Watch “Christmas in the NICU (and PICU too)” with GOODNIGHT MANGER

Have you been through dark seasons in your life? Perhaps a season of illness or joblessness. Perhaps a season of infertility or loneliness or grief in the death of a loved one. I’ve been through several, but something stands out with each. Looking back, I can see how God has used each one for good – in that each has provided a connection point to come alongside others as they go through similar situations.

And I am so grateful and in awe, really, at how this Christmas season, God took the dark season of our time the NICU with our son and turned it into a special connection point so that He could bless others and reveal His presence through a book drive organized by Praying through Ministries in which copies of GOODNIGHT MANGER were delivered to NICU and PICU families across the nation, including 15 at the very NICU my son was in 21 years ago. My role as author and former NICU mama was to hand write a note of encouragement to accompany each book (and if you’ve read my other posts about this, you know I had helpers because that’s a lot of notes!). And indeed, each book, arrived at its destination with a note.

Wanting to reach even more families with a message of God’s love and hope in the midst of the difficult, Praying through Ministries founder Jessika Sanders hosted a special culminating Facebook Live event that took place on Little Christmas Eve (December 23rd) and included words of encouragement from both of us along with a reading of GOODNIGHT, MANGER.

The intended audience is NICU and PICU families past and present, but the message really applies to anyone who is in the midst of or who has ever been through a dark season. I hope you will find a cozy spot and watch it. Here it is: https://www.facebook.com/prayingthroughministries/videos/1507014823012154

Blessings to you this holiday season.

GOODNIGHT, MANGER: Thoughts on a MESSY CHRISTMAS

On Tuesday evening, I was invited by Rev. Ian Rankine at Pluckemin Presbyterian Church in Pluckemin, New Jersey to do a reading of GOODNIGHT MANGER and share a brief inspirational message at their Messy Church, a monthly, mid-week gathering for children, parents, and grandparents to come together for supper, a brief Christian message, music and a craft or game appropriate for all in attendance. Messy Church is a world-wide movement that started in the UK as a way to introduce Jesus and grow closer to Him. Learn more in this short video, then I hope you will continue below for my message of encouragement and hope for you this Christmas.

Pluckemin Presbyterian’s Messy Church opened with prayer and a delicious meatball and ziti dinner with pumpkin pie (my fav!) for dessert. After supper we sang some carols, then it was time for the message and reading.

Now since I hope this message might be encouragement for all, I thought I’d share an excerpt:

“Ian invited me here this evening to share my picture book GOODNIGHT, MANGER, but before I share this story about putting Baby Jesus to sleep in a very busy stable, I wanted to share a neat tie-in to this whole idea of Messy Church.

You see contrary to what we sing in the carols about it being a silent night with Baby Jesus peacefully sleeping, I can’t  imagine that it actually was. I think actually it was a very MESSY night. Nothing was going as Mary and Joseph had hoped or planned. Think about it. Mary’s just about to have a baby and they have to travel on foot, or maybe donkey, over rough and rocky terrain to get to Bethlehem because Caesar Augustus has scheduled this census to be taken – at a very in opportune time – just as Mary is due to give birth any day. 

And then it gets worse! There’s no room in the inn. Instead, they have to stay in a stable with itchy hay and smelly animals and there isn’t even a proper place to lay sweet Baby Jesus – the SAVIOR OF THE EARTH – so they have to put him in a manger – a feeding trough for animals. Talk about MESSY! 

And so it is in my picture book that Christmas night isn’t depicted as tranquil and serene.  As you will soon hear, the scene in GOODNIGHT MANGER is most definitely MESSY. Baby Jesus is crying. Sheep are leaping. Water pails are tipping.  And, as one reviewer on Amazon said, “Mary is having a very bad hair day!”

And what’s my reaction to all that – but especially to that bad hair day? My reaction is YES! and AMEN! and ALLELUIA! and thank you JESUS! Thank you for coming into our mess. Thank you for coming in to our darkness. Thank you for taking on the form of a baby – becoming man – dwelling among us where you cried and felt hurt and suffered.  

Here’s the wonderful news that I hope you will take to heart as I share my story. Because Jesus — God in human form — came down to redeem us through this wonderful miracle of Christmas and because He cried and experienced all that we feel and yet was without sin, He can understand our hurts and needs and fears on a deep level. He and only He can comfort us and HEAL us and restore us to a right relationship with God. That is the gift of Christmas! He came into our MESS!!

