Episode 12 – Interview with Jennifer Grant and New Book Launch

In this episode I interview author Jennifer Grant, and we talk about her three children’s books and her five books for adults. We also talk about sparking spiritual curiosity through the books we read with our children. 

NOTE: Update on launch date. The book A Little Blue Bottle launches next week on September 23rd. Sorry for the delay.

Books Recommended in This Episode:

Transcript:

Terrie: Welcome to Books that Spark, a podcast for parents and caregivers where we review books that spark imagination, emotion, questions, and conversations leading to teachable moments with our kids.

Thank you for joining us today. I’m excited to welcome our guest, author Jennifer Grant. Jennifer is the author of books for adults and children’s picture books. Her book Maybe God Is Like That Too won a gold medal from the Moonbeam Spirit Awards for excellence in children’s literature and was named a book of the year finalist in the Forword Indies awards. Her second picture book, Maybe I Can Love My Neighbor Too, has been named a Junior Library Guild official gold standard selection. Her third book for children, A Little Blue Bottle, launches tomorrow and is now available for purchase from your favorite bookseller. Jennifer has also written for publications including Woman’s Day, Chicago Parent, Patheos, and her.meneutics. For more than a decade, she wrote features, restaurant profiles, and general interest columns for Sun-Times Media newspapers. She also was a health and family columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

Thank you so much for being here on the program today, Jennifer, and for letting us be a part of your book launch today.

Jennifer: Well, you’re welcome. I’m happy to talk with you today. Okay.

Terrie: First of all, we have to talk about your slogan that you use on your flyers and has kind of been your vision for the ministry that God’s given you. It says, “Picture books, that spark spiritual curiosity. And I love that. And especially because of the podcast that we do called Books that Spark; it’s like we’re on the same wavelength.

Jennifer: Yeah. I’ll tell you kind of how sort of how I came up with that little tagline. When I was raising my own kids who are now 18, 20, 22 and 24, I loved reading them books, and I read them books all the time. And I also though found that some of the books that were written from a Christian context were not their favorite books. And I really wanted them to have engaging and wonderful Christian books, but unfortunately some of them just felt really preachy. And of course, as we know, kids spend a lot of time being instructed not to do this and to do this. And they get a lot of schooling and all of that. And so, books that were presenting ideas of God, but also had this sort of, you know, slap you on the wrist sort of tone were not books that they really connected with.

And so when I started a few years ago, turning my attention toward really developing my skills as a writer for children, I thought, “Oh, it would be such a privilege to write Christian books for kids that they actually were really engaged with and that they wanted to read it again and again, and that would invite them to pose their own questions about who God is or about how to be a person who’s in tune with their spirit” and so on. And so that little tagline that I came up with was just the books that I write that have spiritual content, I hope will spark spiritual curiosity and get them in conversation with God and with themselves about God’s creation or how they see God in the world and help them use their imaginations to kind of connect with God in that way.

Terrie: That’s wonderful. Sometimes when I’m writing a story, the first time I write it, I feel like, “Oh my goodness, this is coming across as so preachy.” And I go back through and totally redo it. Because it’s the same thing, I want our kids to delight in God and his word and how awesome he is. You have two picture books out already that I just love. Would you like to talk about those first? And then we’ll move to the new one that’s coming out tomorrow. Tell us about the Maybe God Is Like That Too.

Jennifer: That was my first one for kids, Maybe God Is Like That Too. And basically, the way that came about was that I had been doing some kind of editing and writing work for a publisher already and had not published my own book with them. And apparently in a, probably an editorial meeting or one of their meetings, they decided that they thought it would be great to have a new children’s book about the fruit of the spirit. And so, at that point, I’d already done a few projects and contributed to anthologies that they had. And they came to me and said, would you be willing to write anything you want, any kind of story, but that kind of delved into the fruit of the spirit and what those verses mean. And I was so excited. I felt really honored to have that opportunity. And so, I kind of started that process by looking at what other books about the fruit of the spirit looked like.

