Izabela Ciesinska’s love of visual storytelling and illustration came from her youngest days in communist-era Poland. That passion has led to her releasing her first book, The Little Donkey and God’s Big Plan, through Ascension Press. It tells the story of the donkey who discovers his calling by carrying Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Photo courtesy Ascension Press

Donkey tales: hitching a ride to God

  • April 19, 2024

Born in communist Poland in 1982, Izabela Ciesinska’s appreciation for visual storytelling and illustration began as far back as she can remember. 

And while kids elsewhere in the world took to animation through cartoons on television, in Soviet-era Poland before the fall of communism Ciesinska discovered her love for artwork the old-fashioned way. 

“When I was growing up, we didn’t have any animation, all we had was three black-and-white channels on TV. Books were the only entertainment that I had as a kid,” she recalled. 

Hours spent flipping through gorgeous traditionally illustrated Eastern European fairy tales shaped Ciesinska’s perspective about what visual storytelling should look like. She recalls spending all day reading multiple stories, taking in everything from cover to cover and credits this formative time as sparking the joy she has for children’s illustration to this day. 

“Some of those classic fairy tales were written back in the 16th century making them very old yet they embodied this timeless wisdom, truth and beauty. You couldn't help but appreciate them and reading those books was never just mindless entertainment.” 

After years of working as a self-employed children’s illustrator, Ciesinska officially made her author/illustrator debut in January with her first book published through Ascension Press, a Catholic children’s story titled The Little Donkey and God’s BIG Plan. The book tells the story of God’s unique and individualized plan for all of us through the lens of a donkey who discovers his calling to carry Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. 

While the little donkey is this story’s protagonist, Ciesinska revealed that the story is an accurate reflection of her own faith journey. 

“My grandparents were practising Catholics but my parents were not so much, so I unfortunately did fall away (from the faith) for many years. I fell into atheism and had to crawl my way out of it through all these unfortunately eclectic philosophies, but the more I searched, the more drawn I was to Christianity,” she said. 

The idea for The Little Donkey emerged as the now Toronto-based author delved deeper into the Bible and exploring the path of Catholicism. Thanks in part to her experience working alongside the team at Ascension Press, a well-known Catholic faith formation company and publisher, Ciesinska has since grown in her faith and now regularly attends Holy Rosary Parish in Toronto. 

“Growing in faith impacted this story so much because I opened myself up to the team at Ascension Press as they polished it, pulled out the theme and it became much better than what I initially submitted,” she said. “Now I really do feel a call to create more, if not all my work, for the Catholic market. My mission was to bring The Little Donkey to the world and it turned out that The Little Donkey brought me to God.” 

As physical proof of her journey back towards God, the entire premise of the storybook stems from one of her experiences reading the Bible, more specifically Luke 19:30-31 — “Go into the village in front of you, where on entering you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever yet sat. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ you shall say this: ‘The Lord has need of it.’ ”

“It froze me,” she said. “If this little donkey ended up being immortalized in the greatest book ever written, then imagine what we can do, imagine how we can serve God by doing what we were designed to do.” 

While on the surface the storybook houses beautiful drawings that pair effortlessly with the charming plot, much deeper lessons about dependence and trust in God lay beneath, a balancing act of conveying spiritual truth in a way that children can understand. 

“In the book, the kids don’t see the donkey tell God ‘I want to be a horse, I want to be important.’ He asks God to reveal the purpose that He has prepared for him specifically, and I think that's a lesson I had to learn especially as an adult,” the author said. “The message I try to convey to children that I hope they carry into their adulthood is to surrender one's will to God because He has a purpose for everyone. 

“That’s true for a five-year-old and a 95-year-old. As long as we have life in us we can do things for (God) that He needs done in this world.”  

The Little Donkey was published not long before Lent began. While the book does tell a story set on the backdrop of Holy Week and Easter, the overarching message of faith and purpose allows it to be enjoyed all year long, with an influx of positive reviews indicating it indeed has been. 

Ciesinska has also done public readings of the book to children, an experience that has been equally moving, for both audience and author. 

“It’s a very rewarding feeling now for me to see their little faces when I remember myself imagining those faces when I began drawing this book. I would think, ‘What are they going to look like? How are they going to receive it?’ Now I get to meet with them and I hope that the short time I have with the children is going to impact them the same way I was impacted by authors,” Ciesinska said. 

Ciesinska hopes the next step in her Catholic children’s literature story involves the production of a second Little Donkey book that would see his story conclude with Jesus’ death and resurrection. 

“I want to continue to show children that God's purpose is not going to be an easy one. There are going to be dark nights and valleys up ahead, but if we endure, God will resurrect the thing that we sometimes think is already gone,” she said. 

Looking even further ahead, she mentioned her aspirations to bring The Little Donkey story to life through animation, one of her original goals when first starting her journey, and something that once seemed unfathomable to a child who fell in love with illustrating. 

“It's more important than ever that we create this kind of content for children and so for this book to maybe inspire some animators, I hope to see a really powerful Catholic animation studio that would be open to creating this kind of content,” Ciesinska said.

“I really believe it's going to change the world.”

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