Episode 116: Interview with Laura Alary and Discussion of Her New Book

In this episode we talk with Laura Alary about her new book that launches today: Here-The Dot We Call Home and her many other books.

Our Guest: Laura Alary

Laura Alary is a writer, educator, and storyteller. She has loved books since she was barely big enough to clamber up the steps of the book mobile that rolled into her neighborhood once a week. These days she is happy to be surrounded by books in the library where she works, and she delights in writing stories that make us bigger on the inside. Among her recent books are What Grew in Larry’s GardenSun in My Tummy, and The Astronomer Who Questioned Everything. Laura grew up by the ocean in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and also spent many hours exploring the beaches of Prince Edward Island—one of her favorite spots on this dot we call home. She now makes her home in Toronto, where she likes to walk by the lake and think about how she can be a better ancestor.  

Books Discussed in This Episode:

Transcript with Links:

Terrie:

Welcome to “Books that Spark,” a podcast for parents and caregivers, celebrating books, that spark imagination, emotion, questions, and discussion, leading to teachable moments with our kids. Today, we have a special guest, Laura Alary, and she has written several books and a brand new one is coming out today. Thank you, Laura, for joining us.

Laura:

Well, it’s my pleasure, Terrie. Thank you for inviting me.

Terrie:

Well, first of all, of course, we have to talk about your newest book. Would you tell us a little about that one?

Laura:

Yeah, I’d be happy to. This is actually the first time I’ve had a chance to speak about it. So I’m excited. So Here begins with a little girl at home and she says, “This is my home. I live here, but I am not the first.” She’s noticed all of these little clues that tell her that somebody else lived in that place before her, you know. She sees a little bit of graffiti on the baseboard or there’s footprints and a date pressed into the concrete in the sidewalk outside, or a swing that somebody’s left in the tree. And all of these little hints spark wondering: somebody’s lived here before; is someone else going to live here after me? Will they look after my special places? What will I leave behind for them? So the question starts very small and local, but then they start getting bigger and her wondering kind of carries her back in time and then out into space until her idea of home has actually stretched to include the entire earth and basically the whole story of human inhabitation. So it’s a little book, but it’s about some very big things. The environment, stewardship, hope, and I guess what it means to be both a descendant and an ancestor.

Terrie:

I love that. Yeah, we’ve lived overseas in Asia. And one of the things I’ve noticed is the American mindset or the Western mindset is often very individualistic, but the Asian mindset is more corporate, more group oriented. And so I love that the book helps us go to that place to realize we are stewards, but also we are part of something bigger than ourselves. And I really love that.

Laura:

Thank you. I was just going to say, that’s really interesting that you’ve connected that with your experience in Asia, because I have also been thinking a lot about indigenous wisdom and the whole idea of the seven generations. You know, the decisions we make now we make in the awareness that they’re going to affect generations further on. So that is a North American thing, but indigenous rather than Western.

Terrie:

Oh, interesting. I’d never heard that. Now the Bible refers to, I think four generations sometimes in some of the scriptures and then many generations, of course, a thousand generations for the blessings of God. But yeah, the Hebrew mindset is a corporate mindset in a lot of ways.

Laura:

Yeah. This consciousness that we’re embedded in a larger flow of history, it’s not just about us right now.

Terrie:

Yes. I think it’s wonderful. And I love teaching our children. Stewardship is such an important thing to do, being responsible for what kind of an earth we’re leaving for the next generation. So yeah, it’s very sweet. It’s a very cute book. And like you said, has some big things to talk about with your kids. So I love that.

Laura:

Thank you.

Terrie:

Well, I know you have several other books, and I have featured one of your books on my podcast before, and that’s your advent book, Look. I’ve talked about it a little bit. Would you like to cover some of the different books that you’ve had published already?

