Creating Better Faith-Based Children's Stories

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.

We invite you to join our community through conversation by commenting below. We ask that you engage in courteous and respectful discourse. You can view our full commenting policy by clicking here.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/8874
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What a powerful message! For those of us that have come from strong faith based backgrounds, but have since struggled to find balance and strength, Daneen and her family are filling a much needed void in literature. I’m so privileged to have known Daneen for so long and to watch her influence within, what I believe is a growing community. Those that read her story and are touched by her words are truly blessed!

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I am so excited about this book as I’ve been praying for something like this for quite a while.

As I mother I have been struggling to find faith based books to read to my children. I am grateful beyond words to Daneen and her family for beautifully putting together this awesome resource.

It’s funny (not) how acts of Love and Justice are sadly seen as extraordinary instead of being the norm. Most faiths/religions are culturally seen as fundamentalists and usually for good reason… but it doesn’t need to be that way. There are people who has fought (or that is fighting today) to make a better world through their understanding of what Love really is… and this needs to be shared.

One might not agree with every faith represented in this book but you will certainly agree that to bring justice, courage and action against the source of injustice is needed… whatever form this source takes.

Seriously… CAN. NOT. WAIT.

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As a mother of young children, I have often wished for more hero stories that showcase people who live with compassion, grace, and inclusiveness. I want my children’s fundamental guiding principle to be love, and that is sometimes muddled and distorted in fundamentalist religious teaching. I have sat through Sabbath School classes with my children and felt exceedingly uncomfortable with the concepts and presentations of some of the typical Bible stories taught to roomfuls of impressionable young minds. David and Goliath? The flood? Cain and Abel? Little maid and Captain Naaman? The beheading of John the Baptist?

My kids are particularly sensitive souls, and they also understand and analyze far more than one might expect, so we have worked hard to filter what they are exposed to based on what they can handle at their respective ages. It has saddened me that their initial exposure to concepts like violence, murder, mass death, trafficking, and fratricide, for example, has been in Bible stories in Sabbath School. It’s not that I want them to forever be shielded from these stories; it’s that I don’t want those stories to be the only guideposts in their religious geography. I want them to know modern heroes who do courageous acts out of love in non-violent ways. What Daneen is creating in this book is itself courageous and important. I look forward to seeing this project come to fruition.

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Kudos Spectrum for this interview and your willingness to introduce this important and meaningful project! If I find encouragement in a branch of the church, it’s usually within your pages.
Serious kudos to Daneen! The unselfishness of the Akers family blows me away. Daneen and Stephen could’ve easily curated stories and lives and taught their girls without ever considering the needs, yet again, of a broader audience, but here there go again! After shaking my head, I’m left with only anticipation of the book’s release and sincere hope that it is but the first in the beginning of a series.
I find the Bible rich in its stories! I also find too many of those too brutal or troubling to share with children, at least fully or truthfully. (Anyone else remember the shock in discovering that Esther was trying out for a position in a brothel?!?!) We also, obviously, need contemporary faith heroes and models that are relatable and imaginable for our children, let alone ourselves.
Cheers and God bless! This is a kickstarter campaign I’m supporting!

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Having a faith doesn’t mean one is faithful to the true God. Looking at the names, these people won’t be role models for myself nor my child.

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Faith Really means Trust. Faith in the Finished work of Christ is the only faith with eternal virtue. A Jewish father placed his young son on the mantel over the fireplace and said son jump to daddy. the sonrepeatedly refused saying that the father would drop him. the father said son I am your father, you can trust me. finally the boy jumped. the father stepped away and the boy fell on the hard wood floor… the father then said, son you now know you can’t trust Anyone. .

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“Loss of faith in God is the inevitable result of losing faith in the Spirit of Prophecy.”

No, sadly, it is more likely the result of identifying deeply with those who have been traumatized by a community of faith. Loss of faith is a common post-traumatic symptom, and there’s plenty of that to go around in the Christian community, whether we’re talking about the sexual abuse of women and children or the mistreatment and rejection of LGBTQ individuals. The damage that this does to faith identities is incalculable. Until we as a church own up to that, we’re doomed to perpetuate the harm and then blame our victims for “rebelling against the Holy Spirit.” Journey on, Akers/Eyer family. Thank you for caring deeply for those who have been hurt by the church. Of such is the kingdom of heaven.

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I am SO thankful for Daneen and Stephen and the great works of compassion and honesty they have carried on! I know that God has led and guided them, even when they are going through a dark part of their journeys. It is only when we are willing to face up to the mistakes and dilemmas in our own faith communities that God can open us up to more of his love.

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Praise the Lord for that. It boggles my mind how this postmodern society has neutered God’s Word and has taught it to our children. As it was in the days of Noah/Sodom…

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Frankly, there are times that when given a choice between the days of Noah/Sodom and the days of Christianity here in America, the former is likely the better choice. Our own church historically teaches that organized Christianity is who will enforce Satan worship on the world, and there is no evidence anywhere that our own denominational structure will survive that onslaught. Certainly the evidence we’re now seeing indicates that it will not. No, when brought to crunch time it will always be down to the individual to choose to obey God rather than man.

Bravo, Daneen and Stephen! The nay sayers are going to nay. Continue God’s work in the ways he leads you.

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I’m certain the inhabitants of that day would be glad to swap places with you, if given the opportunity.

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It’s more like six of one and a half dozen of the other, deciding whether to follow a crazy Noah or today’s wolves in sheep’s clothing, aka the false shepherds of every denomination. I’ve always considered that crazy is better than devious, power worshiping, political pandering, snake-in-the-grass preachers.

