How I Planted a Willow Tree

Our back yard is longer than it is wide. It’s about 1.7 acres, and the lingering woods still cover most of the last .7 acre. If you’re standing on the deck looking at the woods, you notice a bare patch on the left. The woods break, and there’s a swampy stretch of soft earth and weedy hillocks for a few yards before you reach the towering evergreens marking the property line on that side. From it’s shape, it might once have been the end of a very long drive way. The deer wander through it, passing on to the trees.

During some recent moment of quiet, I remember telling myself it would be nice to plant trees in that bare patch, bringing the woods across to the evergreens. I was eating breakfast, I think. Or staring out a window thinking about saving the planet.

The moment passed. The day continued. The thought vanished.

In a wholly unrelated instance, months before, my mama gave me a tree for my birthday. She doesn’t live nearby, so we researched “trees that deer might not eat,” and she sent me a check, with the understanding that I would buy the tree at a local nursery. Our research and my love of flowering trees led us to select pink dogwood as the object of our desire.

This is not my tree. Photo by Jonathan Hanna on Unsplash

I waited through the end of winter, mentally dropping a pink dogwood in various spots and deciding whether it would do well there. As the spring advanced, I asked the farmer who mows our lawn if he could dig a hole when I had the tree. He said yes and suggested a different spot than the one I’d thought of.

I kept looking and picked another location. The not-yet-present pink dogwood had now been mentally located in three places.

Spring came, sun shone, weather warmed, and I began tree shopping in earnest. The first place had one white dogwood left, no pink. I dithered, but decided to check the other place.

The other place? Had Everything! But no pink dogwood. Apple trees, cherry trees, grape vines, blueberry bushes, oak and maple and holly and too many others to recall. But no pink dogwood.

Voila! The perfect conditions for my brain to run wild! I called my mama, and we debated the merits of starting an apple orchard, or pear, or peach, or planting raspberries in rows (probably near the shed). I skipped from tree to tree, idea to idea, while she asked Google if deer would eat my choice-of-the-moment.

But then, I found a willow tree.

Sneak preview. This is my tree.

Decades ago in an earlier world, we played under a giant weeping willow at my Aunt Greta and Uncle Fred’s house. The wands swept the grass with their finger-tips. We parted them with eager little hands and slipped into a green pavilion, peopled and furnished by make-believe.

I looked at this present-day willow, nearly ten feet tall, its roots bound in a plastic bucket and its fingers reaching into the blue, and I fell in love.

It didn’t fit in my car. At all.

Leaving my love to the guardianship of a red SOLD tag, I raced home to purloin my neighbor’s truck and his good offices as a tree escort service.

Back again, 10 minutes before closing time, my neighbor and the tree-selling staff person lifted the willow into the back of the pickup and secured it with twine and Boy Scout rope-tying knowledge.

Then we drove home.

Did you know that willow roots can grow up to 100 feet from the base of the tree?

And that they are notorious for entangling and crushing sewer lines?

Not a consummation devoutly to be hoped.

As it turns out, the sewer line runs through the backyard, and the willow, like the dogwood, could not be planted in the spot originally chosen for it.

Evidence of the sewer line’s course across the yard

Taking my daughter, a tape measure, and impervious boots, I paced out 100 feet from the sewer line, bringing myself full circle, into the muddy patch I once considered in my dream of reforestation.

And because it’s such a muddy patch, the earth is soft enough for a distracted writer of children’s books with a good shovel, a sunhat, and some pants she doesn’t care about to dig that hole herself.

So I did.

I wrestled with the earth and muddy gloves and slippery boots. I followed directions and dug a hole twice the width of the potted willow’s footprint.

Muddy Blue Jeans taking a selfie with best friend Dirty Boot.

My husband and I hauled the willow across the long yard to the hole and between us, we coaxed it to relinquish its imprisonment. We set its feet in the wet earth, tucked in the roots, and I said a small prayer for it and kissed the tip of a graceful branch.

I dragged out the hose. It’s actually several hoses connected. It’s long, but the yard is longer.

