Writing stories that make us bigger on the inside
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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.
Back in April when What Grew in Larry’s Garden was first published, my excitement about the book was tempered with disappointment that I could not celebrate its launch as planned with family and friends. But there was consolation in knowing that I was by no means alone in this experience.
I am part of a FB group for writers, and it helped me a lot to be in the company of others who found themselves in a similar position. One such sister-author was Anna Woofenden, whose book This is God’s Table: Finding Church Beyond the Walls, was also released this past spring.
Recognizing that we were both writing about growing food and community, Anna recently invited me to be a guest on the Food and Faith Podcast. She and her co-host, Derrick Weston, welcomed me warmly–the first children’s book author to join them–into conversation about the power of stories, the influence of our personal geography, what gives us hope these days, and much more.
To listen to our conversation, check out this link: https://www.podbean.com/media/share/pb-ikzmd-f453cd?fbclid=IwAR3z80RTe7_Ra6dXxmNgwT02GeQcibx5pI33VJ2_n5ij1C_b41n8bnFKuws
When I cross a threshold, especially when entering an unfamiliar place, I have habit of pausing. The pause may be too short to be perceptible to anyone else, but it is there. In that fraction of a second (or longer) I can take a breath and get ready to face whatever it is that waits on the other side.
The start of Advent separates the old church year from the new. As weird and unwelcome as much of this past year has been, in some ways it has simply highlighted what is always true: we never really know what waits for us across the threshold.
Of all the things I have learned telling stories to children over the years, the one that stays with me most is this little knot in the gold cord. We place the knot at the spot on the circle where Advent starts. This particular moment in the circle of the year—the threshold between old and new—is a place to pause, to take a breath, to get ready.
The wisdom of the circle tells us that no matter what waits for us, no matter what we are waiting for, every beginning is an ending, but every ending is also a new beginning.
A blessed Advent to you all.
We’re almost there.
There was a time when the approach of Advent saw me up to my neck in card stock, rubber stamps, cookie cutters, candles, purple fabric, and an assortment of new books for the season. The irony of such excess in what is meant to be a simple and reflective season was never lost on me, but I loved all the rituals so much I just kept adding to them.
Not this year.
We might manage a purple paper chain. And there are some picture books we read every year. This week I have put Sting’s If On a Winter’s Night on repeat and sometimes I turn the lights out and just sit in the dark, soaking in the melancholy sound.
I figure that’s OK.
Although we often speak of Advent as a season of hope, it is also a season of discontent and lament. That is where most of the traditional texts begin–in mourning, exile, longing, and homesickness.
I have a little journal where I write down quotations and ideas that I want to remember. Yesterday I was skimming through it and came upon this one:
“Be an unconditional friend to yourself.
Don’t condone, or condemn.
Just let yourself be who you are.
Allow, allow, allow.
Then see what happens.”
This Advent I hope we can all allow ourselves to be who we are. To feel what we need to feel. Allow. Allow. Allow.
Then see what happens.