Voices of Christmas

Posted November 20th, 2012

Voices of ChristmasMy editor at Zondervan asked if I was interested in writing a retelling of an Old Testament story like David and Goliath, or Noah and the Ark. I said no thanks. Neither interested me, but I thought it might be fun to figure out a fresh way to tell the Christmas story. What if I told the story in the voices of the characters who were central to it? That was the question that led me down the rabbit hole of my imagination. Voices of Christmas, a story in poetry, was the result.

Truth be told, this approach was not as big a leap as you might imagine. A couple of years earlier, I’d written the Easter story in a similar fashion. That book, titled At Jerusalem’s Gate, explored Easter from the points of view of priests, disciples, Pontius Pilate, Pilate’s wife, and a host of other characters one meets in the traditional story. The Christmas book, though, was unique in that it was told not only from the point-of-view of the characters, but was written strictly in their voices, as well. This approach takes the reader more deeply into the story. When you hear the character speak, you are better able to view the unfolding mystery of Christmas through each character’s eyes.

It’s always a bit weird trying to figure out what kind of language to use when writing about people who lived thousands of years ago, and who spoke a very different language than your own. But then again, that’s part of the challenge, and part of the fun.

Creating details of the environment was helped by research, and by drawing from notes I’d taken on a trip to Israel. There’s simply no substitute for walking on the same ground where your character’s trod.

As always, I strove to climb into the skins of my characters, and to view the world through their eyes. One thing I’d never contemplated, though, was climbing into the skin of an angel! It seemed only natural, though, because Gabriel is the one who introduces us to the core of the Christmas story: it is Gabriel who brings Mary the message of the Christ child, soon to be born through her.

Eric Velazquez

Voices of Christmas illustrator Eric Velazquez and I shared a stage last year at NCTE. He made a wonderful Gabriel!

Gabriel is one of my favorite characters in the Bible, and in this book. Illustrator Eric Velazquez used himself as the model for Gabriel, and I love the result!

I decided to arrange the poems sequentially, so that the story would move from prophecy to fulfillment. I wanted the story to unfold for the reader as is it were happening in real time. The hope was that the reader would feel a part of the story. To underscore that idea, I address the last poem to the reader. After introducing Gabriel, Mary, the shepherd, the Inn Keeper, three Magi, King Herod, and the rest, I ask the reader:

And who are you?
Not an angel, no.
Nor Herod.
But perhaps you are
a magi, mapping the miracle
on a chart of stars;
a shepherd
trading sleep
for a chance to seek
a golden child
in swaddling clothes;
a Simeon
who has hoped for a lifetime
to find the one called
Emmanuel, God with us.
Or are you like Mary,
prayerfully waiting
for the King of Kings
to be born in you?
Well, He is here!
Sing! Sing “O, Holy Night.”
Run toward His Light!

Once the story was complete, voice artist Craig Northcutt and I recorded the text. A bonus CD of that reading accompanies each copy of the book.

As I wrote and recorded Voices of Christmas, I imagined children and families gathered together, sharing these poems, one by one, as they count down the days of Advent.

A girl can dream, can’t she?

At Break of Day

Posted October 23rd, 2012

At Break of DayHow do you retell a story that’s been told a thousand times? How do you make it new, and fresh? Those were the questions I asked myself when I got the idea to write a creation story. But I didn’t get to that point on my own.

I hadn’t been sitting around thinking about writing any kind of creation story. It was nowhere in my file folder of ideas. But one of my publishers asked if I could apply myself to the retelling of a story from the Old Testament. They were thinking more like David and Goliath, or Noah and the Ark, but no bells went off in my head at the thought of those well-told tales. The creation story, though, was something I believed I could sink my teeth into. In other words, it was the greater challenge, and, as I’ve said elsewhere, I love a good challenge!

I opened the Bible and reread the creation story in Genesis, making notes as I went along. Apart from Genesis, I remembered several references to the creation story throughout the New Testament, as well, most especially in Hebrews. There it says “God…in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world.” In other words, the Son, Jesus, was involved in the creation. This idea is reiterated in other books of the Bible, as well.

The key, then, to telling this old story in a new way, was perspective. I decided to write this story from the points-of-view of both Father and Son.

At Break of Day

A detail from one of Paul Morin’s mixed-media paintings in At Break of Day.

My original text was more than matched by the textual, mixed-media illustrations of Paul Morin. He spoke life into each scene by creating mass, and depth. In one painting, for example, he imbedded lace in the shapes of flowers and butterflies, which he then painted over in brilliant colors. He laid pieces over a tree, as well, and used lace in the leaves to remarkable effect. This kind of texture lent great weight to the story.