Thank you for taking the time to read this and I pray that this Christmas, you will find comfort and hope in the miracle of the season — that JESUS came for us in the MIDST of our MESS to heal and love and restore.  

Blessings to you all!

BOOKS THAT SPARK Podcast Interview (And a Winner!)

This week it was my pleasure to be interviewed by podcast host Terrie Hellard-Brown. Her podcast, Books that Spark, reviews children’s books that spark imagination, emotion, questions, and discussion leading to teachable moments with our kids. Her podcast posts each Tuesday morning. 

Terrie has interviewed many authors including Glenys Nellist, Annette Whipple, Danielle Hitchen and more. Recent topics include Helping our Children Have Hearts of Thankfulness and Preparing for Advent.  And in our podcast we chat about Pointing Kids to God.

Here are a view visual nuggets to whet your appetite.  And here is a link to the podcast. Enjoy!

For more information about Terrie, visit her website at terriehellardbrown.com.

And now for the WINNER of last week’s two-bundle giveaway! I’m delighted to announce that the winner one copy of each Glenys Nellist’s two new books, TWAS THE SEASON OF ADVENT and I WONDER: EXPLORING GOD’S GRAND STORY, is  

Sarah M…

Congratulations! I will be in touch with you today so we can get the book to you. Thanks again, Glenys, for your Christmas-y guest post. I’d also like to thank Zonderkidz for providing the winning copies. Happy Tuesday, all!

‘Twas the Season of Advent: FIVE Family Activities around the Christmas Tree with Glenys Nellist (Plus a GIVEAWAY!)

Today I am delighted to welcome back beloved children’s book author Glenys Nellist. Glenys has two new books out just in time for the Christmas season. One is a bible story book called I WONDER: EXPLORING GOD’S GRAND STORY. It includes thirty vivid retellings with three “I wonder” questions at the conclusion of each. The other is an advent devotional for families called ‘TWAS THE SEASON OF ADVENT: STORIES AND DEVOTIONS FOR THE CHRISTMAS SEASON. It is comprised of 25 readings, stories and prayers. Published by Zonderkidz, both are wonderful and my mind is already abuzz with ideas for how I can incorporate them into my role as Sunday school teacher as well as using them for our family advent readings this December.

Now enjoy a special guest post from Glenys as she shares some ideas for family activities around the Christmas tree. Zonderkidz is also offering a copy of each book in a giveaway so be sure to read about that at the end of the post. And now, without further fuss, here’s Glenys:

Five Family Activities Around the Christmas Tree

by Glenys Nellist

The season of Advent is a wonderful time to make memories and establish family traditions with our children. Set aside some time each night to gather around the Christmas tree and enjoy these activities together.

  1. Celebrate Advent: Begin a new family tradition from Dec 1-Dec 25 by reading one story per day from Twas the Season of Advent. Countdown to Christmas using the family activities and the 25 free, downloadable Advent images available here.
  1. Favorite Ornament: Have everyone choose a favorite ornament from the tree. Take turns telling each other why you chose that one.
  2. Wondering About the Birth of Jesus: Download your free coloring sheet of the birth of Jesus from the I Wonder Coloring Pack. If you have a copy of the book, read the Christmas story together, or simply talk about what you see in the pictures. Spend some time talking about the three I Wonder questions. Then color the picture together.
  1. Light of The World: Turn off all the lights in the room except the lights on the Christmas tree. Sit quietly for a few minutes as you think and talk about how Jesus is the light of the world. Jesus said that we should let our light shine. Brainstorm how you could be a light in your family or neighborhood this Christmas.
  2. Favorite Memories: Take turns sharing your favorite memories of the past year. Now write about (or draw) them. Put each in its own envelope or a special box and save them. Next year, open and read them around the tree.

Happy memory-making!

Thank you, Glenys, for sharing these terrific ideas.

NOW FOR THE GIVEAWAY!!!

If you’d like a chance to win a FREE  two-book bundle that includes one copy each of TWAS THE SEASON OF ADVENT and I WONDER: EXPLORING GOD’S GRAND STORY both written by Glenys Nellist and published by Zonderkidz let me know in a comment below. (NOTE: Must be U.S. resident with a street address (as opposed to a P.O. Box and at least 18 years old to enter.) The giveaway ends Monday 11/22/21 at 11:59 pm Eastern. The winner will be announced the next day.

