The Best Part of Writing for Children

This.

This is the very best part. I love writing because I’m made that way, and I adore seeing my words illustrated. But my favorite blessed miracle of it all is a little one happily reading a book I wrote.

I love the innocent little beings we are before the world gets to us and the struggle begins. I love the warmth of our better selves that surfaces when we care for children. I love that the veil is thin for these little ones and the flutter of angels still discernible around them.

Perhaps I also love the reminder of my own journey through that little world. The shabby picture books on a shelf in my office, the ragged rag dolls and moth-eaten stuffed animals in a crate downstairs, the old photos in which the incandescent light of home still shines…these are treasures I plan to carry till I lay my burden down. They are a door I like to stand near, treasuring the glimpses I catch when it opens for a moment, reminding me that time is circular and limitless.

The Children’s Hour

BY HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW

Between the dark and the daylight,
      When the night is beginning to lower,
Comes a pause in the day’s occupations,
      That is known as the Children’s Hour.

I hear in the chamber above me
      The patter of little feet,
The sound of a door that is opened,
      And voices soft and sweet.

From my study I see in the lamplight,
      Descending the broad hall stair,
Grave Alice, and laughing Allegra,
      And Edith with golden hair.

A whisper, and then a silence:
      Yet I know by their merry eyes
They are plotting and planning together
      To take me by surprise.

A sudden rush from the stairway,
      A sudden raid from the hall!
By three doors left unguarded
      They enter my castle wall!

They climb up into my turret
      O’er the arms and back of my chair;
If I try to escape, they surround me;
      They seem to be everywhere.

They almost devour me with kisses,
      Their arms about me entwine,
Till I think of the Bishop of Bingen
      In his Mouse-Tower on the Rhine!

Do you think, O blue-eyed banditti,
      Because you have scaled the wall,
Such an old mustache as I am
      Is not a match for you all!

I have you fast in my fortress,
      And will not let you depart,
But put you down into the dungeon
      In the round-tower of my heart.

And there will I keep you forever,
      Yes, forever and a day,
Till the walls shall crumble to ruin,
      And moulder in dust away!

A Board Book Story of Saint Ia of Cornwall

On Tuesday, December 15, my second board book launched – and it’s the first board book to be published by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press!

Saint Ia Rides a Leaf is a toddler-friendly retelling of a story from the life of Saint Ia of Cornwall. Children will sympathize with Ia, who was left behind by her friends because they thought she was too young to be a missionary. But something amazing happened, just when she was on the point of giving up.

Who was Saint Ia?

Saint Ia was an Irish missionary to England in the fifth or sixth century. She is believed by some to have been a princess, but the dream closest to her heart was to preach the word of God in England. Ia arrived in Cornwall (spoiler alert!) through divine intervention, and the modern-day town and parish of St. Ives are named for her. In fact, the older Cornish name of the town is Porth Ia, meaning “Ia’s cove.” You can learn more about St. Ives Church here.

St. Ives Parish Church (Photo credit: Palickap)

Making the book

One of my favorite parts of this project has been working with illustrator Kristina Tartara. Her enthusiasm matched mine, and she brought so much loving attention and creativity to the project. For example, it was Kristi’s idea to include the three little friends who keep Saint Ia company in the story, reflecting all her emotions on their expressive faces. Through many conversations, shared research, sketches, and revisions, Kristi brought the story to life.

Kristi also brought her training in early childhood education, not only providing good insight (“That’s too many words, Melinda!”) but also a wealth of lessons, crafts, and activities to go with the book. Check out these free printables, photos, lesson plans, sensory bins, leaf crafts, and more!

SAINT IA’S SONG

A special part of the project that was completely new to me was the SONG! Composer Natalie Wilson wrote the music, I wrote the words, and Natalie recorded it. You can find the sheet music HERE. The recording will be available shortly – I’ll update this post as soon as it releases.

WHAT’S NEXT?

I look forward to seeing Saint Ia Rides a Leaf in the hands of many children, whether they are old enough to pick out words or cuddled up (and probably wiggling) in the arms of those who love to read to them. Like our own lives, the lives of the saints are full of stories – high points and sad days and the train of teachable moments God arranges for us on the path of salvation. I am thankful for Saint Ia’s persistence, and for all the good gifts that come from making children’s books.

Writing board books

Writing board books is a little like math or music for me. I love it! I love gazing at the entire story in my head, and then pouring it into just a few hundred chosen words. And saying the words out loud, nodding along, hitting a pencil to the desk, listening for beat and tripping tongue moments, pressing all the meaning and metaphor and allusion into those few, chosen words. Saint stories are fertile ground for this musical math. Sometimes only a few words of story are known, sometimes there are many and it is a greater labor to fit them into the tiny book. I love doing it.