Laura:

Sure. I can do that. Here is–I actually had to go back last night and count cause, I wasn’t quite sure–Here is number 14. I have pretty wide-ranging interests personally. And I guess my books reflect that some of them are explicitly faith-based. You mentioned Look: A Child’s Guide to Advent and Christmas. That one’s actually part of a series. There’s also Make Room: A Child’s Guide to Lent and Easter. And then more recently Breathe: A Child’s Guide to Ascension, Pentecost, and the Growing Time. Those are all from Paraclete press. I also have a collection of stories from the Bible called Read, Wonder, Listen, and that’s published by Woodlake books. That was a real labor of love for me. There’s, I think, there’s 105 stories in that collection. So it was a big enterprise. It took me the better part of a year to write it.

Terrie:

That one–I want to mention something. I was reading part of that one the other day. And if parents are listening and they’re thinking, oh, another book of Bible stories. This one is very unique to me. It’s more poetic and I don’t even know how to describe it. It’s more devotional in nature. Not that it is a book of devotionals, but it’s more devotional and poetic to me in the way you tell the stories. It reminded me of the Singer Trilogy by Calvin Miller. Have you read the singer trilogy?

Laura:

No, I haven’t. I’m curious now though.

Terrie:

It’s really good. It’s a very poetic retelling of the gospel’s, Acts, and Revelation. And that’s what I thought of when I read Read, Wonder, Listen. It just seems more of, instead of just a basic storytelling, it’s got more of an emotion to it, more imagery in there. And I don’t know, it’s just unique. So I just wanted parents to know that about it. It’s not like your typical, in my opinion, anyway, your typical book of Bible stories. It’s much more, I don’t know, artistic in the way you’ve written. It’s beautiful.

Laura:

Thank you. I really appreciate that feedback. When the publisher approached me about it, they said, okay, we’re aiming at sort of seven to 10 years for age range. And I just find age range is so difficult. Like it depends so much on the child and with this one, that was the kind of target that I aimed for. But I do think that they work as read-alouds for younger children. And what I found with that book is a lot of adults, including clergy, tend to buy it because they find that some of the perspective in the stories is just a little bit different and it gives them a new view of some older or more familiar text. Yeah. Just opens up new possibilities.

Terrie:

That’s a good way to put it.

Laura:

I was going to say other books, if I could just sort of hop back there for a second, have a lot of interests in science and the history of science and biography as well. So my two newest books, I had two come out in the spring. One is called Sun in My Tummy and it’s again, you use the word poetic, it’s kind of a lyrical introduction to photosynthesis, and then there’s The Astronomer Who Questioned Everything, which is a picture book biography of Mariah Mitchell, pioneering American astronomer. So I’m pretty excited about those two. They’re still quite fresh,

Terrie:

Right? Oh, what I meant to ask, when does your book launch that’s coming out that we were talking about at the beginning? The one about Here, the home. Yeah.

Laura:

Yeah. It launches on September 6th. That’s right. Yeah. It’s certainly available now for pre-order and as far as I know, it has arrived in the Paraclete Press warehouse. I don’t have my copy of it yet, but I have seen photos of it, so I know it exists.

Terrie:

All right. Good. Some of your other books like Mira, is it Mira? Myra and the big MI Mira. Okay. Mira and the Big Story, Is that Story True. Those books go to look at the power of story and the importance of story throughout the ages. Would you like to talk about those a little bit?

Laura:

