The Final Judges

I had the honor and the privilege, recently, to serve as one of the final judges for a prestigious Christian book award. The judging criteria that I was given served as a great reminder to me of the qualities that I hope to include in my own novels. I’m nearing the final stages of my current work-in-progress, and it has been a great exercise for me as I edit my own novel to compare it to these award-winning criteria. Here are some of them:

Does the book tell an interesting, entertaining story? Is the writing excellent and picturesque, the story well-paced, the dialogue realistic? Are the characters complex and memorable? Does the book address significant issues with God at the center? Is there spiritual depth and a sense of greater meaning for the reader?

A lot of important balls for a writer to juggle!

Coincidentally, I was invited to be a guest at a local book club in Zeeland, Michigan the other night. They had all read my latest book, “Legacy of Mercy.” The ladies were very gracious and sweet, and I’m sure, if it so happened that they didn’t like the book, they would have followed my grandmother’s sage advice, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” They said some very nice things in fact, and were very encouraging and enthusiastic. They also gave me this beautiful planter to show their appreciation.

One of the most satisfying things for me was to hear the ladies talk about my characters. I keep a bulletin board next to my computer with pictures of my characters, and when I begin, they are flat and two-dimensional. It’s up to me to flesh them out and turn them into living, multi-faceted characters. I know that I’ve succeeded when I hear readers chatting about them as if they were real people who they had actually met and gotten to know. Thanks, ladies, for cheering for my heroes and booing my villains!

I enjoyed listening to their discussion with the award-winning criteria fresh in my mind. Yet these women were final judges in the sense that matters most—they were readers. They don’t know all the writerly buzz words like point-of-view and hooks and backstory and viewpoint characters. But they do know whether or not they enjoyed the book. Whether or not they found it so compelling that they stayed awake until after midnight to see how it ended. And they know if the author has given them something to think about after they finish the book.

Awards are nice. I’ve won a few over the years, and they were always an enormous source of encouragement to me. But knowing that my book has touched the heart of just one reader and made a difference in her life, is a reward that no contest can ever give me. Thank you, Zeeland Book Club!

What do you look for in a good book? Are there any criteria you would add to the book award list?

Life-Changing Books

I’ve been thinking about my spiritual journey lately, along with my journey as a writer. The two are closely entwined. And I realized what a powerful, life-changing effect books have had on those journeys. Space doesn’t allow me to list all the books that have influenced me, but four stand out.

The first is “The Hiding Place” by Corrie Ten Boom. Corrie and her family lived uneventful lives in The Netherlands until the Nazis invaded. Then their faith in God and deep love for Christ compelled them to hide Jews in their home, trying to save as many people as possible. Corrie, her sister Betsy, and their father were arrested and sent to prison camps. Only Corrie survived.

I read this book when my husband and I lived in Bogota, Colombia. We had everything a young couple could possibly want; we were newly-married, working our dream jobs, and our first child, Joshua, was born there. I had been raised in a Christian home with godly parents and grandparents, yet when I read “The Hiding Place,” I realized how weak my faith was. I wouldn’t have had the courage to risk my life as Corrie did. Her story convicted me, and I hungered for what she had. I began to seriously pursue a closer walk with God.

I read the second life-changing book shortly after we returned to the United States. “Anointed for Burial” by Todd and DeAnn Burke tells the true story of missionaries to Cambodia in the final, life-threatening years before the nation fell to the Communists. Again, I was impressed by their tremendous faith to endure fiery trials. For months, they lived in such perilous conditions that they needed to hear God speaking on a daily, and sometimes hourly, basis. They developed the habit of reading scripture three times a day, and God miraculously spoke to them through the Bible, offering wisdom and guidance when they needed it most.

Jesus said, “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” “Anointed for Burial” convicted me of my need to feed on the Word of God every day. I was faithful to feed my physical body three times a day, so why didn’t I see the greater need to feed my spirit with His Word? I found a daily scripture-reading plan that enabled me to read through the Bible in a year. I began that very day and have continued ever since.

The Bible is the third life-changing book. Like Todd and DeAnn Burke, I have found it to be a comfort and a source of wisdom. But best of all, the picture of God and His eternal plan that emerged as I read it, accomplished what I had longed for back in Bogota—to draw closer to Him, to get to know Him, and to strengthen my spiritual walk.

