Creating Better Faith-Based Children's Stories

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A new children’s book aims to introduce kids to a variety of people from different faiths, cultures, and time periods. Author and publisher Daneen Akers says she wants “a book about faith heroes my children can grow up to be inspired by” and believes other parents might also be on the lookout for content less conservative than most of the material out there. In this interview, she talks about her book’s $50,000 Kickstarter campaign, some of the amazing people being profiled and how her work on the Seventh-Gay Adventists film led to this book’s creation.

Question: You are working on a new book for children, called Holy Troublemakers & Unconventional Saints. Who is this book aimed at?

Answer: Holy Troublemakers & Unconventional Saints is an illustrated storybook with profiles and portraits of 50 people of diverse faiths who have worked for more love and justice in their corner of the world. It’s the book I need right now on my children’s bedside table, and I don’t think I’m alone in needing to be reminded that people of faith can and do choose to do good with that faith. The stories are aimed at children in the 8-12 age range.

Why are you writing it?

I’ve done a fair bit of complaining the last several years about how the vast majority of faith-based books and magazines marketed to kids and families come from a very conservative worldview/Godview, but instead of just lamenting the lack of good material, I’ve decided to do something about it. I’ve removed a lot of religious books from our bookshelves over the last few years, but I’ve replaced precious little for the simple reason that there is very little to replace it with!

So, I’ve decided to write a book about faith heroes I want my children to grow up inspired by. I want my children to know that faith isn’t all bad, and religious people can and do choose to do good, often motivated by a vision of a loving, just, and compassionate Divine.

The book features 50 people of faith, some historical and some contemporary. How did you choose which people to include in the book?

The book will emphasize the stories of women, LGBTQ people, people of color, indigenous people, and others too often excluded from religious narratives. I’ve loved researching the people to consider for inclusion in the book, and I know these are the types of faith heroes whose stories we need to share more of right now more than ever. The list right now has come from a lot of reading and reaching out to people I consider modern-day holy troublemakers and asking them who would be on their list. 

For example, one of the women whose profile and portrait is done is Maryam Molkara, a devout Muslim woman from Iran who was also transgender. She literally walked into Ayatollah Khomeini’s office one day in 1987 to ask for permission to live openly as a transgender woman (after years of suffering many injustices). She shared her story (after being beaten by his guards), and he granted her legal and religious permission that not only transformed her life but the lives of thousands of other transgender Iranians. 

I will decide on the final list with backer input because I know there are stories that I don’t know yet but will want to. I’ve already been getting great suggestions from people who are resonating with the vision and need for this book.

Can you tell us about a few more of the people featured?

In addition to Maryam Molkara, there’s Bayard Rustin, the lifelong Quaker, committed pacifist, and Civil Rights hero we all should know about but often don’t because he was also gay at a time when that was considered a major liability, so he had to stay in the background. But he’s the one who convinced Martin Luther King Jr. to fully embrace non-violent resistance as an ideology and not just a strategy, and he organized the March on Washington where King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. His lifelong commitment to the equality of all people came from his deep Quaker faith which taught that all people are part of the same human family.

Others include Rabbi Regina Jonas, the first woman ordained as a rabbi anywhere in the world in 1935 in Berlin, Germany in the lead up to the Holocaust. Sadly she was killed at Auschwitz and her papers lost until the fall of the Berlin Wall when her story began to be rediscovered. Her remarkable spirit of resilience and commitment to her community (she helped start a secret synagogue that she ran for two years at the first concentration camp she was sent to) is completely remarkable, even during one of the darkest times of human history.

Present day holy troublemakers and unconventional saints include people like Cindy Wang Brandt, a gentle parenting advocate who helps formerly fundamentalist parents know there are other ways to parent well. She also just got fired from her job at an evangelical college in Taiwan for her outspoken advocacy for LGBT rights. 

You can see a list of people who have agreed to be profiled already (modern-day holy troublemakers and unconventional saints like Valarie Kaur, Brian McLaren, Bishop Yvette Flunder, Kaitlin B. Curtice, Jennifer Knapp, Mahdia Lynn, Eliel Cruz, Deborah Jian Lee, Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, and more) on the Kickstarter campaign page. Again, the final list of holy troublemakers to feature will be decided on with the input of project backers.