Sure. Is that Story True? was the first book I published and that again was with Woodlake books. I’m always grateful to them for giving me an opportunity to get started. And that book in particular was a bit of a risk for them because it’s unusual. It’s a book about stories and the different way stories can be true, whether or not the events they tell actually happened. So it’s a little girl and her mother and every night they read stories before bed. And the little girl Maggie says to her mother, you know, they’ve read whatever it is. And she says, is that story true? And so then they talk about what that might mean. Like sometimes a story accurately describes things that really happened. Sometimes it gives you insight into somebody’s character can be true that way. Sometimes it’s totally made up, but it really resonates with an experience that you’ve had. So again, I was just kind of wanting to get readers of all ages to break out of this mindset that says, if it didn’t really happen, it’s not true. So it was an unusual kind of manuscript. And I had a hard time finding a publisher who was willing to try it, but Woodlake went for it. So that was the first and then Mira and the Big Story is also–that’s one that I keep coming back to personally, because it says so much to me about, I guess, it reflects my own spirituality very deeply. It is kind of a fable, but it’s a story about how stories affect us, the kind of stories we tell, they shape us the way we see other people, the way we see our place in the world. So in that one, Mira is a little girl who lives in a village on one side of a river. And on the other side of a river, there’s another village. And the people in both villages have their own kind of origin stories, how they came to be living in that territory. The stories are good to a point, but on both sides, they’ve kind of hardened into this literalism that excludes anybody else. So the villagers end up fighting with one another because each side says we belong here because this valley is a gift to us. We are the chosen ones, so you don’t belong. And they’re at this horrible impasse, but Mira has this quality that I value very highly. And that’s curiosity. So she’s been told, okay, these people are other, they’re not like us, but she’s really curious about them. So she finds her way across the river, and she actually meets a little boy and she discovers, oh, lo and behold, he’s actually like her in many ways. And he’s also curious about her. And so she goes back and she has all these questions and she takes them to a trusted elder. And she says, I don’t understand, like I’ve heard these stories about us and how we’re so special and we belong here, but the others don’t, and now I just don’t know what to think. And so the elder says to her, “Mira, there are stories that make us bigger on the inside. They stretch our minds and our hearts. And then there are stories that constrict us and make us smaller. So when you hear a story, you have to ask yourself, what is this story doing to me?” Then he proceeds to tell her a story that he says is big enough for everyone. And that is the cosmic story and story of an interconnected universe. And, so that book–it’s funny. It came out in, I think it was published in 2013. So it’s been around for a while, but every so often there’ll be this kind of new surge of interest in it. And I still really love it. So I’m always excited when somebody discovers it or is interested in reading it.

Terrie:

Well, when I used to teach literature, American Lit, I would have my students start with the different origin stories from the different tribes, and we would talk about the Genesis story. We would talk about how the different tribes have their origin stories and discuss the differences, the similarities, the way that when we get away from the Bible, the stories morph and change slightly throughout history. We see that, and often there is a common chord going through all the stories. So I thought this was a fun book. I would love to have used it in my classroom, even though I taught high school, you know, I always brought picture books into my class when I could just because I think they have such important things in such a compact package, you know, so…

Laura:

Oh, I agree. I completely agree,

Terrie:

So I would’ve definitely brought that into my classroom and we would’ve opened some discussions about that, but I also love, because we do need to talk with our kids about what is truth and understanding how to discern truth, how to discern fiction and nonfiction when they’re developing in their literature that they’re reading. And so is that story true? I love that because we can always glean lessons from a fictional story. We can see the truth behind a story, and so helping children to develop that discernment is such a wonderful gift. And so I love that your books have this deepness to them that help children to really have a conversation with their parents about some important things. And then of course, the Sun in My Tummy, just to make photosynthesis into a story is just fun. so…

Laura:

The illustrations are so wonderful. I love that.

Terrie:

Yeah, they’re really cute. I think it’s adorable. Okay. And what other books do you have?

