Writing stories that make us bigger on the inside
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One of the most exciting stages in ushering a new book into the world is seeing the cover for the first time (because we all know we really do judge a book by its cover). I had seen some sketches for the interior art of Breathe: A Child’s Guide to Ascension, Pentecost, and the Growing Time so I knew it was going to be good, but I did not know what image would be chosen for the cover, or what it would look like in its final form. I am thrilled with the result! Cathrin Peterslund has done beautiful work and I can hardly wait to see the rest of her illustrations for this book.
Watch for it in Spring 2021 from Paraclete Press!
“Every person who tells these stories does it in a slightly different way. And every person who reads these stories hears something a bit different. So even though these stories are very old, they are also always new.”
“What Grew in Larry’s Garden is a truly charming read that proves amazing things can grow in both our gardens and our lives when tended with human kindness and patience.”
Good reviews are like a nourishing rain. They refresh weary writers!
This one, from The Canadian Review of Materials (CM Magazine), was a welcome treat in my inbox today. CM Magazine is an online publication written by teachers, teacher-librarians, public librarians, and university professors who have special interest and expertise in children’s literature–in other words, people who know their stuff! A positive review from someone who works with and understands children is particularly gratifying.
Amy Westbury teaches grade 6 and 7 at Abbey Lane Public School in Oakville, Ontario. I am grateful to her for taking the time to read and review What Grew in Larry’s Garden. You can read the full review here: https://www.cmreviews.ca/node/2083
Last year I wrote a short guide for those preparing to accompany children on the journey through Lent. Somehow I neglected to share it on my website, so I am adding it this year. It is still as relevant as ever–perhaps even more so as many of us are looking for ways to observe this season at home.
Walk This Way: A Lenten Resource for Families is a collection of simple reflections, wondering questions, and suggestions for different forms of prayer, all based on one of my favourite things–picture books!
The guide is available as a free downloadable PDF from The Presbyterian Church in Canada. You can find it here: https://presbyterian.ca/wp-content/uploads/Walk_This_Way_Lenten_Resource-1.pdf
Going in circles is not generally considered a good thing. It suggests aimlessness—a kind of frantic spinning that goes nowhere. But some circles are purposeful.
My dad and I made this wooden puzzle ages ago. For years I used it to tell children the story of the liturgical year. We would take out the pieces, talk about what each special day meant, then see if we could put the whole thing back together, marveling at how we could keep travelling through those same days over and over, but find new things in them each time.
Tomorrow we follow the curve into the season of Lent.
For many years, that smudge of ash that marked the beginning of this season spoke to me of separation—the death that will one day divide me from all that is familiar and beloved.
But this year the ashes are whispering messages of belonging and oneness: the elements I share with the material world, the Mystery from which we all emerge and within which we live and breathe, and “the stars that blaze in our bones and the galaxies that spiral inside the smudge we bear.” (Jan Richardson, Circle of Grace)
We are all connected.
I have written three books which are meant to accompany children on their journey around the circle of the church year. Make Room is for Lent and Easter, Look! is for Advent and Christmas. In April they will be joined by their companion, Breathe: A Child’s Guide to Ascension, Pentecost, and the Growing Time (Paraclete Press). I hope you will join me around the circle.
Here is a link to to learn more about or preorder Breathe: https://paracletepress.com/products/breathe
Today my thoughts are a colourful jumble.
I have spent some time reading over drafts of stories, editing those that have promise, sifting through books of handwritten notes, researching potential publishers, crafting cover letters, and contemplating how to promote books old and new.
My upcoming publications include a picture book biography of the astronomer Maria Mitchell, a book about Pentecost, a poetic introduction to photosynthesis and food webs, and a based-on-a-true-story tale set during WWI. In short, there is a lot of variety, and while it is all worthwhile and exciting, my thoughts and plans seem to be all over the place.
When I take a step back and ask myself whether there is any consistency in the chaos, I notice certain themes: attentiveness, mindfulness, compassion, awe, wonder, connection.