As I was trekking across the space between the end of the hose and the roots of my tree, carrying pitchers of water, I remembered that quiet moment when I’d thought of planting trees here. I saw myself unknowing, pressing along through one decision after another with no recollection or foresight, finding the end of the string where I might have wished to find it, the dream accomplished despite the scattered pathways that led to this good end.

Home, planted, and reaching for the light.

Board Book Story of Saint Eleazar of Anzersk

I’m so happy to announce that Saint Eleazar Fills His Cups is now available for pre-order! Illustrated by my wonderful friend and board-book partner Kristina Tartara, this is the second in what’s becoming a series of saint stories for the littlest believers. Saint Ia Rides a Leaf was our first. We’re excited that these books are finding a home at SVS Press!

Saint Eleazar was a monk who lived in 17th-century Russia. He began monastic life at Solovetsky Monastery, where he was tonsured by igumen Saint Irenarchus. Saint Eleazar was a gifted wood carver, and you can still see his work in the monastery church today.

Solovetsky Monastery stands on its namesake island, which is part of the Solovki archipelago in the White Sea, in northern Russia. But after a time, Saint Eleazar asked the igumen’s blessing to travel to nearby Anzersk Island, to live alone and pray. The igumen granted his blessing, and Eleazar set off.

Anzersk Island in the 17th century was uninhabited, covered in forest, and surrounded by water. There were no towns with shops and no farms to provide food for Eleazar. How would he feed himself? How could he stay alive alone on the island?

Saint Eleazar Fills His Cups is the simple and lovely story of how the saint answered that question. It’s a story about praying to God and using your gifts. In a way, it’s a story about stewardship, a reminder of the miracles we are sometimes blessed to offer one another.

You will love the illustrations. Once again, Kristina has brought the characters and setting lovingly to life, including some animal friends who might have watched Saint Eleazar as he prayed and worked on Anzersk Island. I never get tired of working with her. I love seeing the life and color and depth of my story grow and blossom as she creates the pictures. In children’s books, the pictures are almost more important than the words.

Saint Eleazar Fills His Cups is available for pre-order from SVSPress HERE. It will release this spring, and thereafter will be available from SVSPress, the Ancient Faith Store, and Amazon.

3 Qualities You Need to Be an Author

Many factors will determine whether you ever become the author of a published book. Some are in your control, and some are not. Education, market forces, communication skills, economic stability sufficient to allow for intellectual life – the list of what impacts you is probably endless.

But there are 3 essential qualities I’ve observed in the 12+ years I’ve been involved in publishing. Whatever else may play a role in your success, you probably won’t make it without these three things. And no, TALENT is not one of them.

Sidebar: Talent is fascinating and complicated. Human beings enter the world with unique proclivities and inclinations. Your brain has preferences, and no doubt they partly depend on what it can do easily. Talent can be a necessary prerequisite in some instances, but it’s one that rarely stands alone. Most things aren’t achievable by sheer giftedness.

In my view, success for an author consists in being both published and read. Your book must arrive in the world and proliferate. It must become a known voice in at least one niche of the human experience. If no one reads your published book, it is a tree that fell in the forest and made no sound.

Thus, you must be effective to be successful. Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? But people forget. In the age of drive-by likes and headline scrolling, you can’t measure impact simply by publication. That’s where these 3 essential qualities come in.

Effective writers, who become successful authors, have 3 qualities in common: perception, coachability, and endurance.

Perception

The first decision you make as an author is what you want to say. This initial step must draw on a well-developed perception of your fellow humans. The beginning of any good book, fiction or nonfiction, is an accurate reading of felt needs. You may believe people need to read about a given topic or perspective, but it frankly doesn’t matter what you think. It matters what your prospective readers think. If you want actual communication to occur, you need to grasp THEIR opinion of what they WILL read.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not suggesting you go out and pander to the most commercially viable self-interest you can find.

I’m suggesting you put down your ideology, your experience, and your aggravation and place yourself as much as possible in other people’s shoes. Watch and listen without judging. Try to quiet everything but your powers of observation. What hurts them? Why does it hurt? What brings them joy? Why? What do they feel they are missing? Where do they go looking for it?

Let a little time pass. Did you observe a momentary trend, washed away by the next big thing? Or have you seen something real, something you can work with?