And there were a lot that looked similar, at least the ones that I came across that would have like a fruit bowl on a bright kitchen table and a parent, you know, sort of again, sort of preaching to the little kids, sitting there about the fruit of the spirit. So, I was thinking, how can I really approach this in a fresh way? And in a way that kids might find more engaging? And so, the story is a grandmother and her little grandson whom she’s raising. And I don’t go into it in the book, why he’s being raised by his grandmother. But she, he says, he’s never seen God. And like, where’s God, I see people. And how can, how can I see God? Or where is God? And I remember that being a question that I asked when I was little thinking, you know, we talk about God all the time. We pray to God. We say, we want to please God, but where is God? You know, I don’t see, I don’t see God. And so, in this book, the grandmother just suggests to him that, you know, when you seek God’s spirit at work, that’s a way to seek God. And so, he goes through his day and he experiences joy, and he thinks, “Oh, maybe God is like that too.” And he exhibits self-control by not getting out of bed at the end of the day. And he thinks, “Oh, maybe God is like that too.” And what’s been so fun is that when I’ve read this book to preschools and like, I’ve gone to a couple like parochial schools and done chapels and stuff like that, what’s funny is with that refrain, maybe thought is like that too. That repeats several times in that book. It’s such a joy to see the kids who are all sitting around on the floor, trying to look at the illustrations and so on. And some of them each time I say, maybe God is like that too. Inevitably, there’ll be one kid who says no. And again, that’s having that response seems just as fitting as if somebody goes, “Oh yeah, maybe God is like that too.” Because again, if we’re inviting spiritual curiosity, it means the kids can have their own independent responses to this and their own thoughts about what God might be like. So that was the first one.

And then the one that is in the same series, and it has different characters, but we actually chose to have some of the characters sort of show up in the background in some of the spreads. But the second book is Maybe I Can Love My Neighbor Too. And so, it’s also in the same sort of cityscape and it is a little girl who is considering how can she love her neighbor when there’s so many neighbors? And she’s again, like sort of trying to find her place in the world and trying to figure out how she can do that. How can I love my neighbors? And so, she goes through the day kind of observing how other people are showing love to each other and learning. And the kind of end of that book is that everyone is our neighbor and we can show them where my hope with that one was just kids would be exposed. The idea that everyone is our neighbor, but also exposed to the idea that they can do little things during the day they can have agency and they can do little things that do very successfully show love to others. And, you know, kind of, it puts them squarely in the center of the story. Like how can I love my neighbor? So that’s the second one,

Terrie: I love both of those. And I gave both books to my nieces and nephews because I felt like it did make a relationship with God and an understanding of God as concrete as we possibly can, you know, to really make it relatable. And, and then, like you said, to give them the ability to act and to make a conscious decision, to try to bless others and help others by being a good neighbor. I love both those books. I think it just brings the gospel alive for kids in such a concrete way. It’s brilliant.

I want to go ahead and talk about the new book coming out Thursday, 9/17, is the launch date for your launch date for A Little Blue Bottle. I love the other two books, but this one to me is so needed today. I don’t know of any other books that approach the subject of grief, like your book does. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Jennifer: The book has been on my mind for years, you know, I’ve only been publishing books for kids for the last three or four years, but prior to that, I really wanted to, and I was always jotting ideas and, and working on different stories. But in 2012, after the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting, I have had a number of conversations with a close friend who lives in that area of Connecticut. Her children ended up having to go to a number of funerals for the children who died in their school. And she and I both are lovers of children’s literature. And so, I asked her if there were any books that she really connected with that were helpful, like picture books, about grief. And she said she really hadn’t found anything that was, that was helpful to her, her family. And so, I kept thinking about that and thinking, you know, kids experience grief.

We tend to, I mean, I know I do. We can sometimes sort of idealize what a child’s experience is. And we forget that kids, you know, lose a pet and they grieve that disappointment. I mean, in the current climate, you know, kids are experiencing the grief of not being able to be with their grandparents or with people that they love, or they’re missing out on opportunities that they had expected, like maybe summer camps or things like that. So, we kind of forget sometimes how much pain kids can really carry throughout their lives. So my hope was that I would write a story that would invite kids to sort of sit with their feelings and have the feelings that they have, and also to kind of give parents the opportunity to read this story to their children. Maybe that will open a conversation and maybe reading this one story will help a child say, “Yeah, I feel sad sometimes too.”

