Book Review: The Green Ember

GreenEmberChildren need – no, deserve – stories which feed their spirits. This has been a foundational belief of mine for the better part of a decade, as long as I’ve been writing stories for children. The story of how all of that originated – thanks to Bruce Coville and my friend Cyndy – is better told at another time.

But it wasn’t until I met S.D. Smith that I acquired a term for the kind of spiritual development which stories can nourish in children. Smith calls this concept “holy imagination.” It’s the idea that stories on this side of eternity should exist to heighten children’s awareness and understanding of the Kingdom awaiting us on the other side. Stories should be celebrations of the true virtues – beauty, abundance, order – so as to image them into the lives of young minds still seeking a true conception of these weighty, abstract ideas. They enflesh them, so to speak.

Smith has built a whole website called Story Warren providing resources for families looking for ways to provide beauty and holy imagination for their children. And it’s a doozy. I’ve even been fortunate enough to contribute some pieces there now and then.

But that’s not why I’ve called you all here today. This is about a fantastic children’s book, which just happens to be written by Smith. Based on the above remarks, it makes sense, then, that The Green Ember, which released in December, is both a story with rabbits in it (which is pretty awesome on its own), and a story which presents a world in which a hunger for the Kingdom – Smith refers to it in the novel as the Mended Wood – so saturates the world of the story that it trickles down to characters’ casual conversations with each other.

But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. I should first be talking about how this is an “instant classic.” That is to say, it shares the same spirit of derring-do involving small characters cast into big adventure against long odds with so many of the stories I’ve loved through the years, from Treasure Island to Watership Down. (There we go with rabbits again.)

The Green Ember is about two rabbits, sister Heather and brother Pickett, who find themselves caught up in the struggle at the fabric of their world and seek to right some pretty dreadful wrongs. Along the way, they wrestle with their own weaknesses and encounter dastardly deeds, danger, and double-crosses. (Thankfully, no terrifying over-use of alliteration.) It’s entertaining, thought-provoking, beautifully-written, and I’m sure will challenge its young readers to dig deep by inspiring them with both the successes and failures of its lapine protagonists.

I’ve already been thrilled to share stories like Stuart Little and The Gallant Pig with my first-grader, and I can’t wait until I can introduce him to Heather and Pickett. They’re just the kind of story-friends I think he’ll love spending time with.

The Candle and the Kingdom

Stories by Candlelight Image

 

And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them…

Revelation 21:2-3

I keep a candle on my writing desk. It occupies a small space in the back corner, scarcely noticed until I sit down for the day’s work, click on the lighter I keep in the top right drawer and reach its flickering flame toward the waiting wick. It’s a ritual I stole from Twyla Tharp, which at first felt clunky, but has since become a small ceremony which provides structure and the comfort of liturgy on days when discipline is not, shall we say, my first instinct. (That Netflix Streaming, she is a temptress.)

In mid-October, I committed to using the month of November to write the first draft of a recently-hatched novel idea. While this was the extrinsic goal, the truth is, I was desperate for spiritual retreat and was relying on the discipline of creation – the stillness of conceiving an idea, the act of faith whereby I stare at a blank page and trust the words will come, and the grace accepted as the story takes form – to find a deeper understanding of my relationship with God. I sent out this commitment like a spiritual flare, hopeful that each night after my children were in bed, I would see my work burn bright in its arc through the darkness. Of course, I also anticipated that I would someday have a completed manuscript to show for it.

Someday.

One night in the middle of the month, I went to bed with the weight of the project threatening to crush me. Looking back at the day’s work, I felt with all sincerity it amounted to nothing more than a pile of dust. A cave man could have communicated more profoundly. My prose was clunky, my character a rough type, and worst of all, the beautiful idea that I had conceived months ago of a story grounded in beauty and truth, the Form which existed in a Platonic realm somewhere, was so far distant, it seemed like a dream from which I awakened with no hope of remembering of even the clearest detail. Was it all a dream, Dorothy?

