To change the subject a little, your books are not “religious” books in quotes. But I have noticed that faith regularly returns to them in a very casual way. The Vanderbeeker children have a good relationship with a local pastor. They end up forming a community garden on their church property. They say grace during meals. There is a poignant scene in “A Duo for the House” where the children let the mice they caught loose in a park and the children pray for the mice.
In your books, faith is not centered in the story, but it is not absent. I found it an intriguing creative choice to have faith in the background of these characters’ lives. Can you talk about that and how you made those choices?
The Vanderbeeker family imitates my own family. And a lot of our family is our faith, so it was very natural to include those moments in the books. The book isn’t all about it, but it does integrate it into the framework of family life. Faith teaches me as a mother and how I make decisions. Also, the things we do to help others often reflect our faith. I feel like when readers read the books, regardless of their religious tradition, they can recognize similar elements in their own families. In the Vanderbeeker family, the decision to include elements of faith seemed very natural. It didn’t even seem as complicated as the technology.
I think for me as a writer, what drove me to write stories is that I want to speak authentically. Like, for example, you mentioned “A duet for the house”, when they were releasing the mice and Maybelle wants to pray for them and Tyrell is like, “Oh, we don’t need to pray for them.” But, you know, she speaks genuinely about her sense of worry and the feeling of, “I really hope these animals are okay.” And when she says that prayer, I feel like Tyrell can sense his own worries and his own sense that he doesn’t know what the future will be like. And in a way, in that moment, they can really relate and there is a sense of vulnerability between them that came in that moment of prayer.
About four years ago my family started doing a family read-aloud where we read chapter books together every night. We started with classics like the Roald Dahl books and the Narnia series. But we realized one day that we mostly read white male authors. I wanted to do a better job of exposing our children to a greater diversity of authors. As for chapter books, can you recommend books by women and people of color?
The first thing is that one of the best ways to get exposure to lots of different authors – and newer books – is through independent bookstores and libraries. They do a great job highlighting a diversity of books, and they’re always very up to date with newer books that we might not have grown up with as parents. I didn’t grow up with books written by people of color and that really got to me. It made me feel like stories about people like me weren’t important and worthwhile, that I didn’t deserve to be a hero in a story. And I think now all of us who went through that growing up write books because growing up we felt like we didn’t have any stories that we could relate to, so we want our kids to have that.