And the underlying spiritual message in it, which is, you know, that central picture of the little blue bottle is that there’s a verse in the Bible that says that God collects our tears. And so, I love the idea of suggesting to kids, “Hey, we’re not saying this book like, Oh, well, if you love God, you’ll never experience pain. Or if, if you love God, you won’t ever lose anyone,” but it’s, it makes the very strong suggestion that God is with us and cares when we’re suffering. And so, when I sat down to write this, this book, I didn’t want to write about, you know, a terrible trauma or a terrible event, like Sandy Hook. I really wanted to give a story that could be relatable to a little kid, but not traumatizing. And so, it’s the story of a little girl whose elderly neighbor passes away. And so, and she deals with the loss of that friend. So yeah, I’m excited about it. I know it’s, it’s a time where kids are really grieving a number of things. And my hope is that it will be a comfort to them.

Terrie: That’s what I was so impressed about was that I felt like you handled this whole subject without over-dramatizing, without making it traumatic, but also acknowledging the reality. It seems to me what books I have seen that deal even a little bit with grief, either trivialize it, or don’t really handle the subject with the same kind of care that I saw in this book. And I feel like I could recommend this book to anyone, to read with their children, to help them process the loss of a pet or a loved one or a neighbor, or even like you said, the grief of just what’s going on in our culture and how that’s upsetting children. This book could even be a help for helping children to process those feelings. I love where the mom, where the mom is just sitting with her daughter on the porch and she doesn’t need to say anything. She just needs to be with her. That’s so often what we need when we’re grieving. And I just, I just felt like it was such a balanced handling of this whole topic. I think it’s wonderful.

Jennifer: Well, and I did try to, I wanted to make sure I’m not, you know, I’m not a therapist or a psychologist, and I wanted to make sure that the messaging in this book was helpful and appropriate. And at the end of the book, you know, there’s a page of best practices of how you can help a child who’s grieving. I was really rigorous and doing research on that. And I really think he came to 24 people that I, people who work with kids as therapists and counselors and so on. And I had them read it and offer their suggestions because I really wanted to get that element right. You know, I didn’t want to be giving bad advice or any advice that would further hurt a child, but just anyway, so those, those best practices I hope will be helpful as well.

Terrie: How important do you feel that it is that we read to our children?

Jennifer: Oh, well, I am very passionate about this. I think it’s so important. I mean, from the earliest days when we read to kids, you know, we were not only helping them develop literacy and their vocabularies and all of those good things in terms of their academic learning and so on, but we’re really teaching them, you know, about the world and about the world with the Maybe books. I think about those books as being kind of presenting a world, as I wish it were, you know, I wish everyone always helping their neighbor. And I wish that little kids were looking in and seeing God’s presence and the people around them and so on. But yeah, so both, I think both in terms of brain development, obviously, it’s so important to read to kids and it also provides like a lovely break. You know, I remember when I was a mother of really young kids, you know, you’re so on all the time, you know, you’re keeping them safe and giving them the food they need and all that.

And I always loved the moments where we were just sitting on the couch, and I was reading a big stack of picture books because someone else had done the care of creating these beautiful illustrations and wonderful stories. And I could just sort of be the person sharing this with the kids. And so, it was a time that felt like a real break for me as a busy young mom, I’m happy to say all my kids did turn out to be readers. And that was like your goal that I had when I had my kids. And yeah, it’s, I just think it creates a time to connect and to, you know, writing picture books. As I, whenever I’m working on a manuscript, I love picturing a child sitting on an adult’s lap, you know, a teacher, a parent, a grandparent, a neighbor, you know, whoever’s reading this book, it’s such an intimate and beautiful time of connection when you’re reading to a kid. So yes, I think it’s super important.

Terrie: And how does it help with their spiritual development?

