opinion | Books that immerse me in a better world

Changing the subject a bit, your books are not “religious” books. But I’ve noticed that faith regularly crops up in 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 over meals. In “A Duet for Home” there is a poignant scene in which children release captive mice in a park and pray for the mice.

In your books, faith is not central to the story, but it is not absent. I found this an intriguing creative choice to believe in the background of these characters’ lives. Can you comment on that and how did you make those decisions?

The Vanderbeeker family emulates my own family. And a big part of our family is our faith, so it felt very natural to put those moments in the books. The book is not just about that, but it includes it as part of family life. Faith teaches me as a mother and how to make decisions. Also, the things we do to help others often reflect our beliefs. I feel that when readers read the books, regardless of what faith tradition they belong to, they can see similar elements in their own families. In the Vanderbeeker family, the decision to incorporate elements of faith felt very natural. It didn’t even feel as complicated as technology.

I think for me as a writer, what got me into writing stories is that I want to speak authentically. For example, they brought up “A Duet for Home” when they released the mice and Maybelle wants to pray for them and Tyrell is like, ‘Oh, we don’t have to pray for them.’ But you know, she’s speaking authentically from her concern and feeling, “I really hope these animals are doing well.” And as she says that prayer, I have a feeling Tyrell senses his own concerns and his own feeling that he doesn’t know what the future holds . And in a way they can really relate to each other in that moment and there’s a sense of vulnerability between them that came about in that moment of prayer.

About four years ago, my family started hosting 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 one day we realized that we were reading mostly white male authors. I wanted to better expose our kids to a variety of authors. When it comes to chapter books, can you recommend books by women and people of color?

The first is that one of the best ways to learn about a wide variety of authors—and newer books—is through independent bookstores and libraries. They do a great job of highlighting a variety of books and are always very knowledgeable about more current books that we as parents may not have grown up reading. I didn’t grow up reading any black people’s books and it really touched me. It made me feel that stories about people like me weren’t important and valid, that I didn’t deserve to be a hero in a story. And I think now all of us who have had that experience write books because as adults we felt like we didn’t have stories to relate to, so we want our kids to have that.

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