#NineWhiteDeerandMe

Robert Louis Stevenson: The Swing

This summer, my mother let me bring home a collection of old books that were my childhood favorites. Whenever I read them, I hear the words in her voice, and the spirit of many long-lost summer afternoons, piled around her on the couch with my little siblings, rises around me. I love that.

One I brought home is a well-worn copy of Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses. It appears to have been printed in 1932, so it was already old in my little-girlhood.

On a side note, I learned in adulthood that RLS is related to another favorite author of mine, D. E. Stevenson, who mentions him in several of her books. Her characters quote him sometimes, and his poems find their way into the subtext.

What I love about this poem is how well the rhythm of the verses mimics that of the activity they describe. They swing up into the sky, hang there for the tiniest fraction of a second, and swing back again. Your muscle memory will quickly join your voice, and you will find yourself reading the poem in your chair as if you were reading it on the swing. Up in the air and down!

The Swing

How do you like to go up in a swing,

Up in the air so blue?

Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing

Ever a child can do!

Up in the air and over the wall,

Till I can see so wide,

Rivers and trees and cattle and all

Over the countryside–

Till I look down on the garden green,

Down on the roof so brown–

Up in the air I go flying again,

Up in the air and down!

Robert Louis Stevenson

This poem must have been a favorite of Stevenson’s or his reading public, because both the cover of the book (above) and the frontispiece (below) are illustrated with a little girl on a swing, and The Swing is the first poem in the book!

I especially like this poem at a time when we are all, more or less, living inside the garden wall. Like the child on the swing, we may catch glimpses of the outer world, only to drop again behind the wall. But in this poem at least, there’s a garden within that wall, and the child on the swing is both excited by the wider vista and content to return to the confines of home.

Funny memory: A cow on the Oregon Trail

What a coincidence! I wrote this down four years ago and ran across it again this morning. Pretty sure many of us are feeling like this cow on the Oregon Trail!

Here’s my 9-year-old, discussing the perils of the Oregon Trail journey at dinner.
“Say this is a covered wagon.” (Picks up piece of biscuit and sets it on top of second piece of biscuit) “And this is the raft it’s floating on, on the river.”
Aligns a broccoli floweret with one end of the biscuit wagon-raft.
“This is the cow pulling it.”
Begins pulling the broccoli. “Mooooooooooooooooo.” (In a deep, cow voice.)
Pulls broccoli cow to edge of plate. Knocks it over the edge. “Good-bye cow.” (Grimace)
[Pause, in which the broccoli cow plops onto the “States of the US” placemat under the plate-river.]
“Hey” (Speaking once more in the deep cow voice) “I’m in Montana.”

My wish for you today is that if you do fall off the plate, you land somewhere lovely, like Montana!

Guesting on Paraclete Press – His Eye is On the Sparrow

Today I’m thrilled to be a guest on the Paraclete Press site blog, as we prepare for the release of my new board book, Piggy in Heaven.


“When Jesus is my portion, a constant friend is He. His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.” – Civilla Durfee Martin, His Eye is On the Sparrow, 1905

We don’t take small animals seriously. If you’re an adult who owns a hamster, you’re probably the only one you know. At the movies or in the library, it’s easy to find a horse or a dog saving the hero’s life or demonstrating wisdom and loyalty. Epic tales about small herbivores are hard to come by. We expect to find these little creatures in cartoons and picture books or serving nobly as the comic relief. In a serious story, you might find a canary or a perky rat accessorizing a character the author hopes will be eccentric.

I have been the fortunate human guardian of, at various times, two bunnies, seven hamsters, a rotating selection of fish, and one guinea pig. All of these animals are considered children’s pets – small, adorable, and inconsequential. Yet I learned important things from each of them, and these epiphanies built on each other into a staunch belief that the tiniest members of creation are as precious and intelligent as the largest and most obviously heroic. Caring for these little pets through their lifetime and at the moment of their death has taught me beautiful lessons. I will share three with you here.

Read More

My Literary Life in 2018

If you don’t have a ladder and you want fruit from a tree, you can lean your whole weight on its slender trunk and shake the tree. If you shake patiently, the fruit will tumble down to you.

This is the year the fruit has tumbled down to me! Almost daily, something encouraging happens, and no sooner have I picked up the gift and savored it, but another gift drops into my hands. In honor of these many blessings, I’ve decided to write a list of all the good things that have happened to me, Melinda Johnson, Writing, this year.

The Barn and the Book: The second book in the Sam and Saucer series just released this month! This is the sequel to Shepherding Sam and follows the boy and his corgi as Christmas approaches. You can read more about it here.