[Note: Thank you to Zonderkidz for sending me an advanced copy of each of these books which I was under no obligation to review. The views and opinions expressed on this blog about books and other things are purely my own.]

NEW RESOURCE: Picture Book Sundays and MORE Index

Over the course of the fall, I’m going to be tidying and organizing my blog (just as I’m also striving to tidy and organize my house.) One task long overdue is to create a better system of organizing certain post types so my readers can find specific types of posts easily. Stay tuned for a page that will index every single author and illustrator who I have either interviewed on my blog or who has been a guest blogger. I’m working on that – but it turns out it’s a long, long list which is taking me a long, long while to compile.

So, for today, while I still work on that, I thought I’d share with you a new page which indexes every single Picture Book Sundays post I have created plus other posts that focus on using picture books to plant seeds of faith in our little ones. I hope you find it a helpful and easy way to quickly locate these types of posts.

You can access the index using the “Picture Book Sundays and MORE!” tab above or by using this link: https://laurasassitales.wordpress.com/picture-book-sundays-and-more/

Happy exploring!

BUNNY FINDS EASTER: In the News and Getting Reviews

In just a “hare” over four months, my next book with Zonderkidz, a board book called BUNNY FINDS EASTER, will release. It’s an exciting time and I’m just starting to get plans in motion for a blog tour and more.  

Apparently, Bunny is getting ready, too, because she’s already been reviewed three times on Goodreads, including these sure-to-make-you-smile thoughts from a Vietnam Vet. He’s a gem!

On Friday, the book also got a mention in a new article in Publisher’s Weekly entitled “Board Books Offer Parents a Script for Speaking about God”. I was delighted to discover it there because that’s just how I hope parents will use the book.

Here’s the official scoop from Zonderkidz:

Inside Bunny Finds Easter, little ones will learn the true answer to “What is Easter?” alongside Bunny. The rhyming text by bestselling author Laura Sassi and adorable illustrations help children see Easter may have many fun traditions, but it is really all about celebrating Jesus and his resurrection.

Coloring eggs, wearing a lovely bonnet, joining in the fun of an egg hunt, and attending church with family are special things that are a part of Easter! But the most important thing about this holiest of seasons is remembering the reason we gather to celebrate and focusing on Jesus most of all.

Bunny Finds Easter is:

For ages 0-4.

A board book perfect for little hands, and in a size that works great for lap reading.

Ideal for Easter gift-giving and fits perfectly in an Easter basket.

A conversation starter for a discussion of the true meaning of Easter.”

SPECIAL REQUEST: Before you hop off into your day, will you take a moment to pre-order your copy of Bunny Finds Eastertoday and mark is as “to-read” on Goodreads? Those are two wonderful and easy ways to help a new book make a lovely little splash when it releases.

DIFFERENT LIKE ME: Six Extension Activities for 4 – 8 Year Olds

Today I am delighted to feature DIFFERENT LIKE ME, written by Xochitl Dixon and illustrated by Bonnie Lui. Published by Our Daily Bread Publishing in 2020, DIFFERENT LIKE ME is a joyous celebration of what makes us, God’s children, special. Through a delightful pairing of rhyming text and illustration, Xochitl Dixon and Bonnie Lui demonstrate through the example of a group of children, that though we are different, deep inside we feel things the same, have shared interests etc. and, thus, have much in common. The book’s takeaway is captured succinctly in the closing line: 

“I look all around me and what do I see?

God made every kid different…

and special like me!”

DIFFERENT LIKE ME would make wonderful addition to your church, school or home library. I can’t wait to share it with my Sunday School kids.

Now, in the hope of using the book as the spark for meaningful conversations with your little ones, here are SIX extension activities for DIFFERENT LIKE ME:

Play “God’s Heart” using chalk.  Read the story together, then head outside or to a large room for a game of “God’s Heart”. Using chalk or tape, draw a heart on the ground big enough for all the children to fit in. Ask what the heart reminds them of: God’s love! Explain that you will be calling out directions and if the answer to the direction is YES, they should run into the heart. Examples: “Step in to the circle if you have freckles(long hair, short hair etc.).” “Skip into the circle if you like pizza..” “March into the circle if you feel happy when others share.” etc. Continue until everyone is in the heart. Then, marvel at how wonderful it is that we are each unique creations, yet we all share much in common. And the best part is we are ALL in the heart. And what does that heart stand for?  God’s love!  And what does that remind us of? That we should love each other as God loves us! Play as many rounds as time and interest permit. 