At this point, your perception turns inward. It’s essential to apply that same clear-sightedness to yourself. What do you have to offer in response to the needs you have perceived? Can you help? It’s going to take more than good will, and it’s going to take more than talent. What solution to their need can you truly identify and communicate?

Be realistic with yourself. No one author can write every book. Maybe research will make you capable. Maybe it won’t. We can be most fruitful when we play to our strengths. Do you have a strength you can polish and develop to meet their need? Yes? Then get started! No? Let that idea go. Turn your perception outward again. Keep looking for a genuine need that you are uniquely qualified to fill, a meaningful story you are equipped to tell.

Coachability

Congratulations! You applied your perception effectively, found a need, got down to business, and produced a manuscript. You survived the adventure of convincing a publisher to contract your book. The hard part is behind you, right?

Sort of.

A contract is a huge accomplishment! Toast your victory, call your friends, sleep all day Saturday, and revel in your awesomeness.

And then, sit down and buckle up.

Relinquish the rosy dream that what you submitted to the publisher was ready for publication.

It was not.

No, yours wasn’t either.

Or yours.

What you submit to a publisher is your writing pushed absolutely as far as you can push it without their editorial help.

Read that again.

You need an editor. You need the next dimension, the person who won’t mentally fill in what you meant to say, the fabled blue penciler whose professional career thrives on her ability to show you every hole you couldn’t see in your writing and support your dogged efforts to reconstruct that book without those holes.

Do not argue that the holes aren’t there. Do not decide you are a better writer than the editor. Do not get married to that paragraph in the third chapter she says must go.

Do not.

Is the editor always right? No. Is the editor usually right? Yes. Is that the point? Not really.

The editor is a trained linguist and skillful communicator who will bring your good writing to excellence. The editor is also the publisher’s front line. The publisher expects the editorial staff to guide authors to produce books worthy of their platform and appealing to their market. The editor’s pleasure in working with you will strongly impact their interest in your next submission. But more importantly, your open mind and collaborative spirit will drastically improve your writing and the subsequent success of your book.

Endurance

You don’t even need me to write this section, do you? It’s obvious. All the perception and coachability in the world won’t save you if you don’t have endurance.

You need the patience and motivation to stay the course, to keep on observing, writing, rewriting, listening, polishing. You need to keep caring about your topic or story and your readers all the way to the end. You need to fuel your endurance with the love that started you on this journey. Endurance is your commitment to that bright, quixotic, recurring ITCH God created in you that makes you write.

Take a break. Let the writing cool for a bit. Drink tea. Race beetles on the deck rail. Enter a racquetball tournament. Watch the 1966-1967 Russian version of War and Peace. All 7 hours of it.

And then, get back to your writing, to your revision, to the last round of changes your editor wanted. Get back to finishing your book. Be true to the blessed opportunity you’ve been given to say something worth saying, to say it well, and to those who are waiting for something lifegiving shining through your words.

War Is Exhausting

Speaking as a veteran’s wife, one thing people forget about war is how uncomfortable it is. I don’t mean in the obvious ways (bullets, bombs, fire), but the lost amenities that would comfort us on ordinary days.

Today, ask a question about each thing you touch: how would war affect it?

Could you still turn on the lights?

Take a hot shower?

Sleep through the night?

Clean your clothes?

Make tea?

Shop for food?

Go somewhere quiet?

Take a break?

Call a friend?

Check your social accounts?

Log in to your online banking?

Get through your To Do list?

Work and get paid?

Close your door and lock it?

In disaster areas, exhaustion is universal. Of many causes, one is that NOTHING is automatic or simple. Every tiny task becomes an arduous, often unsuccessful quest. Most needs are unmet, and it’s not possible for the average person to solve the problem.

Life, in fact, is out of control.

Control is a civilian, peace-time myth. In war, it is no longer sustainable. So if you still think you have it, give thanks for the lights and the food and your favorite corner of the sofa.

Oh Lord, comfort the comfortless.

Where to Buy Orthodox Children’s Books

I’d love to browse Orthodox children’s books in a cozy stone cottage. Sunlight would gleam through the mullioned windows, and the books would be neatly arranged on a home-built wooden farm table. Kittens would scamper under foot, and the breeze would bring garden scents through the open half door.

