24 06, 2014

Anselm of Canterbury Wins Best Biography


I was caught by surprise when Anselm of Canterbury won the San Diego Book Award for Best Published Biography. It's a great honor, especially considering the other finalists in the same category have presented very valuable books. Winners were announced at the Twentieth Annual San Diego Book Awards Ceremony (2014) in San Diego, California.

Anselm of Canterbury Wins Best Biography2017-07-13T05:17:11+00:00
9 12, 2013

Winners of the 32-Author Giveaway


First of all, thank you for participating to the 32 Author Scavenger Hunt! I was happy to "meet" so many new people. I hope you will stay tuned to this blog or our social media accounts. I am sure most of you have already found out, but here are the results

Winners of the 32-Author Giveaway2017-07-13T05:17:11+00:00
7 12, 2013

Three-Ladies Giveaway Winners


                      My Three-Ladies (Lady Jane Grey, Renée of France, and Olympia Morata) Giveaway has come to a close. The winners of the set of three books were chosen randomly (I used Random.org with my 16-year old son as a witness) among

Three-Ladies Giveaway Winners2017-07-13T05:17:11+00:00
29 11, 2013

32 Author Scavenger Hunt Stop #5


Hello Scavengers!   I am glad to see you have made it to the fifth stop on the 31 Author Scavenger Hunt! By now you have learned how this works, so relax and enjoy this interesting article by Donita K. Paul on what makes a classic. For those who have just

32 Author Scavenger Hunt Stop #52017-07-13T05:17:11+00:00
26 11, 2013

Renée of France – Book Club Notes and Promotion


About a month ago, a group of ladies from our church met for their quarterly Book Club meeting. This time they discussed my book, Renée of France (EP, 2013). I led the discussion. I must admit I was not really prepared, but it didn’t matter. I only had to ask one

Renée of France – Book Club Notes and Promotion2017-07-13T05:17:11+00:00
22 10, 2012

A Special Review


I love it when young people review my books. After all, they are written for them! This is a review written by  Katharine Olinger. Katharine is already a teenager, but still close to the book's target age and, as you will see, has great writing skills. This review was published in the November 2012 issue of New Horizons in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and is reprinted here with the editor's permission.

I appreciate how Katharine pointed out her favorite aspect of the book. This type of reviews helps me to decide what features to emphasize or even omit from future titles. Thank you, Katharine!

Lady Jane Grey, by Simonetta Carr. Published by Reformation Heritage Books, 2012. Hardback, 63 pages, list price $18.00. Reviewed by OP member Katharine Olinger.

“Live to die, that by death you may enter into eternal life, and then enjoy the life that Christ has gained for you by His death. Don’t think that just because you are now young your life will be long, because young and old die as God wills” (p. 61). These were some of the last words of Lady Jane Grey—seventeen years old and facing execution.

In Simonetta Carr’s new book, Lady Jane Grey, the life of this young English monarch is painted clearly for the young reader, both figuratively and literally. It is not a black-and-white chapter book, but rather, because it is meant to be interesting to readers aged 7–12, it is thoroughly illustrated with vibrant paintings as well as photographs and sketches. And yet how could Jane’s story be suitable for young readers? She ruled for only two tumultuous weeks before being usurped by Bloody Mary, and six months later she was executed. Wouldn’t a story of success be a better guide for children growing in their faith? When Carr subtly addresses this issue, she does it well, pointing to Jane Grey’s own words and letters, such as, “Strive, then, always to learn how to die” (p. 62). Carr explains that Jane’s story “encourages many Christians with the thought that the same God who preserved and strengthened Jane’s faith until the end will do the same for all His children” (p. 54). 
My favorite aspect of Lady Jane Grey is the author’s use of original sources, such as Jane’s heartfelt letter to her sister. It’s one thing to read an account of her childhood and execution, but to read the dying advice of one sister to another, sisters by birth and faith, is quite another. This book would be a fine addition to any church or home library of one who is seeking to educate children in the way they should go, no matter what God intends for their lives.
A Special Review2017-07-13T05:17:11+00:00
16 07, 2012



