To change the topic a bit, your books are not quote-unquote “religious” books. But I’ve noticed that faith comes up regularly in them in very casual ways. The Vanderbeeker kids have a good relationship with a local pastor. They end up forming a community garden on their church property. They say grace over meals. There’s a poignant scene in “A Duet for Home” where children are letting mice they’ve caught go free in a park and the kids pray for the mice.
In your books, faith is not centered in the story, but it is not absent. I found that to be an intriguing creative choice to have faith in the background of these characters’ lives. Can you speak to that, and how you made those choices?
The Vanderbeeker family emulates my own family. And a big part of our family is our faith, so it felt very natural to include those moments in the books. The book isn’t all about it, but it incorporates it as part of family life. Faith instructs me as a mom and how I make decisions. Also, the things that we do to help others is often a reflection of our faith. I feel like maybe when readers read the books, regardless of what faith tradition they’re from, they can recognize similar elements in their own families. In the Vanderbeeker family, the decision to include elements of faith felt very natural. It didn’t even feel as complicated as technology.
I think for me as a writer, the things that compelled me to write stories is that I want to speak authentically. Like, for example, you brought up “A Duet for Home,” when they were releasing the mice and Maybelle wants to pray over them and Tyrell is feeling like, “Oh, we don’t need to pray over them.” But, you know, she speaks authentically from her feeling of worry and the sense of, “I really hope that these animals are OK.” And when she speaks that prayer, I feel like Tyrell can feel his own worries and his own sense that he doesn’t know what the future is going to be like. And in a way, in that moment, they can really relate to each other and there’s 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 Roald Dahl books and the Narnia series. But we realized one day that we were mostly reading white male authors. I wanted to do a better job of exposing our kids to more of a diversity of authors. When it comes to chapter books, can you recommend books by women and people of color?
First thing is that one of the best ways to get exposure to a lot of different authors — and newer books — is independent bookstores and libraries. They do such a great job highlighting a diversity of books, and they’re always very knowledgeable about more current books that maybe as parents we didn’t grow up with. I didn’t grow up with any books by people of color and it really affected me. It made me feel like stories about people like me were not important and weren’t valid, that I didn’t deserve to be a hero in a story. And I think now all of us who experienced that growing up are writing books because growing up, we felt that we didn’t have stories that we could relate to, so we want our kids to have that.