The first time Mark Van Steenwyk and I (Jared) met, I was picking him and a group of mutual friends up from a Conference in Phoenix, where I was living and teaching at the time. Our destination: the closest karaoke bar we could find. Our mission: sing our hearts out to the 7 locals that were there until late into the night. Here it is, 4 years later, and his highly reviewed first children’s book, A Wolf at the Gate, is now being re-published by PM Press. So, I asked him a few questions about it.
1. Your first two books are That Holy Anarchist and The Unkingdom of God. Not really kids lit. What was going on in your life that inspired you to take a crack at writing a children’s book?
When I started writing it, I had a 6 year old who found books about war and fighting and knights and pirates thrilling. Since I wanted to stir a love for justice and peace in my son, I started looking for kid books about nonviolence. Most of the ones I found weren’t very exciting. Since I’ve been a fan of kid lit my entire life, I thought I’d tackle writing an exciting book that promotes peace.
At the same time, I was at a low point in my life as an activist and writer. I think I was burnt out on trying to convince adults to take Jesus’ radical message seriously. It takes an imagination to consider alternative ways of seeing the world, which is essential if we’re going to work for liberation. If an adult is unimaginative, it is extremely difficult to reach them with a message of liberation. That led me to consider focusing my creative energy on younger people. Not exclusively–I still plan on doing some of the stuff I’ve been doing the past 15 years–but I think writing for younger audiences is something I’m going to take much more seriously.
2. As a Dad to 4 little ones, I know there’s a million children’s books out there. Why this one? What’s unique about A Wolf at the Gate?
A few things. First of all, it tackles issues that rarely get addressed in children’s books: economic injustice, violence, and ecology. Secondly, it tackles them with a story that, while timely, feels timeless. A lot of reviewers have told me it feels like a classic. Finally, the illustrations by Joel Hedstrom are amazing. Absolutely wonderful. His images are bold…inspired by woodcuts and tattoo art. The combination of theme, writing style, and art make it the sort of book that a parent could read to their grade-schooler or give to their middle grade students to read on their own. And adults have enjoyed it too.
3. I have friends who grew up conservative but don’t want to raise their children with the same views about the Christian faith but aren’t sure how to go about it. Did writing this book shape how you present the Christian faith to your kid? If so, how?
Yes. The story is based off of a legend about Saint Francis, but isn’t overtly religious in content. It shows faith in action, relying on the narrative to challenge one’s faith rather than building an argument. Because of that, it has been picked up by a secular leftist publisher (PM Press out of Oakland) while still being celebrated by deeply religious folks (like the Catholic school in Florida that used it for their school retreat).
4. What is your favorite part of the book and why?
There are three parts that I love the most…when the three parental figures in the book (the wolf mother, the wolf father, and the Beggar King) go on a walk with the red wolf and try to help her understand some fundamental truth about the world. Her father teaches her about the cruelty of humanity. Her mother teaches her about the importance of being a neighbor. But it is the third vignette that is the most interesting to me. At this point, she is talking to the Beggar King as a peer. He teaches her a bit about the selfishness of humanity, but (as we see later in the book) she refuses to accept it.
5. Was A Wolf at the Gate a break from what you’ve written in the past or do you see it as part of the same themes and trajectory?
It is certainly a different genre, but entirely in keeping with themes I’ve worked with before–violence and nonviolence, hospitality and alienation, poverty and wealth. It is, I believe, my most important book. And it is a signal of things to come. I’m finding myself less constrained by genre. I no longer feel a need to write or do the sorts of things someone like me (a pastor and activist) is “supposed” to write or do. But, while I am giving myself permission to experiment with the shape of my work, the underlying themes will continue to stay the same.