Best-selling author Matthew Paul Turner discusses the art of telling stories to young children.
Matthew Paul Turner’s best-selling and beloved books When God Made You, When God Made Light, and When I Pray for You impart messages of hope and empowerment to young children. When God Made You was an Evangelical Christian Publishers Association best-seller, reaching a worldwide audience. Turner has been praised for his lyrical and engaging style by notables such as Christian singer Amy Grant. His other works include Our Great Big American God, Churched, The Coffeehouse Gospel, and The Christian Culture Survival Guide. Turner is a master storyteller, and his writing for children has been compared to that of Dr. Seuss.
Turner is also an accomplished photographer and journalist. He traveled the world documenting National Geographic’s “The Story of God With Morgan Freeman.” He’s also traveled extensively with World Vision documenting the vast effects of poverty and the humanitarian efforts of the nonprofit. His writing has appeared in the Washington Post, National Geographic, USA Today, and The Daily Beast.
He recently sat with me for a conversation about becoming a storyteller in God’s great story. Listen in.
Larry: Your early writing grappled with toxic expressions of Christianity through the genres of memoir and history and your now-archived “Jesus Needs New PR” website. Now you write storybooks for preschoolers. Do you see this as a directional change?
Matthew: I think it’s both a change and a continuation. Honestly, after releasing Our Great Big American God, a book I worked on for more than 18 months, I was burned out with the publishing world and really believed I might walk away from writing altogether. That book’s release came shortly after I’d received 11 rejection letters from publishers regarding my first children’s book. A few months later, I self-published that children’s book. I ended up selling enough copies that one publisher came back to me. Since then, I’ve released three books with Penguin Random House and have 500,000 children’s books in print. A few weeks ago, I received a comment on Facebook from somebody who’d been following me since I started writing—her words: “These books are giving Jesus such good PR.” I never thought about it that way—but I do think it’s all connected in some weird way.
Larry: What do you want children who hear your books, and adults who read them, to understand about God?
Matthew: I want families to read my books and feel included in God’s story. I think that’s the message I hope to communicate: that you belong, that you’re welcome at God’s table. I also hope that my books will offer families words for celebrating God’s love and God’s involvement in our lives.
Larry: What compelled you to write your own Christian children’s books in an already robust market?
Matthew: After I became a parent and started reading books to my kids, I often found myself cringing anytime I would read a book to my kids about God or faith or what it means to follow Jesus. Certainly there are wonderful and thoughtful books about God for kids. But honestly, it’s not easy to find books that reflect God’s love and are also enjoyable for kids. I found that my kids didn’t care for too many of the books about faith that I’d read to them. They preferred Where the Wild Things Are or the Llama Llama books.
So that got me thinking some about whether I could ever write a children’s book that my kids would enjoy. After mentioning the idea to my wife, Jessica, she never let me forget it. She encouraged me to dedicate time to working on an idea, so I did. The other reason I wanted to write children’s books is to hopefully offer my kids positive messages about God. I wanted to introduce them to the Creator in a different way than I was introduced.
Larry: Tell us about the role your young children had in the shaping of your craft.
Matthew: My kids’ fingerprints are all over each and every book I write. Because if I can’t inspire their dreams and imaginations toward reflecting on God, I shouldn’t be doing this. Adeline is my sensitive kid— she’s like me!—so her thoughts and feelings are probably most evident in how and what I write. But Elias, who’s practical and a realist, his thoughts play into my writing, too. So, yes, my kids very much affect how and what I write.
Larry: Each of your books prominently features illustrations of African American children. Tell us why representation is so important.
Matthew: I want to be very clear: The illustrations are solely the creations of David Catrow and Kimberley Barnes. I didn’t have much of a role in the characters and drawings that brought my words to life. That changes for my fourth book. Gillian Gamble and I are working closely together to create illustrations that reflect the book’s message. But that said, I’ve long known that finding books featuring children of color on the cover was not easy. That’s especially true for books in the Christian market. And so the only thing I told my editor for the very first book was that I wanted kids, not animals, to be portrayed in my books, and I wanted diversity. But then David created this beautiful little girl of color, and she has taken on a life of her own. She’s affected people and families as much as the book’s message.