A correction for the upcoming Lady Jane book. On page 10, I said that, after Jane, Francis and Harry Grey had two more daughters and two sons. As far as we can tell by the documents available, this is wrong. They probably had one son named Henry before Jane, but he died as an infant, probably in his first year. There is also a possibility that Francis had a son from a second marriage. In any case, Francis and Harry did not have two sons together.
I was given this mistaken information by an expert who has since apologized for the confusion. I also apologize for not checking his information against other sources. It’s a good lesson learned, and this mistake will be corrected at the first available opportunity.
Just to let you know how I work, normally I send my manuscript to at least two leading experts on the specific character I am studying. When they send back their corrections, I insert them. If they seem to disagree with each other, I ask for further explanations. 
I have learned from this last mistake that I should check every single correction they send, unless they both send the same one. God willing, the quality and accuracy of these books will continue to improve.

21 06, 2012

Interview with William Boekestein


William Boekestein and I share much of the same vision and passion for teaching church history to children. He is the pastor of Covenant Reformed Church in Carbondale, PA, a father of three young and very bright children, and author of three books in a series for children about the stories behind the Reformed confessions (Faithfulness Under Fire, the Story of Guido Bres, The Quest for Comfort, the Story of the Heidelberg Catechism, and the upcoming The Glory of Grace, the Story of the Synod of Dordt). Recently I have had the pleasure to ask him a few questions about his thoughts and plans. Here are his answers.

1.     Some time ago, you wrote an article on appreciating church history ("Avoiding Chronological Snobbery"). How is church history important for children today?

             I was recently asked to speak to a local Rotary Club on the topic of “Turning obscure history into children’s books.” I told the audience that if this didn’t strike them as a stimulating topic…it gets worse. The books I have written are about obscure theological history. The “claim to fame” of the main characters in my books is that they wrote religious dissertations and catechisms! But I believe this kind (and other kinds) of church (and secular) history is important for children for several reasons.

       First, history is a great teacher. It provides greater perspective than our experiences allows. It provides negative examples of what we should avoid. We learn through our mistakes. But how much better to learn through the mistakes of others. History also provides examples of valor and courage. Fiction can do the same thing (and we love fiction!). But history can appeal more powerfully to our sense of reality. History also helps us to resist unhelpful fads by highlighting the tried and true.

      Second, church history is important for children because they need to know that ideas have consequences. The stories I have written describe a time when people were more honest about the significance of ideas. Sixteenth century folks would have laughed at the notion of ideological relativism. I do not endorse the extreme lengths to which people of varying convictions have gone to defend their positions. But we lie to children today when we say, “It doesn’t matter what you believe” or “all ideas are equal.” People in the sixteenth century agreed that what you believe about the mortality of man, the existence of God and the reasons for doing good really matter. The protagonists in these stories dedicated their lives to, and sometimes lost them in, defending ideas.

      Third, church history is important because Children better grasp ideas that are connected to people. Suppose you wanted children to catch a vision for Rotary International. You could try expositing to them the four guiding principles by way of explanation and application. But can you imagine a young child saying, “Please tell me more about, ‘The application of the ideal of service in each Rotarian's personal, business, and community life’?” Or you could tell them the stories of famous Rotarians like Admiral Richard E. Byrd, the intrepid Arctic explorer, the first to reach both poles by air, or aviation pioneer Orville Wright, or the famous founders of Walmart, Walgreens and J.C. Penny’s who were all active Rotarians. No doubt their stories would provide concrete and vivid expressions of service in action. If we want to teach our children of the importance of wholehearted service to God (as well as to man) we can tell the stories of people who modeled this devotion in a way that we might never do. Guido de Bres wrote, “Since we have the [awe] of God before our eyes…we offer our backs to the whip’s lash, our tongues to the knives, the mouth to the muzzle, and the whole body to the flames. For we know that whoever will follow Christ must take up his cross and deny himself.” He went on to practice what he preached. When children see hear of that kind of devotion illustrated in living color and written in words they can understand, it makes an impression.

