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Arlington author shares life’s meaning with children

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In 2005, fugitive Brian Nichols escaped from a Georgia courthouse and took Ashley Smith captive in her own apartment. Over the next seven hours, Smith read him parts of The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren, a book about finding fulfillment through Christ. With his heart softened, Nichols let Smith leave the apartment. He was later arrested. Ten year later, the incredible story became a movie called “Captive”. It also inspired a children’s book written by a local Catholic.


Jenny Sullivan, a parishioner of St. Agnes Church in Arlington, saw the news of the abduction on television. “I was sitting there thinking, ‘What a shame that he’s a grown man going to prison before he realizes what life is all about. Little children need that message,’” she said. Though it took many years for the project to come together, Sullivan recently published The Purpose-Driven Alphabet, A Children's Catechism: God Tells His Children How to be Joyful.

Sullivan grew up in Norfolk, where she earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees there at Old Dominion University. She and her husband, Dan, married in 1974, and then moved to Arlington. She taught literature and composition at Northern Virginia Community College for 40 years before retiring in 2014. The couple has three grown children and five grandchildren, from newborn to 7 years old.

Though she’s always been Christian, Sullivan didn’t come into the Catholic Church until 2001. She and her husband raised their children Catholic and she spent years volunteering at their school, St. Charles Borromeo, but she still loved her Methodist faith. “It was hard to break away from the church that I grew up in, where I learned my faith,” she said. “But, boy, am I glad I did.”

During her many years of teaching, Sullivan wrote. After her mother died, her brother found one of Sullivan’s old manuscripts among their mother’s possessions. Much of the color of the novel came from stories Sullivan’s mother told her while growing up. Her brother, who opened an independent publishing company in his retirement, told Sullivan if she reworked the book, he would publish it. Her first novel, From My Father’s House, was published in 2016. Sullivan both wrote and illustrated The Purpose-Driven Alphabet.

“I had a sense of what I wanted the pages to look like: clean, simple and calm, accessible to children with soft colors,” she said. “I wanted a Mr. Rogers atmosphere.”

Sullivan based the book on the premise of the Baltimore Catechism — “God made us to know, love and serve Him in this life and to be happy with Him in the next.” Each page has a letter of the alphabet, rhyming verses and a cheerful illustration. At the bottom of the page is a corresponding Bible verse printed in script for the adult to have a reference for each child-friendly message.

Her grandchildren were at the forefront of her mind as she worked on the final drafts. The book is dedicated to all of them, and to her husband. She’s read the book to her local  grandchildren, and will soon travel to New Zealand to visit the others.

Though Sullivan has spent her life working with college students, she feels it’s important to spread the message of God’s love and His purpose to young children. “If you wait until a person’s in college before they understand why God has put them here, then they’ve probably run into a lot of trouble,” she said. “The (world’s) messages are so contrary to what’s good for little children, even on children’s programming.”

As soon as they can open a book, children will learn their ABCs, she said. “Instead of learning about apples, balls and cats, you can learn (about) God. Works just as well.” 

Meet the author

Jenny Sullivan will be signing books Oct. 28, 11 a.m. at Joyful Spirit Gifts Catholic Store, located at 3315 Lee Highway, Arlington. 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017