by Kathleen Long Bostrom
My memory is not what it used to be. I try not to panic about all the memorable moments that apparently weren’t memorable enough to lodge in the wrinkled abyss of my brain. Two such moments, however, are etched in indelible ink.
The first was my call to seminary. Two years out of college with a degree in psychology that wasn’t getting me anywhere, the youth pastor at my Presbyterian church said, “You love children, and you love the church. Why don’t you go to seminary and get a degree in Christian education?” I heard those proverbial bells and whistles while imaginary fireworks burst in the sky. “That’s it!” I said. I ended up at Princeton Seminary, with no thought of becoming a pastor. But God had other plans. Five years later, I was ordained as Minister of Word and Sacrament.
The second moment came one afternoon, years later, as my three-year-old snuggled in my lap at naptime. I read his favorite book for the umpteenth time. I knew he was our last baby, so I made a point of cherishing every moment of these times together.
As I sat there rocking and reading, a quieter epiphany than the first one arrived. This time, the words weren’t spoken by another adult, but from a place inside my soul. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful,” the still, small, voiceless voice said, “to write books that other parents and children would share like this, creating their own precious memories?” So, without any idea of what I was doing, I started to write books for children.
I continued to serve as a pastor in a church as the kids grew up. In my spare time, I wrote. Writing fed the “Introvert-with-a-capital-I” side of me. I loved writing and reading books for children and meeting others who wrote for children. In the 25 years since that quiet epiphany with a three-year-old in my lap, I have learned a lot — both about the process of writing and the joys of writing for children.
Writing as an act of faith
All writing is an act of faith. We are creators ex nihilo, weaving sentences together out of nothing more than an idea, a blank page or screen. It’s terrifying, demanding and exhilarating.
My love is picture books. Despite celebrities who brag about penning children’s books in one sitting, it isn’t easy to do and even harder to do well. In 1,000 words, preferably less, the writer must develop a full story arc, with beginning, middle, end, conflict, resolution, character development and scene change that lends itself to illustration. Did I mention this has to be done in 1,000 words? It’s nearly impossible, so why even try?
Because it’s challenging and it’s fun, and every now and then, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we get it right. That’s where faith comes in. We keep trying and we don’t give up. It took me four years with over 250 rejections before an editor accepted my first book. I believed that writing these books was a calling as true as my call to ministry, and I held that belief through years of disappointment.
When it works, it is worth every agonizing blank page and every page that isn’t blank but filled with too many words (most of which must be abandoned).
Writing for children is an act of faith because of the people for whom we write. Who are we, writers of books for children, to have the audacity to write for this tender and priceless audience?
We do the writing and rewriting and editing and more rewriting because the stakes are high. We want the final product to be the best it can be. We are writing for children. We can’t afford to do a bad job. Matthew 18:6 hovers above us like a dark cloud: “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.” I live near the ocean these days. I can’t take a chance of being a tripping hazard. Those of us who write for children take our calling very seriously.
Children’s writers are a community
I’m not sure about novelists, biographers and other writers, but with children’s writers, we are a community. With few exceptions, people who write and illustrate books for children are some of the most loyal, empathetic and compassionate people I’ve ever met. We support one another unconditionally. OK, most of the time we do this. I confess that my cheeks have blushed a shade of green when another writer’s book gets the accolades I long for. But it is fleeting blush in a pale shade. We encourage each other through the long-term crafting of a book, we grieve when the manuscript gets rejected (again) and we jump for joy (literally!) when a fellow writer gets a contract. We have parties to celebrate the birth of a new book, as we do the birth of a child who we hope, one day, will snuggle in someone’s lap to read our literary offspring. The words from Romans 12:15 speak to the world of children’s writers: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” We do that, and do it well.
Writing for children deepens my understanding of God
The number one rule in writing for children is to never be condescending! Don’t act like the expert on life and morals. Children can tell when people talk — and write — down to them. It’s wrong because it undermines their sense of self-worth and ignores the powerful truth that we adults have much to learn from our younger counterparts.
Jesus said it this way: “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it” (Mark 10:14-15).
Writing for children restores in me something I’ve lost in the cynicism of the grown-up world. When I write a picture book, I step back into the shoes I wore as a child. I remember the joy of a white puff of dandelion seeds, the feel of beach sand between my toes, the wonder of simple trust in a God I did not recognize but perhaps knew even more fully long before I ever heard the word “seminary.” I regain a glimpse of how it felt to love and be loved by God, as only a child is able to do. And then I carry that glimpse back into the harsh realities of the world I know now — and through that lens, I can see the beauty in life every day.
I love being a Minister of Word and Sacrament, and I thank God still for calling me to serve Christ in this way. As a writer, I love being a Minister of Word as Sacrament. In writing for children, I seek to create an audible sign of an invisible grace — a grace to be shared by a snuggling parent and lap-sized child, a grace that echoes that of the loving MotherFatherGod who embraces us all.
Kathleen Long Bostrom, is a teaching elder in the PC(USA) now serving as a full-time writer. Her 40+ books, most of them for children, are published in 20 languages. Her most recent book is “Stories from the Bible.” She and her husband, Greg, live in Carlsbad, California, near their three grown children.