Ryan Althaus, co-illustrated by Noah Habib
sweatysheep.com, 43 pages
Reviewed by Eva Stimson
This book is further evidence that its author, Ryan Althaus, is not your typical Presbyterian minister. A lanky young man with blond dreadlocks and an impish grin, Althaus doesn’t spend much time behind a desk or pulpit. You are more likely to find him frolicking in the surf with a group of homeless people or organizing a camping trip for folks struggling with addictions.
In Louisville, Kentucky, Althaus created Sweaty Sheep, a ministry for athletes, and took it across the country to Santa Cruz, California, where he was ordained by the Presbytery of San Jose. Known as the “Pastor of Play,” he recently embarked on a new creative quest focused on overcoming divisions and building community.
“Wally the Wave,” a children’s story with an introduction for grown-ups, is one step toward meeting those goals. The story follows a wave as it rises from the depths of the sea, then cruises along in splendid isolation until crashing onto the shore and discovering its oneness with an ocean teaming with life and diversity. As with most of Althaus’ ministry, the creative process and the relationships formed in telling this story are just as significant – if not more so – than the words and pictures on the printed page.
Althaus worked with 22-year-old Noah Habib to create the watercolor paintings on each page of the book. Habib has advanced cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder that affects speech and motor control functions. Over a period of several months, Althaus met with Habib to brainstorm ideas and practice the hand motions required to bring their charming images to life with brush and paint. Watching their painstaking but joyful process (youtu.be/J8jendfI8hs) adds a whole new dimension to the book.
Describing the process, Althaus says: “It has been great for my type-A, result-driven personality, to learn to rest, relax and giggle! I’ve had to accept that there are days when a three-hour art session may yield nothing more than a blurred blotch of blues on a single page; however, when I do, it becomes quickly evident that those three hours alongside my friend Noah are more valuable than any Picasso or da Vinci.”
And that’s the whole point of this project. In his introduction, Althaus wrote, “Wally’s story is the first in a series of writings” intended to engage children and young people in conversation about difficult topics. He wants to build community among people of different racial, religious and political backgrounds, drawing in those often left on the margins — people who are homeless, who have disabilities, who identify as LGBTQ. These are certainly worthy goals for churches as well.
Unfortunately, the impact of the book’s section for adults is diminished somewhat by a design that prioritizes the “wow factor” over readability (a typical pitfall in self-publishing). A quieter design with narrower columns and consistency of font would make the material more accessible and provide a nice contrast with the eye-popping color and movement on the children’s book pages.
But these minor quibbles from a too-serious adult (and professional editor) should not keep anyone from diving into “Wally the Wave.” Shaped by an inspiring vision, the book manages to be both playful and profound — not an easy combination.
Eva Stimson, an elder at Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, is a freelance writer and editor.