       Finally, I believe church history is important for children because they need heroes who lose. Life is hard. And we do our children no service by only providing them with stories where everything works out nicely at the end. At the end of “Pollyanna” her rude aunt gets nice, marries her secret love interest, and Pollyanna overcomes a crippling accident by learning to walk again. We love “Pollyanna.” But that’s not always how life works. The protagonist in my first book, Guido de Bres, dies at the end of an executioners noose. Prior to that he was hunted by authorities simply for what he believed. Members of his own congregation were burned at the stake for their faith. In this particular story, I believe that Guido de Bres ultimately won. He had committed his life to the God who promises forgiveness of sins and eternal life for those who believe in him. But his life was hard.

       I would say that Church history is not only important for children today, it’s essential. Christianity is a historical religion. The great themes of the Bible (creation, fall, redemption, and restoration) are not merely ideas, they are real events that powerfully affect us. The Psalmist says, “I remember the days of old; I meditate on all your works; I muse on the work of your hands (Psalm 143:5; emphasis added). If we believe that God works in all of history then we need to introduce our children to this history. The previous verse says “One generation shall praise Your works to another, And shall declare Your mighty acts.” This is not a suggestion, it’s an expectation.

2.     Besides writing children's books on church history, what do you do to help your own children to appreciate our rich Christian heritage?

              We read a lot! We also try to do fun projects with our kids based on the books that they have read. I think it was in connection with your book on John Calvin that we made a quoits game (something Calvin apparently found time to play). The kids loved it!

3.     I asked one of my sons once what type of Christian books he appreciated most and he said, "The ones that actually teach me something." Your books for children are simple but don’t "dumb children down." They are historically accurate and talk rather straightforwardly about difficult times and profound doctrines. What are the challenges of writing serious and well-informed books for children?

             I think my greatest challenge in this area is remembering that I am not writing for myself. I am so thankful for the editorial work of others who seem to be gently but firmly telling me, “Remember, you are writing for children!” I hope that reading really good children’s literature helps overcome my inclination to write for adults when I am trying to write for children.

4.     In writing history, especially for children, an author is always forced to decide what to include and what to leave out. Can you give an example of one of your most difficult decisions in these regards?

             There are always so many interesting historical facts that have to be cut, especially from a children’s story. In my forthcoming children’s book on the Synod of Dort (October 2012, D.V.) one spread features William of Orange and his heroic leadership of the Dutch in their struggle against Catholic Spain. I think it’s an interesting fact that William, in exchange for leading the Dutch revolution, became one of the first leaders of state to be assassinated by a handgun. But considering strict word-count limits, as well as the difficulty of succinctly introducing concepts such as “assassination” to a young audience, this detail will probably be left out. Plus, some have felt that this series introducing the stories behind the reformed confessions has been to dark already, so why push it with another death reference!

5.     You have chosen to have full illustrations in your book. Can you tell us what are the advantages and the challenges of this choice?

             Since our intended audience for these books is somewhere between ages 3-9 we felt that full illustrations were a must. I think Evan Hughes has done such a great job in helping kids connect with the stories. The only real disadvantage to full illustrations is the cost. Even with Evan working for very reasonable rates (compared to industry standards) the costs are quite significant since the print runs are relatively small. I am personally grateful to the publishers for seeing this project through despite the heavy upfront costs and dubious prospects of fully recouping them.

6.      Your books introduce children to the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism, telling the story behind those historical documents. This makes for an exciting read for many children who are raised in Reformed churches and are familiar with these documents. Have you received any comments from families who have never read these works but are now discovering them through your books?”

