Author Interview: Kathleen Long Bostrom on Josie’s Gift

Josie’s Gift by Kathleen Long Bostrom, illustrated by Frank Ordaz (Broadman & Holman, 2005). From the flap copy: “This Christmas will be the most difficult one for Josie, her mother, and her little brother, Bobby Joe. It is the first holiday for this Depression-era family since the death of their father and husband. Papa had always taught this simple family that ‘Christmas is not about what we want. It’s about what we have.’ But this Christmas, all Josie can think about is what she had lost. Josie begs her mother for a new blue sweater she has been admiring in the store window for weeks. She knows they can’t afford it, but she wants desperately to know joy again. In the form of three visitors and a surprise sacrificial gift on Christmas morning, Josie finds the joy she is seeking in the true meaning of Christmas.”

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

I wrote the story for a Christmas Eve sermon. I am a Presbyterian minister, and co-pastor a church with my husband. We have a congregation with many children, especially on Christmas Eve, and I decided to write a story to preach, hoping that would be meaningful and hold everyone’s attention! I wrote “Josie” the year my mother died of lung cancer, so I was dealing with the grief of facing my first Christmas without her. My mother had a sister named Josie, so that became the name I used for the character in my story.

What was the timeline from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way?

When writing a sermon, I have a very short timeline! I had the idea weeks before I started writing, and spent a lot of time letting the ideas “percolate” in my mind. The actual writing took place in a matter of days, sporadically fitting it in along with pastoring a church and taking care of my children who were 11, 13, and 15 at the time.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life?

The challenge was letting the story change as I wrote it, but that’s always a fun challenge! I had a different idea for the sweater, but as I wrote, the blue sweater and the giving of that sweater took precedence. I remember my mom telling me about one Christmas when she was a young teenager. She lived in West Virginia during the Depression, and had 11 brothers and sisters. The family was very poor. One year, her younger sister opened up her Christmas present (she only got one) and then woke my mother up and told her that she had received a beautiful new sweater! My mother was heartbroken that she didn’t get to open the present herself, as it was something extra special for her that year. Some years, the kids only received oranges in their stockings. A sweater was a precious and expensive gift, and my Mom didn’t even get the joy of opening her own present!

I had to let the characters and plot take on their own lives, and the story turned out better once I let go of some of my own ideas as to how it should be written!

What, if any, special challenges are part of writing and publishing a holiday book?

The biggest challenge is the same as when I’m writing a sermon for Christmas Eve. Everyone knows the story of the birth of baby Jesus. How do I tell the story and give it new meaning, so that people will gain something from hearing it? Plus, there are so many new holiday books every year. How do I write something new, something that hasn’t been done before, that will illuminate the true meaning of the holiday without sounding “preachy” . Believe it or not, as a minister, I try never to sound “preachy.” Let the story tell the story, without pounding the point.

What, if any, special challenges are part of writing children’s books with religious themes?

The last part of the previous answer explains some of this – trying not to sound preachy, especially to children. I take my “audience” seriously and don’t believe in being condescending. Children are so bright, and often have a deeper understanding of spirituality and religious themes than adults. The kids aren’t quite so “jaded” as adults. To kids, questions about spirituality and faith spring forth in an innocent and eager way. Kids are more willing to ask questions about faith, and often I find they have the best answers themselves!

Cynsational News & Links

Author Anastasia Suen just opened enrollment for two online writing workshops scheduled for January. The Easy Reader Workshop is a 21-day workshop, from Jan. 6 to Feb. 6. A five-day Story Design Workshop will take place from Jan. 6 to 13.

Christmas Cheer: Holiday Read-Alouds to Celebrate the Season by Alice Cary from BookPage; features reviews of Josie’s Gift and other picture books.

The Great Blog Experiment: highlighting Teach Me by R.A. Nelson (Razorbill, 2005) from Agent Obscura. Read a recent cynsations author interview with R.A. Nelson on Teach Me.

Kelly Herold at Big A little a reviews Tofu and T. rex by Greg Leitich Smith (Little Brown, 2005). She writes: “Tofu and T. Rex is really about what it means to be a family and putting up with idiosyncrasies because you have to find the best in the ones you love. A very cute read for the 8-12 crowd.” She also notes: “Freddie is militant in the way only pre- and teenagers can be…” This reminds me of how much I love Freddie and how much I love Shohei for being attracted to a girl with strong convictions. Read the review.