Introducing Smuggins, The King’s Messenger

Quite a few years ago (I’m not going to say how many because it makes me feel old), I sat in a Great Christian Writers class in college and listened to my professor talk about one of John Milton’s most famous sonnets, “When I Consider How My Light Is Spent.” As Dr. Bancroft walked us through the final lines of the poem that day, a character was born in my imagination: Smuggins, a messenger for the King.

Illustration by Stephen Hesselman (Smuggins)

Illustration by Stephen Hesselman

I often say that I “meet” my characters, and that’s the best way to describe how it often happens: they arrive in my imagination, not fully formed, but with an essential essence. That was what happened with Smuggins. He showed up that day with an eager desire to serve, but a lot to learn along the way.

The way took quite a few years. Every so often Smuggins would make another appearance in my imagination and have another adventure, getting to know the King and himself better. And for the last few years he’s been sitting around, his story written, but untold to all but a few. One problem that Smuggins has is that his story falls “between the shelves.” It doesn’t fit into one single category, which makes marketing it a bit of a struggle. And no publisher is going to take a risk on something that’s hard to market. Especially in the over-stuffed children’s lit market.

But Smuggins kept tapping on my shoulder, asking me to share him with a broader audience. He would remind me of the moments he and I learned lessons about serving the King together, and the tears he sometimes brought to my eyes as he learned about the King’s friendship, his forgiveness, his justice.

Telling Smuggins’ Story

So earlier this year, I made a decision—it is time for the rest of the world to meet Smuggins. And since his tale defies categories, I decided to self-publish Smuggins’ story. Self-publishing is a lot of work, but I’ve got some very gifted friends who I was able to call on for expertise and assistance. I’ve relied on their wisdom and input as we’ve gotten the ball rolling on this project.

The most exciting element, to me, is that illustrator Stephen Hesselman has agreed to help bring the story to life with pen and ink illustrations that we will strew throughout the book. My imagination is not highly visual, so I’ve been delighted to see Stephen bring faces to my characters and details to my places.

In order to do this well, Smuggins’ story still needs some polishing. And as this is a side project, that will take some time. So I’ve settled on a release date of early March 2017, and we’re working toward that goal.

I can’t wait for you to meet Smuggins like I did in that classroom so many years ago. And I hope you’ll join me in working to get the word out about him and his story as we move toward publication. If you’d like to follow the journey, please sign up for my eNews, where I’ll be sending out updates about the process. Also, follow this blog, like my page on Facebook, or follow me on Twitter or Instagram. Even better, follow Stephen on Instagram so you can see some snippets of his illustrations—as well as all his other great work.

Thanks for your support!

Goodbye F-O-X Books

Fox Books

Fox & Sons Books closed its doors this week, the latest in the long line of big-box brick-and-mortar bookstores to bow to the ever-expanding Amazon.com. Fox rode the wave longer than most, in part because of its CEO’s savvy choices to get into online sales early on.

Joe Fox was an early adopter of the internet side of the book-selling business, telling ACME News in 2000, “I’ve been intrigued by the internet for a long time. I even met my wife in a chat room!” Fox has been married to Newbery Award-winning children’s author Kathleen Kelly for more than 15 years. Fox Books actually put Kelly’s independent bookstore out of business before the two found their spark, but the couple seem to have put all that behind them. The New York-based Fox & Sons Books went on to become one of the nation’s more notable big-box chains, in part because of its owner’s business philosophy: “Go to the mattresses.” Joe Fox fought, but in 2015 Fox & Sons Books posted losses in all four quarters, and the company’s death was inevitable.

One of FoxBooks.com’s most outstanding features was its online customer service, known for its tagline, “Quicker than an F-O-X.” That feature will stand former CEO in good stead for the future, as Amazon agreed to purchase the customer service arm of the business for $2.2 billion earlier this year. Joe Fox also has significant investments in an elevator company. He cryptically explained that business choice in a 2010 interview, “Let’s just say an hour in an elevator changed my life.”

