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EPISODE 29: Children’s Fiction

As C. S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien knew, fiction works in ways that non-fiction doesn’t. It “sneaks past watchful dragons” and engages the imagination in powerful ways. Katy Morgan believes that writing for children is a high calling and she’s done so in a beautiful way.

Recommended Resources:

The Promise and the Light: A Christmas Retelling by Katy Morgan. Paperback | Audio Book

The Jesus Storybook Bible: Every Story Whispers His Name by Sally Lloyd-Jones. Amazon


Welcome to Questions That Matter, a podcast of the C.S. Lewis Institute. I am your host, Randy Newman, and today I'm delighted my conversation partner is Katy Morgan. Katy, welcome to Questions That Matter.

Thank you for having me.

The Promise and the Light: a Christmas Retelling

I should tell our audience Katy is an editor and writer at The Good Book Company, which is out of the UK. And Katy and I had the great privilege of working together on my recent book, Mere Evangelism. I will tell you, listeners, even at the risk of embarrassing her, that she was the best editor I've ever worked with. She challenged me greatly and made this a much better book. So, Katy, I'm so very grateful for your work as an editor, but I'm even more grateful for your work as a writer. You've written this wonderful new book, The Promise and the Light: A Christmas Retelling. That's going to be the topic of our conversation. But before we get there, tell our listeners a little bit about you, where you're from, where did you go to school? How did you come to faith?  Some of those things.

Thank you. Yeah, you're very kind, Randy, I very much enjoyed working on Mere Evangelism and working with you. Yes, I'm Katy. I am from England. I grew up in two places, first of all in the middle of England, in a place called Leicester, and then in Somerset in the southwest, which is a very beautiful part of the country. And I grew up in a Christian home. My parents raised me to know the Lord, which is a great blessing. I don't really remember a time when I didn't love the Lord Jesus, although obviously that faith kind of developed and grew and changed as I grew older. I went to university in Cambridge. I studied classics, so kind of everything to do with the Greeks and the Romans, which was great. I did lots of Greek literature and then, by various twists and turns, ended up at The Good Book Company, working on books about the Bible and books that aim to point people to Jesus, which is a great pleasure and privilege.

Well, what a great privilege to study at Cambridge. What a magical place. I’ve had the privilege of visiting there only once. But I won't ask about competitions with Oxford, which one is the better school? Because, well, this is a C.S. Lewis Institute podcast and that could start all sorts of problems, so I won't go there. So you've written this book. It’s a children's book, but it's a retelling of the Christmas Story. Am I correct that it's a children's book?

That's correct, yeah. It's aimed at eight to twelve year olds. So older children. Really mainly probably to read on their own, but you could also read it to them.

Well, as a grandfather of a soon to turn six year old, I'm very, very excited for Rebecca to read this book in a little bit. Maybe this year we'll read it to her. How did you come to write it? This is your first book, correct?

This is my first book, yes.

And so what led you in the direction of a children's book? A retelling of the Christmas Story. So it reads like a children's novel, and yet it is the factual, historical Christmas story. Give us a little bit of how that came about.

Yeah, so I've wanted to write children's books for a long time. I used to work in a school with children aged seven to thirteen, so sort of more or less this age category. And I loved telling them stories, and I have always loved writing. And I just think being a children's writer is a very high calling and one which I've long coveted. And then this book specifically… So I guess I've always imagined myself, or I have long imagined myself, writing fiction books but which would contain gospel themes, I guess, much like Lewis's books.

But this came about in a surprising… This sort of suddenly happened that I had this idea. I was reading the first couple of chapters of Luke, and it struck me how much Old Testament knowledge you really have to have in order to make sense of the Christmas story as it's told in Luke and Matthew. There's just continual references back to the Old Testament. And it struck me that it would be possible to write a book where you were being helped to understand all of those Old Testament stories wrapped up in a sort of narrative, in the way that children's books do. They tell one story, but they have background stories being brought in, and you experience different layers of time all in one story. And children are quite happy with experiencing that in a fictional format. Whereas perhaps if you were to try and teach them in a nonfiction way about all of the Old Testament references to the Bible, it would take you ages, and it would would be hard to engage them. Whereas I thought fiction would be a way of helping children to get more deeply into the Christmas story and understand kind of where it comes from, that it doesn't just kind of pop out of nowhere, but it's actually prepared for and anticipated in lots of different ways in the Old Testament. And so I pitched it and persuaded my colleagues at The Good Book Company that it was a good idea.

