This week I interview Laura Alary: a very dear friend, and a children’s author who has written a growing shelf of books. She takes both children and theology very seriously.
My kids and I totally dig her books. Since her new kids’ book Make Room: A Child’s Guide to Lent and Easter is coming out just in time for Lent, she agreed to an interview here on my blog.
And it is my first time as interviewer, so she’s mighty gracious too.
Interview: Laura Alary
GNH: When we first met you were wrapping up your Ph.D. in New Testament. How did you make the journey from biblical scholar to writer of children’s books?
Laura Alary: It may seem like a strange leap to make, but it happened very naturally. Writing a Ph.D. thesis had a strange effect on me. While I consider it a privilege to have had the opportunity to do that kind of focused work, the constant scrutiny and criticism—needing to edit and defend my words so carefully—left me unable to write. Even something as simple as a thank-you note left me struggling to find the right words. This grieved me because I had always written for pleasure and feared I had lost that ability. One day I decided to try writing a story for children, simply as a way of trying to find my way back to the joy I used to experience when I put pen to paper. My first efforts were awful, but they did get me unstuck.
At the same time this was happening, I was preparing for the birth of my first child. While my colleagues were interviewing for academic positions, I found myself wondering how all those years I had spent studying were going to work their way into this new vocation of nurturing and shaping a human life.
GNH: That sounds like quite a puzzle. Scholar, writer, mother, all pulling in different directions. What happened?
Laura Alary: The pieces came together one year during Advent when I was teaching an online course and several students got into an argument about the historicity of the biblical infancy narratives. They became quite bitter with one another. As I attempted to moderate the discussion, I found myself thinking of my own little boy and pondering how I could help him discover the wonder and truth of scripture in a way that would allow him to be curious and open to new ideas, not defensive and fearful.
Out of that pondering came Is That Story True? That was my first published book for children and I have been writing ever since—and loving it!
GNH: Very cool. Your new book invites children into the Church’s seasons of Lent and Easter. Some might think Lent would be kind of a downer for kids. How did you approach it?
Laura Alary: Guiding children through Lent is tricky. All that imagery of self-sacrifice and death can be quite frightening and easily misunderstood, especially by young people who are still forming their sense of self and identity. I remember feeling terrified by the message that I needed to let go of my self and die in order to follow Jesus. Deep inside, I had all sorts of hopes and dreams for what I wanted to do and be, but the message I kept hearing was that this was selfish and wrong.
When I had children of my own, I knew I needed a different approach to Lent. I wanted to retain the traditional themes and stories and symbols, but in a way that would not feel so negative and restrictive.
GNH: Sounds like this book has been brewing for a while. Did the books you wrote along the way contribute to the process?
Laura Alary: My first step in this direction was a story I wrote based on an Indian folk tale about a little boy who continually gives away things that come to him because he encounters people who need them more. In the end, this habit of generosity brings him what he most desires. Jesse’s Surprise Gift was an attempt to help children think about letting go and emptying out as positive things—making space for new possibilities.
Another shift happened a few years later, during Lent. I had been reading Praying in Color by Sybil McBeth and wanted to share her ideas with my children. So one night we put on some quiet music, talked about people we knew who were sick or lonely, and started drawing prayers for them. I was struck by the joyful quality of the stillness that settled over the children as they became absorbed in their work. They lost themselves—in the best possible way—in their prayer.
GNH: How did that play into writing about Lent?
Laura Alary: Once again, I found myself thinking about all the other ways that emptying out and making room can be cleansing and life-giving.
For me, this was a new and wonderful vantage point from which to view Lent. Instead of being about limits—what is forbidden or unclean or wrong—the season became about opening up and creating space. The more I thought about it, and the more I meditated on the story of Christ in the wilderness, the more I felt that Lent really was about spaciousness—freedom, choice, openness to new ways of seeing and being, and above all, the awesome expansiveness of divine love.
GNH: I like that. The Church’s calendar graciously insists on making an opening, a space or time where there is room to ponder things that matter. Most of us wouldn’t bother otherwise.
Laura Alary: Make Room: A Child’s Guide to Lent and Easter is the fruit of my wondering and pondering. It presents a positive view of Lent as a special time for creating a welcoming space for God and others. It is full of practical ways children can experience the season with all their senses, and it connects these activities with specific moments in the story of Jesus, so that children can see for themselves that the things we do to mark this season are not ends in themselves, but are part of a life of following and imitating Christ.
