When I first started writing in this space, one of my goals was to connect parents and Christian educators with easy, everyday resources to talk about faith at home. I have always loved picture books and love the way they inspire wonder. So I was overjoyed when one of my favorite Christian children’s book authors, Glenys Nellist, agreed to come on the blog and talk about writing, reading and her newest release Twas the Morning Before Easter.
Cara: You are my first children’s author to be interviewed this year, but many of my readers are Christian educators who first became readers for resources that teach faith to young children. Tell us a bit about how you became a children’s book author–it’s not a traditional vocation.
Glenys: I’ve always loved writing, even from a young age, but it wasn’t until my husband and I relocated from England to the USA that the door into the publishing world opened for me. I had been a public-school teacher in England. Once we came to Michigan, I stepped out of teaching and took on the role of Children’s Ministry Director in the small church where my husband was the pastor. Since the Sunday school curriculum was so expensive, I decided to write my own. In the course of rewriting the iconic tales from the Bible, I discovered that there’s always a new way to tell the old, old stories. I fell in love with this creative process and decided to write a Biblestory book of my own. Published in 2014, Love Letters from God became my first published book. This book went on to become a series, paving the way for twenty more titles.
Cara: Were there any particularly memorable books from your own childhood that shape your vision for how you want to write for children and families?
Glenys: I was born in the late fifties and although I honestly don’t recall having any picture books of my own, what I dorecall is being thoroughly immersed in the world of literature and story-telling; parents who read to me each night; the way I was transported to another world as I listened to their words (think Alice in Wonderland and other classics) and the way my dad told me stories from his imagination as we walked together in the evenings. My dad also had a favorite game that he would play with me and my siblings. It was called ‘show me.’ After he’d read to us at bedtime, he would show us the illustrations and we would take turns to find things hidden in the pictures. Therefore, since reading was, for me, an interactive experience, one where I was ‘called into’ the story and immersed in it, this has become an important part of my own writing for children. As I write, I ask myself such questions as: Will children be immersed in this story? Will they find themselves in its pages? Will they be transported to another place? Will they be thrilled with what they read? If I can answer yes to these questions, then I’m happy with my work.
Cara: I mentioned many of my readers are Christian educators or parents interested in finding theologically sound resources for the children in their lives. One of the things I appreciate about your work is that it is both theologically age appropriate as well as community oriented. For example, in Twas The Morning of Easter, you teach the story of God’s good news without focusing on or over emphasizing violence as central to the story and in Little Mole Finds Hope, there’s a focus on what you can do to contribute to the well being of others. How do you view your role as someone who is shaping the faith imagination of children?
Glenys: Let me begin by saying that as an author and a Christian, my own faith journey and my own understanding of God is still growing, changing and evolving (which I think is a healthy thing!) Therefore, in my earlier works, such as Easter Love Letters from God, I didn’t fully appreciate the fact that many parents do not want to expose their children to any details that refer to the violence of the cross. Once I grew to appreciate and agree with this point of view, I wanted to write an Easter narrative that did not share any details of Jesus death, or hint at atonement theory. Twas the Morning of Easter begins AFTER the crucifixion has taken place and truly does focus on the Good News of the resurrection, without sharing anything that would upset little ones. Another feature of this title that I love is that it tells the resurrection story through the eyes of Mary Magdalene, thus highlighting the important role of women in the gospel.
In Little Mole Finds Hope, as well as offering tips to help a child who is feeling sad, my goal was to be able to reach into human hearts, both young and old, with a message of hope, regardless of a person’s beliefs. Hope is a universal human need, whether you are a person of faith or not, and it is a really exciting venture for me to be able to explore writing these ‘bridge’ titles.
I view my role in shaping the faith imagination of children as one of encourager, or nurturer, and hopefully one who helps little ones wonder as they journey and grow.
Cara: I love that you model that growing in your faith is part of the process, for young readers (and their parents). I’ve often wrestled in my own work as a Christian educator about when is the right time to introduce some of the more violent stories, I am glad to know I am not alone in my wrestling.