A Raggant in Aerwiar

Wingfeather Kickstarter

Two years ago today, I arrived in Charlotte, North Carolina—my official move from northern climes to the south. The move was a bit haphazard in that I had come down for working visit a few weeks earlier and didn’t move my belongings down until a few months later, but March 31 was my official arrival. During my transition time after arrival I stayed with friends so I didn’t have my own address. I therefore used my work address for all necessary mail.

One of these necessary mail items about after I arrived was the reward from Andrew Peterson’s The Warden in the Wolf King Kickstarter project. I’d had the privilege of proofreading the book so it wasn’t so much that I needed to get it in order to read it as I needed to get it in order to find out if the right number of dragons had fought and died and lived in the final battle. That said, my excitement was not diminished for already knowing how the story ended.

In the day or so before the package arrived I took to haunting the mailboxes at my workplace, waiting to see if my books had arrived. There, the morning before my package arrived, I got into a conversation with two of my coworkers about what I was waiting for. I told them about the Wingfeather Saga and the Kickstarter.

My coworker Lynn said, “I know those books! My son loves them!” She said they hadn’t gotten in on the Kickstarter, but that her son Roch was eagerly awaiting the formal release of the final book in the series.

“He could borrow mine,” I said.
Lynn looked at me a little confused. “Are you sure?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “I just read it a few months ago when I proofed it. I just want to count the dragons and then Roch could borrow it.”

So when my package arrived I took it home for a night counted the dragons (the right number lived and died this time) and then took it back to work the next day for Lynn to take to her son.

Roch devoured the book, and when Lynn returned it to me with profuse thanks, she said, “Okay, so can you help me know when the book actually comes out—there’s one more thing that Roch wants—it’s a little book that goes with it, some kind of encyclopedia?”

“Ah,” I said, “Pembrick’s Creaturepedia. Yes, I think they only made a limited edition of that, so there won’t be many available. I’ll keep my eyes out.” I hadn’t yet had the chance to meet Roch, but I could tell this 11-year-old boy was my kind of kid.

Some weeks later, still a month or so before the book’s official release, I was out in Nashville visiting the Rabbit Room. I had a brainstorm while I was there and realized I could pick up a copy of Pembrick’s Creaturepedia for Roch. I got the copy and took it back to Charlotte where Lynn realized the timing was perfect. Roch was performing in the skits for our church’s VBS that week and the book would be a gift to him for all his hard work.

At the end of the week, I was sitting at lunch in the kitchen at work and Lynn and Roch entered.

“This is Miss Givens,” said Lynn to a bathrobed Roch—I presume his costume for the VBS skit. “She’s the one who brought you the book.”

Rock made his way across the room and pulled his already slightly battered Pembrick’s Creaturepedia out of his bathrobe pocket and dove right in. “Have you seen this one? And this one? And here at the end how you can draw your own creatures? I drew this one and I’m thinking about another.” He paged through the text and showed me some of his favorite creatures. “And this one this one is the best!” he said. “I just think this is so cool—” He flipped to a page with the picture of a small, multi-eyed beast that looked a bit like a winged rhinoceros and began reading the description, “Something is surely amiss. Of all the odd creatures I have discovered, some rumor existed of each. But this raggant (a name which came to me the moment I set my eyes upon it) has no precedent, no mention in the volumes of Aerwiar’s history…”

As he read, I looked at the picture and thought to myself, Wait I know that creature… I had not flipped through my own Creaturepedia yet. Roch was giving me my first introduction.

“Roch,” I asked, “have you read the 100 Cupboards books by N.D. Wilson?”
“I read the first one,” Roch answered.
I pointed to the page. “Isn’t this the creature from those books?”
“I think you’re right!” said Roch.