There’s a way in which writing is like the vision of the Holy City, God’s Kingdom in all its fullness. We understand that it exists, but we have such a dim conception of what it actually may entail, that it makes living on this earth, with these limitations – this gravity, these debilitating diseases, these heartbreaks and regrets – daunting to the point of paralysis. That’s what writing something of any length, with any kind of discipline and focus, is like. We begin with an idea – we seek to build a world and enflesh characters to face obstacles and make choices – all with the hope of some grand meaning emerging. But between the “Already” of the idea and the “Not Yet” of the reality lies a long, torturous, mystifying road.

Still, I’m convinced that the act of creating, of bringing chaos into order, is in some way integral to our understanding of what it is like to live with the Kingdom, God’s Holy City, not yet come, out of reach for now. We pray each day that Kingdom would come and Will would be done, in the same way that we pray that our creative work would ultimately take its final shape and be found meaningful. Perhaps training ourselves to persevere in the face of doubt and unanswered questions in our creative work is the trying of our faith of which Paul speaks. Each day we put our faith to the test with a prayer for fresh words with which to express ourselves, fresh insights about this world we inhabit.

The month is gone, but the candle burns on and the work continues. Some days, the sight of the flame burning and the scent of the cinnamon and cloves have been the only thing keeping me going in this trek. Other days I have been blessed with a timely email from a friend or a word from my wife encouraging me to persevere. So in this way, I have come to believe we need those who will stand as candles in our own lives to remind us that the creative work is necessary, because as feeble as our efforts are, they help to image the Kingdom to ourselves and others, and to understand, however dimly, what it means to live in the space between promise and fulfillment.

Nativity Poem: “Infant King”

DETAIL FROM ICON OF THE NATIVITYThis is a poem I was asked to write for the Christmas Eve services at my church this season. It was a blessing to read it on such a meaningful night. It sort of expresses what I’ve been coming to understand lately about surrender and humility, and the impact of Christ’s incarnation on our daily lives. Blessings and peace this Christmas season!

“Infant King”

O God from God and Light from Light,
now resting in a cattle trough.
You lie at the mercy of the things you made:
pink skin prickled by night air’s chill,
tender grip groping for mother’s milk,
fawn-eyes shivering at the newness of it all.

You, whose imagination dreamt the form
of the thing we call pine,
which became both tree and feedbox,
now lie in a rough-hewn cradle made from wood.

You, whose word flung the farthest galaxies,
now can only muster breathless cries
for an emotion which your infant mind
cannot manage to bring into words.
You have become a thing you formed from dust.

Who but the Creator could set aside sovereignty,
shame the world’s power with infancy
and shatter our shackles with a fragile hand?
Though we hid in the shadows,
divorced from your light,
you surrendered heaven,
dove from divinity,
wrapped yourself in our weakness,
and cried in the darkness
under light from the moon you made.

Here again at the foot of your manger,
infant son of the King,
we kneel surrounded by the things we’ve made,
scars and anger,
fear and doubt.
But in your infancy,
we see the hope of surrender,
that we would be filled with you:
in us,
for us,
Emmanuel.

Podcast Episode 3 – “Anna Overmoyer”

A special “Back to School” episode of the EyeWonderWhy Podcast, with recent student and current starving artist Anna Overmoyer. (Just kidding; she eats well.) Anna’s a dimensional illustrator, so to get y’all introduced, here’s a few of Anna’s pieces (All from her website, annasketchstudio.blogspot.com.)

Here’s the audio to the podcast (also available on iTunes!).

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“Snow White”

Beauty and the beast final poster2

“Beauty and the Beast”

fiddlers

“Fiddlers”

Podcast, Episode 2 – “Helena Sorenson”

It’s the 15th of August, and you know what that means?

You don’t? Well, shame on you!

A new episode of the EyeWonderWhy Podcast is available just below these words! Just click the little play button and off you go. 

My guest is Helena Sorenson, author of the novels Shiloh and Seeker, which, in Helena’s words, explore “the tension between what we see and what we believe to be real.” Wow. She also talks about making messes on purpose, and her favorite Pixar movie. I also share a goofy, probably unnecessary anecdote about Bruce the Shark. Enjoy!

If you’re interested in finding all the podcasts to date, click the Podcast link in the menu above.