Jennifer: Again, as we were saying, like, depending on the books, you know, we choose for them, it can be, you know, writing about like I have, I have some books that will be coming out in a few years or over the next few years that are board books for really young kids, they’re educational board books. And I based them on the verses that say, like consider the lilies of the field. And, but I present colors in that context. And I like kind of opening a conversation, you know, not saying here’s how you should feel about God or here’s how you should behave. But instead saying, Hey, what happens when we slow down and look at a beautiful flower? What should we learn about God as a creator when we, when we notice and we observe and yeah, so spiritually they can be books can invite kids to pray, invite kids to connect with God on their own terms, can point out the wonders of nature. They can definitely play an important role, just like they do the adult books we read that have spiritual content, you know, affect our spiritual development as well.

Terrie: Well, tell us a little bit about your other books since I have you here. Cause I know you have quite a few that are not children’s books. Can you tell us a little bit about those?

Jennifer: Yeah, sure. So, I’ve written five books for adults and some of them are well, the first one was a book called Love You More: The Divine Surprise of Adopting My Daughter and my youngest child. I have four kids and the youngest one was adopted when she was a toddler and she was born in Guatemala, and that’s that book is mostly memoir, but it also kind of delve into issues around adoption and international adoption. And it’s a book that, that really is primarily memoir, but tells our family story.

And then the second book that I wrote was also kind of family and parenting related. I used to be a parenting columnist for a newspaper. And so, I love doing that kind of work, especially when my kids were little, it gave me the chance to reflect on, you know, all the stress and the joys of raising little kids. But so, the second book is also a family-related book and it’s called MOMumental and ventures and the messy art of raising a family. And in that book, it’s a lot of family stories, but also kind of, I go topically through some things that I think are helpful in terms of things to think about when you’re creating a family culture and raising kids.

And then my next book, I’m trying to make sure I’m getting them in order. I have a devotional book called Wholehearted Living, which is a 365-day book. And it’s all short readings of about 200 words for all the days of the year. And that book is sort of organized around different themes. And so, there’s a part of the year that the readings are about reflection. And one part of the year is about risk. And one part of the year is about rest. People are like, Oh, that’s so nice. Those short readings. And I want to say, Oh my goodness, that was the hardest book that I’ve had to re to write. It’s really difficult to write short and also to do a 365 or it’s actually 366 because of leap year.

And then I have a book that’s an anthology [Disquiet Time] that I co-edited with my friend and the spiritual writer,  Cathleen Falsani, and we invited about 42 people. And they’re people from all over the map in terms of their, their sort of flavor of Christianity. And actually a few of the contributors are not, don’t identify as Christian pastors and influencers and writers and speakers. And they, we invited them to choose a verse or a passage from the Bible that they either love and it makes, you know, it makes them kind of encouraged and generates a lot of energy for them, or it’s a passage that they wish weren’t in the Bible or a passage that makes them laugh or something that troubles them. And each person wrote a personal narrative dealing with whatever that verse or passage was. So, some of the chapters, I mean, it’s, it’s very, it’s quite vulnerable. Like some of the chapters are very vulnerable and we’ve got so many people saying, you know, words of thanks that they hadn’t been asked to be so transparent with their thinking, but we are in the introduction or in the foreword, I guess. We say, you know, God can take, it can take our questions and if we feel unsettled by a part of scripture, we’re allowed to articulate that. And so that, that book really does that.

And then my most recent book for adults is called, When Did Everybody Else Get So Old? And it’s a it’s a midlife memoir. And so it, it basically is a memoir told an essays and they go through sort of from my 40th birthday to approaching 50, these essays are about things that I think are fairly commonly events in the lives of people in his life for those who are parents, you know, their kids are growing older, our own parents are aging and there’s issues around that. And we deal often with a friend or someone else who’s close to us who dies. And so, these essays kind of delve into commonly experienced events in midlife. So, I was my most recent one.

Terrie: I have to ask you, what was your favorite picture book as a child and why?