When I first started writing for children I chose to tell stories based on what interested me. But more recently I have been asking myself: What kinds of stories do we need to hear? I have a feeling this question will bring some focus to the jumble–but hopefully not make it any less colourful.
Over the summer I was interviewed by Pieta Woolley, who was researching the history and development of children’s bibles for Broadview Magazine. She wanted to talk about Read, Wonder, Listen: Stories from the Bible for Young Readers, the collection of bible stories I wrote for Wood Lake Books.
We had a fairly lengthy conversation about the process of selecting and retelling stories–both acts of interpretation–and the motivation that lay behind it.
While only a tiny portion of that conversation is reflected in the published article, it was valuable to me to reflect more intentionally on why I chose to tell (or not to tell) particularly stories, what principles guided my interpretation, and what I hoped my work might offer to children.
Here is a snippet: “In her introduction, [Alary] summarizes high-level biblical interpretation and invites children to approach scripture in a sophisticated way. ‘The fact that people in the Bible disagree about things tells us that we can still be the people of God even if we do not think the same way about everything,’ she writes. ‘What matters is learning to ask good questions, to listen carefully, to think deeply, and — as Jesus taught and showed us — to love one another.’
To read the whole article, click here: https://broadview.org/childrens-bibles/
“On their way home, the magi talked about the star. How it caught them by surprise, roaming freely around the world. How it scattered the gift of light far and wide. How it broke open a story about one people, and made it a story for all people.”
“The Magi Come Seeking” from Read, Wonder, Listen: Stories from the Bible for Young Readers by Laura Alary (Wood Lake Books, 2018)
As I was reading this version of the epiphany story today it struck me that its concluding words reflect something of my own vocation as a writer. The surprising arrival of the magi—people whose background and beliefs place them completely outside the biblical narrative—transforms a very particular story into a universal one.
As we all do, I grew up in a particular time and place, with a particular set of stories that helped shape my identity and create my worldview. Some of my books reflect that background very explicitly. Look! and Make Room and Breathe explore the ancient rhythms and patterns of the church year. Read, Wonder, Listen tells stories from the bible in new ways. But I write other kinds of books too. Victor’s Pink Pyjamas is a story about being yourself and liking what (or whom) you like. Jesse’s Surprise Gift is about generosity and the surprising benefits of not clinging to what you have. What Grew in Larry’s Garden is about mindfulness and friendship, problem-solving and nurturing community.
Although it may appear that I write for two different audiences, my own sense of things is more integrated: I write stories I believe are worth telling, and put them out into the world for anyone who wants to read them. Maybe Mira and the Big Story says it best: “Stories can make you bigger—not on the outside, of course, but on the inside. They can stretch your mind and heart. But a story can make you smaller if it takes up all the space in your mind and heart. When new people or new ideas come along there is no room for them. Whenever you hear a story you must ask yourself: What is this story doing to me? Is it making me bigger or smaller?”
I want to tell stories that make us all bigger on the inside.
Everyone is welcome. Happy Epiphany.
I’ve always had a bit of a thing for spirals. Spheres and circles too, but spirals in particular. They figure in a lot of my jewelry and doodling. One of my earliest school memories is being reprimanded by a teacher for decorating all my S’s with spirals to make them pretty for Christmas. She made me erase them all. I am sure the shades of generations of Celtic illuminators wept with me.
Part of what attracts me to spirals is their beauty. The elegance of the nautilus, the magnificence of whirling galaxies, and the mathematical precision of the arrangement of sunflower seeds all satisfy my spirit. But there is more. I love the movement of the spiral—the inward journey, resting at the centre, and the outward return. Like labyrinths, they condense a lengthy pilgrimage into a small space and help us remember that we need all three parts.
Add another dimension and the spiral does not simply lead inward and outward. It descends, burrowing deeper and deeper into ideas and stories and experiences we thought we knew. Some people are drawn to the adventure of the open road—the highway stretching away toward the horizon. But on this day when we get ready to begin another circuit around the sun, give me the spiral with its ever-deepening path, and its promise that even when we need to stay in one place, there is always the possibility of more.
Happy New Year to you all.