Painting Angels: At the publisher’s request, I drafted the third Sam and Saucer book, and it’s scheduled for release in June 2019! In Painting Angels, Sam and his nemesis, Macrina, square off.

Piggy in Heaven: Paraclete Press decided to publish the story I wrote about our guinea pig. It’s coming out on January 8, and I can’t wait! Read all about it. This book is available for preorder.

More to the Story: I launched my own picture-book review site, and within a few weeks, four publishers had requested reviews! That was exciting. I love writing about books, and I love books with pictures. Follow me here.

Letters to Saint Lydia audiobook edition: I’ve already shared this good news! I’m working with a wonderful young woman to create the Audible edition of my first book, and she’s amazing! This book is already available in paperback and Kindle editions.

The Book Project That Shall Not Be Named: This is a secret. Shhhhh. It’s an awesome project I’m working on with friends.

Abigail Counts Her Way Home: I wrote another board book (I like board books! I like pictures!) and it’s through the first round with a publisher, and I’ve got two more publishers to try for if need be.

Attributed Endorsement on Lights on the Mountain and The Dog in the Dentist Chair: Book reviewing is fun! I wrote advance reviews of both books, and you’ll find me in the “Editorial Review” section for these two!

First-ever Ancient Faith Women’s Retreat: This is an exciting accomplishment at work. I didn’t write it, but I did organize it. In fact, I invented it! I’m very excited to be hosting this national women’s gathering in just a few weeks. We sold out – filled the venue to the gills. It’s going to be wonderful.

Romanian edition of Letters to Saint Lydia: My first novel has been translated and just released in a beautiful Romanian edition from Editura Sophia! You can order it here. It’s exciting to be contributing to Orthodox Christian literature in Romania!

There are other projects percolating in my mind. I am so happy in the world of words that has been given to me!

Photo by Ian Baldwin on Unsplash

NEW! The Barn and the Book

First came Shepherding Sam – the story of a lonely, angry third-grader named Sam and Saucer, the wise and funny little corgi who befriends him. Sam and Saucer are back and getting ready for Christmas in The Barn and the Book, releasing today from Ancient Faith Publishing!

Barn and the Book cover high res file smallThe Barn and the Book

Sam wants to know if animals (especially Saucer!) can speak at midnight on Christmas Eve. Grace and Macrina are competing to write a story, and Elias is losing his patience. Meanwhile, Sister Anna hopes God will rescue her from teaching Sunday school. Christmas is coming, but hearts are full of secrets and frustrations. The Barn and the Book is a story about the traps we build when we try to see in the dark. We tumble into trouble and confusion on our own, but God can steer us clear of our traps and shine His kindly light into our darkness. This is a chapter book for independent readers aged 7-12, and a read-aloud story for the whole family.

Print, Ebook, and Audio Editions

The print edition of The Barn on the Book is available from the publisher and on Amazon. The ebook edition is available for Kindle and Nook, as an iBook, and on OrthodoxChristianEbooks.com.

Remember Book 1?

Meet Saucer the corgi and his boy Sam in the first book, Shepherding Sam! Sam’s Aunt Eva says he s like a tornado he causes a ruckus everywhere he goes. But Aunt Eva won t give up on Sam, and neither will Saucer, the monastery s corgi puppy. Saucer lives at the monastery, but he dreams of herding sheep. With no sheep in his life, Saucer tries to herd everyone else farm animals, nuns, and especially Sam. Sam doesn’t want to follow anyone, not even a funny puppy. But Saucer knows that if he just keeps trying, he can bring this lonely boy back to the flock.

Meet Ferdinand!

As these two books were being written, I sometimes joked about my imaginary corgi. But now I have a real one! This is Ferdinand – and no, we didn’t bring him home for “book research.” We just love corgis! Just like his imaginary counterpart, Ferdinand is funny, intelligent, loving, strong-minded, curious, and extremely fond of chewing socks! You’ll notice that his ears are flopped over in this picture, and that’s because it’s one of his baby pictures. Corgis are born with their ears flopped over, but they stand up and start swiveling around when the puppy is a few months old.

Ferdinand on the rock garden 9 29 17.jpg

Acts 16 Now and Then

Close up of metal chain hung across a pillar in a dark room

In one of those turns of thought that sometimes open like a door, I wondered this morning how the Philippian jailer and his conversion in Acts 16 might have been greeted if he were to try baptizing all his household today.

Then [Paul and Silas] spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their stripes. And immediately he and all his family were baptized. Now when he had brought them into his house, he set food before them and he rejoiced, having believed in God with all his household.