Jennifer: Well, my very favorite is the story of Ferdinand. And I don’t know if you know that one about Ferdinand, the bull. Yeah. Actually, I have it on my desk. I have a bunch of, you know, one of the joys of writing for kids is that I can justify buying picture books and I have them all over. But yeah, I actually have my original copy, which was given to me in 1971. So, I was born in ‘67. So yeah, I was a very little girl when I received this and it’s, it’s just, I always just loved that book. And I would stare at all the really simple sort of pen and ink illustrations, but there’s something. So even the way the animals look at each other or like the butterfly and Ferdinand, it’s just, I found it so compelling. And I loved his, you know, he was kind of a fish out of water. He was supposed to be a vicious bull, but really he just wanted to smell the flowers. And I think I connected with that, but another book that I actually I have on my desk right now, too, that I really loved reading to my kids and they all loved Ferdinand too, but a book I didn’t discover until I was a young mom is called Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch. I don’t know if you know

Terrie: That one, that one, I don’t, I’ll have to read that one.

Jennifer: It’s terrific. So, Ferdinand written by Munro Leaf and that one’s, you know, sort of a classic that everyone knows, but this one, somebody loves you. Mr. Hatch is written by Eileen Spinelli and the pictures are Paul Yalwitz. It’s about a lonely man who receives a wonderful gift. And it’s, I won’t spoil the story for you, but it’s a great it’s a great Valentine’s gift to give to kids this book, but it’s, it’s really about community and love and, and what happens when you’re kind to someone.

So anyway, I love that one to you. How can we support you more in your work and in your ministry? Oh, well, thank you. Well, I would say for all authors, one way that if you have a book that you love or an author who you want to support, it does actually really help to go on Amazon and to good reads and to read books. So, like, you know, whether or not it’s mine, if anyone’s listening and they think, Oh, well, I, I love Ferdinand or I love whatever book you just finished this summer. Sometimes we forget that that actually adding, you know, if you go on Amazon and add stars or add a little review, it actually changes sort of the algorithm. Cause it’s so hard to there’s so many books being published all the time that it’s kind of hard to rise above the noise sometimes.

So, all the different ones. So, if you really love a book or an author, it’s fabulous to go online and give them readings on, you know, Barnes and Noble or Amazon or Good Reads. And sometimes I, I used to, and I think I’m gonna just, you brought this to my mind. So, I think I’ll add this to my calendar, but I used to spend, you know, it only takes 10 minutes, right. So, I would spend like 10 minutes every Friday doing that for the books that I really love both by people. I know, but also just if I happen to finish a book and thought, Oh, I just love this. Sometimes we forget. So that’s one way to support authors. And then yeah. If any, anyone listening can look online and look on Amazon or reach out to your local bookseller and look for A Little Blue Bottle.

Another thing that’s helpful. And I ask people who are my sort of close friends and, and writing colleagues is that if you love a book and I’d love it, if people did this for A Little Blue Bottle, going to the website of your local library and requesting that book is a wonderful way to get the book into a library so that a lot of kids can enjoy it. You know, it just finds its readers. That’s of course what we’re always doing as writers, it’s trying to connect with their readers. So, I think, especially for children’s books, I love it. When people tell me that they’ve called their local library or emailed them and said, Hey, you should carry this book. Cause I love the idea of some kid just sort of running their fingers along the top of a row of picture books and finding that one, you know, and enjoying it.

Terrie: Thank you so much for joining us, Jennifer, thank you for taking time to share with us and for letting us be a part of your book launch today. What you shared is just really wonderful and makes us think about what we need to do as parents with reading to our children and opening up those wonderful conversations.

Jennifer: Well, thank you. It was really fun to talk to you.

Terrie: Thank you for joining us for Books that Spark, a podcast, celebrating books, that spark imagination, emotion, questions, and discussions. I hope our discussion will spark meaningful conversations in your life. Remember Jennifer’s newest book, A Little Blue Bottle, launches Thursday. Be sure to check out the show notes for links to Jennifer’s website and other information. You can sign up for my mailing list to get weekly reminders of this podcast. And my blog, my website is terriehellardbrown.com.

Your Host:

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, and discussion. For more information, visit her website at terriehellardbrown.com

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