After reading, think and talk.  This story can be used as a vivid spark for conversations with your little ones about embracing our diversity, noticing the wonderful ways we are alike and celebrating that we are created and loved by God. Use Xochitl’s question guide at the end of the book to get you started.

Do a picture read through. After reading DIFFERENT LIKE ME, flip things around by having your child re-read it to you using the pictures as clues! Reading the pictures is a great pre-reading skill because it encourages interacting with the page. It’s also a wonderful way to notice all the diverse and delightful details illustrator Bonnie Lui has added to the story. So, snuggle up and enjoy being “read” to. Reading the story again and again is also a good way to take to heart the message of the story (to quote Xochitl) – “that God intentionally created each person to be unique and to work together”.

Paint a rock that looks like YOU (or a friend… or both)! After reading the story, head outside to find some good painting rocks. Then let your children celebrate their special traits and qualities and those of others by painting portraits on rock – like this one, painted to celebrate love and acceptance! For extra fun, gather your rocks and place them in a garden or in a special spot as a reminder of God’s love for us which then can overflow from our hearts to others.

Find verses that show God’s loving care. Xochitl prefaces and concludes her story with two beautiful reminders from Scripture of God’s loving care in creating each person. As you read, point those references out to your children. They are listed simply as Genesis 1:27 and Psalm 139: 13 – 14.  After reading the story, have your children grab their bibles, or the class or family bible, and look up the verses. Then marvel at God’s love and handiwork in creating each one of us.

Wrap the reading up in prayer. Wrap up your DIFFERENT LIKE ME story and activity time in prayer, thanking God for stories like this that remind us about God’s love for us and that we are each unique and special creations.  This is a sweet opportunity both to model prayer with your child and also to let them add to the prayer in their words. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Xochitl (So-Cheel) Dixon, author of Waiting for God: Trusting Daily in God’s Plan and Pace and the2021 ECPA Christian Book Award Finalist, Different Like Me, advocates for inclusion and equity based on the strong biblical teaching of God’s intentional diversity. With her service dog, Callie, Xochitl crosses generational and cultural boundaries, reaching international readers with love through her contributions to Our Daily Bread at www.odb.org and on her blog at www.xedixon.com. She inspires others to share God’s love with Spirit-empowered courage, confidence, and joyful praises through the Christian apparel and accessories she designs for Worship Expressed at www.worshipexpressed.com.

PICTURE BOOK SUNDAYS: Picturing God (A Faith-Sparking Lesson)

When I was Children’s Ministry Director at a small satellite church, I planned a Sunday morning children’s program called “PICTURE BOOK SUNDAYS: Sparking Faith Conversations using Picture Books and Scripture”. Each week, using an engaging picture book as the spark along with games and a craft, children ages 3 – 10 delved into Scripture as we investigated what it means to be a beloved child of God. The kids enjoyed the lessons so much, that I have decided to continue with a regular blog series focusing on picture books that can be used as the spark for conversations about faith with your children. 

Today’s lesson uses PICTURING GOD (Beaming Books, 2019), written and illustrated by poet and visual artist Ruth Goring as the picture book hook. I hope it sparks thoughtful conversations with your kids.

PICTURE BOOK SUNDAYS: A Faith-Sparking Lesson

featuring

PICTURING GOD

by Ruth Goring

PURPOSE: To be filled with wonder and gratitude as we explore a beautiful sampling of the many “pictures” (i,e. metaphors) for God found in the Bible using Ruth Goring’s PICTURING GOD (Beaming Books, 2019) as the spark.  

OPENING PRAYER AND GATHERING GAME: What Am I? (a metaphor guessing game!)