I guess the other thing is that I think there were various people in the company who had been saying it would be great if we could do more stuff with this age group. But what can we do? Because children of this age read fiction. They don't really want to read nonfiction, which is what we mostly publish. So we've got some great apologetics books for this kind of age group, which are really well done by Chris Morphew. But this is kind of another way of tackling this age group and trying to provide for them in terms of Christian books.

Oh, my! You’ve touched on so many things. I want to just dive in. I do want to say—I'm pretty sure our listeners know—I came to faith in Jesus as the Messiah out of a Jewish background. And so I was fairly familiar with the Old Testament, although nowhere near as much as most people think. A lot of people think, “Oh, you're Jewish, you must know the Old Testament really well.” And that's not quite true for the vast majority, but even so, I didn't know anything about the New Testament. Well, actually, I knew one thing about the New Testament. My rabbi told me that it was antisemitic and that Jewish people should never read it because it's the book that has fueled a lot of antisemitism. And so when friends gave me a copy of the New Testament, I didn't want anything to do with it. It almost felt like the thing was on fire in my hands. But then later, when I finally did read it, particularly starting in Matthew, I was struck with, “No, it's not antisemitic. In fact, it's very Jewish, and it feels like it flows out of the Old Testament.” And Matthew in particular would quote all of these references from the Tanakh, the Hebrew scriptures, and usually it's just a short little snippet. This was to fulfill what the prophet said, and then he quotes it. And if you don't know the context of that prophet or what the theme of Isaiah was, or Hosea, you miss the force of it.

So I just really loved your book going into these back stories, if you will, in a way that just made it seamless. But let me go back. You said being a writer of fiction is a high calling. Do you mind spelling that out a little bit more for us? What do you mean by that?

I think it's often struck me how much I've been shaped, my kind of imagination has been shaped, and therefore the way I approach life to some degree, by the books that I've read. I read a lot, and I read a lot when I was a child. Around the same time that I started thinking about this, actually I think, I was reading some books by Philip Pullman, the His Dark Materials trilogy, which are brilliantly executed but quite anti-Christian, but they're not anti-Christian in a kind of rational way. They just present the Christian church as kind of this horrible, authoritarian, unpleasant system. And it struck me how, if you're a child reading that, you're not thinking to yourself, “Okay, let me examine the evidence here. What is the Christian church like?” Because it's not being presented as a rational argument in that way. You're just receiving an impression of what the Christian church is like.

And I had the same experience. I loved this book called I, Coriander, when I was a kid, which is beautiful book, but it painted the Puritans in a terrible light. And it wasn't until I was much older that I realized that there's so much that's great about the Puritans, so much to learn from them. And it's interesting, I think, how children's fiction can—whether it's explicitly dealing with a particular religious movement or whatever or whether it's just in the general ideas and the worldview that it puts across, can hugely influence what children think—and adults, too.

And so I think I just long to write things aimed at children that will, without being overly heavy and didactic, will kind of influence them towards faith or towards Jesus or help them to understand themes in the gospels or things like that, that will speak for Jesus even in a very subtle way, into their lives.

I love it. Yeah. Well, you know what? No, you go ahead.

I was going to say, you spoke about this in Mere Evangelism. I was very encouraged when we were working together on Mere Evangelism because you had this section about imagery and how this type of thing, fiction and imagery and stuff, speaks to our imaginations and speaks to our deepest longings and our kind of subconscious feelings about things in an evangelistic context. And I think, as we were working on that chapter, I was just thinking about this book. I didn't tell you about it at the time, but I felt that you were encouraging me to go forward and write this book.

All right! All right! I love it. I'm very excited to hear that.

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Well, and, you know, part of my thinking when I wrote that chapter about how Lewis engaged the imagination—I don't think I said it all that explicitly, although I did mention it. But my prayer was, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if people who hear this idea, people who write fiction, people who make films, people who write screenplays will say, ‘How do I engage people's imaginations toward the light, toward the truth?’” So I'm very encouraged that you've done that. You know, there is this sort of famous interaction between Lewis and Tolkien that is recounted in a couple of biographies where Lewis and Tolkien, as friends, were bemoaning the fact that the fiction that was around then, when they were reading fiction, was all pretty dark and nihilistic and pointless and engaging people's imaginations to go in very dark directions. And there's this supposed quote that Lewis said to Tolkien: “Tollers,” as perhaps the only one who called him that. I don't know if anybody else called him Tollers. “Tollers, there is too little of what we really like in stories. I'm afraid we shall have to try and write some ourselves.”

