Enjoy our Mom to Mom Conversation
By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine
“Dear Mama God”
The moment we see those three words on the cover of a big, colorful book, we know this is a book intended for children. But what may surprise you about this new book is that these pages actually contain the words of a child—specifically Daneen Akers’ daughter Lucy when she was aged 4-6.
Daneen collected and organized lines from her daughter’s nighttime prayers to form the text for this new book with gorgeous full-color illustrations by Gillian Gamble.
And, here’s another surprise: You are reading this story at the recommendation of my 4-year-old granddaughter who so thoroughly enjoyed the debut reading of this book in our home that I asked her Mom, my daughter the Rev. Megan Walther, to help with this story. Like Daneen, Megan collected some of her daughter’s reactions while reading the book and added those to our author interview.
Daneen and her family are part of a congregation that has a long connection to our ReadTheSpirit online magazine: The Circle of Mercy in Ashville, North Carolina. That unique congregation is best known to our regular magazine readers as the welcoming Christian congregation co-founded by Nancy Hastings Sehested and Ken Sehested. Since our founding in 2007, we have occasionally published news items and other writing from the Sehesteds.
How did Daneen and her family wind up with the Circle of Mercy, given that she has been widely known as a California-based media professional?
She and her family decided to make a fresh start on the East Coast and liked the Ashville area. “Then, it took us a while, being new to the South, to understand the many different flavors of churches around us. We fell in love with this congregation because it’s known as a peace church and it’s progressive and welcoming,” Daneen said. “Our choice really was made by our children, who right away met other kids they love being with—and we’ve never looked back on that choice. I think Mama God was helping us out.”
Given how she described that choice of a congregation, I said, “So you liked Circle of Mercy because it is peacemaking and progressive and welcoming and kid-friendly—words that also describe your new book as well as your previous book, Holy Troublemakers & Unconventional Saints.”
“Yes,” Daneen nodded on our Zoom screen. “I would say that is why Circle of Mercy was such a perfect fit for our family.”
Speaking Mom to Mom
Then, speaking Mom to Mom, Megan told Daneen: “There are a lot of things I love about this book. I love the expansive langue for God, No. 1. And, No. 2, I like the limited amount of text per page, which sounds simple, but for my 4-year-old that’s an important thing in pacing a book that’s fun to read.
“And, No. 3, I like that central phrase ‘Mama God,’ which is important—but I also like that those words are not used on every page of the book. This book doesn’t feel as though you’re trying to push that phrase on us at every turn of a page. We can tell that this is a natural way you think and talk about God in your family, and I like that natural feel in the pacing of this text.”
Then, Megan asked: “I also saw sub-themes that are easy for children to see in these pages, including the importance of gratefulness and the importance of creation care. Can you talk more about those themes?”
Daneen said, “I’m so glad that all came through to you and your daughter! Yes, I wanted this book to have a focus on gratitude because I think that’s part of the expansive wonder we want to encourage with our children. Remember that most of the texts on these pages are word-for-word prayers from my daughter. It’s what she would pray at night. One of the magical things about having children in your life is that you get to return to wonder along with them.
“We truly are living in a beautiful world—and this book celebrates that. I think that, as progressive Christians, we often feel this guilt that we need to be working on the many peace and justice issues that are so important in our world. I did consciously explore those themes in my earlier Holy Troublemakers book, but, in this case, I simply wanted to explore our thankfulness, the importance of gratitude and the many wonders of our world. So, I thank you for seeing those themes in this book and asking about them.”
“I’ve also seen your Holy Troublemakers, and I like that book, too,” Megan said, pointing out that a colleague at her church, who works with children, has shared a copy of Holy Troublemakers.
‘And a little child shall lead them’
Daneen said, “People like to repeat the words, ‘And a little child shall lead them,’ ” (from Isaiah 11’s vision of a peaceful kingdom). “And I think of those words in describing how this book can help us experience the wonders of our world with our children.
“Especially after going through the COVID pandemic—and so many other issues in our world today—we realize that this journey we’re on is truly multi-generational, meaning that it will unfold over a long period of time. I will do my part but I probably won’t completely fix anything in my lifetime—certainly not on my own. So, that means tending to joy and tending to gratitude in our families and our communities is that foundation of everything we hope can follow. We need to experience these soul-care practices, especially for me in the pandemic when I was experiencing so much anxiety. In that process, my children became teachers, because they were so in awe of the beauty they experienced around us.
“At the same time, I also am quite passionate about the importance of using explicitly feminine language for the divine, which I think is going to be important if we are going to find the cultural healing we need right now. I’ve heard from so many women sharing stories about this. And, we need this experience in many forms: song and poetry and prayer—and children’s books, too. And it is not just the words themselves I’m talking about here, which this book shows. Beyond the words on the pages, there is poetry about Mama God even in the illustrations. You mentioned, Megan, that you liked the minimal language and the way this book lets the illustrations speak directly to us. That is very intentional.”
Poetry in the illustrations
“Yes,” Megan said, “Poetry is a great word for this book, because the minimal language was paired with this beautiful artwork.”
“Well, that happened because Gillian is a complete genius,” Daneen said. “She and I also collaborated on Holy Troublemakers. She has three of her portraits in that book along with other artists who are part of that book. So, we had that earlier experience of collaborating and, when I began working on Mama God, I realized this new book really should would work mainly through the art. We talked for a long time about the style of art. We also had an art director who worked with us on both books in making those very intentional decisions.
“One crucial decision we made was not to just focus visually on just one child, who we might have shown going all the way through this book. After all, it was one child who voiced these prayers. But, instead, we decided we wanted diverse children to appear in these pages and come together throughout this book. We wanted everyone to feel welcome in these pages. It also was important to show both rural and urban landscapes in this book.”
“I love the way you approached those decisions,” Megan said. “I love that you can look into these pages and, somewhere, you can see yourself regardless of where you’re living or what you may look like.”
‘Inviting children to become a part of the creative process’
Then, Megan added: “I also specifically like the page toward the end of the book where you write, ‘Thank you for the paper that I can draw on.’ You’ve taken us, at that point, through these experiences of gratitude and wonder and then you’re inviting children to become a part of the creative process themselves—getting out paper and drawing on it themselves! I loved that.”
“I agree with you and I especially love that myself because those were words right out of the mouth of my 5 year old,” Daneen said. “There are so many books out there that read like an adult is trying to sound like a child—but these are actual words of a child.”
So, dear readers of our online magazine: You now know that you’re reading about a thoroughly “kid tested” book and should consider getting a copy of Dear Mama God for some young reader you love.
Care to Learn More?
ORDER A COPY OF THIS BOOK: The book is available in hardcover from Amazon.
CONSIDER Daneen’s Holy Troublemakers book as well: That’s also available in hardback from Amazon.
CONNECT with the illustrator: UK-based illustrator Gillian Eilidh O’Mara (formerly Gillian Gamble) also has a fascinating website showcasing many projects.