1. Some time ago, you wrote an article on appreciating church history ("Avoiding Chronological Snobbery"). How is church history important for children today?
I was recently asked to speak to a local Rotary Club on the topic of “Turning obscure history into children’s books.” I told the audience that if this didn’t strike them as a stimulating topic…it gets worse. The books I have written are about obscure theological history. The “claim to fame” of the main characters in my books is that they wrote religious dissertations and catechisms! But I believe this kind (and other kinds) of church (and secular) history is important for children for several reasons.
First, history is a great teacher. It provides greater perspective than our experiences allows. It provides negative examples of what we should avoid. We learn through our mistakes. But how much better to learn through the mistakes of others. History also provides examples of valor and courage. Fiction can do the same thing (and we love fiction!). But history can appeal more powerfully to our sense of reality. History also helps us to resist unhelpful fads by highlighting the tried and true.
Second, church history is important for children because they need to know that ideas have consequences. The stories I have written describe a time when people were more honest about the significance of ideas. Sixteenth century folks would have laughed at the notion of ideological relativism. I do not endorse the extreme lengths to which people of varying convictions have gone to defend their positions. But we lie to children today when we say, “It doesn’t matter what you believe” or “all ideas are equal.” People in the sixteenth century agreed that what you believe about the mortality of man, the existence of God and the reasons for doing good really matter. The protagonists in these stories dedicated their lives to, and sometimes lost them in, defending ideas.
Third, church history is important because Children better grasp ideas that are connected to people. Suppose you wanted children to catch a vision for Rotary International. You could try expositing to them the four guiding principles by way of explanation and application. But can you imagine a young child saying, “Please tell me more about, ‘The application of the ideal of service in each Rotarian's personal, business, and community life’?” Or you could tell them the stories of famous Rotarians like Admiral Richard E. Byrd, the intrepid Arctic explorer, the first to reach both poles by air, or aviation pioneer Orville Wright, or the famous founders of Walmart, Walgreens and J.C. Penny’s who were all active Rotarians. No doubt their stories would provide concrete and vivid expressions of service in action. If we want to teach our children of the importance of wholehearted service to God (as well as to man) we can tell the stories of people who modeled this devotion in a way that we might never do. Guido de Bres wrote, “Since we have the [awe] of God before our eyes…we offer our backs to the whip’s lash, our tongues to the knives, the mouth to the muzzle, and the whole body to the flames. For we know that whoever will follow Christ must take up his cross and deny himself.” He went on to practice what he preached. When children see hear of that kind of devotion illustrated in living color and written in words they can understand, it makes an impression.
Finally, I believe church history is important for children because they need heroes who lose. Life is hard. And we do our children no service by only providing them with stories where everything works out nicely at the end. At the end of “Pollyanna” her rude aunt gets nice, marries her secret love interest, and Pollyanna overcomes a crippling accident by learning to walk again. We love “Pollyanna.” But that’s not always how life works. The protagonist in my first book, Guido de Bres, dies at the end of an executioners noose. Prior to that he was hunted by authorities simply for what he believed. Members of his own congregation were burned at the stake for their faith. In this particular story, I believe that Guido de Bres ultimately won. He had committed his life to the God who promises forgiveness of sins and eternal life for those who believe in him. But his life was hard.
I would say that Church history is not only important for children today, it’s essential. Christianity is a historical religion. The great themes of the Bible (creation, fall, redemption, and restoration) are not merely ideas, they are real events that powerfully affect us. The Psalmist says, “I remember the days of old; I meditate on all your works; I muse on the work of your hands (Psalm 143:5; emphasis added). If we believe that God works in all of history then we need to introduce our children to this history. The previous verse says “One generation shall praise Your works to another, And shall declare Your mighty acts.” This is not a suggestion, it’s an expectation.
2. Besides writing children's books on church history, what do you do to help your own children to appreciate our rich Christian heritage?
We read a lot! We also try to do fun projects with our kids based on the books that they have read. I think it was in connection with your book on John Calvin that we made a quoits game (something Calvin apparently found time to play). The kids loved it!
3. I asked one of my sons once what type of Christian books he appreciated most and he said, "The ones that actually teach me something." Your books for children are simple but don’t "dumb children down." They are historically accurate and talk rather straightforwardly about difficult times and profound doctrines. What are the challenges of writing serious and well-informed books for children?