And so it was out of their delight for the imagination and for fiction and story, but it was also with a mission. It was a sense of, we want to prompt, stoke people's imaginations in the good directions. And so Lewis decided to write a space trilogy. Tolkien decided to write the Lord of the Rings. It was later that Lewis wrote the Narnia books, which are probably, I think, the best display of engaging the imagination. So who else has influenced you? I'm intrigued that Philip Pullman was an influence on you of, “Oh, somebody's got to write an alternative to this guy,” right?


Who has been a model or a motivation for you in this direction?

That's a good question. I guess there are definitely influences in terms of writing style, certain authors that I really loved. I really loved fantasy as a child. I really liked Eva Ibbotson, her fantasy books, and Diana Wynne Jones, and various others. And I think I really loved the way that certain writers take you into another world. And you really kind of immerse yourself in that world. Even if it's not fantasy, I guess writers can still do that. So that was another thing that I was definitely really concerned to do in this book, was, although I'm not inventing a world, I'm trying to evoke a world, both in terms of that kind of Jewish world that you spoke about, where you're quite saturated in the Old Testament scriptures. And so kind of the way that you make sense of everything that happens to you is via all those Old Testament stories. I wanted to evoke that kind of thought world, but also to evoke the right feeling in terms of just the historical place and time. I bought this huge copy of Josephus’s writings and some biographies of Herod the Great and that kind of thing. I was anxious to conjure up that place and time, so that it's a real thrill and enjoyable thing to dive into this book and feel like you're in a different place and time, for no other reason, really, than just the sheer pleasure of that, which I had found so pleasurable in so many other books and still do.

Greek and Ancient Literature.

Now, I want to go in another direction, then, but come right back to this spot. So maybe this is crazy, and maybe our editor will say, “Why did he do that? We're just going to delete these two to three minutes.” But here goes: You said you studied at Cambridge, you studied Greek and ancient literature. How does that play a part in your love of literature? Because I have a feeling a whole lot of our listeners did not read ancient Greek literature, but they may be having their children read them if they're sending them to classical Christian schools, and the kids are going to come home and talk about I don't even know who, certainly Homer, and the parents are going to go, “Yeah, I should probably read that.” So was that a big love of yours? And how does that shape you as a writer? And, if I can even say it, as a Christian?

I heard this quote once, which I think is from Nietzsche about how the point of studying classics is it's like a lens through which you can look at your own world, very much the world thing, so this is connected. That you entirely immerse yourself in a different culture and time and place and set of thoughts and ideas and assumptions, and that then allows you to look at your own time and place and assumptions in a different light. The quote is much more pithy than what I've just said. I can't remember it. But I remember reading that quote and thinking, “That is true of me as a classicist, and it's also true of me as a Christian.” The classical world and the ancient Greek world are so different from ours in so many ways, although in other senses very close to… They’re still humans, and so you feel this tremendous empathy or sympathy with the characters that you're reading about in Homer or something. But it is nevertheless a very different world, and they have very different assumptions, which I think you kind of get immersed in.

I remember studying… I'd been studying something about cemeteries or something and kind of burial practices in the ancient world. And I was with my mother in Rome, and we saw that we were in this cemetery which is outside the old city walls, looking at all these old Roman graves. And she said, “Oh, I wonder why the cemetery is outside the walls.” And I just said, “Well, of course it is. You can't bury people inside a city.” And she said, “Well, why not?” And I didn't know the answer, but the ancients would never have buried people inside the city. I think there's this idea of kind of pollution. The dead needs to be kept out. But I had kind of internalized that assumption, that you shouldn't bury dead people inside a city. And I think, in the same way we kind of internalize assumptions in our own culture, which we haven't noticed.

Yes. That's right. That’s right. We're surrounded by it, and we don't realize it's an influence on us. The classic statement of the fish doesn't know what water feels like or isn’t conscious of it. But when you read about another culture that still has to deal with the reality of death, and you look at the way they treat it, you go, “Oh, wait a minute. What are they believing about death? And what do I believe? And how does my culture shape and reflect that?”


Again, Lewis talked about how he thought that story and fiction could sneak past watchful dragons and that he was trying to sneak past the watchful dragons of resistance to the gospel. And so stories and children's stories could sneak past it, but they also reveal the watchful dragons, I think. They show us, “Wait a minute. Why am I resistant to this?” or, “Why am I drawn to it? Why do I love going to other worlds in stories?” And every time you say the phrase other world, I can't help but think of Lewis’s statement that maybe it's because we were made for another world. Well, let's dig into this world that you wrote about in your book. You chose to tell the Christmas story from the gospels as a seamless narrative.

