Faith+Lead is grateful for this interview with Jennifer Grant, author of books for both children and adults. Join her at the November Book Hub (link at the end of this post).
Your most recent books—for children and adults—address some of the undercurrents of the pandemic: grief, loss, and anxiety. What drew you to address these difficult topics?
A Little Blue Bottle is a picture book about grief. In it, a young girl’s beloved neighbor dies.
I’d felt drawn to write a story about grief for kids ever since the shootings at Sandy Hill Elementary School in 2012. I was struggling to process the enormity of that tragedy and couldn’t imagine how kids were dealing with it.
I sort of opened myself up then, opened my mind and imagination to writing about death and grief for kids. I began by researching best practices in terms of comforting and talking to kids about death. I learned that, as is the case for comforting a grieving adult, it’s not helpful to gloss over their pain or try to find a “silver lining.” Instead, we can practice the ministry of presence. I then set the project aside, but a couple of years later, this story came to me, sort of all at once. In the book, the mother character doesn’t silence or try to cheer up her child but models a ministry of presence by sitting with her and, ultimately, not saying much at all.
I started writing Once Upon a Time Not So Long Ago, a picture book about the COVID-19 pandemic, in March 2020. Like everyone else, I was stunned by how dramatically the world had been upended. Suddenly we were using strange phrases like “shelter in place” and “novel coronavirus.” We were “social distancing” and doing things we could have never imagined doing, like staying home all the time or even washing down our groceries and take-out containers with wet wipes. What a disturbing time! Like everyone, I was full of uncertainty and wondered how we’d talk about this with kids when the pandemic was no longer in total control of our lives. I wondered how we’d change after going through this period. The book looks at the losses we’ve had, but it is also aspirational.
Dimming the Day, which was released last month, is a book for adults. I also wrote that in 2020. I’d written the proposal and sample chapters before the pandemic, but of course writing it that year means it was heavily influenced by the loss and anxiety I was feeling.
Like so many people, my family and I went on daily “quarantine walks” all through 2020, and I found myself appreciating the natural world more deeply than I had, probably since I was a child. The book is an invitation to reflect on nature before bed, to let go of our worries and focus instead on the beauty of creation.
How is your approach different for addressing these topics with children versus adults?
In both instances—when I write for kids or for adults—I try to respect my readers, to take them very seriously, and to be curious about who they are and what their felt needs may be.
I don’t know whether my approach is very different when writing for kids than when I’m writing for adults, but I am mindful when I’m writing a picture book that the illustrations will tell the story just as much (if not more) as the words. For both Little Bottle and Once, I worked with an amazing illustrator named Gillian Whiting whose drawings and paintings add as much (or more) emotional resonance and depth as the text itself.
How do you envision these books being utilized in ways other than personal reflection or household reading, especially by churches?
I’ve heard from grade school teachers (mostly of kindergarten and first grade) that Once Upon a Time Not So Long Ago has been very helpful for use in the classroom. I am hearing that it does what I so hoped it would: it invites honest conversation. Also as it’s not a specifically Christian or religious book, it can be used in a public school. There are prompts at the end of the book for reflection. Kids are invited to think about what they’ll remember about this time, what they most missed, and so on. It allows interaction between adults and kids and also will help kids remember what lockdown was like for them when, God willing, all of this is just a blur in their past.
I’ve also heard from children’s ministry folks who keep copies of A Little Blue Bottle on hand to give to kids who are experiencing grief. I’ve heard stories of pastors giving copies of that one to families when a parent, child, or other loved one has died.
I think Dimming the Day could be a resource for retreats and book clubs. One pastor has told me she plans to give the parents in her church a copy. Parents are so overworked and anxious after having so many additional worries and responsibilities with their kids over the last few years. This pastor feels like Dimming the Day can serve as a balm and help people get more sleep. Another children’s ministry person has been reading chapters from Dimming aloud to older elementary aged kids. The science and nature content seems to appeal to them.
Our theme this month on The Faith+Leader is “Leading Through Divided Times.” Could you describe how the reflection/processing that your books encourage might diffuse or heal some of the divisions we are experiencing?
Effective strategies for healing divides, in my opinion, include being curious and finding common ground. Dimming the Day, with its focus on awe-inspiring things in nature, will stimulate curiosity in readers. Although I do touch a bit on Earth care, it’s not at all a political book. People with very different convictions about the state of the nation could read it and talk about things like how honey is produced, why humpback whales sing, and what is “crown shyness” in trees—without delving into topics that might activate or underscore their differences.
And, studies show, when people find something in common with another person (even something as minor as wearing the same color shirt or choosing the same brand of pasta), they feel closer and are more trusting with another person. It’s called “consensual validation.” When we learn someone has something in common with us, we feel confident about our own choices and attitudes and feel a wave of positive emotion toward the other person. When we have something in common with someone else, we feel an affinity for them, instead of “othering” them. So perhaps Dimming the Day could activate curiosity and give people with very different political, theological, or social beliefs something wonderful to talk about.
In terms of the picture books, these are about grief (A Little Blue Bottle) and the importance of community as well as the shared experience of the pandemic (Once Upon a Time Not So Long Ago)—and everyone (no matter what their political beliefs or what news network they are committed to) has experienced these things very acutely over the past few years.
Join authors Jennifer Grant and Abby Norman for the next free Book Hub event on November 11th: Those Underlying Emotions: Practices for Processing and Lamenting Together