This is not the only time when an entire household was baptized. Just a few verses before this story, Lydia of Thyatira is baptized with all her household. As a successful business owner, her household likely included servants or slaves. The jailer’s family doubtless included a wife and children. In the modern instance, wouldn’t our first question be whether the central convert had imposed a chosen faith on a collection of dependents who had not chosen it?

Verses such as these are part of the argument for infant baptism, indicating a precedent whereby the “age of reason” or even basic egalitarian agency seem to be missing from the decision to become Christian. What can we make of that now, surrounded by voices declaring that everything, absolutely everything, should be a choice?

Today’s secular western culture would object to this baptism hastily and heartily. Did the jailer’s wife want to be baptized? Did he ask her? Even if he did ask her, did she really feel free to object if she wanted to? Were Lydia’s servants actually converted, or did they receive baptism in the same spirit as they received the roof over their heads and their inability to leave it of their own free will?

Little, if anything, is known about the actual historical people in question. We don’t know even the jailer’s name, let alone the identity of his family members, and Lydia’s household is equally cloaked under thousands of years of lost information. We can’t know what they thought, or why. Speculation is all that remains to us.

Thus, I speculate that this question of consent and freedom is wholly modern. And that it is modern not simply because, at least in the secular west, we no longer own slaves, we allow women to vote, and far more decision and intelligence are attributed to children now than may have been then. (One could argue that we attribute less to them, as they are boxed into a supervised and regimented existence long after their ancient counterparts would have been able to fend for themselves on the streets. But that is a topic for another day.)

The question of whether it was fair for the jailer, Lydia, and others to baptize their entire households is modern because it is based on a modern understanding of religion. Religion now is a legal right, a choice, an act of self-expression, and something considered safe to choose or not choose for oneself or others. In the time of Acts, religion could hardly be called by that name at all. It was almost a default – a powerful, expected force, something no one could or did imagine the world without. The idea of choosing a religion was more a question of whether you guessed right, whether you safely attached yourself and your loved ones to the real God, the right God, the God who could protect and save you and was attentively considering your every move and responding accordingly.

Seen in that light, God was as vital and ordinary as food or water. Stunned and convinced, the jailer would no sooner have decided to convert by himself than he would have chosen to provide any other necessity only for himself, while his household languished and died in want.

It reminds me, surprisingly, of an old Peter, Paul, and Mary recording of a folk song called, alternately, Bahamian Lullaby or All My Trials. The speaker in the song is a mother on her deathbed, comforting her children by reminding them that her suffering will be over soon, and that the Tree of Life and paradise are awaiting her. The religious imagery seems odd to me for song that became popular in the 1960s, when perceived conventions of every kind were overthrown. Yet there it is. And in this song is a line that speaks directly to the jailer and his family, and Lydia and her household.

“If religion were a thing that money could buy, the rich would live and the poor would die.”

If the jailer, the male and the wage-earner for his family, the only member with something approaching power, were to hear the Gospel and keep it to himself, it would not be a sign of respect for his family’s liberty or self-expression. It would be an act of selfishness, even cruelty, and a direct violation of the generous Christ he had so newly embraced.

This is what we have lost, I think. There is much of the old world that deserved to die, and perhaps nothing more so than slavery and oppression. But in our striving to avoid those old wrongs, we have formed the habit of avoiding too many other things besides. We are frightened of conviction, wary of acting on behalf of anyone but ourselves. It’s as if we no longer trust discernment, or truly believe there is anything beyond the tangible to discern. If everything is personal and relative, our sense of rightness, our faithfulness, somehow becomes a flaw.

Can we even imagine that moment of conversion? Could we step into the wretched prison and hear the hymns? Would we survive the earthquake and the suicidal urge to destroy ourselves before the destructive judgments of our peers can do it for us? What shattering beauty must have been his as the jailer risked his life to bring these prisoners home and bathe their wounds. The world as he understood it up to that point had ended. He had no precedent for men who praised God in shackles, who stayed when they could have escaped, and who offered him salvation when vengeance would have been understandable, even expected. He himself was likely outside the limits of his own imagining. If someone had asked him the day before whether he would risk his life to save two hymn-singing prisoners, how would he have answered? Who in his world could even have formed the question?

And so I conclude that our relativity has, ironically, made us rigid, unable, unwilling to peer outside the acceptable rut. It is our courage that suffers most, in this age of judgmental tolerance and litigated freedom. More even than physical courage, do we lack mental courage? Are we still able to conceive that what we cannot accept exists, that it is even possible for it to exist? Are we able to believe that the common judgment of reality is no more final and perfected now than it was when Paul and Silas lay in prison and were free?

-Photo by Daniel von Appen on Unsplash