What we want from Orthodox children’s books

Almost always, an adult is the starting point for a child’s exposure to a book. We choose the books, we purchase the books, we pack our offspring into the minivan and herd them into the children’s section of the library. They can’t obtain books without our help, so we play a large role in their encounters with literature.

That being so, it’s interesting to reflect on the assumptions and wishes that prompt an Orthodox grownup to reach for a particular book. What do we expect from “Orthodox kidlit”? There are many specific answers to that question, but here are three underlying ideas that I suspect are present when a book is invited into your child’s world.

It’s trustworthy.

If a book purports to be Orthodox, it must meet certain standards. You would be stunned to discover it was championing heresy, of course. But there are other, more subtle expectations. You expect it to support your child’s faithfulness, to offer good theology in simple terms, to help you out as a parent. Sometimes we offer a book to our children because we hope it will do a better job explaining than we could, or will at least make a change from our own voice constantly telling them how to be good. We expect the author to be “on our side,” sharing our motivation to pass on the faith to the next generation. If you’re writing Orthodox kid lit at all, you must be a member of the team that walks each child from the baptismal font to a fruitful Christian life when they reach maturity.

IT’S ENGAGING.

To be honest, parents are constantly being let down by books. Sometimes this happens because parents and children are human beings, and what they find appealing and compelling differs. Your child might not see what you see or hear what you hear in the story. But sometimes a book lets you down by failing to present concepts or adapt packaging to meet the needs of the target age. A child’s heart can’t be engaged if you’ve failed to accommodate her developing brain.

I’ve also learned, in recent years, that we adults can frustrate children by overexplaining. They quickly perceive that we don’t see them as capable of perception and discovery. The old advice to writers, “Show, don’t tell” could be a motto for adults interacting with children. I’m thankful for a recent conversation with my friend Sarah, who spoke eloquently about the importance of approaching a child as a full human, a whole person. Drawing on this wisdom, I believe a good book brings the child into experience directly, sparing them the tiresome process of being prompted to enjoy second-hand knowledge of someone else’s transformative delight.

It’s well done.

By this I mean something other than the quality of the book’s content. Like many new things, Orthodox children’s literature as a genre began life looking a bit “home-made” and frankly unprofessional in some instances. When you begin to do something no one has done before, your early attempts will be amateur and faulty. It’s the nature of new things, and it’s an honorable kind of failure, in my view. You have to start somewhere, and you have to make all the mistakes to propel the endeavor to higher levels of achievement.

But I’d posit that the exemption for new effort has expired for this genre. Our readers and their parents have the right to expect expect high-quality illustrations, well-crafted and well-edited text, good paper, durable covers, and the like. Children learn something from every facet of their daily life, and they will notice if the “church” books always look a little shabby next to the secular books.

KEep trying harder!

With no degree programs and only the beginnings of professional development or support for creators of Orthodox children’s books, it may seem presumptive to demand excellence in this field. But still – we should demand it. Any creative process thrives on concentration and persistence. We should be willing to push ourselves, to ask hard questions of our work and welcome honest answers. There’s a temptation to settle for second best, assuming that because there aren’t many Orthodox children’s books, it’s acceptable to put out work that is “at least better than nothing.” We may unconsciously expect that with smaller publishers and a market defined by our faith group, we don’t have to meet the same high standards that would be applied if we were submitting work to Random House or Harper One.

I reject that mindset.

Orthodox publishers in the United States are growing and changing. Higher standards and the ability to be selective are the natural consequence for companies that are thriving. This is an opportunity for sacrifice, or almsgiving. We can give our first fruits to the Lord, a gift that reflects the best of our ability, a gift that is, to the extent possible to a human maker, without blemish.

Clever Myths and Eyewitness Accounts

“For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty.” 2 Peter 1:16

This verse is part of the Epistle reading from this morning’s liturgy for the Feast of Transfiguration, and it sparked a shower of ideas I feel are directly related to my ongoing study of Orthodox children’s literature.

If you read my post from yesterday (7 Serious Questions about Orthodox Children’s Books), you know I’m studying Orthodox children’s literature as a genre, a mission, a product, an experience – everything about it that I can learn and ponder. This research quickly touched on another ongoing quest of mine, to envision and create truly faithful, truly literary work. It’s possible the principles of this effort are fundamentally the same, no matter the age of your expected readers.