How about this? Would you be willing to read us just a portion? This would be like if you were on one of those late night talk shows. This is where they play the clip. They say, “Hey, let's watch this clip.” But in this case, we're going to hear the author read just a segment for us. Set it up for us a little bit. Tell us why you chose this particular passage and whatever you'd like to tell us about it.

Okay, so the book is written in the first person, so it's shared between Joseph, Mary, and Zechariah. So I'll read a little bit which is in the voice of Zechariah, whom I particularly enjoyed writing of the three, I think, because he felt like this sort of slightly grumpy but slightly charming older man, a bit stuck in his ways. And I just enjoyed that very much, found that very easy to imagine. I don't know what that says about me. Anyway, so this is where Zechariah is… Mary has come to stay with Zechariah, having just heard from the angel that she's pregnant. And so Zechariah’s watching her meeting with Elizabeth.

“I did not recognize my niece at first. I had last seen her when she was quite a little girl, and we had had no word of her coming. So what I saw was an unknown young woman, simply dressed, framed by the feathery green leaves of the dill and cumin clumps at the edge of the herb patch. The sunlight fell on her face, which was flushed from the day's walk and upturned towards Elizabeth, who had risen to greet her. Elizabeth cried out and clutched her swollen belly, as I had seen her do before, when the child kicked or leaped within her. But there was no pain in her face. No, her forehead crinkled in amazement, and her blue eyes sparkled like water. “Blessed are you among women,” she cried in a loud voice. “Blessed is the child you will bear.” The young woman gasped, and Elizabeth moved towards her to clasp her hands. Her voice was husky with emotion. “But why am I so favored that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” I froze. The mother of the Lord? Six months before, I would have scoffed at such words or been angry at them, as if the Lord God could have a mother. But now I had changed since the angel's words to me. I would not scoff. I was ready to believe even impossible things. Elizabeth reached out her hand towards me, but she was still looking at the young woman. “The baby in my womb leaped for joy,” she explained. Yet she seemed more interested in the visitor's child than her own. “Blessed is she,” she went on, “who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her?” What promises? What did the young woman believe? How did Elizabeth know these things? I grasped her hand in astonishment, wondering whether this was really my own familiar wife. And Mary—for suddenly I realized who the young woman was—shone with smiles.

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Well done. Well done. Well done in the writing. Well done in the reading. Is The Good Book Company having you record it as an audiobook as well?

Yes. I have already recorded it. I believe it's available already on Audible.

Great! Oh, great. Well, we're going to link the book, the link to the Good Book Company, both the book and the audio, in the show notes. So I'm guessing perhaps a few skeptics listening may go, “Wait a minute. Why retell the Bible story? I mean, the Bible’s pretty good in and of itself.” Some might say this is risky. What got you past that objection if you had it or if you've heard people say it? And then tell us a little bit about the research that you did and the background work that you did for these things. But first, help us get past, if somebody raises that question, how can we respond?

Yeah, so we discussed this a lot when I was pitching the idea, and throughout, really. I think my feeling initially was just, if we want children of this age to really engage with the Bible and engage their imaginations and their hearts, we need to give them a bit more help. And as we've already discussed, I think fiction is a good way to do that because of the way it engages not just the mind but also the imagination. But at the same time, I was really keen to make sure that I'm not over-claiming here. Obviously, I've inevitably invented details and characters, and I've made up my own version of it. But I've also read and read and read the Bible passages to try and make sure that my version of the story is at the very least consistent with the Bible account, that there's no contradiction with the Bible account, so that it becomes an amplification and an exploration of the Bible account, rather than Katy's version. But at the same time as well, I really wanted to help young people to… I was trying to think of how this can not only help them to engage their imaginations in terms of the themes and the meaning of the story and all that kind of thing, but actually with the Bible text itself. So I included notes in the back which reference the Bible passages that are relevant for each chapter and encouraged the readers to go and look at them themselves. I would love it if kids would read a chapter and think, “That’s not how I imagined it. What does the Bible say?” That kind of question.

I remember reading Greek myths as a child. I used to get cross when I would read a new version, somebody else’s retelling, and I would think, “That’s not how it happened!” And I would love that to be the reaction of children reading this book, in a way, to kind of disagree with my version and to feel that they can disagree with my version, but to disagree based on the Bible, rather than based on just their own imaginings.

