Tuesday, May 12, 2015

PBT Author Guest Post: Laura Alary on What Inspires Her to Write Picture Books That “Make Us Bigger on the Inside”

Note: This is the first of many guest blogs that I will post periodically. Some will be by picture book authors like the one featured today. Laura Alary, a Canadian author, writes spiritually rich, secular picture books that I only recently discovered. This is why they are not in my PBT Picture Book a Day for a Year list. Explore her books which are easily available on the internet. They will encourage meaningful conversations in your family or in your ministry. 

Readers, enjoy Laura! 
Welcome to PBT, Laura! 
Everyone, may your reading be meaningful!    Hanna

Picture books helped me recover from eight years as a doctoral student.

After writing and defending my thesis, I felt like the little lime tree my mom tried to grow in our home. The poor plant struggled along in the unfamiliar climate, finally managed to produce one lime, but promptly died from the effort.

Reading picture books—along with mythology and fairy tales—helped me recapture my old love of words. They were simple (I thought) and would allow my mind to rest and relax. But in their simplicity lay the power to present big ideas in a concentrated form, distilling important things to their essence. Instead of being a mindless pastime, reading picture books stretched my heart and spirit in ways                                                                       I could not have imagined.

When my first child was born, I turned to picture books to help me with the great task of shaping a human life. I wanted my child to be curious about the world, full of wonder, open-minded, empathetic, and fearless about asking questions. Above all, I wanted him to be kind and compassionate.

So we went to the library…

Frog and Toad and George and Martha taught us about friendship.

With The Big Red Lollipop we talked about revenge, forgiveness, and reconciliation. 

Bagels from Benny made us wonder how we can make the world a better place.

In Big and Small, Room for All we journeyed from the subatomic to the cosmic—all in five words—and marveled at our place in the universe.

I loved the journey and the big questions we were asking together. But there were some things I could not find addressed in picture books—things surfacing from my own background in theology and scripture—so I began to write my own.

My first effort was Is That Story True? Years of listening to people argue about the historicity of biblical narratives had left me feeling that everyone was missing the point: What do these stories mean? What are they calling us to be and do? And how did so many adults never consider that the truth and power of stories does not depend on historical accuracy? I wanted to start the conversation with children to spare them the anxious disputes about what really happened so they could instead find truth in its many forms.

Next came Jesse’s Surprise Gift. During Lent—the six weeks of preparation leading up to Easter—I was hoping to help my children enter into the rather heavy themes which characterize this season: sacrifice, death, and self-emptying. I remembered an Indian folk tale about a young boy who continually lets go of what he has, trading one item for another, eventually getting the drum he has been wanting. Aspects of this story brought to mind the description of Christ in Philippians 2 where he does not cling to privilege but empties himself. After meditating on this connection for a while, I wrote a modern parable about how sometimes the act of letting go—not clinging to what is ours—will open us to receive an even greater gift. Neither explicitly Lenten nor Christian, Jesse’s Surprise Gift, can nevertheless be read as an expression of the paradox of losing one’s life in order to find it.

As my children got older, their questions got tougher. After hearing violent bible stories, my son asked why God would tell people to kill each other. Such questions left me speechless, wondering about our sacred stories—especially how they affect the way we treat others. If our stories don’t help heal our fragmented, aching world—if they make it worse—then something is very wrong. I imagined a story that included everyone and considered how the world would be if all people saw themselves as fundamentally connected. That is how Mira and the Big Story came into being.

Victor’s Pink Pyjamas also deals with how we see each other. A friend was concerned when her son wanted to paint his room pink—his favourite colour. She was torn between giving her son freedom to follow his heart and trying to protect him from the judgments of others. I asked my children what they thought. They wanted to know why pink was considered a girl colour. I was struck by that why. How many of us really stop to question our own opinions or examine our beliefs? In my story, Victor wears his pink pyjamas bravely. Even more bravely, he challenges: “Think about it.”

How Do I Pray for Grandpa? explores how our images of God affect how we pray. A few summers ago, my dad had a stroke and was diagnosed with a rare blood disorder. Meanwhile, my sister-in-law began treatment for breast cancer. While I fretted about how to help my children respond to these family crises and prepare for possible heart-break, the children showed me the way. My daughter “put her love into” a heart-shaped stone found on the beach and gave it to her aunt to keep in her purse so “she would not feel alone”. All the children drew prayers that Grandpa could put around his hospital bed to remind him that he was surrounded by love. Their prayers were about presence rather than results. This startled me. I was taught to pray by asking God for what I wanted. I wondered: What if we stopped telling God what ought to happen or praying with specific expectations? How would this change our image of God?

My dad, an electrical engineer, laughingly calls me a “step-down transformer” since I like to express big ideas in a simpler form. I am grateful for the many writers who do this so elegantly. I work hard to improve my craft because, as Old Alfred says in Mira and the Big Story, stories can stretch our minds and hearts, making us bigger on the inside. When this happens, the world really does become a better place.
                                                                                             Laura Alary