Next, my husband’s work took us to Canada. My plan had been to have a second child around the time Joshua turned two. But we celebrated his second birthday, then his third and fourth and fifth—and I still wasn’t pregnant. He turned six and started school, and God didn’t seem to hear my prayers. I read the fourth life-changing book, “The Chosen” by Chaim Potok as I wrestled with unanswered prayer. This beautifully-written novel tells the story of an Orthodox Jewish father who, for reasons that aren’t told until the end, stops speaking to his beloved son. When the father finally speaks, he tells how his heart broke the entire time he had kept silent, and how he feared his son would turn away from him forever. But he did it because of the son’s arrogance and self-sufficiency, which needed to be broken. The son needed a loving, compassionate heart so he could understand other people’s pain and accomplish the work God was calling him to do.

I saw in “The Chosen” an allegory of God’s inexplicable silences. And I realized that through my longing for a child, God had led me to become active in the Right-to-Life movement and to help start two crisis pregnancy centers. Through this novel, I discovered that God speaks powerfully through fiction. And it also created in me a longing to write novels like this from a Christian perspective. Christian fiction as we know it today had yet to be born, but I sensed that this was the calling God had for my life. I signed up for a creative writing course at a local college—and a month later, I learned I was pregnant with our son Benjamin. Twenty months after he arrived, our daughter Maya joined us.

My spiritual and writing journeys have been long and satisfying. I have published 25 books, now. Glowing reviews and royalty checks are great, but to me, the most gratifying rewards are letters from readers telling me how one of my stories has impacted their life.

So, how about you? What life-changing books have you read?

Read to Me!

One of the things I love about being a grandmother is reading books to my granddaughter. Lyla is sixteen months old and already has her favorites. One of them, “Hand, Hand, Fingers Thumbs” by Al Perkins and Eric Gurney, used to be one of her mother’s favorites, too. I never liked this book when my daughter was young because it didn’t have a plot. My daughter now understands why I got tired of reading it over and over, and has even resorted to hiding the book from Lyla. Ironically, I could read it to my granddaughter all day!

When Lyla gets a little older, I’ll introduce her to another of her mother’s favorites, “Millions of Cats” by Wanda Gag. It’s about a sweet husband who sets off to find a kitten for his wife and, when he can’t make up his mind which one to choose, returns with “hundreds of cats, thousands of cats, millions and billions and trillions of cats.” His astounded wife says, “But we can never feed them all!”

I have a theory that the books we love as children offer hints about the adults we’ll later become, and also help to shape us. My daughter still loves cats, and she visits the local animal shelter often. Like the husband in the story, she would gladly bring all of the cats home if not for the problem of feeding them. A few years ago, she agreed to foster a cat for a few days because he was too rambunctious for the tiny shelter—and Dexter is now a beloved family member.

So I started thinking about my childhood favorites and why I liked them. “The Boxcar Children” by Gertrude Chandler Warner, tells about a family of orphans who make a home in an abandoned railroad boxcar and learn to fend for themselves. I was never orphaned but my mother did become gravely ill when I was a child and had to be hospitalized. My sisters and I lived with my grandparents until she recovered. I wasn’t wise enough to realize it then, but I think “The Boxcar Children” appealed to me because the children not only survived the trauma but even flourished. And how fun to make over a boxcar! Just like my favorite TV show, “Fixer-Upper!”

Another book I enjoyed was “The Borrowers” by Mary Norton. It’s about the little people who live in the walls of our houses and “borrow” objects from us to furnish their own homes. It explains why so many things go missing, like buttons and spools of thread. The borrowers needed that button for a dinner plate and the spool for a table! Even now, the borrowers provide a handy explanation for all the items I lose. And this book either fed into or created my love for “repurposing” items that others discard. Like a giant-sized “borrower,” I love to scour thrift stores and garage sales searching for treasures to fix and paint and resurrect—like this broken-down bedside table that I turned into a filing cabinet. The plant stand was also a thrift store find.

Another favorite book that I’m eager to share with Lyla is “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” by Beatrix Potter. Peter and his siblings are warned not to go near Farmer McGregor’s garden lest they be caught and made into rabbit pie. The good little bunnies heed the warning and stay home. Peter doesn’t. As a child, I almost always obeyed the rules and was horrified by those who didn’t. I shouldn’t have liked this book—yet I did. Peter gets caught by the farmer and only narrowly escapes. He’s punished for disobeying, which appealed to my sense of justice and fairness. But oh, what an exciting adventure Peter had that day! The story provided a way for me to break the rules and be naughty, risking danger and adventure—and yet remain safe.

And isn’t that what reading good books still do? They take us to exotic places and time periods where we meet dangerous people who live extraordinary lives—without ever leaving our armchairs. I can’t wait to read all the books I once treasured to my granddaughter, and relive those adventures all over again!

So, what were your favorite books as a child? Can you see how they may have influenced who you are today?