It was one of those delightful little discoveries—those ones that make you love an artist even more because he made a nod to a thing you love. Ever since that day, I’ve wanted to know how a raggant came to be found in Aerwiar—and which cupboard door Henry might have opened for an entirely different adventure.

My great wish may never be fulfilled, but I haven’t stopped hoping for it. You see, there’s another Kickstarter going on right now (it finishes on April 4; you’ve still got time to support it!). They’re aiming to turn the Wingfeather Saga into an animated series. Yesterday they hit one of their stretch goals—$175,000. In addition to being able to animate Peet the Sockman, one of my favorite characters in the series, this stretch goal includes the reward of a story in the world of Aerwiar written by N.D. Wilson and illustrated by Joe Sutphin.

I can’t say I’m not dreaming of seeing a raggant in Aerwiar yet.

The Mess at the Wall

About a week ago, I posted a new piece at the Church at Charlotte blog.

I was recently disappointed. It wasn’t a huge thing, but the disappointment is real and it’s been roiling around in my soul for a while now and I’ve been wrestling with God over it. Around the same time, a friend asked me about my walk with the Lord during a period of time a few years back that I refer to as my “year of hell”—tragedy after tragedy compiled with stress after stress as I walked through an emotional and psychological crisis period. The funny thing, I realized when my friend asked, was that my faith wasn’t shaken during that time. Through it all, I saw God as God and God as good. I continually watched His faithful care in the darkest moments of grief and tragedy.

But something about this current disappointment is different. It’s not that God is not good. Not that He is not on His throne. Not that He is not showing Himself as faithful. It’s just that I’m sick and tired of this stuff.

Read more.

Pieces Go Missing

first wrote this post two years ago. There have been years in my life when I have deeply needed the encouragement to welcome December with tireless hope. Perhaps this is a year like that for you; if so, I pray these words speak to your soul. -Cg-


I was reminded this morning that tomorrow, December 1, marks the day of an accident two years ago that took a beloved and friend and mentor from this earth. It was the start of a hard Christmas season. One where tears held their own against the joy and the laughter.

It was the start of a year of sorrow followed by sorrow—a year that changed my whole life in many ways. A year that I can look back to now with a measure of joy, seeing the hand of the One who shapes all my experiences with His grace and mercy, but a hard year, nonetheless.

There are pieces missing from my life now which were all comfortably settled in place just two years ago.

I could say the same thing about a cold, snowy January day almost five years ago. And another one four years back. And a hot, humid July one sixteen years back. I’m certain many of us can point to those days—those periods or moments—in our lives when everything changed, when the bruises formed for the first time, when we began to carry our burdens, when the cracks fissured our hearts.

And Christmas is a time when those bruises, those burdens, those cracks tend to lose the veneer we’ve washed over them for the rest of the year. Some of us have families who we can honestly share our burdens with. Some of our families are the source of those bruises. Some of us have found communities of friends that have helped heal our broken hearts. Some are still seeking them.

But, somehow, we still enter Christmas thinking perhaps this year will be different, this year will be the year we’re far enough from the hurt not to feel it anymore. We still look to January first as a new page, a new opportunity to try again.

I was struck this morning by the lyrics of Sleeping At Last’s song “Snow.”

The branches have traded their leaves for white sleeves
All warm-blooded creatures make ghosts as they breathe
Scarves are wrapped tightly like gifts under trees
Christmas lights tangle in knots annually

Our families huddle closely
Betting warmth against the cold
But our bruises seem to surface
Like mud beneath the snow

So we sing carols softly, as sweet as we know
A prayer that our burdens will lift as we go
Like young love still waiting under mistletoe
We’ll welcome December with tireless hope

Let our bells keep on ringing
Making angels in the snow
May the melody disarm us
When the cracks begin to show

Like the petals in our pockets
May we remember who we are
Unconditionally cared for
By those who share our broken hearts

The table is set and our glasses are full
Though pieces go missing, may we still feel whole
We’ll build new traditions in place of the old
’cause life without revision will silence our souls

So let the bells keep on ringing
Making angels in the snow
May the melody surround us
When the cracks begin to show

Like the petals in our pockets
May we remember who we are
Unconditionally cared for
By those who share our broken hearts

As gentle as feathers, the snow piles high
Our world gets rewritten and retraced every time
Like fresh plates and clean slates, our future is white
New Year’s resolutions will reset tonight

“We’ll welcome December with tireless hope.”