Why Representation Matters
So I’ve learned a lot about representation in books, and I’ve realized just how important it is for kids to see themselves in book characters and also how important it is for white families to see “the other” represented in children’s books. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been stopped by parents of color—they hug me and thank me and tell me stories about why that little girl on When God Made You is so important.
So, yes, representation is important because we must all see ourselves and “the other” in books. It’s important because when we intentionally celebrate diversity, we are celebrating God’s creativity. And the fact that many people see my first book (which released in 2017) and consider the little girl’s presence in that book as a “new thing” is just so sad to me. The church should be leading the conversations and celebrations about diversity. But sadly, we don’t do that. We’re late to the game and often a part of the problem.
I’ve been asked by white people if I planned to release a version of When God Made You that features a white child or a boy. And the answer is no, the little girl who is the star of that book will always be the only star of that book. She represents every child. And she happens to be a girl. And a girl of color. I’m humbled that I get to play a tiny role in helping change how publishers and authors create and illustrate books about God.
Larry: What was the most challenging aspect of learning to write stories for young children? And how much writing time goes into one of your books?
Matthew: Rhyming stories is something I’ve done since I was 13 or 14, so I felt pretty confident about that aspect of it. The part that I had to learn was how to keep the story or prose moving in a good and interesting direction and how to effectively implement repetition into my books. Repetition is very important as is using words that are fun to say aloud. Each book has taken me at least two months to write—that’s not two months of actual writing and rewriting, but I have sometimes worked on a single line for several hours. So it definitely takes longer than one might expect because finding that perfect rhyme or avoiding the cliché is a process.
Larry: What advice would you give the children’s minister who wants to retell a Bible passage in a way a preschooler can understand?
Matthew: While I’m sure I could learn a thing or two from children’s ministers, there are a few things that I’ve learned about children and stories and what makes a story about God something a child can learn and remember.
Make sure the Bible passage is age-appropriate.
The church is somewhat notorious for taking a very violent Bible story or a Bible story with adult themes and trying to turn it into a digestible idea for little ones. And I think we do a disservice to children as well as to the story when we fail to tell them the truth. For instance, there’s nothing cute and childlike about the story of Noah’s ark—it’s dark and violent and shouldn’t be a story we attempt to “lighten up” for children. I suggest, if possible, to focus on the stories of Jesus—the miracles, the parables, the interactions that Jesus had with his followers. From those stories, life and hope can be discovered—even if your listener is a child.
Invite a child into an experience.
Bring to class things that kids can see, touch, play with, and smell. Using our senses to communicate a story or truth triggers our brain to remember narratives. This is especially true for kids.
Tell the story.
And then tell the story again in a different way. Repetition is so important when sharing with kids. So maybe you read the story of the good Samaritan from a picture book. Then, after you’ve finished, perhaps you retell the story again, inviting your listeners to help act out the story as you retell it. Anytime we’re able to use our bodies in either telling a story or while listening to a story, we’ll have a great chance at remembering it.
Ask yourself this question: What truth or truths about God do I wish grown-ups had told me more often when I was a kid?
Then focus a whole season on that truth or that one idea. If the kids in your class go home from Sunday school every Sunday knowing “God loves me” or “God delights in who I am,” you’re doing something right. Moreover, anytime you have an emotional connection to the truth that you’re communicating to kids, you’re always going to tell it better or deliver it in a more passionate manner.
Lastly, pour yourself into whatever story or message you’re offering kids.
I just finished writing a book that’s all about Creation. I wasn’t sure I wanted to write a book about Creation, mostly because it’s been told over and over. But I asked myself this: Can I do this story justice and retell it in a fresh way? And I decided that if I pour myself into the story—for instance, how I think about things, the questions or thoughts I have about it, or how I offer the rhyme scheme—if I could bring myself to doing this story justice, then yes, I can write this book. And so far, it might be my favorite book. So when a story has been told and retold a thousand times, the only thing you bring to it that can make it unique is you. So find a way to bring you, your passions, and your talents into the story.
Larry: What guiding principles do you use to shape the verse as you write?
Matthew: I try to avoid clichés. I try to avoid lazy [lyrical writing]. And I try to shape my words to make the story or idea as inclusive or evergreen as possible. Because it’s my hope that When God Made You might still be reminding kids about God’s love many, many years after I’m gone.
Larry Shallenberger works at a mental health residential treatment center for children and adolescents. He’s a former pastor working with children and families and is the author of Lead the Way God Made You (Group).