Laura:

Let me see. Well, I have a couple others older ones from Woodlake. Jesse’s Surprise Gift, Victor’s Pink Pyjamas. How Do I Pray for Grandpa? Oh, another one that came out just at the start of the pandemic. I had a big launch party plan for it, I was going to give out tomato plants and, anyway, it’s called What Grew in Larry’s Garden. And it’s actually based on a true story that I have to- now I need to define what I mean by that. It’s based on a real person. Larry Zacharko, who is a teacher in Toronto, he’s retired now, but he did this tomato project with his students where they would start heirloom tomato plants from seed and tend them, there was actually a greenhouse at their school and they would tend them and measure them and basically care for them. And then he would spring on them what the project was really about. They would have to give the plants away to somebody in their neighborhood, but it couldn’t be somebody they already knew. Well, it had to be somebody they sort of crossed paths with, but didn’t know, but someone they thought either deserved or needed a plant for some reason. And then the kids also had to write a letter to that person explaining this is why I chose to give the plant to you. And he showed me some of the letters, not only letters that his students had written, but letters they received in response from people who had gotten those gifts. And they were very moving for a lot of the students. It was terrifying to do this. To have to go up to a stranger basically, and say, “Hey, here’s a plant. You don’t know me,” but some really beautiful connections grew out of that. And anyway, so that’s…

Terrie:

That’s wonderful. So how did you hear about the story?

Laura:

In the newspaper actually, it was just the kind of local events column. And the other part of the story is, it wasn’t just about him and his students. He’d actually had a conflict with his neighbor about the height of a fence, because the neighbor had put one of these monster fences in and it was blocking the light on the tomatoes. And the neighbor’s fence was too tall, like, according to city bylaws. So they’d gone to the committee of adjustment and that doesn’t sound all that interesting, but when Larry went to the committee, he made this impassioned speech saying, “This is what’s at stake. This is what my tomatoes are for.” And the committee was convinced. And so they said to his neighbor, the fence has to come down. Anyway, it was kind of a David and Goliath sort of story. And I thought, “Hey, I like this.” And I didn’t think about turning it into a book, but I found the article online and I shared it on Facebook just because I thought it was a great story and people might enjoy it. And I had two friends message me and say, “Ooh, this would make a good children’s book.” And I thought, “Hey, you know, thank you. I think it just might.” So that, yeah, that turned out to be my first book with Kids Can Press, and that’s a relationship that’s developed since then. So

Terrie:

That’s wonderful. Oh, I love it. All right, I usually ask most of my guests, I haven’t done it in a while, but because you’re a librarian I have to ask you, are there some books that you would recommend that every child read? Whatever their age, and you can decide if you want to just stick with picture books or if you want to talk about different levels of books. And if you have a book that you would recommend for parents.

Laura:

Yeah. So it’s so hard. There’s so many, right,

Terrie:

Right.

Laura:

Okay. So the first thing that comes to mind, I do have picture books on the brain, I must say. So it’s pretty hard for me to name my favorite picture book, but if I had to do it, I would have to say, it’s Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña. Are you familiar with that one?

Terrie:

I’m not, oh my goodness. I haven’t read that one.

Laura:

Whoa. Okay. Put it on your must-read list. So it’s about this little boy and his nana. They come out of church one day and it’s raining, and they have to get on the bus, and so he’s kind of complaining about this, because you know, his friends are, oh, they’re going off to lunch somewhere, they’re getting drives. And there they are slogging onto the bus, and his nana says, you’re lucky. Like not everybody gets to ride the bus. And then she turns this ordinary and kind of unwelcome bus trip into an adventure just because of how she approaches it and how she looks at it. So she shows him how to pay attention to the people around him. And it totally transforms this experience. And then there’s this little surprise twist at the end where you see where they’re going. I mean, I love all of Matt de la Peña’s books.

Laura:

I think he’s got new one coming out, but I think this is always going to have a special place in my heart. And reading him for me is like kind of a masterclass in writing. But his books are, they’re very compassionate and they’re moving, but without being sentimental, they’re truthful, they’re never condescending, and there’s always just that little twist of humor or adventure in them. Anyway, this is a beautiful, beautiful book, and I go back to it over and over. Another one that has been on my mind lately is by Elin Kelsey, it’s called, You Are Never Alone. She’s got a number. I think the first one of hers that I read is called You Are Stardust, which is also, they’re both published both by Owlkids, and beautifully illustrated by Soyeon Kim, both of the books are about a theme that’s really important to me, kinship between people and the natural world. So the more than human world, the way we are connected to other living things and to the Earth and its processes. I think what I really love about You Are Never Alone is that it’s particularly hopeful and reassuring. So its message kind of coincides with what I’m trying to say with here as well. This big, beautiful planet is alive and it’s, we have to look after it, but it’s also looking after us. So this is sort of the other half of the other piece of the puzzle. I guess she emphasizes that the Earth is resilient and generous. There’s a beautiful quality of hopefulness about this book. And there’s also a book that she’s written for grownups called Hope Matters: Why Changing the Way We Think is Critical to Solving the Environmental Crisis.

Laura:

And I’ve been working my way through that one this Summer, and it really spoke to me because climate anxiety is real. I feel it, our kids feel it, but what she argues in this book is telling ourselves these apocalyptic narratives and sort of immersing ourselves in doom just generates despair. And that has the exact opposite effect to what we need, which is action, and that terror, whether it’s in adults or in children is actually not a good motivator for action. It tends to make us feel hopeless and helpless. So this book, Hope Matters, I found it’s honest, it’s truthful, it doesn’t, you know, hide its head in the sand, but it also says there are people working around the world towards solutions. We can contribute to that. So whether you are five years old or 95 years old, there are things that you can do and you’re not alone in this. So it’s been a very encouraging and soul soothing book for me. And the picture book You Are Never Alone, I think does the same thing for young children.

Terrie:

Thank you. Well, I appreciate your time. Time has flown. Thank you for being here today and for sharing with us. And I look forward to maybe talking with you again later when you have another book come out, this has been fun.

Laura:

It’s been a pleasure, Terrie. Thank you.

Terrie:

Thank you for joining us for “Books that Spark,” a podcast, celebrating books, that spark imagination, emotion, questions, and discussion. As we disciple our children and help them follow Christ with their whole hearts. If you would like to connect with Laura, you can reach her at her website, LauraAlary.ca. If you would like to connect with me, you can reach me at terriehellardbrown.com. I’d love for you to sign up for my mailing list. When you do, you receive several free items, as well as getting notifications when I post a blog post or an episode of this podcast. You also get my monthly newsletter, which now includes a book club. In the book club, I cover a board book, a picture book, but also a chapter book and some books for middle schoolers and high schoolers, as well as a book picked just for you and discussion questions or lesson plans to go with some of the books each month. You’ll find quality books to share with your children, whatever age they are, and to enjoy yourself as well.

Terrie:

In addition to that, I’ve added one more new item in my newsletter, and that is a devotional to go along with a picture book. You can read the picture book with your child, and then I have a devotional that you can talk over with your child and pray together. And again, that comes out once a month, if you’re on my mailing list and you can sign up at my website, TerrieHellardBrown.com. I hope you enjoyed this episode. And if you did please like or share. Let your friends know about us so that we can grow and others can know we’re here. We really appreciate you.

Your Host: Terrie Hellard-Brown

Terrie Hellard-Brown writes and speaks to help children and adults find God’s purpose and plan for their lives. She teaches workshops and writes devotional books, children’s stories, and Christian education materials.

Her podcast, Books that Spark, reviews children’s books that spark imagination, emotion, questions, and discussion leading to teachable moments with our kids. Her podcast posts each Tuesday morning.

Her blog posts discuss living as a disciple of Christ while parenting our children. She challenges us to step out of our comfort zones to walk by faith in obedience to Christ and to use the nooks and crannies of our lives to disciple our children.

Terrie uses her experiences as a mother of four (three on “the spectrum”), 37 years in ministry (15 in Taiwan), and 32 years teaching to speak to the hearts of readers.

Her motto is “Life doesn’t have to be perfect to be WONDERFUL” and keeps her childlike joy by writing children’s stories, delighting over pink dolphins, and frequently laughing till it hurts.

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