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I think it is a good idea. Instead of going over the Conflict of the Ages series of heroes to choose new stores.Great idea.

I wonder how far the author will go in telling the story of St Francis of Assisi? When he rejected the inheritance of his father he removed all his clothes in front of him and walked away naked. He taught that money was not even to be touched. For punishment, of one of his followers, they were to take a coin in their teeth and place it in a dung heap. That is about “unconventional” as one can get!

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Thanks, @daneenakers:

I guess there are three vectors that I find most compelling in this Q&A, and the narrative that supports it:

A) I’m astounded by the industriousness than this project represents, as you work to put together and Kickstart a high-quality, well-written, beautifully illustrated volume. You did this, because you wanted something for your daughter(s) to read that represented your values.

I just think that this is an incredible act to take on behalf of one’s child. It seems deeply loving and protective. Every now and then, one hears of some now-classic text that the author originally wrote because of a question her child asked. This seems like that kind of book.

B) When you were promoting your film, Seventh-Gay Adventists, you’d often say that you were not pushing “the rightness of” homosexuality—advocating it, as such—but wanted viewers to merely hear these stories; words to that effect.

That often seemed disingenuous to me. I’ve rarely, if ever, met a media-maker whose objective is simply to present the existence of a viewpoint. No one involves themselves, at the levels it takes to make a documentary, without a profound commitment to some counter-position embedded in it. However, I took what you said at face value (though, as it turns out, I’ve never seen the film).

I did see the Outspoken shorts, though. Skillfully rendered as they are, all seemed to have the same void: None of them appeared to say anything useful to a person who accepts the traditional Biblical stance that homosexual practices are outside of God’s will; i.e., sinful. By “useful,” I mean in the sense of an argument that would nullify the standard counter-argument.

We now live in a different era, though, than the one in which SGA was made. And so, it struck me, when I saw that you were presenting these five characters, and most of them were gay or “gay-afilliated / -supportive.” That is, there’s no need for you to diffuse your offering, as you once did, perhaps in part because you’re not making this book for Adventists, or about them.

This, then, makes me sure that if you had presented your original work unambiguously, you’d have never gotten the open-minded responses to it that you did get.

In other words, it seems that what you said re: SGA was strategic.

C) In ten years or so, I would like to hear what your daughter made of these experiences through which you and your husband are going, in your attempt to ratify your current viewpoints.

I’m not saying this vindictively. As a person without children, I’m fascinated by the differences between the ways adults read “life at home,” in their households, and how their children do this, especially when recounting the experience later in life.

What seems clear is that you and your husband, as former Adventists—and he, particularly, as a former theist—are doing something, perhaps, widely different from your own upbringing, and, by your own words, admittedly experimental.

I think all parents, generally, work to give their children a worldview that will sustain and develop these offspring as they grow.

But I also think most parents are deeply blind to their own contradictions, and that it is these their children will ultimately report most heatedly.

HA

Perhaps because the person is inept at listening to stories that don’t match their own narrative?

Thanks, @JohnCarson.

I said:

None of them appeared to say anything useful to a person who accepts the traditional Biblical stance that homosexual practices are outside of God’s will; i.e., sinful.

You said:

In response:

I think you mean, “Possibly because the person is inept at listening to stories that don’t match their own narrative?”

In other words, it’s possible; not even necessarily likely.

That is:

A) One might watch these shorts, and none of them appear to say anything useful to a person who accepts the traditional Biblical stance that homosexual practices are outside of God’s will; i.e., sinful, because that person is inept at listening to stories “that don’t match their own narrative.”

(I don’t wholly understand what you mean by “that don’t match their own narrative.” I take it that you mean narratives that are far outside of the viewer’s ability to either understand, comprehend, stomach, grok, etc. [Perhaps you can elaborate, and minimize the uncertainties in this response.])

On the other hand:

B) One might watch these shorts, and none of them appear to say anything useful to a person who accepts the traditional Biblical stance that homosexual practices are outside of God’s will; i.e., sinful, because that person is adept at listening to stories “that don’t match their own narrative.” In that case, the “issue” may lie with the person telling the story.

That is, the information may just not have been included in the narrative.

It may be there. But it may not be there.

I take the latter position; that it wasn’t there; i.e., the issue wasn’t addressed, because the filmmakers, and, I’ll guess, the subjects, did not seek to make a theological argument. So, for those who’d hoped to hear one, these films were less satisfying.

Please reply to my post by a) using the reply button directly underneath it, and b) including my name with an “at symbol,” likes so—@harryallen—if you do reply and want me to see what you’ve written.

HA

@Harry_Allen Harry, Thanks for your reply, but honestly, don’t try to tell me what I meant to say. It doesn’t become you, and in itself shows a lack of ability to listen, in favor of making one’s own point or superimposing one’s own beliefs or narrative upon another. Would you like to try again? Oh, and if you please, keep it short. For me the internet abbreviation TLDR (too long didn’t read) is applicable. A point worth making is worth making in brevity in most cases. Thanks.

Thanks, @JohnCarson.

You said:

In response:

You’re welcome.

You said:

In response:

This is self-refuting.

In other words, if I were to do this, then you would be telling me what I meant to say.

You said:

In response:

I can’t take that critique, on its face, from one who doesn’t know “you.” It may very well become me!

You said:

In response:

Please see my previous response.

You said:

In response:

I’d probably need a better reason to do so than a TLDR.

You said:

In response:

Well, like I said….

You said:

In response:

You almost certainly cannot prove that.

You said:

In response:

No: Thank you!

HA

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“Woe (judgment is coming) to those who call evil good, and good evil; Who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness; Who substitute bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!”
‭‭ISAIAH‬ ‭5:20‬ ‭

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