But what struck me with such force in this Bible verse is the question of clever myths and eyewitness accounts. At first glance, you’d think that was a reference to fiction and non-fiction, wouldn’t you? And that is true in a literal sense. Peter is explaining to his readers that he didn’t make up all that stuff about Christ. It happened. He was there and saw it.

Hold that thought.

TWO CATEGORIES OF CHRISTIAN FICTION

In my observation, “Christian fiction” can be divided into two categories: books about people “being Christian” and books in which the inherent Christianity of creation shines forth. These two characteristics aren’t mutually exclusive in their natures, but they don’t often appear together. There are plenty of instances in the human attempt to infuse faith in fiction in which the agenda left no room for anything to shine, not even the writing. It strikes me now that while immature literary skill is certainly a factor in such cases, lack of faith might be the greater fault.

I don’t mean that the writer is not Christian enough to write well. Not at all. I mean that the writer, perhaps unconsciously, assumes that the reader won’t see the truth, won’t be converted, unless everything is blatantly spelled out. The reader must be convinced by the writer. Persuasion must occur, and the more urgent your personal conviction, the harder it is to trust persuasion to anything but your own arguments.

PERSUASION AS FAILING FAITH

This reflects a two-fold faithlessness, in my view. First, it assumes that the reader is not intelligent enough to detect or appreciate nuance, or symbolism. When the murderer makes a point of turning off the lights so he can commit his foul deed in darkness, the reader won’t realize that spiritual darkness is also indicated. Are our readers actually so dense? Do they really need us to explain everything we’re doing? Do we need to hear them say, “I see what you did there”? I doubt it.

In fact, I believe readers bring a wealth of meaning to our words, drawing on their own thoughts and memories. The author is not the only one able or likely to infuse a text with meaning. We give birth to our stories, but their lives extend beyond us when we send them into the world. Like children, we must let them grow into the life God made for them, even when they travel beyond our horizons, even as we acknowledge we’ll never know all the people who read them, all the ways they’ll be misread, reconstructed, and understood.

Bringing the Man Downstairs

The second faithlessness of the over-explained Christian novel is the assumption that God is not everywhere present, filling all things. I’ve recently encountered fascinating scraps of the “re-enchantment” discussion swirling in theological, literary, sociological, and other circles. The primary value in the conversation, to me, is the startling reminder that God IS everywhere. Several years ago, Fr. Stephen Freeman wrote a book called Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, in which he takes on the worldview behind calling God “the man upstairs.” The man UPSTAIRS. Not the man down here with us. Not a presence in the air and earth and human life around us. The man somewhere else.

We enable a seismic shift in Christian literary art, for children and adults, when we bring God back downstairs. DO you believe God is EVERYWHERE present? Then you will be able to write Him into your fiction simply by manifesting the patterned loveliness of His works. Metaphors work because God is downstairs. Symbol is inherently, intrinsically spiritual. It’s our second language, the code of our invisible dimension, and God made it and speaks through it. With His merciful grace, sometimes we can, too. Sometimes, with sweat and prayer and those holy, euphoric bursts of inspiration, we can write the story of realization, our small visions of the miraculous reality.

And that’s why in 2 Peter 1:16, I see an affirmation of well-made Christian fiction. The father of lies will always provide us with clever myths, and his myths may masquerade as light. But fiction crafted from keen awareness of that magnificent Presence? That kind of fiction needs only symbol, finely observed, to become an eyewitness account.

7 Serious Questions about Orthodox Children’s Books

The database of Orthodox children’s books in English and currently in print now has over 200 entries. In addition, there are catechetical resources available from archdioceses and other organizations that are not included on the list because I see them as a separate genre. For the moment, I’m not studying curriculum. I’m not qualified to do so, and my primary interest is kidlit. But I qualify that with my strongly held belief that children learn from ALL books, not just the ones adults consider educational.

Research philosophy

Right now at work, I’m researching various aspects of Orthodox children’s literature. It’s a thought-provoking adventure, let me tell you. Questions arise at every turn, and there are moments when I struggle with the wild urge to know everything and fix everything immediately! But as my mama used to tell me, the only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. I’m not the solution to everything, and it’s important to remember that people are different. What one person perceives as a flaw is a great strength in the eyes of someone in other circumstances.