In real life, I’m thankful that Orthodox children’s books can be purchased in a variety of places, for those who never find the stone cottage of my imaginings. Most book sales occur in one of three ways, and I’ll discuss the benefits and limitations of those options here.

AMAZON

You know that’s the first place that came to mind. Isn’t it always?

Yes, you can purchase many Orthodox children’s books from Amazon, even some that may be out of print. Behemoth that it is, Amazon can offer you every amenity, free shipping, high speed, and considerable selection.

BUT…

If you have a choice, Orthodox publishers and authors agree – we’d rather you bought our books directly from the publisher. Amazon takes a bite out of every sale, and that reduces the payment to the publisher and author. One of the most powerful ways to support the genre of Orthodox children’s literature (and it needs our support now as it’s beginning to blossom) is to pay the people who create it directly.

Your Parish Bookstore

This is a wonderful option, although it’s not available to everyone. If your parish does have a book table or bookstore, make that your first stop when shopping for Orthodox children’s books. Your parish likely has a wholesale account with one of the Orthodox publishers. That means they purchase the books at a discounted rate and then resell them to you at the recommended retail price. Your purchase is thereby supporting your parish, the Orthodox publisher, and the author. Not only do you get a beautiful, faithful book for your little one, you have the satisfaction of supporting three good causes at once!

Direct from the Orthodox Publisher

Full disclosure: as you know if you follow this blog, I work for an Orthodox publisher! But I’ve also been published by two other Orthodox publishers, so I know this little world very well and can tell you that the companies who inhabit it are all worthy of your attention.

Perhaps the most wonderful way (other than that imaginary cottage) to purchase Orthodox children’s books is directly from the publisher. You’ll have access to their full selection, their dedicated customer service team, and other useful and beautiful Orthodox books and products in their webstore. Below is a list of Orthodox webstores hosted by these publishers.

  1. Ancient Faith Store: This one comes first because I work for Ancient Faith and have been published by them many times. In my view, they are the biggest thing on the Orthodox kidlit landscape. You can find their children’s department HERE.
  2. SVS Press Books: I’ve got one board book published, one at press, and a third just contracted with this publisher. Historically an academic press, they’re reviving and expanding their children’s line, which is exciting. See their children’s department here.
  3. Park End Books: Park End is the publisher of my recent middle-grade novel, Little Lost Nun. Although they publish a variety of genres, they are extremely Orthodox friendly. You’ll find children’s books in their shop here.
  4. New Rome Press: Books from New Rome are always beautifully produced! You can see their children’s books here.
  5. Potamitis Publishing: This family-run company has an astounding line-up of books about saints. I especially love their Paterikon for Kids. Those colorful little paperbacks are a godsend for little ones who struggle to focus in church. You’ll find these and other books from them here.
  6. Sebastian Press: This is a Serbian-American publisher on the west coast. At least one of my friends has been published by Sebastian, and you can find their children’s line here.
  7. Exaltation Press: This is a newer publisher, offering illustrated catechetical books for children. See their collection here.
  8. Philotheia: This is Kristina Tartara’s shop! She’s the illustrator of my three SVS Press board books and a good friend. You’ll find those books and her own board books, in addition to her other creations, here.

The 8 publishers listed above are well-known, but they’re not the only Orthodox children’s book publishers. Some, like Potamitis, offer their books in multiple languages, and of course I haven’t included Greek, Russian, and other international publishers because my knowledge of them is limited. I do know of one in Romania – Libraria Sophia, the publisher of the Romanian edition of The Barn and the Book.

I’d love to hear from you if you have publishers to add to this list! The more we share their names, the more their books will find their way into the hands of the children for whom they were created. May God bless the work of our hearts and hands!

Featured image by David Clode on Unsplash

Orthodox Publishers and Non-Orthodox Books

In the years since I’ve been involved in Orthodox publishing, I’ve seen numerous writers who hoped to publish a book that would reach the non-Orthodox. This isn’t unique to us. Christian publishing in general has this hope, and it is not entirely unfounded. But the vast majority of people who read Christian books of any kind are already Christian, or well on their way to becoming so.