Ahead of time write down on little cards a rich sampling of the biblical metaphors for God found in the Bible. You can use Goring’s book to get you started, but also feel free to explore the Bible on your own and add concrete examples can easily act out.  Examples:  shepherd, eagle, rock, gate, hen, light. The morning of the lesson, open in prayer, then explain that in today’s story, we will be exploring what God is like, but first  we’ll be playing a guessing game. (Don’t say yet that each is a metaphor for God.). Put the cards in a basket, then have each child pick a card and then use pantomime to act out what it is. No speaking or sounds aloud. The children will have fun guessing and can cheer each other on.

INTRODUCE THE STORY: 

Hold up the book and have someone read the title. Explain that Ruth Goring is both the illustrator and author of the book.  Ask them to take a close look and see what kinds of materials she uses to create her art.  Do they know what this is called?  (Collage.) Based on the title what do they think the book will be about? Then say there’s a special connection between our game today and the book. Do they know what it is? They are all pictures/ images that have been used in the Bible to describe God! Then read the story, pausing and marveling together at just how God is like the various metaphors ascribed to Him.

FAITH-SPARKING CHAT TIME:

After reading the story, have a round of “popcorn-style” responses (no hand raising needed) to see how many pictures of God they can remember from the book. 

Then for each, see if they describe in their own words how God is like a rock, eagle etc.

Finally, ask again where Ruth Goring found these wonderful metaphors?  Did she make them up?  No, then where did she find them? In the Bible!

DIG INTO SCRIPTURE TIME: 

Special note: For first grade and up, I recommend having several children’s bibles on hand so children can work in pairs to find the verses. They LOVE this and in the process learn how to locate biblical passages by book, chapter, and verse – a rewarding and important foundational skill for future bible study.

Wrap up the discussion by going a little treasure hunt into God’s Word to find a few of the images of God we marveled at in Goring’s beautiful book. Use the verses listed at the end of the book, but prep ahead by putting a sampling on cards to hand out to each pair of children or, depending on ages, to look up together.

STORY-BASED ACTIVITY TIME:   Create Your Picturing God Collages!

Ahead of time, gather an assortment of collage materials as well as glue and one plain white paper plate (with two holes punched at top) for each child. Then, opening up Goring’s book one once more, take a moment to marvel at how she uses bits of this and that to create beautiful images. Thus inspired, let each child pick their favorite metaphor from the book.  Neatly print it across the top. Then, dig in and start creating! Our bits of this and that included shiny gold ribbon, sequins, pom poms and tissue paper squares, but use whatever you have on hand. As each child finishes, loop yarn for hanging, but instruct them (or their parents) to carry their masterpieces home flat until they have dried. 

WRAP UP:  As children are finishing the activity, give thanks together that God loves us like a rock, shepherd, door, mother, father etc.

NOTE: Beaming Books has also created a wonderful discussion guide if you would like additional ideas: https://ms.beamingbooks.com/downloads/9781506449395%20Discussion%20Guide.pdf

GOD’S ALWAYS LOVING YOU: An Interview with Author Janna Matthies

This week, I’m delighted to chat with Janna Matthies, a picture book author, who like me, writes books for both the mainstream and faith-based markets. And today, we are celebrating the release of her newest board book God’s Always Loving You, published by WorthyKids and illustrated by Airin O’Callaghan.

Here’s the publisher’s description: 

This powerful little book is filled to the brim with hope and comfort. Simple, child-friendly verse outlines relatable moments of crisis, uncertainty, and fear common to a child’s life, and asks who helps us in each of those scenarios. “God, that’s who” is the reliable answer, forming a pattern kids will quickly pick up on. Each answer reinforces the book’s deeply comforting message: God is always there for us. He loves us, He knows us, and He cares about our needs.

This is such a needed message in today’s world. Thank you, Janna for writing it and thank you, WorthyKids, for publishing it!  And in the extra neat department, Janna will be mailing one signed copy of the study to one lucky reader, so be sure to check out the details for that at the end of the post. And now, grab a cup of tea and join me as we chat with Janna with my questions bolded.  

Thank you so much for joining me today, Janna. Let’s dig right in. First off, tell us a little bit about yourself and what inspired you to write God’s Always Loving You.

When I’m not writing children’s books, I’m a music teacher for grades PreK, K and 1st, and I see all kinds of troubles touch the lives of my students. I also recently walked through a 3-year leukemia battle with a dear friend and her family. So I became interested in writing a book that brings hope and reassurance to kids going through hard times. But I didn’t want to offer platitudes or empty promises, because God’s ways aren’t that simple. My aim was to hone in on the absolute promise that God and His loving presence are always with us. 