GNH: It looks to me like writing is really a mission for you. What would you say you hope your books will do in the lives of their readers?
Laura Alary: In my book Mira and the Big Story, one of the characters says that the best stories make us bigger on the inside; they stretch our minds and hearts. That is what I hope my stories will do. I want to encourage children to ask questions, to wonder, to feel their connection to other people and the world around them, to experience awe, and to find holiness in the ordinary.
GNH: To what degree does your own family’s life weave its way into your books? And how do your kids respond to finding their experiences reflected in your books?
Laura Alary: Sometimes my family life comes out very explicitly. For example, How Do I Pray for Grandpa? was written one summer when my father was extremely ill, and my sister-in-law had been diagnosed with cancer. My children were quite tickled to see themselves in that book, though they became rather possessive of it and objected when the illustrations did not look like them! I borrow ideas from other people’s families too, though. The idea for Victor’s Pink Pyjamas came from a conversation with a good friend whose son wanted to paint his room pink.
GNH: When your children were at the age for which you mostly write, what books did your children most love to have you read to them?
Laura Alary: There are too many to count! Bagels from Benny by Aubrey Davies was a favourite; so was Something from Nothing by Phoebe Gilman. They also loved the Frog and Toad stories and the George and Martha books.
GNH: Your books always deal with really useful theological issues at a child’s level. How would you describe the kinds of issues that prompt you to write?
Laura Alary: As a writer, I see myself as more of a teacher than an entertainer (though obviously I want children to enjoy my books!). Like any good teacher, I try to strike a balance between reflection the experience of children—what they are thinking about and wondering about—and stretching them beyond their own experience. I’m not sure there is any particular kind of issue that prompts me to write. I just try to be observant and to listen carefully to what children (my own and others) are wondering about. One of my favourite stories was written as a response to my son when he was trying to figure out where various Palaeozoic creatures would fit in the biblical creation account!
GNH: Who are your favorite, or role model, writers in your genre? Do you have living or literary mentors?
Laura Alary: I love the exquisite storytelling of Geraldine McCaughrean and Celia Barker Lottridge (both of whom do wonderful retellings of biblical stories as well as many other traditional tales); Madeleine L’Engle inspires me with her powerful imagination and fearless blending of science and theology; I admire Jon Muth for his wisdom and simplicity; Rukhsana Khan and Idries Shah are both gifted in the use of metaphor, and can make a simple story mean much more than it appears on the surface.
GNH: Do you have any advice for other parents who want to help their children engage with the faith in the way you do in your books?
Laura Alary: My biggest piece of advice is this: do not limit yourself to explicitly Christian books. There is a great blog by Hanna Schock called Picture Book Theology which celebrates the wisdom and wonder of “secular” picture books. Check it out.
GNH: As you look to the future, what can you say about the issues you are hoping to write on? Upcoming projects?
Laura Alary: I’m working on an Advent companion to Make Room. I’m also putting the finishing touches on a story about Lydia (the character from Acts), written from the point of view of her granddaughter. We need more good picture books about biblical women, especially those whose stories are often overlooked. I spend a lot of time asking myself, what stories need to be told that are not being told? I am drawn to stories that emphasize interconnectedness—the powerful bond we share as human beings. I’m also very keen on helping children explore the relationship between science and religious faith. But most of the time my ideas come to me out of the blue, so I can never be sure what my next project will be!
In a week I’ll be giving away a copy of Laura’s new book Make Room, to a randomly selected person who leaves a comment on this post! If you have a question for Laura, ask it. If not, let us know what your favorite children’s picture book is…
Laura Alary is a writer, teacher, storyteller, and mother of three. Born and raised in Halifax, Nova Scotia, she moved to Toronto for graduate studies and has lived in Ontario ever since. Laura studied Classics at Dalhousie University and theology at the Toronto School of Theology, graduating with an M.Div. from Knox College and a Ph.D. in New Testament from The University of St. Michael’s College. These days she writes picture books, teaches online courses, works as Christian Education Coordinator at a local congregation, and shares stories of all kinds with her own children.
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Now go buy her books. You and your kids will love them.