My Interview with RHB Author Simonetta CarrPosted: February 1, 2011
Interview with Simonetta Carr on her series Christian Biographies for Young Readers
From a young age, I have always loved both history and writing. I had shelves full of books, and many of them were biographies or encyclopedias about important people. I was fascinated about other people’s lives and loved to try to understand their decisions and feelings. Then I married, had lots of kids (eight) and homeschooled them for several years, so I naturally passed on my passions to them. We used history as the main thread of our curriculum and focused on all the aspects of each time period, including theology. At the same time, especially as the children became a little older, I kept my writing skills alive by doing some freelance writing for magazines about subjects that interested me. I think the experience of investigative writing influenced my style and helped me in the research for these books.
2. How did the idea for your biographies come about? When was it that you saw the need for making young reader’s aware of some of the key figures in church history?
The idea came when I was homeschooling. As I said, I wanted to include theology in our study of history and I found that the material available was insufficient. Most biographies were directed to older children and the few written for young children were often too limited for our studies. Also, many of them were written a long time ago, when there was a notion that biographies had to be fictionalized or children would not read them. As in most fiction, accuracy was often sacrificed in order to make the stories compelling. I realized that I needed something different – biographies comparable to those you normally find in libraries about presidents, scientists, artists, etc. I started to formulate some ideas, and tried to convince a seminary student at my church who was majoring in church history to take up the task. I even made an outline and sample chapter to help him to understand what I meant, but he never agreed to do it. Finally, I realized I had done most of the work and should just finish it. I talked to my children and we undertook this as a family project. They gave me ideas. We discussed everything – the contents, the format, the illustrations, the style… They showed me their favorite secular biographies. I observed their reactions when we read them together and noticed what caught their attention. Then we practically wrote the first book together.
3. What is the purpose behind this series and the focus that it is trying to get across to such a young audience?
The main purpose of the series has always been what the magazine Modern Reformation expresses in its motto, “Know What You Believe and Why You Believe It.” I tried to get a similar motto for my books, but I could not come up with anything better.
In other words, I try to explain to the children how some of the beliefs we hold dear today were shaped in history. For example, children might just gloss over my section in the Augustine book about his answer to Pelagius (or they might take careful notice, depending on their age and how the parents use the books). In any case, my hope is that, one day, when they hear a pelagian statement or entertain a pelagian thought in their minds, they will recognize it and connect it to that story.
4. Are you working on the biographies in a certain order for any reason? What volumes have been written thus far?
I started with John Calvin because it was his 500th anniversary. RHB indicated that they didn’t necessarily want me to follow a certain order, so I didn’t make it a priority. Augustine and John Owen are just two of my favorite characters. These are the three titles that have been published so far.
5. What volumes are you working on at the moment? Also, what volumes are plan for future publication?
The next title, which is completed but is waiting for illustrations, is Athanasius. I chose Athanasius while watching our children recite the Nicene Creed in church. I felt that they needed to know the story behind it so they could fully appreciate what they are saying. I have also signed the contract for the fifth book in the series, which will be on Lady Jane Grey, because it’s definitely time to include a young woman! After that, I am not sure. Some projected titles are John Knox, Jonathan Edwards, John Newton, Tyndale, and B.B. Warfield, but sometimes other ideas come to mind that seem particularly important.
6. What are some of the challenges you face in writing these books?
Each book has presented its own challenge. At first, the challenges were mostly practical – finding a good illustrator or quality photos and obtain permission to use them. With Athanasius and Lady Jane, the challenge has been to wade through the vast amount of myths and contradicting biographies (historical accuracy was not a priority in those days). It’s also a challenge to write about a character in a factual and objective way while retaining a compelling style. The key, in my opinion, is to reveal the character’s motives and feelings so that children will be drawn into the story. My absolutely favorite review of my book on John Calvin was written for New Horizons by Katharine Olinger, a (then 12 year old) baptized member of Calvary OPC in Glenside, PA. She wrote, “I found myself happy to have him (Calvin) find love and sad to watch him die. … This book isn’t just a list of dry facts you can get from searching the Internet. Carr addresses covenant children directly. She tells you not only what John Calvin did, but also what it means to you as a young Reformed student or child.” Actually, I could take her whole review and tell you, “Here, this is my aim for my books.” If I have come any way near that goal it has only been by the grace of God.
7. Who helps you with illustration for each book?
I have changed illustrators for each of my first three books. Emanuele Taglietti is a good friend of mine who helped me with the first book but was not willing to continue the series. I used Wes Lowe, an experienced children’s book illustrator, for the second book, but later found that Matt Abraxas, my pastor’s brother, has a style and a quality that complements perfectly my books. God willing, he will continue to illustrate the series.
8. What do you want children to walk away from one of your books learning?
As I said, I want the children to know these important men and women of church history in their historical context, understanding their basic theology and how we are retaining it today. In each book, I include some small portions of their writings to help the children to connect with the character and hopefully to inspire them to read more. My questions whenever I face a new title are, “Why is this character important to us, not just as a sample to follow? How did he or she impact church history?” I am also hoping to equip the children to answer some of the difficult questions that inevitably rise when we talk about church history. As I wrote my book on Athanasius, I kept in mind the next Dan Brown who will most probably show up when our children are older and tried to give preventive answers to the usual fallacies about the divinity of Jesus as a human invention, the Council of Nicaea being solely motivated by Constantine’s political concerns, and the books of the New Testament put together arbitrarily by some church leader who wanted to hide the truth.
9. In what way would you like to see the church using these titles?
These books were intended as a help to parents as they introduce church history to their children. My hope is that they are used as part of a wider study. Hopefully, the whole series will give a clear picture of the development of events, but other books that describe the progress of church history are also a great complement. This wider picture is very important to me. I am very consciously structuring my books in the hope that the main characters will not be seen as Lone Ranger heroes shining apart from the church. For homeschooling families, I am working right now on study guides that will help the parents to use the books in a curriculum, incorporating subjects such as geography, history, reading comprehension, and art. Each chapter of the study guides will also include more samples of the character’s writings, so these portions could also be read in family devotions. The scope of this series has also, in some cases, exceeded my expectations. I was told that in Indonesia, for example, where the books have been published in the local language, this series is popular with adults as well as children, as many are new to the Christian faith and appreciate some short and readable accounts of the lives of great men and women of church history.
10. Many of the men you write about left a legacy, and a number of their own writings that are still read, studied and used within the church today. In what way would you like to see your own series of children books be used throughout the years to come within the church? And how they would/will influence children for the ages to come?
Thinking of generations of children reading my books seems quite presumptuous, but RHB has definitely set up these volumes to be valuable keepsakes. The investments they have made in the quality and the aesthetic value of these books have inspired me to aim for equal standards in the text and illustrations. It’s difficult, however, to project how these books will be used. I hope, as I said, that they will continue to be useful to families. I pray that God will continue to help me in my research and to raise, as he has done, scholars willing to review the text and correct it as needed, so that the information I provide will be as accurate as possible.
You can order all three of Simonetta Carr’s Christian Biographies for Young Readers here.