            One of the kind reviews of “The Quest for Comfort: The Story of the Heidelberg Catechism” begins this way, “Baptists do not tend to do catechisms. I don’t know why. We should.” The reviewer goes on to say, “This book aims at teaching ‘us that deeply held beliefs and profound theological truths are worthy of the difficulties often faced defending them.’ Our children need to know that.  They need to be brought up knowing that there are some truths that are so precious they are worth fighting and even dying for.  This book helps children to discover that our “quest for comfort” often follows a road filled with suffering, but God is faithful and His gospel is worth it.” (Read the full review at http://www.mikeleake.net/2012/02/quick-review-of-quest-for-comfort-by.html).

7.    Once you talked about an idea of a Christian children's authors conference. I think it's a fantastic idea because "iron sharpens iron," and if it is open to the general public we could cover many relevant subjects, including the importance of exposing children to good literature. I don't know if the idea will ever materialize, but what were you hoping to achieve with it?

             I think we are seeing some exciting developments in terms of Children’s writing from a confessional and reformed perspective. I am so thankful for the work of R.C. Sproul, Sinclair Ferguson, Starr Meade, Susan Hunt, and yourself, just to name a few. Still, if we compare the quality and quantity of books in this genre with children’s publishing in general it is clear that much more work needs to be done. Each year our family checks out several hundred books from the library. The number of good books on a myriad of topics and personalities never ceases to amaze me.

             I would love to see authors, church and school educators, pastors, parents and children (etc.) come together to encourage each other in the development and use of quality, biblical, books for children. Authors would have the opportunity not only to share their ideas with the audience but also to receive input. Educators and parents would be introduced to relevant books and encouraged with creative ways to use them. Such a conference might even help set events in motion which could lead to an endowment for reformed children’s books, something that would be an incredible boon for the genre.

Now that you have me thinking about it again, I’m more excited than ever! Maybe this could happen!

 8.     What are your future plans as an author?

I am in the final editing process with RHB for the provisionally titled, “The Glory of Grace: The Story of the Synod of Dort.” The artwork is just getting underway. I am also working on a devotional on the incarnation of Christ as well as a study guide on the Gospel of Mark which I hope to have published next year. I would like to write a story on the Westminster Assembly for children but since children’s books on deliberative assemblies are seldom best sellers it might be best to see how “The Glory of Grace” is received before proceeding. I have few other partly or mostly completed manuscripts that I would like to move forward with, when time and resources permit. 

Interview with William Boekestein2017-07-13T05:17:11+00:00
11 02, 2012

Striving for Quality


I am quite stubborn. It can be an advantage or a problem, so I have to keep it in check. So far, it has been mostly good. It has helped me to take the extra step when my body and soul were ready to give up. Sometimes, however, I have to evaluate those extra steps very carefully. What’s my motivation? Are they worth the effort and especially the cost?

I have done a similar re-evaluation a few days ago, when my illustrator raised his fees. It was a perfectly legitimate request. No illustrator of his caliber gets as little money as he does. He initially gave me low fees to help me out, but it’s time that he gets proper remuneration, especially since he has a family to support.

I don’t know if this is of any interest to others, but if you have appreciated the quality of the illustrations in the series of Christian Biographies for Young Readers, published by Reformation Heritage Books (RHB), you may want to know how they come about.

First, I must explain the financial side and my arrangement with RHB. Most people are surprised when they find that I have a publisher but I pay for my own illustrations and photos. The reason is simple. RHB is still a relatively small publisher, and the type and amount of photos and illustrations I have envisioned for these books is beyond most editorial budgets. Of course, there are large publishers who have the means to take on this type of projects, but initially they haven't shown any interest.

When I proposed my first book (John Calvin) to publishers, one very frequent objection was the cost. The first publisher I approached (a rather large Christian publisher) told me that for any company to consider this idea, it would have to be a small paperback book in black-and-white. That's why the illustrations in my first book are not in color. Eventually, they rejected the proposal even under those terms.

Other publishers made similar comments. One told me that I could not choose my own illustrator, and that they never pay much for illustrations anyhow. I don't know what thoughts inspired RHB to publish my books in color with a hard cover and an impeccable layout, but they did, and I am grateful for it. By contract, I am paying all expenses related to artwork and photos. Thankfully, they pay upfront and reimburse themselves from my royalties, otherwise I could never afford it.