As one who has been through hard times with my own kids, I’m grateful that you dug deep to write this book, but, oh my, what a tall order. What was your greatest challenge in writing this book?

As I mentioned, I was focused on “the hard times,” but my editor—Melinda Rathjen at WorthyKids—suggested I add a couple stanzas featuring good times, too. At first I was hesitant, not wanting to dilute the impact for readers truly in the valley. But I followed her suggestion, and in the end agreed that the positive stanzas give balance and a vision for the gifts of peace, joy and redemption. I’m grateful to Melinda and also to the fantastic illustrator, Airin O’Callaghan, for her heart-felt, creative partnership.

Yes, I agree!  The balance makes the message even richer. What is your greatest desire for the readers who read God’s Always Loving You?  

The book is essentially a series of questions, all answered by the refrain, “God, that’s who.” My greatest desire is that readers would see God himself as the answer, and that they’d find His presence to be enough in the midst of whatever they’re going through. It’s natural when we’re down to focus on the thing that we want, the specific answer to prayer that we’re awaiting. My personal hope is that I’d learn more and more to focus on God as the answer, and to trust that the rest will follow.

Besides reading wonderful books such as this, what advice would you give parents and caregivers who want to share their faith with their kids? 

In my experience as a mom, teacher, friend, I find that living life authentically in front of kids is critical. Let them see you take quiet time with God, pray in the good and bad times, need others to support you in your own faith journey. Include them in family devotions/movies/book discussions where they can express real feelings and questions. And notice teachable moments when they’re open to hearing stories of your own high and low points as a believer.

These are great and very do-able suggestions. Finally, what’s next? Are there more picture books in the pipeline?  Also, where can interested readers find your books?

Yes! My next picture book, HERE WE COME! (Beach Lane Books/Simon & Schuster, coming spring 2022), is illustrated by Christine Davenier and features an impromptu parade of little musicians in the moonlight. Two more books are currently in contract phase, and a variety of others are being shopped around by my agent.

For buying options and to learn more about Gods’s Always Loving You, click here.

Please like and follow me on:

Twitter: https://twitter.com/JannaMatthies

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Author-Janna-Matthies-417157575128412

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/janna.matthies/

And visit my website at http://jannamatthies.blogspot.com

Thank you, Janna, for taking the time to answer these questions so thoughtfully. And now for the promised giveaway!

HERE ARE THE DETAILS FOR THE GIVEAWAY!!! If you’d like a chance to win a complimentary signed copy of God’s Always Loving You, simply post a comment below letting me know. (NOTE: Must be U.S. resident and at least 18 years old to enter.) Thank you, Janna, for providing the winning book. This giveaway ends Friday, 7/23/2021 at 11:59 pm EST. 

BREATHE: An Interview with Author Laura Alary (and a GIVEAWAY!)

Today it is my pleasure to introduce you to Laura Alary, author of Breathe: A Child’s Guide to Ascension, Pentecost, and the Growing Time. Published by Paraclete Press and gorgeously illustrated by Cathrin Peterslund, Breathe explores the comings and goings of Jesus and the Spirit through retellings of the biblical stories of Ascension and Pentecost, interwoven with contemporary reflections from the point of view of a child. Not only is Laura’s newest book a must-have resource for fostering meaningful faith conversations with our kids, Laura herself is a gem and her wisdom and love for God shine through her answers. My daughter and I plan to read Breathe together as part of our summer porch mama/daughter devotional time. Maybe you will decide to do something similar with your kids. Now, having planted that seed, here’s the interview with my questions bolded.

First off, thank you so much for creating this beautiful book that helps kids (and grown ups too!) grasp the wonder of God’s presence in their lives. What inspired you to share this story with the world?

Thank you, Laura, for your encouraging words, and for your interest in Breathe. What inspired me to write this book? There are two answers. The first is that I had already written two books about the circle of the Church year (Look! A Child’s Guide to Advent and Christmas and Make Room: A Child’s Guide to Lent and Easter) and I wanted to complete the series. However, it took me a few years to figure out what to do with Pentecost.

