Today we have a Q & A with author, Glenys Nellist. Glenys serves as the Children's Ministry Coordinator for the West MI Conference UMC. Below she dives deep into how she approached writing this Easter book for children.
To Enter the Giveaway: Her publisher is giving away a FREE copy of this book to one person who comments on the post on the CEF Facebook Page before 8 p.m. CST on February 18th. Please note, entrants must have a street address in the USA. The winner will be contacted by Facebook messenger.
Glenys, thank you for joining us on the blog today! You've written a number of books for children. I'm curious, what are your favorite children's books and how have they influenced your writing?
Thank you for having me Christine. Wow, I have so many favorite children’s books! But two in particular have influenced my writing. When my four sons were little, their favorite book of all time was The Jolly Postman, by Janet and Allan Ahlberg. It told the story, in rhyme, of a postman who rode his bike delivering letters to Nursery Rhyme characters. As if that wasn’t creative enough, the ingenious feature of the pages being real envelopes containing the letters made this text a forever-favorite. My sons loved taking the letters out and reading them. I didn’t know it at the time, but this little book would become the inspiration behind my Love Letters from God series.
The second book that heavily influenced my writing style is The Jesus Storybook Bible, by the prolific British author, Sally Lloyd Jones. I distinctly remember reading this amazing book when it was first published in 2007 and savoring every word. The way she shared the gospel message in an unforgettable fairytale-like-style captured my soul. I knew, then, that I wanted to write like her.
Speaking of writing for young children, sharing the stories of Holy Week can be a challenge because of the violence of the cross and because the stories are laden with theological implications. How did you approach this?
Thank you, Christine, for this opportunity to discuss the theology behind Easter Love Letters from God. Let me preface your question with this: I know that every person picks up a story and reads the text through their own theological lens. It’s quite impossible not to. Equally impossible, then, is the enormous task of an author who tries to placate each reader. And so rather than tie myself in knots, trying to please everyone, I decided, early on in my writing, that I would try to please God. By that I mean that in my writing, of this book and every other text, I would rely heavily on prayer, and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. I prayed that God would guide my pen and my words, so that what I wrote would please God, who would work through my words and touch the reader’s heart. In this way, I would hope that readers might be able to see beyond the perimeters of their theological lens, into the wider scope of what God might do through the text.
The trickiest part of the Easter story is, of course, the crucifixion and I know that some of my ministerial colleagues prefer not to share any details of that with a young audience. As I wrote this part of the Easter story, I really wanted to emphasize the humanity of Jesus by exploring some of the pain, the feelings, and emotions he would have experienced. Because of this, the book does contain reference to the nails and the crown of thorns, and so even though it’s recommended for 4-8 year-olds, every adult must decide whether or not it is suitable to share with young children.
What theological decisions did you make and how did you make them?
I know that the book contains several features that might be questioned, particularly by more liberal audiences, and perhaps by some of my UMC colleagues. Let me preface this question, also, by sharing that I was born and raised in the Methodist church and am proud to belong to this denomination that stands for inclusivity. That being said, here’s three questions that I anticipate might be uppermost in some minds:
Why does the book use the term ‘Father’ to refer to God, when gender-neutral language is so important in our denomination?
The text for Easter Love Letters from God was written several years ago, before I became cognizant of the importance of using gender-neutral language for God. However, even though it is a goal of mine to strive to use inclusive language in all future writing, I felt that the Gethsemane scene in this book, which contains the heart-felt plea from Jesus, to God, simply could not be written any other way. In this story Jesus is on his knees, in the darkness and cold of a Gethsemane evening and cries out: “Father, are you there? Do I have to die? Is there any other way we can teach the world about heaven?” Consider the alternatives here. If I had substituted Father for God, that tender and vital connection between parent and son would be lost. How about Mother, are you there? or Parent, are you there? I was not willing to use either of these alternatives and trust that the reader can appreciate why.
In the resurrection story, why do you have the birds sharing the good news that Jesus is alive, rather than the women at the tomb, whose witness is so important?