There are, as I said, some Christian publishers who have the means to invest in high-cost productions, but they have to believe they will get appropriate returns. It has to make marketing sense. Again, at the time of my first proposal, a publisher told me that single biographies for children would never sell. A few others concurred. No explanation was given. They said it was just something they had experienced in the past. On the other hand, non-Christian biographies are selling fairly well. Why?

I am not a marketing expert and I am not ready to study this rather mysterious field, but one reason why children’s biographies which are not specifically Christian in nature sell well may be that they are backed by teachers and school librarians. On Martin Luther King Jr.'s day, for example, thousands of children throughout our nation are directed to libraries to read about this man. Some biographies are read in schools. Left to themselves, typical school-age children roaming through a library might be more prone to pick up a book about Captain Underpants, but parents and teachers often lead them to different choices.

If this consideration is correct, the question is, do parents and Christian-school teachers believe that biographies are important for children, and do they promote them? I think the homeschooling community is doing very well in this respect. My feeling (and I may be wrong) is that other parents and Christian school staff could do better. I have talked about the benefits of teaching Church history to children in another blog post.

This is where my stubborness gets evaluated. Why am I insisting on quality illustrations? Can I lower the standards? Are they really important? The answer boils down to my initial commitment to produce all-around quality books.

My initial motivation for writing this series, as I have mentioned in other blogs, has been the desire to see Christian biographies for children rise to the same standard I had been noticing in children’s biographies in general, which are constantly improving in quality, accuracy, fairness, and visual appeal.

Accuracy and fairness of course take the cake. Until recently, historical accuracy in children’s books has not been a major concern. In the 19th century, most biographies for children were largely fictionalized and had a strong message which took precedence over the actual retelling of facts. Today we see a much greater interest in accuracy, especially in the homeschooling community where these books are often used to supplement a serious study of human history.

Accuracy in Christian biographies is important not only to teach children what really happened in church history, without embellishments, exaggerations, or cover-ups, but also, in my view, as a way to inform non-Christians. I have already quoted Dr. Diarmaid McCullough, professor of the History of the Church at Oxford, as saying, "It seems to me that the history of Christianity is absolutely essential to talk about because there is so much bad history about it, and arrogance, conceit, dogmatism are all based on bad history." After all, understanding the history of Christianity is essential for anyone who wants to understand Western history and our present time.

To achieve the appropriate accuracy in my books I spend a year studying the subject and consulting experts, who normally read my manuscript and make comments and corrections. Even the illustrations are done under the advice of experts in the field, who have been amazingly gracious in answering all my questions.

Photos are important to show young children that these characters really lived, and we can still see the buildings they saw, the churches they attended, and even some of the furniture or other objects they used.

Art is important to spur the imagination and to keep the attention alive. Besides, since my books are very factual, illustrations give me a way to show what the feelings may have been or how some situations may have appeared to an observer, without having to interrupt my account of facts with too many “maybe’s" or “probably’s."

It’s true that I could just use lower-quality artwork, which would reduce the costs, but I think it’s too late for that. We have set the standard too high in every way. The only solution is to increase sales to be able to pay the illustrator. I believe the project is important and the products are well done. To increase sales I need to raise awareness, especially in schools and in the homeschooling community. Or we could go back to ancient times, when patrons sponsored artistic and cultural enterprises...
Striving for Quality2017-07-13T05:17:12+00:00
2 01, 2012

Weight of a Flame – Truth and Fiction (part 4)


Hopefully, this is the last part in my Truth and Fiction description of Weight of a Flame.Chapter 14 What's true: The visit to the Sinapiuses, including Emilio's fall and the decision to take Theodora to Schweinfurt. Fanino's news are also true.What's ...

Weight of a Flame – Truth and Fiction (part 4)2017-07-13T05:17:12+00:00
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