Both Look! and Make Room follow a similar pattern: they move through seasons of preparation (Advent and Lent) toward big celebrations (Christmas and Easter). But Pentecost doesn’t really have a getting ready time, and its connection to what follows (what we usually call Ordinary Time) felt anticlimactic to me. We often speak of Pentecost as the birthday of the Church and celebrate with a cake and candles—all fun, but at the end of the day it can feel like you pack the party decorations away and life goes back to normal. I figured there had to be more to Pentecost than that. 

In the end, what helped me was looking at Pentecost in the context of the whole circle of the church year. I started to see the first half of the year—so full of stories and celebrations about the life of Jesus—as its own kind of getting ready time. We spend months letting these stories fall into us like seeds in soil. Then the Spirit breathes life and warmth into those seeds and they start to germinate. Pentecost becomes the threshold to a new season of growth and transformation, when we begin to bring those stories to life in our own place and time. In other words, Breathe looks at Pentecost as part of a much bigger story. 

That brings me to my second reason for writing Breathe. Years ago I wrote a book called Mira and the Big Story. In it, one of the characters says to another, “Whenever you hear a story, you must ask yourself: What is this story doing to me? Is it making me bigger or smaller?” As a writer, I am continually thinking about how we are shaped by the stories we tell. I ask myself: What kinds of stories does our world need? I think we are desperately in need of stories that awaken us to how intimately connected we are to one another, to other living things, and to our environment. I wrote Breathe to be such a story.  

Your writing is breathtaking – somehow managing to be kid-friendly with vivid, relatable imagery and yet soul-provoking for grown-up readers as well. How did you manage to strike this balance so beautifully?

Wow! That’s such a beautiful compliment. Thank you, Laura. Your question points to two qualities I value highly: simplicity and depth. Holding these qualities together is harder than it seems. I always begin with too many words. But I know that silence and space are essential for making meaning. So I am getting better at saying more with less.

When I write, I start with the assumption that children have big ideas and big questions. What they don’t have yet is a big vocabulary—the language to articulate some of the things they observe and wonder about. So I try to anticipate what some of their questions might be (and pay attention when they ask them), explore those questions deeply, then distill everything into a simpler form. To switch from a chemical metaphor to an electrical one, my dad, who is an electrical engineer, once jokingly called me a step-down transformer because I can take a “high voltage” idea and convert it into a form children can actually receive. 

How do I go about that? 

One thing I do is begin with my own wondering. When I am preparing to write I practise a kind of imaginative openness and jot down all the questions that arise for me about an idea or situation (especially the ones which have no definite answers). That stretches my imagination and keeps me honest. 

Another thing I do before I put pen to paper is ask myself: what is this story about? What is its core meaning? If I can’t answer that in a sentence, I know I am still too muddled to start writing. This helps with simplicity and clarity. 

Finally, while I am writing, I read every word out loud. Because most of my books will be read aloud, I need to know how the words sound, not just how they look on the page. I think that helps keep everything fresher and more vivid. 

The concept of breathing and breathe is woven throughout your book. Even the title is BREATHE!  Tell us about that.

I am actually really proud of the title. It seems simple, but there is a lot to it. As with Look! and Make Room I tried to capture the essence of the book in a word or two. 

For one thing, spirit and breath are the same word in both Hebrew and Greek (and other languages), so the title plays with that etymological connection and alludes to the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost. 

Breathe is also a subtle reference to the practice of mindfulness. When people are stressed or anxious we often remind them to breathe, because connecting with our breath helps settle those swirling thoughts and feelings so we can see more clearly. I’ve struggled a lot with anxiety over the years and learning to use my breath this way has been so helpful to me in many situations. If you look for it, you will notice that mindfulness is a theme throughout Breathe.

Finally, the title points to something universal: everyone and everything that lives, breathes. This past year we have been made more aware than ever of how precious our breath is. That simple act of inhaling and exhaling is an experience we all share—until it is taken away. So the reference to breathing is part of that larger theme of connectedness. 

Before reading your book, I’d never heard of the concept “growing time” but it’s an essential and wonderful part of your message. Can you share with my readers what it is in a nut shell? (They’ll have to read the book for the full version.)