At Break of Day made the CCBC Choices list, as well as the CBC Not Just for Children Anymore list. Reviewers said of the final product, “A lovely and poetic recasting of the Biblical creation story in a modern spirit…” (Kirkus) “Overall, a vigorous addition to the Creation canon.” (Booklist) “…I find myself once again prowling the children’s section, looking for magic, for lightening in a bottle. I may have found it in At Break of Day.” (Bookpage)

This title remains, to this day, one of my favorite picture books. It’s hard to choose a passage to share with you, but this one is special to me. Have you read this book already? If not, enjoy!

At Break of Day

The son could hardly wait for the fifth day to begin. At
dawn, he headed for the seashore. Then, while his father
watched, the son filled the seas with sharks and seals, starfish
and stingrays, whales and walruses, and short-finned and
long-finned creatures that glided through the clear water

The father nodded his approval. Then the son whispered,
and the word he whispered became a feather, and the
feather traveled on the warm wind of his breath.

In an instant, the whir of wings beating the air echoed
through field and forest, and scores of birds soared and
skimmed and swooped across the sky. The birds looked
left and right but could not find the place where the wind

Dark Sons

Posted August 21st, 2012

Dark SonsWhenever I’d sit in church listening to yet another sermon about Abraham and Isaac, I’d always think to myself, “Yeah, but what about Ishmael?” I’ve heard maybe three sermons about Ishmael in the last two years, but before then, I can’t remember ever having heard a single one, which, of course, made me curious. What was the deal with Ishmael? With every year that passed, my curiosity grew until finally, I grabbed a literary shovel and dug into the story myself.

What did I find? A racially and culturally diverse teen, jealous of his half-brother, estranged from his stepmother, abandoned by his father, and wrestling with his faith. This was all so familiar. I knew scores of boys like that. They’d walked the streets of every neighborhood I’d ever lived in. As Ishmael’s story got its hooks into me, I felt compelled to tell it.

Dark Sons is a novel-in-verse that tells two parallel stories. One is about Ishmael, son of Abraham, and the second is about Sam, a contemporary teen living in New York City, who is wrestling with similar issues. 

When I began working on the book, my intention was simply to tell Ishmael’s story. However, halfway through, I decided to create a parallel story that would underscore just how timely and relevant Ishmael’s thousands-of-years-old story really is.

Library of Congress

Signing books and posters at the Library of Congress. Definitely, one of my favorite things!

Dark Sons, as you might imagine, was a research-heavy book. I’m always extra careful whenever handling scriptural material and so, in addition to studying the Bible, concordances, atlases, various texts about daily life in ancient Israel, and the like, I traveled to New York to do additional research at Hebrew Union College, where I interviewed several Old Testament scholars and Genesis experts.

It’s always amazing to me what tiny bits of information can bring a story to life. Of course, I never know which bits I’ll end up using. For this book, those bits included the months of the Jewish calendar, feast days, weather patterns, and foods, among other things.

Besides the obvious task of painting the world of the story, I also had to work on staying in voice as I moved from Ishmael to Sam and back again. Call me crazy, but I relish the mental and emotional gymnastics of moving back and forth from one voice to another. I suppose it’s because I’m a sucker for a challenge!

I love the way writing stories gives me the opportunity to blend my own, sometimes pivotal experiences into the lives of the characters in my books. For example, in Dark Sons, on a day when Sam feels especially isolated and in despair, he catches sight of a sign trailed across the sky by an airplane, a sign that read “I am with you always —Matthew 28:20.” That’s something that actually happened to me, once. I was feeling particularly distressed and alone one day as I was wondering through Central Park, and something told me to look up. My breath caught, then I let out a long, slow sigh. I remember feeling comforted, not by the sign itself, but because it showed up, as it did, at exactly the moment I needed it most. In drafting Dark Sons, I got to pass that experience on, in a way. I love that.

I’ll close with the poem in question, titled “Signs.”

Looking to lengthen the distance
between me and home,
I train it to 59th Street,
jet through the subway doors
and run around Central Park
in no particular direction,
trying to leave my anger in the wind.
What’s it get you, anyway,
being mad at God?
“It’s not like You listen!”
I scream at him.
My dad’s gone,
my mom is a holy mess.
So where does that leave me, huh?
Alone. Like You care.”
Out of air
I collapse on the new grass,
blind to the explosion of spring green.
I blink up at the Etch A Sketch
of skyscrapers, gray on gray,
just the way I feel.
I rub the wetness from my eyes
and let them rest on the sky.
Then I see it.
A lane passing overhead
trailing a sign that says,
I AM WITH YOU ALWAYS.—Matthew 28:20
My heart rate slows.
I close my eyes,
whisper the familiar verse
In its entirety:
“‘I am with you always,
even to the end of the age.'”
I let the truth of it in,
feel my thoughts stop spinning
and calmly head back
to the subway.