Though Kathleen Davis and Gary Jansen each tell different stories in their respective Christopher Award-winning children’s books “Feathers from Above” and “Remember Us with Smiles,” the one common theme is love. Kathleen explores the love of God that gave us each a guardian angel, while Gary (and his wife and co-author Grace) reflect on the profound love of family. Both authors joined me recently on “Christopher Closeup” (podcast below) to discuss their work and the spiritual beliefs that guided them in the writing process.
Real life served as the inspiration for “Feathers From Above.” For Kathleen, a mother of three, that involved her four-year-old daughter finding feathers in the house or outside and saying, “Mom, look, my angel must be nearby.”
Though Kathleen had taught her children that God gave them guardian angels, she had never said that angels leave feathers as their calling cards. Her daughter came up with that idea all by herself.
Kathleen said, “She would have different colored [feathers], and we would talk about: are they little, are they big, are they brown, are they white, based on the color of her feather. We did it so often that I thought, ‘What a beautiful message that she has and what beautiful imagery it’s creating.’ I wanted other children to understand that you do have an angel.”
For Gary, a father of two, “Remember Us with Smiles” began as a love letter to his wife Grace that recalled some of their memorable experiences as a family. The couple realized that it could be reworked into a children’s book, focusing on the extraordinary ordinary experiences of family and spending time together.
This was especially important to Gary, who revealed that while his parents were wonderful people and hard workers, there was also a lot of “brokenness” in his family when he was growing up. Creating fun and memorable experiences with his kids became one of his goals as a dad.
Sometimes, those experiences were simply eating french fries together on a park bench. Other times, it was something unique, such as being chased by a skunk while playing miniature golf.
“For me, memory has a spiritual importance to it. The work that I do, [as] a writer and as an editor, it’s always trying to find practical ways of expanding our spirituality…We all have plenty of bad memories we can focus on, but accentuating the positive and looking back – for me and for our family too – is a deeply spiritual experience.”
The spirituality in “Remember Us with Smiles” is more implicit than overt, but it is there. Gary explained, “Years ago, a friend invited me to go on an Ignatian retreat, and I didn’t know anything about Saint Ignatius. I grew up Catholic and went to Catholic school but…faith wasn’t a big part of my life..[On that retreat], that’s when I got my first introduction to Saint Ignatius and this idea of finding God in all things. So, we try to be good Catholics. We pray before meals and go to church and all of that…And there’s a prayer called The Examen where you can examine your life or examine your day, and you focus on events that happened and where God was. But the book is not explicitly religious at all, except in the fact that there are deeply spiritual moments within it. There’s a scene [where] we’re pretending to battle a dragon. Part of that was inspired by this Robert Wicks book, where he talked about us encountering our own dragons. So, there isn’t religion in the book per se, but each spread has a deliberate spiritual idea behind it.”
The faith element of “Feathers From Above” is more obvious, being that it’s about guardian angels. But it also introduces children to a complex idea in an age appropriate way. Specifically, it points out that having a guardian angel doesn’t mean that it will protect your child from anything bad ever happening to them.
Kathleen said, “It is an issue that I’ve grappled with, and I know most people who have had anything terrible happen to them grapple with that. Why do bad things happen to good people?…Why would God let this awful thing happen? Kids, I’m sure, also are wondering this. And I didn’t want the book to be, ‘So long as you know you have a guardian angel, everything will be fine, your life is going to be great.’ That’s not the truth. Nowhere in the Bible does it say that. I wanted [the book] to be honest and true to life. I believe that God doesn’t stop bad things from happening. God helps you when those bad things happen. If you look at the Bible and you look at Jesus and John the Baptist, really terrible things happened to them. God loved them the most. So you’re still going to have little bad things and big bad things, but God is going to be there to help you through them.”
Though “Feathers From Above” is geared toward teaching young children about their faith, Kathleen notes that her children are also her spiritual teachers. She said, “My kids, 100 percent, they help me in directing and redirecting my focus and finding God in things…My children are still little, so sometimes my daughter will see something that she’s literally never seen that is very common to us as adults. And I’m like, ‘Wow, yeah, that is amazing. Isn’t God amazing? What a beautiful gift that he [gave us] this amazing sunset or this leaf we just picked off a tree today that was in the shape of a heart.’ Why? Why are these leaves in the shape of a heart? God is just amazing. His love is in everything. So they definitely have redirected [my] focus.”
Gary concurred, adding, “I took a hearing test recently on an app to see what my hearing was, and I could only hear 13,000 hertz. But my kids could hear 18,000 hertz. It’s a higher pitch. I can’t hear it. They can hear it. And little kids can hear 24,000 hertz. To what you were saying, Kathleen, they could hear and see and be in touch with things that we as adults sometimes can’t. That was a huge spiritual experience right there…Children have so much to teach us because they’re aware of so many things that sometimes we forget or just don’t see.”
Regarding his hopes for children and families that read “Remember Us with Smiles,” Gary said, “If we can get people to cry but in a good way, that was our objective…When you think about how blessed we are…the emotions start to open up. We want the book to open up people’s hearts and for them to have an emotional experience and connect with the people that they love.”
Kathleen’s goal in writing “Feathers From Above” also revolves around love. She concluded, “My hope is that whatever their faith is – whether they believe in God or don’t believe in God, doesn’t really matter – my hope is that kids will realize that they’re not alone in life, that there is somebody who is with them and they are loved…Life is going to be hard, but God is with you.”
(To listen to my full interview with Kathleen Davis and Gary Jansen, click on the podcast link):
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