The resurrection story contained in this book is the third that I have written in the Love Letters Series, and I had to find a new angle from which to approach the resurrection narrative. I had already explored Mary Magdalene’s beautiful encounter in Girls' Love Letters from God and I suddenly thought about how creation herself might have reacted to this wondrous event. After all, if Jesus said that rocks could cry out in praise, and the Psalms contain reference to the hills and oceans singing and trees clapping their hands, then it stands to reason that all creation, along with the birds who nested above that sealed tomb, must have known that something amazing had happened that marvelous morning. I know that as the author of these words, I am obviously biased, but I just can’t help feeling the Holy Spirit as I read this portion of the book:
Jesus, King of the whole world, was alive again! The trees clapped their hands. The flowers danced for joy. The birds flew high over the fields and carried the most wonderful news that the world has ever heard—Jesus is alive!
The wonderful illustrations by Sophie Allsopp complement the text by showing, not only the birds on the wing, but Mary Magdalene running toward Jesus with joy. Of course, Mary was the first human to hear and share that good news but the birds, the trees, the oceans, the hills, and all of God’s creation must have been singing glorious praise.
Why does the final letter from God read as a sort of sinner’s prayer, inviting children into God's family, when in the UMC, it is by baptism that we are incorporated to the Church - God's family?
As a United Methodist, the sacrament of baptism is one of my favorite services. I truly feel the presence of the Holy Spirit as we welcome a little one into the church. I know, without doubt, that as the water is poured, in a mysterious and wonderful way, God’s powerful presence surrounds and infills the child. But I do not remember my baptism. I know that my parents faithfully brought me to the altar. I know that I was incorporated into the church family as a baby. But I do not remember it. What I do remember, however, is one Sunday evening when I was about ten years old and I attended a service in a little red brick Methodist church in England. I was with my older sister and the preacher was a woman. I don’t remember what words were said, but the invitation was given to come to the altar, to kneel before God, and invite God to be part of my life. A little hesitant, a little scared, we went together, my sister and I, and knelt there as the preacher placed her hand on our heads. I don’t remember what she said, but I’m sure that her words might have echoed these, which are the ones contained in the final love letter of the book:
Jesus, I believe in you. Teach me more about how you want me to live. Thank you for showing me what love looks like. Thank you for dying on the cross and for coming back to life, for forgiving me, and showing me the way to heaven. Amen.
I remember feeling special as I rode the bus home that night. I thank God that I have that memory. I thank God that someone, called by God, called out to me, so that I could respond to God’s great invitation myself. Was I part of God’s family before that evening? Yes, of course! Would I still belong to God’s family had I not knelt at the altar that evening? Yes, of course! But thank God for that preacher, for the invitation, for the call I felt so strongly and was able to respond to of my own accord. This is what I hope to do in the final love letter of the book—to offer the young reader a chance to say yes to God, to respond to that mysterious, holy call, and perhaps to feel their heart strangely warmed, as John Wesley did. As an author, to deny the reader the opportunity to RSVP to God would be to leave my book unfinished.
Glenys, thank you for sharing how and why you approached the Easter story for young children. For the final question, I'd like to ask you about the place on the last page where children are invited to write back to God. What do you hope they will say?
Let me answer this with a story…
When the first Love Letters from God book was released, I was sitting on the sofa with my little grandson. He was only three. We reached the end of the book, where the child is invited to write back to God. He was so excited at the thought of joining Jesus’ team and wanted to write back to God immediately. “Xander, you can do that when you’re older.” I said. After all, he could barely hold a crayon! But he was insistent, and so I gave in. “Okay, what do you want to say to God?” I asked. Since he was only three, I wasn’t very confident about his response. I was sure that he wouldn’t know what to say at all. But his three-word reply was precious and perfect and was, perhaps, the only thing God would ever want to hear, from anyone.
“I love you.” Xander said. It was as if the curtains opened and God stepped into the room that Thursday afternoon to gently whisper, See Glenys, you’re never too young to say yes to Me.
So what do I hope children will say to God? It doesn’t matter what they say. What matters is that they respond for themselves to our great God, the One who sent Jesus to the world, the One who reaches down, calls out to us by name, writes a love letter on our hearts and then waits, hoping, for our reply.