When will the book be published, and who is publishing it?

If all goes well with the Kickstarter campaign, Holy Troublemakers & Unconventional Saints will be published in early 2019. It’s being published by Watchfire Media, which is a non-profit media company that my husband, Stephen Eyer, and I started to tell the stories of spiritual seekers and to help create better faith-based content for families like ours who find ourselves in a bit of an in-between space spiritually. 

You are trying to raise $50,000 for the book with your Kickstarter campaign. What will the money be used for? How much have you raised so far?

It feels like a really big number, but it’s actually just for hard costs. This isn’t an inexpensive book to publish with 50 original works of art and full-color, hardbound, ethical printing, but I know it needs to exist in the world. The funds raised are for the additional illustrations, layout, copyediting, and a press run for 2,000 copies. 

For anyone thinking of contributing, we are currently becoming our own 501(c)3, so contributions in this calendar year (including ones to this Kickstarter campaign) will be retroactively tax-deductible. (I can’t promise that our paperwork will be fully processed by the year-end, but it’s very likely.)

How will you market the book? How many copies do you expect to sell?

I think that will depend on how the Kickstarter goes—it feels like a big enough goal to get the funding to finish it and print it first! The project is definitely resonating on Kickstarter, and we passed 50% funding in the first 10 days.

We’ve gotten some amazing endorsements from progressive faith leaders like Brian McLaren, Glennon Doyle, Rev. Broderick Greer, and many more. It’s so deeply affirming to see people I admire and respect (and learn from) resonating with the vision of the book. 

This campaign is for 2,000 copies, although, it would be fantastic to go over the goal and be able to print more in the first run.

Who is doing the portraits and the illustrations?

The artwork that has come in so far is completely gorgeous (see them on the campaign page here). I have six completed portraits (Bayard Rustin, Maryam Molkara, Rabbi Regina Jonas, Francis of Assisi, Alice Paul, and Cindy Wang Brandt), and they are all done by different artists who have quite different styles, but that is part of my goal. I love books like Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls that have a diversity of artist styles. Matching the artist with the subject has been a lot of fun so far. For example, the Bayard Rustin portrait is done by Sr. X, a Spanish street artist. A brilliant street/protest organizer and a street artist felt like a great match, and I love the portrait. One of the modern-day holy troublemakers is from the Potawatomi band of Indians, and I just found a brilliant artist who is also Potawatomi who would love to illustrate her (turns out, they already know each other and appreciate each other’s work). 

I have absolutely loved working with artists and illustrators. I’ve gone so far as to say artists are saving my soul right now. Artists, especially ones who would work on a children’s book, are used to imbuing the world with magic, hope, and possibility. And I need that right now when most things in my news feed tempts me to despair. 

I love the art that has come in so far for this book, and the artists I’ve worked with or approached have all been incredible people who have instantly caught the vision for this project. 

How has your experience making and touring with the Seventh-Gay Adventists documentary film contributed to you writing this book?

This is a complicated question. There’s no doubt that making Seventh-Gay Adventists (and the related Enough Room at the Table dialogue film and then the Outspoken short films) has led to my deep need for this book for my own family. 

For those here who don’t know me, I’ve spent the last 10 years working on a documentary film (and related films and outreach projects) to share the stories and faith journeys of LGBT people of faith, specifically within the context of my denominational heritage. I really had no idea what we were getting into when my husband and I decided to start filming these stories, but my life changed profoundly. I saw the internal political machinations of organized religion, especially the fear-based reactions to the heartfelt stories of LGBT members whose very existence and testimony challenged the status quo. I saw my own faith shift dramatically. I began to understand why people so often fear the proverbial “slippery slope” because undoing one set of assumptions does indeed lead to other previously-unassailable positions and beliefs being open to new inquiry and critical thought. My own husband, who was a co-producer/director on these films, now identifies as agnostic or humanist (after a season of identifying as an atheist), and that took a lot of negotiating in our marriage to adjust to. 

My first reaction to his announcement that he thought he might be an atheist was to tell him that we clearly had to get a divorce.