Regardless, I believe it’s important to raise and ponder each question. Orthodox children’s literature as a genre is relatively new and still inventing itself. It’s not a field in which you can earn a degree or any kind of standardized credential. It’s still subject to widely divergent opinions, amateur efforts, the absence of substantive data on its efficacy, and the urgency of love – love for the faith and its children and the urgency of their need as an underserved minority in a complex cultural landscape.

Therefore, I offer 7 questions for your consideration. There are others, but in my view, these 7 are starting points for reflection and discussion. You’ll realize quickly that not one of them has a simple answer.

7 Questions

1 – Who is the “customer” for a children’s book: the parent buying it or the child reading it?

2 – Do we hold Orthodox children’s books/curriculum to the same standards that we have for secular children’s products?

3 – Are we evolving from what you might call “informational” catechesis to experiential catechesis, or aren’t we? What’s going on with that and why?

4 – Why is fiction such a complicated thing? Are we able to conceive of children’s fiction as both Orthodox AND engaging? Can we only see or trust faith in fiction if it is OVERT?

5 – I suspect question 1 and question 4 are linked. What do you think?

6 – What do children learn from the ways we create and interact with their “church books”? What are we telling them about their faith that we may not realize we are telling them?

7 – What besides books are/should/could we be creating? What other media might also provide entry points to faithful, imaginative, loving encounters with a child’s spirit?

Share your thoughts

My research is ongoing, and I value glimpses of as many perspectives as are offered to me. If you’d like to share yours, use the Contact form and get in touch!

COVID-19: Finally, an excuse to relax

The coronavirus situation burst upon our region just before a weekend that promised to be a scheduling nightmare. Between us, my family had first three and then four conflicting events, two that were approximately 12 hours long and two overnight, out-of-town trips for work. I tackled the problem – set up rides and a sleepover, relegated the dog to the pet hotel, bowed ungracefully out of my work trip, and stared wearily at the solution for a few shining hours.

And then, LIFE happened. Not life in the sense of “a series of events Melinda has organized” but actual life – the chain of events over which we have far less control than we’d like to believe.

It’s Thursday now, the inaugural day of that wild jig-saw-scheduled weekend. Of the four events, only one remains, a board meeting my husband is attending solo.

All that coordination I did? Unnecessary.

All those conflicts? Cancelled, with prudent nods at COVID-19.

The construction and deconstruction of this weekend resembled the experience of falling backwards down stairs – bumping every step, pretending some effort of will can steer your skull away from what might fracture it.

And now?

Eventless, coordinating nothing but the order in which I’ll read my library books on Saturday, I draw a swift, sweet, breath of relief.

I call someone, and we share our relief. We count over the chores we’ll have time for now. We plan full nights of sleep for our families. We gaze at the top-heavy pile our lives have become, revealed more plainly now that it has toppled.

Our relief is complex, almost guilty. These thoughts float uneasily behind the careful calm, the prayers, the wincing curiosity for knowledge we’ll probably regret. We grieve for the suffering and the dead, and for their loved ones. If only everyone could close this virus out. If only we all could release ourselves to an afternoon of completed tasks, good books, cushions, and tea without the dark forces that make this respite possible.

COVID-19 will change us. When we return from our cloistered waiting, who will we be? Will we return, forgetful, to the habits of a lifetime? Will we never be the same again?

This afternoon in a parking lot, I overheard two students talking with a teacher about an upcoming performance. “I hope it won’t be cancelled,” the girls said. “I hope so, too,” said the teacher. “Everyone put so much effort into it.” It sounded odd, suddenly. Could the effort weigh against the risk?

Decision-making is brutal now – very hard and very simple. We’re trying to leap into our future and look back at ourselves, to make the choice now we will wish then we had made. When we arrive in that future, what will we think?

Quarantine doesn’t look much like it did in, for example, 1918. “Social distancing” might better be termed “physical distancing” when our virtual society continues unabated. We already talk to our friends more online than we do in person. Is it our social distance that is changing? Or will our last finger-hold on real life slip closer to the edge as we lose the opportunity to interact in any way but virtually?

I don’t like social media, although I see its usefulness during a contagious outbreak. But I can’t forget that sense of relief, felt and observed, as the daily grind evaporated. Sometimes, when you begin to let go, you wish to continue.

Why did it take a pandemic to stop us? What good might come out of this great evil?

Still True: Lent for Creatives

Two years ago, a half-decade of observation boiled over the rim of my mind into a list of 5 hard lessons I’ve learned about creativity, publishing, and success in the Orthodox media field. I wrote out my list for the company blog in Lent 2018, and because all 5 are still very true, I’d like to share them with you here also.

