TS: You are the author of the bestselling children’s book When God Made You, a beautifully written and illustrated book for children about their amazing worth in God’s eyes. It’s one of the favorite bedtime stories in our home right now and I love reading it to my children. So excited to have you stopping by the website to talk about the book. How did you get started writing children’s books? Is it something that you always wanted to do, or something you stumbled upon? Tell us the story!
MPT: First of all, thank you for inviting me to your online home. I’m truly honored.
When I became a parent and started reading picture books to my oldest son, Elias, I was surprised by two things: 1) I was blown away by how involved in the story Elias became as I read to him. Even when he couldn’t say words and sentences, he was fully engaged when I read to him—smiling and clapping and pointing out objects on the pages. Even though I’d always loved children’s books, I’d forgotten how intimate and sincere the connections are between kids and their favorite books. And 2), as a person of faith who wanted to read stories about God and faith to my kids, I became frustrated with the selection of books that are available. So often, I’d be reading a Christian storybook to my kid and I’d think, “this is kind of boring” or I’d sigh, “I wished they’d not included that piece of information.” Now, there are certainly many books about God that are just lovely, delightful reminders of God’s love and goodness. But even many of those books were presented in such a way that they didn’t create the connections with my kids and I that so many other books about everyday things seemed to created. So, amid those experiences, I began to wonder if I’d be able to create a children’s book about God that was fun and positive and easy to read. At some point I mentioned the idea to Jessica (my wife) and she loved the idea. In fact, she started pushing me to do it.
[TS: Interruption — Do y’all know who Jessica is? She runs the Mom Creative, a blog full of all kinds of amazingness. I’m also a fan of the FB live videos she does on her page. Back to the regularly scheduled programming.]
Jessica kept encouraging me for a few months before I actually started putting time and energy into the process. Maybe a year and a couple months later, I’d written what I believed could be my first kids’ book. Little did I know that I would go on to receive some variation of “no, we’re not interested” from 11 publishers. A year or so later, Jessica and I decided to self publish my book. That book—at the time, called God Made Light, but it re-releases in February as When God Made Light—sold 5000 copies in 9 months.
As I was starting to write When God Made You, one of the publishers that had initially said no, came back and said they were interested. Eight months later, I was contracted to release 2 children’s books with Waterbrook Press.
That’s the longer, less glorious answer. *Smile*
TS: I love long answers! When God Made You is a story about every person’s worth. It is a story where children are able to delight in the fact that God delights in them. (Gah! Just writing that gets me a bit teary.) How did you come up with the vision behind the story and the words?
Writing When God Made You took much longer than many might imagine. As I started the process of writing a second children’s book, the only thing I knew in the beginning is that I wanted the theme to be about God creating us. I jotted down ideas and hooks for at least a month, but I was not happy with any of them.
At the time, Ezra (our youngest) was only a month or so old. I was rocking him one night, singing hymns as well as words I was making up on the fly. Somewhere in the middle of that, I sang something like, “You, you, oh Ezra I love you…” The “you, you” part clicked and as soon as I put him down to sleep, I went and wrote down the first line of the book: “You, you, when God made you, God made you all shiny and new.”
From there, my goal was to create a prose that moved me. I wrote words and phrases and ideas that I not only wished I’d been told as a child, but also messages that I needed to hear today.
I’ll never forget this one moment… Sometimes, for a change of scenery, I’ll drive somewhere and walk around and write on my iPhone. On this occasion, I was walking around a grocery store parking lot on a Saturday afternoon when I wrote the words, “So be you—FULLY YOU—a show-stopping revue. Live your life in full color, every tint, every hue…” I still am prone to get teary when I read that line or I hear Adeline (my 6-year-old) read those words to her little brother.
But that’s how the words to When God Made You came to be… I wrote words that moved me. I wrote words that I wanted my kids to know. I wrote words that I wished I had known as a child.
TS: The illustrations in the book are captivating. Can you tell us about the process of collaborating with the illustrator? How did you two find each other? Did you give direction on what you wanted the illustrations to be or look like? What do you know about the illustrator’s process?
For years, I have loved and worked with Shannon Marchese, my editor at Waterbrook Press. She’s one of those people whose talent and skill I trust. Between 2008 and 2011, she and I worked together on my two memoirs, Churched and Hear No Evil. I learned so much about storytelling and humor and story arc under her guidance. I really trust her instincts. She’s a big reason I landed a children’s book deal. She believed in what I was doing almost from the beginning. In fact, even when her publisher said no, she took my idea BACK to the editorial board in hopes of changing their minds. That didn’t happen then. But after we self published the first book, she took my ideas back to the editorial board again and got a yes. So, needless to say, I love her dearly, as an editor and a friend.
And she believed in this book as much as I did.
Anyway, as soon as we signed the contract, Shannon and I started discussing possible illustrators. She’d send me portfolios and then we’d talk.