This is not to say that when you write for an Orthodox audience, you should be inward looking and lean heavily on references and thought lines only your fellow Orthodox would understand. Clarity and kindness are always essential.

It is to say that if you want to write a book that is not intended for an Orthodox audience, you need to think seriously about why you are sending it to an Orthodox publisher.

Let me say that again.

You need to think seriously about why you are sending it to an Orthodox publisher.

Orthodox publishers have Orthodox customers. Their distribution network and marketing apparatus are designed to convey Orthodox content to Orthodox people, or to those strongly interested in Orthodoxy.

People who are not Orthodox and not currently interested in becoming Orthodox do not buy books from Orthodox publishers.

But there are other, larger flaws in the belief that covertly Orthodox and overtly noncommittal books are good publishing, or good evangelism. I’m reminded of that interesting period when many mainline churches in the USA instituted “contemporary worship” to attract young people and newcomers. In parishes, and in publishing, this amounts to bait and switch.

The religion itself is unchanged. Whatever you felt should be hidden or glossed over to make it more palatable to the uninitiated has not gone away. You’ve simply moved it further down the line, and when it reappears, you’ll face uncomfortable questions about why you felt the need to hide it.

Sincerity is a moral imperative, but it’s also a best practice when creating faith-based media. With that in mind, let’s drill down to four basic questions to ask yourself when considering an Orthodox publisher for your book.

  1. What is this publisher’s target audience?
  2. What is my target audience?
  3. What about me as an author makes me appealing to this publisher?
  4. What makes this publisher appealing to me as a writer?

The Publisher’s Target Audience

In the age of niche marketing and boundless content propagation, publishers excel when they serve a well-defined market. (This is true for other types of business as well.) They may publish books on a variety of topics, but you’ll be able to see common threads, a worldview or mindset, a branded look, that indicates who they expect will purchase and value their books.

Orthodox publishers publish Orthodox books. Some will be straight theology, some will be applied, and some will be fiction. But all will assume an Orthodox worldview, or at least awareness of that worldview, in the reader.

It’s absolutely possible for a publisher to reach readers outside the target audience. But this is more by the workings of providence than anything else. I remember reading once that the only way to expand beyond your niche market is to fill it first. A cup overflows when the water has filled every available space inside.

There are several ways to determine the audience a publisher hopes to reach. The simplest is to look at their website or catalog. What kind of books are there? Who are the authors? What do the submission guidelines say? What books seem to be getting the most attention and space on their website?

Think about the book you have in mind. Can you imagine it on their website? Would it fit in with the other books there? Would the publisher agree that it fit in?

All of these questions should be asked for any kind of publishing submission, not just those to an Orthodox publisher. But the answers should clarify whether your book is actually the type they would publish.

Your Target Audience

As you consider the publisher’s target audience, you’ll also be thinking of your own target audience. When you wrote your book, who were you talking to? Who will enjoy your book or benefit from it? Who buys books that are similar to yours?

Side note: If you believe there are no books similar to yours, ask yourself why that is. It’s a complex question. Does your book meet an unmet need? Or, does nobody publish books like this because nobody wants them?

The more specific you can be, in your own mind, about your target audience, the better. Again – you have to fill a niche before you can reach beyond it. Your writing will be stronger, more insightful and directed, if you know exactly who wants to read it.

Second side note: Remember, a target audience comprises people who want to read your book. You may think they need to read it, but yours is not the opinion that counts.

Once you’ve identified your target readers, compare them to your chosen publisher’s target audience. Are you trying to reach the same people?

If you are trying to reach Orthodox readers, an Orthodox publisher is the way to go. Orthodoxy is itself a niche in the Christian world, especially in the United States. Religious publishing is segregated by faith group, and most religious publishers are unlikely to publish materials espousing a different faith or denomination, both for marketing and for missional reasons.

If you are trying to reach non-Orthodox readers, your target audience probably doesn’t align well with an Orthodox publisher’s target audience. If your work is evangelical, you might find you’d be preaching to the choir. If the people you want to reach are truly “outside the dome,” there’s a good chance they’re also outside an Orthodox publisher’s community of readers and customers.