I couldn’t imagine raising a child (we only had one at that point) with an atheist. Needless to say, that wasn’t a phenomenal way to start off that conversation! It’s still not a settled area of our marriage, and I’m not exactly a traditional theist myself. This new shift in our marriage and our no-longer-shared faith sent me into a spiral of desperation when it came to spiritual matters. Our films, advocacy, and faith shift meant that our heritage denomination wasn’t a great fit for us anymore even though we both had five generations of family history in that church and still love much about that community. But other options weren’t great fits either. I spent hours scouring websites of potential church homes, sending hopeful emails, and planning visits. Often the more progressive-leaning options didn’t have much for children, and the ones with thriving children’s programs often still had a very conservative theology being taught underneath the fun and games. 

I admitted that I was spiritually homeless. 

And I wept. I often wept alone because my husband couldn’t enter into this grief without feeling guilty. And most of our good friends nearby had no religious inclination at all. In fact, I clearly remember once watching a little girl for a share-care swap who was a classmate in my daughter’s preschool co-op whose parents we’d known since childbirth class days. It was shortly before Christmas, and Lily had a nativity scene in her bedroom. I heard her and her friend talking. 

Friend: "What's that?"

Lily: "That's baby Jesus."

Friend: "Who's that?"

Lily: "You know, from the Bible?"

Friend: "What's the Bible?"

A bit later, her classmates buried a butterfly at school. It was a simple and heartfelt act. But later, Lily told me she had wanted to say a prayer for the butterfly, and another classmate told her that was silly and started asking other kids who was an atheist and who wasn't. Lily was deeply upset, feeling like the odd kid out.

During the same time frame, we went to a Christmas program at a local seminary that we've always loved. It's a program with lots of singing with candles everywhere. For several years, it was our ritual to get into the spirit of Christmas, but we hadn't been able to go for the last two years. I was looking forward to it, but this time I found myself unable to relax into the familiar words and hymns because the theology behind the liturgy was much more conservative and patriarchal than I could sit still with at that time (and Lily became rather uncooperative when she realized it wasn't a sing-along!). I felt empty and without a home. 

In one of my communities we were the Jesus freaks, the ones who pray over dead butterflies. In the other community, we were the heretics, too liberal to fit in anymore. I didn’t know what to do.

That was four years ago, and in many ways, I’m still not entirely sure what to do. We sometimes still go to our family’s church. We still have our names on the books at an Adventist church I can feel good about being associated with. We also go to a progressive church some Sundays that meets about 25 miles away from us. They know my husband is an agnostic and are entirely okay with that. In fact, many there are in similar spaces. 

But I’ve still been frustrated trying to find great content to read to my children that has any connection with my faith but presents a Godview and worldview I’m okay with. My eldest (9) paints pictures of Mother God, often addresses her prayers to a feminine Divine, doesn’t like the way the God of the Bible acts a lot of time (let’s just say she’s a Hufflepuff and serious animal lover, and the flood story does not sit well with her), and is a passionate believer in LGBT equality. There aren’t exactly a lot of books that work with that!

So, I’m writing this book for her (and eventually her two-year-old little sister) as much as anything. I want her to know faith can be both beautiful and complicated, meaningful and mysterious—and, most importantly, a catalyst to work for the common good of us all rather than just a personal comfort. 

It’s a big undertaking with a lot of risks, but making Seventh-Gay Adventists also taught me that I can do hard things with the help of the incredible grassroots community that nurtures and champions a project like this that itself is hoping to stand for love and justice.

How are your daughters helping with the book?

My daughters are a major inspiration for writing this book, and I’m reading all of my drafts to Lily, my nine-year-old, as I go along. (I also have a group of early readers from various expertise areas if anyone wants to be part of that group.) Lily might do an illustration for an introduction or something similar, as well.

If anyone knows our family, you’ll see from the campaign page that she’s the kid in the key art right now!

What are some of your favorite faith-based books for children already out there?

I’ve had a few people who watched the pitch video on the Kickstarter page ask me what are the five books I call out in a scene there as good ones. There are a few really good ones, especially for younger children. Here are a few:

And here’s a list started by Cindy Wang Brandt, the gentle parenting advocate who is one of my modern-day holy troublemakers.

To view and/or support the Holy Troublemakers & Unconventional Saints Kickstarter campaign, click here.

 

Alita Byrd is interviews editor for Spectrum.

All photos courtesy of Daneen Akers.

 

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