Toward the end of the process, she sent me David Catrow’s portfolio and said, “What do you think?”
I knew David’s art, but I didn’t know his name. I knew of his beautiful and colorful and sometimes humorous approach to illustrating a story, but I honestly didn’t know who he was or how I knew his talent. But after like 2 seconds on his website, I wrote back to Shannon with an exuberant “Yes! I LOVE him.”
But I honestly didn’t get my hopes up. Because my book was about God and as far as I could see, David hadn’t illustrated any religious content before. Which I thought was a huge plus. But still, I didn’t start cheering until his agent said that David was in and that he loved the manuscript.
But contrary to popular opinion, David and I didn’t work together on the illustrations. He’s the artist. And while I saw and approved and offered a few thoughts here and there, the visual magic of When God Made You is all David’s doing. He brought my words to life in a way that I could never have imagined. It’s both human and supernatural. God is present throughout. But God is never seen.
I just got his penciled drawings for When God Made Light a few weeks ago. And oh my gosh… he’s just brilliant.
TS: When God Made You uses gender neutral language for God (on behalf of a bajillion people, thank you for that!) Can you share a little bit about that choice and what it means for you?
MPT: Thank you for asking this question. I grew up believing God was a “he”. And I engaged God as a “he” during my 20s and well into my 30s. I didn’t realize to what degree my “he” perspective limited my understandings and interactions with God. That started to change in the last 10 years or so. Over the last decade, I’ve come to see how pronouns have affected my view of God—specifically, the male pronoun, since it’s by far the gender that people of faith have used and continue to use the most when talking about the divine.
Now, any time I sing a song that uses a pronoun, I almost always change the lyric to reflect how I think about God and to reflect how I talk about God with my own children.
So, all of that said, when I set out to write children’s books about God, I intentionally set out to create a prose that avoided any language that would assign God a gender. Inserting a pronoun into the text of When God Made You would have immensely changed the book and its message. I wanted this book to be one that, if you believed in God, you could read it. For children who have troubled relationships (or no relationships at all) with their fathers or mothers, I wanted this book to be a safe place for them to engage God’s story. I take very seriously the idea that something I write might help shape a child’s concepts of God. And so, with that in mind, I avoided pronouns because using “he” (or “she,” for that matter) can limit or shape our understandings of who God is and how God sees us and how comfortable we feel interacting with God.
And you know what? As far as I have noticed, only 1 person has complained in a review about me never using “he” in this book. And yet, I’ve received a plethora of comments and messages from people who are grateful that they have a book about God that they can happily read to their kids without tripping over a pronoun for God.
TS: One of the things I feel is true about your book is that it has great potential to reach folks who have been disillusioned by the church and frustrated with narrow minded messages about who God is and who Jesus is. Have you found the book has that sort of “crossover” potential?
MPT: The response to When God Made You has been amazing, honestly overwhelming. I’ve received so many messages from a variety of readers from all different backgrounds, and yes, many have come from people disillusioned by church and religion and from those outside of the Christian demographic. It’s been so beautiful to hear from people who are agnostic or followers of Islam or Buddhist, sharing with me how they read my book with their children or how my book is the first Christian book they’ve kept on their bookshelves. Those kinds of letters/messages been a really cool part of this journey.
TS: Resources like When God Made You are so rare. What other resources for children and parents are you excited about these days?
Some of the books about faith and God that I love are these…
[TS Note: I fully approve of all of these books as well… gold stars!]
TMS: What’s next for you? I seem to remember seeing that you have another book coming out, illustrated by the same illustrator. Is that correct? Is it a new work or a second publication of one of your former works?
MPT: My next children’s book comes out in February 2018. Like I mentioned earlier, it’s the republication of God Made Light as When God Made Light. It’s been re-edited and David Catrow completely re-illustrated it for Waterbrook Press/Random House.
And God willing, I’ll be writing more. I’ve got a few ideas I’m working on now. Hopefully, I’ll be able to share more soon.
But I have to say: I’m truly enjoying this new creative venture. Writing children’s books has surprised me in many ways—for one thing, it’s more life-giving than anything I’ve worked on before and the process has offered my own soul much healing. So, I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to continue doing it for at least a little while longer.
TS PS (ha! that rhymes!): I don’t have a crystal ball, and I don’t know what MPT’s career trajectory will be. I do know that the “books about God that don’t make us say ‘ugh, this is boring,’ or ‘um, I wish they didn’t say that'” niche is exploding. And, if the sales of Faithful Families and When God Made You are any indication, it’s a shift that will continue. I hope that Matthew continues to write lots of children’s books.
on Insta, matthewpaulturner
the interwebs: www.matthewpaulturner.com
Thank you so much, Matthew! Congratulations and good luck! Thank you for bringing so much life and joy in to so many homes… keep doing what you do. Can’t wait to see it!