Appealing to the Publisher

When a publisher acquires your book, they’re also acquiring a professional relationship with you as the author. Don’t forget that you and your credentials are reviewed in any acquisitions decision.

It’s common for Orthodox publishers to publish Orthodox writers, but it’s important to understand the ways that Orthodoxy is and is not a credential for publication. The quality of your writing is the first criteria for publication. You won’t be published simply because you are Orthodox and other Orthodox people aren’t writing on this topic.

However, if you are a good writer and you’re writing on a topic that hasn’t been covered by other Orthodox writers, that’s a selling point. Maybe there are thousands of books on improving your marriage, but if there are only a few Orthodox books on improving your marriage, you have something unique and valuable to offer.

That said, if you are trying to write a book that would be unique in the Orthodox world, remember that it may not be unique in the larger world of Christian or secular publishing. An Orthodox worldview isn’t usually a valued credential “outside the dome.” The very thing that makes you a good prospect in Orthodox publishing may be a handicap with other publishers.

Appealing to the Writer

As an Orthodox writer, it’s tempting to submit everything you write to an Orthodox publisher. Perhaps you’ve published other books with them, or you know someone one staff. It feels like home, like a safe place. That’s understandable.

There’s also a temptation to feel that you’re more likely to be published by an Orthodox publisher than by a “real” publisher. Let that thought go.

Orthodox publishers ARE “real” publishers. They’re not operating from a place of desperation, whatever may have been true in the past. Every year, they receive more submissions than they can publish. Readership and sales are expanding. Many of the books published 20 years ago wouldn’t make the cut now, or would undergo a lot more editing before they did!

It is what it is

These questions and answers all add up to the same thing: Orthodox publishers seek to publish excellent Orthodox books. If that’s what you have to offer, your chances are good. If your book is excellent, but not really Orthodox, it’s time for some soul searching.

Not every book has to be Orthodox, or even about faith at all. As an Orthodox writer, your faith will always be part of your lens, part of your consciousness. But how much it shows in the finished product depends on many factors.

The important thing is to be true to your purpose. Pick a side. Take a stand. If you want to reach people for Christ, don’t hide Him.

Video Story: Ferdinand and the Geese

A few free minutes and some curiosity drove me to play with Canva, and voila! Here’s a tiny story, based on my doggy’s enchantment with Canada geese.

For the sake of historical accuracy, I must point out that the real Ferdinand is a tricolor. But not being an illustrator, I chose clip art with a good corgi expression, despite the fact that my dog is not brown.

It’s just over 1 minute long. Enjoy! #honk

Without Your Consent

Can we stop saying “Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent”?

That’s not empowering. That’s pain-shaming.

It’s also a load of baloney. Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can break your heart.

Yes, we choose our response to injury, just as we choose our response to affirmation, boredom, opportunity, regret, and all the other facets of human experience. But when we state that a person who feels hurt is consenting to their own injury, we are enabling the one doing harm, not freeing the injured. The perpetrator can now be as hurtful as they desire to be because the pain is your fault, not theirs.

Hurtful words hurt. Hurtful behavior hurts. The pain they cause is real, and it is CAUSED. It comes from the sender, not the receiver.

So let’s stop skipping that part. Before we accept responsibility for our response, let’s assign responsibility to the person and context that made it necessary.

Unhappy Holidays

For what it’s worth:

HOLIDAYS ARE HARD.

We soak up a lifetime of unconscious hopes and assumptions about love, family, success, happiness – and those assumptions crash headlong into reality in moments when we expect to be celebrating.

You are a real person, and if you are reading this, you are not in heaven yet. Neither are the people you know and love, or the people you are related to and can’t stand. Neither are the people posting pictures of the life you wish you had.

Earth is the struggle place. If you are struggling, good job! That’s what we’re here for. You are not a loveless ugly failure. You are a human being, created in the image of God, doing the work He is granting you on your journey to grace and joy.

On earth, we catch glimpses. Minutes, or even seconds of light and relief.

Keep your eyes open for the brightness that finds its way through the cracks around you. Rest in that love for the moments when you can see it. Then pick up your tools and get back to work.

No matter what they tell you, no matter what they show you, the people around you are also struggling and waiting.