Lent for Creatives: 5 hard lessons

At Ancient Faith, we believe that the spiritual life and the creative life are woven together. The fact that we are an Orthodox Christian media company is proof of this conviction. We exist to promulgate the Gospel through the work of people who use their creative gifts to affirm and explore the life of faith, in the persistent hope of edifying and encouraging our fellow human beings on their journeys.

During this Lenten season, we are all engaged in spiritual struggle of one kind or another, and it seems a good moment to share what I’ve learned in the last five years about the intersection of creativity, struggle, and media publishing. With this goal, I’ve created a list of five hard lessons we all seem to encounter on our way to producing high-quality books and podcasts. If you have already been published, this list will be familiar. If you are still trying to be published, it may be even more familiar! I pray it will be helpful, no matter which side of that fence you occupy.

don’t be an “idea person.”

Almost nothing will shut you out faster than those fatal words – “I’m an idea person.” Many people describe themselves this way, and in our experience, an “idea person” is one who can come up with an endless list of inspiring suggestions but is not able to follow through on them. An idea is like a flame without a lamp. It burns brightly and then vanishes, unless you provide a wick, some oil, and a vessel to hold the oil. Your idea needs a plan. It needs background research. It needs the ability to make and meet deadlines, foresee and overcome obstacles. You and your idea both need a significant amount of staying power, so that your publisher knows you will put in the effort to bring your idea to life – real life, enduring life, the kind of life that will justify the expenditure of staff time, resources, and just plain stamina required to publish a book or produce a podcast. If you were telling yourself that you could hand your idea to a publisher and staff members would provide the wick, the oil, and the lamp, please stop. No publisher can or will be a replacement for the diligent effort you should have dedicated to your idea before we ever heard of it.

KEEP READING HERE FOR LESSONS 2-5.

Facebook is a stalker boyfriend.

Don’t laugh!

OK, laugh a little. I love laughing!

But this metaphor actually works. Read on. I’ll show you!

The metaphor popped into my head in the car, as I was moseying along between the grocery store and the mall. It sprouted from a conversation with a fellow blogger this week about what kind of reach you get for different kinds of Facebook posts. Reach is strongly effected by post type. You can read about it in many places – here’s Buffer’s take.

To summarize, value on Facebook, as in all social media, is determined by reach, and the type of post you create will directly impact its reach. Live video is the sparkly platinum, top-tier post type on Facebook. Video uploaded directly to Facebook, but not created live on Facebook, is a close second. Posts with images come next, significantly below video, and the lowest form of post, with reach often not discernible to the naked eye, is a post sharing a link to content on another site.

What about text-only posts? (Text only? Is that even a thing anymore?) If I were guessing, they’d fall just above posts sharing a link. Nothing is below a post sharing a link.

Having read the above, you will now easily follow my metaphor. Facebook is a stalker boyfriend.

Stalker boyfriends, also known as the possessive type, creepers, and abusers, love one thing more than any other. They love control. They don’t want you talking to anyone else. They don’t want you spending time with anyone else. They don’t want you thinking or feeling anything outside their control.

Yikes. Yikes!

So what does stalker Facebook like best? Facebook live! That’s right! It’s created on Facebook, by Facebook, for Facebook. It’s you devoting your whole attention to Facebook. Stalker algorithm will reward that behavior all. day. long.

Video posts that aren’t live, and picture posts, are the next best thing. Not really best….I mean, if you can’t do live video, an image post will do. True, it wasn’t created BY Facebook, but it is posted on Facebook, and nobody can see it without Facebook. You neeeeed Facebook for these posts. Facebook will half-heartedly ensure those posts get a response, so you’ll keep making more of them. On Facebook. For Facebook. So that maybe you’ll get excited. And make a video.

What about that lowest form of post? A post sharing a link? You can probably guess what’s wrong with that. A link post is designed to take the reader AWAY FROM FACEBOOK!

No.

We obviously can’t have that.

So, stalker Facebook will prove to you that you should have stayed with stalker Facebook. Go ahead and post your link post. No one will see it. Facebook will make sure of that. You’ll have to stay with Facebook. You should make a meme, or post a video. Your reach will go back up. Seriously. It will be better this time. Just come back. Maybe you’d like to make a live video?

Yikes.