So I'm hoping that this, first of all, engages the heart and the imagination in a way that only this format and this style can, and second of all, that it will start a conversation, and it will drive children and families to the Bible to figure out: How would I have told this? What did really happen? What do we know? What do we not know? What can we safely assume? How might it have happened other than this? Et cetera.

Culturally and Biblically, Go-to Resources

Nice. Oh, I love it! I really love it. And it reminds me of the Jesus Storybook Bible that retells stories. Who did you consult for research, for background, both culturally and biblically? What were some of your go-to resources for this kind of research?

So I had various Bible dictionaries—Bible encyclopedias, sorry—which I used for kind of geographical information particularly, but also general information about festivals as well. I tried to put in the kind of Jewish calendar to some degree, and so I consulted various Bible encyclopedias and that kind of thing, and then a few just historical books about the time period. As I said, I read Josephus. He was a Jewish historian writing in Latin.

Right, right, good.

And then we had a professor of … I can't remember exactly what he's a professor of, but an expert in these things, Professor Steve Mason, who read the whole book after I'd written it, which really made my knees knock because I was terrified that he would come back and say, “You can't say this,” and, “You can't say that,” but in point of fact, the only thing that he really said was that I described some swords wrongly. He said, “These are Roman swords that you described, but they're supposed to be Jewish soldiers, so change the swords.” So I changed the swords.

Oh, good. Boy, I'm glad we caught that, and when I say we, I had nothing to do with it, so I really shouldn't say that. But I will just jump in and say the Good Book Company values theological fidelity very, very highly. So I'm sure they looked at it quite, quite carefully, but that's really very encouraging that you sought out that kind of proofreading, in a sense. Having grown up Jewish, we celebrated the holidays, but we never talked about where the holidays were pointing. It was pointing backwards. It pointed backward to the time when the Jewish people were set free from slavery, or the Jewish people were provided manna in the wilderness, or this or that, or it was just a time of year, of a particular harvest festival, or those kinds of things.

But after I became a Christian and started re-studying those holidays and looking at the messianic implications and looking for them, they brought tears to my eyes. I mean, I remember first time reading Moishe Rosen's book Christ in the Passover, and it was almost embarrassing that I hadn't seen these themes before. I mean, a lamb that was slain, and you put blood on the doorpost, and if you were identified with the blood, then you were not executed with this plague of the killing of the firstborn. I mean, it's just so rich with imagery. And so you sprinkle a few of those little insights into your book that help people go, “Oh, that's what's going on there!” So I enjoyed it from that angle, that side of things.

Well, I don't want to say too much more because I want people to buy this book and read it, read it for themselves, read it to their children, give it to their children. The Promise and the Light: A Christmas Retelling by Katy Morgan. Katy, is there any other final thought you want to share with us about the writing of the book or what your hope is? You've shared a number of things already about the hope that you have that this has for young readers. But any other thoughts about why fiction and how fiction works on us or those kinds of things?

I think every year at Christmas we talk about what Christmas means, and we often talk about it in an evangelistic way, in Christmas services and the Christmas carol service or something, which inevitably means that we talk about it in quite a simple way. And so we might talk about the promises in Isaiah or something, or one particular aspect of the Christmas story, which is great. I have no problem with that.

But what I really enjoyed about writing this book and researching it and thinking about Christmas for several months as I was writing it was just the richness of the Christmas story altogether. And I by no means included it all, but there's just so much depth to explore in the gospel writers and in the Old Testament points us towards Jesus and also in the whole way that Christmas, the full range of the Bible, how the Christmas story links to so much that God is doing and has done and will do. And so I would love it if readers went away from this book just feeling enriched and feeling like they enjoy Christmas more because they've just seen a greater depth to it, both in terms of a biblical depth, but also a personal depth, I guess. They’ve seen how it affected people at the time and therefore how it affects us now.

That's great! That is great. I join you in that prayer that it would bring to the surface a richness, both in understanding and in experience, of this stunning reality of the incarnation of our Lord. Thank you for writing it, for doing all the research and the hard work of writing. And thank you for the time that we've had our conversation. To our listeners, we hope that you'll check out this book, and while you're on that thing called the internet, that you'll check out this thing called the website. We have lots and lots of resources there for your own personal growth and things that will enhance your celebration of Christmas this year. We hope that all that we do at the C.S. Lewis Institute helps you love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind. Thanks.

Brought to you by the C.S. Lewis Institute and the Questions That Matter Podcast with Randy Newman.

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