I think my greatest challenge in this area is remembering that I am not writing for myself. I am so thankful for the editorial work of others who seem to be gently but firmly telling me, “Remember, you are writing for children!” I hope that reading really good children’s literature helps overcome my inclination to write for adults when I am trying to write for children.
4. In writing history, especially for children, an author is always forced to decide what to include and what to leave out. Can you give an example of one of your most difficult decisions in these regards?
There are always so many interesting historical facts that have to be cut, especially from a children’s story. In my forthcoming children’s book on the Synod of Dort (October 2012, D.V.) one spread features William of Orange and his heroic leadership of the Dutch in their struggle against Catholic Spain. I think it’s an interesting fact that William, in exchange for leading the Dutch revolution, became one of the first leaders of state to be assassinated by a handgun. But considering strict word-count limits, as well as the difficulty of succinctly introducing concepts such as “assassination” to a young audience, this detail will probably be left out. Plus, some have felt that this series introducing the stories behind the reformed confessions has been to dark already, so why push it with another death reference!
5. You have chosen to have full illustrations in your book. Can you tell us what are the advantages and the challenges of this choice?
Since our intended audience for these books is somewhere between ages 3-9 we felt that full illustrations were a must. I think Evan Hughes has done such a great job in helping kids connect with the stories. The only real disadvantage to full illustrations is the cost. Even with Evan working for very reasonable rates (compared to industry standards) the costs are quite significant since the print runs are relatively small. I am personally grateful to the publishers for seeing this project through despite the heavy upfront costs and dubious prospects of fully recouping them.
6. Your books introduce children to the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism, telling the story behind those historical documents. This makes for an exciting read for many children who are raised in Reformed churches and are familiar with these documents. Have you received any comments from families who have never read these works but are now discovering them through your books?”
One of the kind reviews of “The Quest for Comfort: The Story of the Heidelberg Catechism” begins this way, “Baptists do not tend to do catechisms. I don’t know why. We should.” The reviewer goes on to say, “This book aims at teaching ‘us that deeply held beliefs and profound theological truths are worthy of the difficulties often faced defending them.’ Our children need to know that. They need to be brought up knowing that there are some truths that are so precious they are worth fighting and even dying for. This book helps children to discover that our “quest for comfort” often follows a road filled with suffering, but God is faithful and His gospel is worth it.” (Read the full review at http://www.mikeleake.net/2012/02/quick-review-of-quest-for-comfort-by.html).
7. Once you talked about an idea of a Christian children's authors conference. I think it's a fantastic idea because "iron sharpens iron," and if it is open to the general public we could cover many relevant subjects, including the importance of exposing children to good literature. I don't know if the idea will ever materialize, but what were you hoping to achieve with it?
I think we are seeing some exciting developments in terms of Children’s writing from a confessional and reformed perspective. I am so thankful for the work of R.C. Sproul, Sinclair Ferguson, Starr Meade, Susan Hunt, and yourself, just to name a few. Still, if we compare the quality and quantity of books in this genre with children’s publishing in general it is clear that much more work needs to be done. Each year our family checks out several hundred books from the library. The number of good books on a myriad of topics and personalities never ceases to amaze me.
I would love to see authors, church and school educators, pastors, parents and children (etc.) come together to encourage each other in the development and use of quality, biblical, books for children. Authors would have the opportunity not only to share their ideas with the audience but also to receive input. Educators and parents would be introduced to relevant books and encouraged with creative ways to use them. Such a conference might even help set events in motion which could lead to an endowment for reformed children’s books, something that would be an incredible boon for the genre.
Now that you have me thinking about it again, I’m more excited than ever! Maybe this could happen!
8. What are your future plans as an author?
I am in the final editing process with RHB for the provisionally titled, “The Glory of Grace: The Story of the Synod of Dort.” The artwork is just getting underway. I am also working on a devotional on the incarnation of Christ as well as a study guide on the Gospel of Mark which I hope to have published next year. I would like to write a story on the Westminster Assembly for children but since children’s books on deliberative assemblies are seldom best sellers it might be best to see how “The Glory of Grace” is received before proceeding. I have few other partly or mostly completed manuscripts that I would like to move forward with, when time and resources permit.