You need a new plan

Ever catch yourself thinking the same thing in multiple situations and realize it’s one of those Big True Things About Life? Here’s one that’s recurring for me:

If your plan depends on controlling the beliefs (and consequently the actions) of other people, you need another plan.

Now think about this without escaping through the word “controlling.” Are you assuming the would-be controller is a bad person? Make them a good person, someone who cares deeply about a worthy cause. What is that person asking of the world?

In my experience, personal and organizational plans for “change” and “awareness” and “saving the world” usually boil down to everyone thinking and acting according to one set of values. That will never happen. We know from history that even total dictatorship can’t maintain uniformity for long. It’s not in the nature of things. No matter how hard you argue, campaign, rant, emote, reason – pick your verb. No matter how hard.

Wasted effort frustrates me. I’m tired of the disappointment it brings. I’m tired of dreams falling apart because the dreamer resisted practicality. How often do smaller, feasible solutions to specific problems fall by the wayside in the mad dash for the panacea?

Feed the person in front of you. Plug the hole you can reach. If everyone did that, we wouldn’t have to save the world.

If everyone did that…See? Even me!

No thank you to the blog marketing tips

Dear Stranger,

If you are following my blog because you have a blog that’s going to increase my blog following, expand my brand, profitize my prose, et cetera and so forth, please do not trouble yourself.

Your cursory glance at my blog indicates that I am building a community of bloggers.

This is true.

We even have a hashtag. #bloginstead.

Also true.

But you missed something.

I’m building the community because I want the community. You know how you do something because you enjoy it, and then you find other people who enjoy it too, and you spend time together enjoying it?

That’s what I’m doing.

I’m not looking for quick tips on expanding my brand so that my viral blog will attract advertisers and enable me to quit my day job and subsist on sponsored posts.

Big nope on that.

Yes, I write books. Orthodox Christian children’s books, actually. I’m doubtful this is the target market your tips and tricks are intended to reach.

Yes, I will talk about my books on this blog. I like writing my books. I like having them published. I’ll never get over the enchantment of seeing them illustrated.

More than that, I like people to buy my books. I hope they read them till the covers fall off, that they find them again when they’re all grown up and hug them spontaneously for all the good childhood memories attached to them.

I market Orthodox books for a living, and I know for a daily fact that people can’t read a book if they don’t know it exists. I know the value of spreading the word and finding an audience and building a brand. All those things. But I see NO value in doing those things for their own sake.

I don’t want to lose the value of being a human person who likes to write, who enjoys talking to friends, and who wants to recapture the kind of internet space where that was, and could still be, possible.

Life is complicated. Intricate. Interwoven. I can’t separate my writing self from my author self, my community-seeking self from my book-promoting self. Not completely. There is one me, and all aspects of my life connect, one way or another. But I can decide what matters most and choose it every time I have the choice.

That’s what I’m doing here. And that’s why I won’t be following your “how to win big in online marketing” blog.

No, thank you.

P.S. If you know the guys on social who believe that a friend request from a total stranger leads to romance, even from a total stranger who looks miraculously like numerous other total strangers dressed as retired admirals and possessing adorable dogs, please inform them that I already have a more-than-satisfactory retired officer and adorable dog of my own. Thank you.

Why Blogging? — This One Life

It has been interesting returning to the blogging space after a few years of hiatus. I have had to confront my former blogging motivations, why I left, and what has changed. It feels a little bit like coming home again, or wearing an old sweater again, or maybe visiting college well after graduation. Things are […]

Why Blogging? — This One Life

If you’re reading this, you probably know that the original #3daysinthewilds, in which a group of intrepid friends leaped off social media and tried to #bloginstead, has grown like a stream running downhill. Now it’s a river, and it’s one I plan to stay on, rowing along with my eyes open for other small craft making the same peaceful journey.

The post I’ve linked above is from Amber at This One Life, one of the #bloginstead pioneers. This post is honest, and I believe MANY bloggers (and former bloggers) will recognize themselves in her look back at why she started blogging. I’m so glad she came back, and especially that she came back AS SHE IS NOW. I believe our redemption lies in communication for its own sake – for the sake of sharing information, perception, faith and hope and love.

Well, I’ve got a hammer

And I’ve got a bell

And I’ve got a song to sing

All over this land

It’s the hammer of justice

It’s the bell of freedom

It’s a song about love between

My brothers and my sisters

All over this land

If I Had A Hammer – Lee Hays, Pete Seeger