I enjoy equiping parents to think theologically about the books they chose to read to their little ones. What do you think is important to consider when choosing books for children that will shape their faith? What do you look for?
Glenys: My guiding principles when looking at faith-based books for children revolve around questions such as: Is this book one that will encourage the child to wonder? Does it leave room for children to question, without pointing them towards a pre-conceived answer? Will this text accompany children on their spiritual journeys, rather than direct them? Will this book allow children to deepen their relationship with God and form their own view of God, (for example, by simply referring to God as God rather than assuming that God is male) or does this story ‘preach’ to children? If it does, I generally avoid it.
Cara: I feel like each of your books has a spirit to it–Little Mole Finds Hope has such a spirit of gentleness from the illustrations to the story, I love reading it at bedtime to my rambunctious child to soothe her into a good night’s sleep. And your newest release Twas the Morning of Easter has a spirit of wonder, particularly since you incorporate questions into the prose. How do you create a unique spirit for each book?
Glenys: I honestly pray a lot! I know it might sound ‘cheesy’ but when I sit down to write, I know that God’s Holy Spirit is, in some mysterious way, writing through me. I often say that God is the real author and I’m just along for the ride! Henri Nouwen describes it best when he says: To write is to embark on a journey whose final destination we do not know. Thus, writing requires a real act of trust. We have to say to ourselves: “I do not yet know what I carry in my heart, but I trust that it will emerge as I write.”
Cara: Oh, I love that! What do you consider when developing the story and collaborating with an illustrator to create a cohesive sort of spirit to the reading experience?
Glenys: Since I am traditionally published, my role is to write the story. It’s the role of the publisher to find the illustrator whom they think will bring my words to life. In other words, I do not get to choose my illustrators, which is quite frightening! Fortunately for me, every single illustrator chosen to illustrate my books is one whom I would have chosen too.
Cara: I just learned something new about the children’s book publishing process—that process sounds like it requires a lot of faith in the relationships you’ve built and in God.
You published Twas the Night of Christmas last fall, this winter you released Twas the Morning of Easter and now I see that this fall you are scheduled to release Twas the Season of Advent–this is such a fun series and play on a well-known poem, what was your inspiration for it?
Glenys: In the days when I was writing my own curriculum for that small church, I had the idea one day to rewrite the Clement C Moore classic with a focus on Jesus. It was just fun to take his words and try to use some of his familiar rhythm and rhyme to bring the story of Jesus’ birth to life. I honestly never pursued publication of this title, and it wasn’t until I was having lunch with my editor after signing the contract for Love Letters from God, my first book, that she casually asked if I’d written anything else. “Well,” I replied, “I rewrote Clement C Moore’s The Night Before Christmas and made it about Jesus. But you’re probably not interested in that.. right?” Three years later, Twas the Evening of Christmas hit the shelves and quickly became one of my best-sellers. Fast forward two more years, and that same editor asked me another casual question: “Have you ever thought of writing a follow-up to Twas the Evening of Christmas called Twas the Morning of Easter?”
“No!” I replied, “But I’ll go and do it right now!” (Which is why that title is dedicated to her!)
I honestly can’t remember now if Twas the Season of Advent was my own idea or hers, but whosever it was, I’m super excited about it!
Cara: I am excited about it too! Where do you find joy in this work of writing for children and families?
Glenys: Everywhere! I just can’t tell you what it’s like to see little ones with one of my books in their hands, or parents who share stories of how my words have impacted their little hearts. I just have to pinch myself sometimes to know that this incredible privilege I have to be an author is real, and that somehow, by the grace of God, I get to write words that actually might usher children closer to God and assure them of the enormous, unfailing love God has for them.
Cara: Where can people connect with your work?
Glenys: I’d love for your readers to connect with me via my website, my Facebook Author Page, Instagram, Twitter, or to sign up for my monthly newsletter, Links to Lovely Things. And if anyone would like to peek at what’s coming next, here it is. Thank you so much for inviting me to share my writing journey, Cara! It was a joy!