The Growing Time is a phrase used in Godly Play to talk about the part of the liturgical year we usually call Ordinary Time (the time between Pentecost and the start of Advent). It stretches from late May or early June all the way to late November or early December. In the northern hemisphere, this liturgical season coincides with late spring, summer, and autumn—a time for planting, growing, tending, and harvesting. I love the name The Growing Time because it captures some of the energy of this transformation is happening all around us—and inside us. There really is nothing ordinary about this time! 

What is your greatest desire for the readers who read this book? Are there any other resources available for extending the reading? 

One of the things I tried to do with Breathe is introduce themes that can be extended in other ways. Instead of reading the book straight through, you could read a section, then take it deeper through activities or picture books that develop specific ideas or themes.

For instance, you could read the sections on learning to pray with the wind and your breath, and write your own breath prayers, blow bubbles, or make prayer flags. Or you could explore mindfulness practices with the help of books like Breathe Like a Bear by Kira Willey and Anni Betts (Rodale Kids, 2017) and Sitting Still Like a Frog by Elin Snel (Shambhala, 2013). 

Another example of this is reading the sectionthat describes planting a butterfly garden for bees and monarch butterflies. The book moves from talking about how butterflies migrate to human migration. You could carry the conversation further with a book like Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family’s Journey by Margriet Ruurs and Nizar Ali Badr (Orca Books, 2016). Then you could make your own stone art inspired by the book. Or plant your own butterfly garden. 

What Grew in Larry’s Garden (by Laura Alary and Kass Reich, Kids Can Press, 2020)is a picture book based on a true story about a teacher whose Kindness Project helped his students grow community alongside their tomatoes. Its themes—kindness, gratitude, cooperation—all connect really well with The Growing Time. This book might even inspire young readers to get outside this summer and grow things!

My biggest hope for Breathe is that readers will come away with a deeper sense of belonging and connection—to one another, to other living things, to the world we share, and to the Spirit who enlivens everything. Out of this awareness flows a way of living. Seeing our connection to the natural world prompts us to take more responsibility for caring for our environment. Seeing our connection to other people leads to acts of justice, hospitality, and kindness. 

It all boils down to love. The more we love, the more we can see the divine presence in things. Or maybe the seeing leads to the loving. But love shows itself in how we live. So I guess that is my biggest hope—that the stories I write will nudge us toward becoming more loving people. 

Finally, what’s next? Are there more books in the pipeline?  Also, where can interested readers find your books?

I’m happy to say I have several new books in process. One of them is a non-fiction book about food webs—with a bit of a mystical slant! Like Breathe, it has a message about connectedness, but it expresses it through the language of science. 

I am also really excited about my two picture book biographies about pioneering women astronomers (Maria Mitchell and Cecilia Payne). Those stories are both in the hands of illustrators right now. There are a few other manuscripts out there looking for homes—so I am hopeful there will be even more books to come!

All my books are available online at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or bookshop.org (or directly from the publishers). If you can find them at a local bookstore, so much the better. And if they don’t carry the books, you could always put in a request!

About Laura:

Laura has loved books since she was barely big enough to clamber up the steps to the bookmobile that rolled into her Halifax neighborhood once a week. At school, she made her own books out of manila paper, mucilage and crayons. The first story she can remember writing was about a little girl who kept spilling paint and having to figure out how to turn the messes into pictures (a good rule for life).

These days, Laura considers herself very lucky to work in a beautiful library and write her own books. They look more professional than the homemade ones, but the joy of creating them is much the same. Laura also loves to sing, play guitar (a work in progress) and try to keep up with what her three children are reading. She makes her home in Toronto where, along with clover and a whole lot of dandelions, she does her best to grow kindness.

Links:

Website: https://lauraalary.ca

FB: https://www.facebook.com/lauraalaryauthor

IG: https://www.instagram.com/laura.alary/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/LauraAlary1

NOW for the GIVEAWAY!!!  

If you’d like a chance to win a FREE copy of BREATHE, written by Laura Alary and illustrated by Cathrin Peterslund, let me know in a comment below. (NOTE: Must be U.S. resident at least 18 years old to enter.) The giveaway ends Friday, May 14th, 2021 at 11:59 pm EST. This giveaway is now over. The winner is announced here.

[Note: Thank you to Paracelete Press for the opportunity to preview the book with a digital ARC that I was under no obligation to review. The views and opinions expressed on this blog about books and other things are purely my own.]