I also got to speak at a school in Greenville, one in Landrum, and had a few homeschool events at my house. I further spoke at a gathering in West Virginia and exhibited at this year’s Maker’s Market here in town. I was also interviewed by domestic theologian Allison Burr’s lovely children on the Melody, Mystery and Mayhem podcast.

During the day I work at BJUPress illustrating textbooks. Here is some of the work I’ve been doing at my day job.

These are concepts for British Literature.

This year I worked largely on Elementary Reading. Here are a few illustrations from Ben Carson’s story.

Below are a few from John Henry Races the Steam Engine.

This is a story about a houseboat caught in a flood.

And here are some from a selection of A Cricket in Times Square.

I also did various pieces for other books.

In addition to my textbook work and freelance, I taught a Digital Illustration class this fall at Furman University.

These are samples for the class assignments. One is a generic cel shading, the other is a lighting demonstration, and the third was a coloring assignment for the non-existent brand Jane Austen Boots.

I also did a painting for the faculty show.

All in all a pretty full year. Looking forward to seeing what’s around the corner in 2017.

Bonus: Here are two pictures of my growing girls.


End of Year Post: 2015

The ubiquitous quote about long days and short years describes 2015 well. Here we are at the end of the year, and I’m astonished to find I haven’t posted anything in 6 months.

So, here is a monster post revealing some of the work I’ve done that was previously shrouded in mystery.

It’s Textbook

americanlit1-zachfranzenMy day job for the past two years has been illustrating textbooks for BJUPress. I enjoyed many of this year’s assignments.

Here are some illustrations I did for the American Literature book.americanlit2-zachfranzen







Biblical Worldview

Here are a few little things for the book Biblical Worldview. It’s a great book, and Chris Koelle has some beautiful art in it. I think it’s very solid and well written, thanks in no small part to Mark Ward‘s great efforts.



Heritage Studies

The bulk of my work has been the 5th grade Heritage Studies book. I’ve done most of the chapter openers. Note: I don’t have the finished files on hand at the moment, hence the rough pasted-in design elements on top of the illustrations.







I also did a million interior illustrations. Here’s a sampling:


So that’s some of my 9-5 work. But I also did a bunch of other stuff in the evenings and weekends…

For Fun & Freelance

Inkwell 2015: Storywarren’s Family Conference

I was pleased to do some illustration sessions for kids at the Inkwell conference in Charlotte in June. This was the second year of the conference, and it’s really picked up speed. Tickets sold out the first day. Kids experience an action-packed schedule of rotating sessions focused on different areas in the arts, like songwriting, poetry, story-writing, and illustration. We also had some smaller workshops and demonstrations, so there was always something going on.




Vigilante Terror

Some of the older attendees took on the challenge I assigned of illustrating an Amish Romance cover based on the title of a thriller.







Read-Aloud Revival

At Inkwell I was pleased to meet fans of Sarah Mackenzie’s terrific website Amongst Lovely Things and her Read-Aloud Revival podcast. I did a guest post about art and hospitality in March. I also bumbled my way through an interview on her Read-Aloud-Revival podcast in May:

Black Star of Kingston

Storywarren also released the prequel novella to the Green Ember at Inkwell. I did the illustrations and cover for Black Star of Kingston.

blackstar cover

blackstarinterior2blackstarinteriorsblackstar characters

Christmas Crossroads

Below is a cover and some interiors for a JourneyForth book titled Christmas Crossroads. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure type of book with three main story paths.

christmascrossroadschristmas crossroads interiors

Slugs and Bugs

I illustrated the second installment of Randall Goodgame’s Sing the Bible with Slugs and Bugs.




This year we watched Quilla turn from a baby into a toddler. It has been a heart-melting journey.


Also, my wife and I had Vesper, our second little girl. DSC_0193rev

All in all, a full and lovely year.


Textbook Sketches

I’m working on a 5th grade History book for BJUPRESS.  The designer and I have been going back and forth trying to zero in on the style for the book’s interior illustrations. Thought it might be interesting to give a peek at the thoughts behind the book’s illustrations.

Initially, I wanted to do something stylized.  The argument was that the illustrations would give the readers some space to enter into them and handles for their imaginations to grab hold.  So here are two ideas about what that might look like.  One’s a rough sketch of a soldier at Valley Forge.  The other more finished illustration is of a younger G. Washington during the French and Indian War.

They didn’t feel right.  The Valley Forge guy in particular was a bad fit.  It could work if the account of Valley Forge was heavily narrative or if the age were younger (3rd grade perhaps), but because these were 5th graders and sensitive to being “talked down to,” and because the illustrations have to serve interesting textual callouts, the style needed to feel more precise.  Also, another problem emerged.  Humorous illustrations about abstract things look too similar in style to serious/concrete things.

The more literal style (above on the right) allowed the comic illustrations (below) a separate voice.

So it’s still rough, but we’re finding the illustration look for the book.

The aspiration is for the styles to look related, but more like cousins than brothers.  It’s an exciting project, and I’m enjoying the preliminary discoveries, but I can’t wait to get into the guts of it.  Hope this was interesting.