We humans are a people of hope. In light of everything that has happened in the course of human history, it seems a bit foolish. Why would we hope when we know that every lifecycle ends with death? Why would we hope when we see broken relationships all around us? Why would we hope in light of war, famine, nature’s destruction?

We hope because we are made in the image of God. We are a broken, fallen people, and we are offered wholeness and restoration.

We hope because the Son of God came to earth one Christmas and fulfilled His calling:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

–Luke 4:18-21, ESV

He came to this earth to partake in the human condition and to overcome it. He came to share our broken hearts and to make us whole. He came to rewrite the world.

May your December be filled with hope. May you remember who you are: You are unconditionally cared for by One who shares your scars.

Watch Sleeping At Last’s video for “Snow”

Sleeping At Last is offering a Christmas Collection (including “Snow”) for download at Noisetrade. I’m loving listening to it so far this season. Go get yourself a copy and leave a tip!

Though We’re Strangers

I put up a post about a month ago at my church’s blog that I haven’t shared here yet. It contains references to Rich Mullins and oblique references to Hutchmoot, just so you know what you’re getting into.

My first year the weekend missed my expectations entirely, but was one of the best weekends of my life. I found things I didn’t even know I was looking for. Wouldn’t it be great if someone visiting our church could say that?

Soon after attending my second year, I re-encountered the song “Peace (A Communion Blessing)” by Rich Mullins and found that the lyrics came close to describing what the weekend was for me:

Though we’re strangers, still I love you
I love you more than your mask
And you know you have to trust this to be true
And I know that’s much to ask
But lay down your fears, come and join this feast
He has called us here, you and me

Mullins’ song is about a communion feast: something that happens in church. And yet many people go to church and never hear words like these: “I love you more than your mask,” “Don’t be afraid,” “Sit down; feast with us.”

This Is My Story

“In biblical Hebrew, there is no word for ‘history.’ Instead of ‘history,’ the word ‘memory’ is used. The idea is that history is someone else’s story, but memory is your own.”
–Heidi Johnston

The Settles Connection at Hutchmoot 2015, Photo by Mark Geil.

The Settles Connection at Hutchmoot 2015, Photo by Mark Geil.

Story, story, story. The word echoed through my weekend, shaped by various tongues. Once or twice it might have come out as “narrative,” a slight variant on the form, but the same essence.

“We tell stories from the image we hold in our hearts,” Jonathan Rogers said as he spoke of honoring our place—our hometown or family. We tell stories to support the thesis we have of “home.” We love our hometowns and our families, he reminded us, not because they are great, but because they are ours. “Remembering this lends the story to universality. Every human place has mythic experience.”

“Baseball is such a multi-purpose narrative tool,” said Russ Ramsey.

“The best way to tell someone you love them is to listen to them,” Michael Card said.

“This is not forever,” Heidi Johnston said. “We are just living in a day of a story that spans all of time.” She challenged us to be so immersed in the Bible that what we write tells the story of Scripture. If we speak only from our imagination without being anchored in truth, she said, we are only giving empty hope.

“Stories name our hopes we’ve hidden away and didn’t know we had,” said Doug McKelvey. “A song or a painting or a story can play on the imagination of the reader or the listener or the viewer almost in the same way a pianist can play on the piano keys.” Telling your story is throwing out a line and hoping that it connects with someone, he said. You’re inviting that person in as a third part of the creative process when they grip the line you’ve thrown out.

“Story is an invitation into a house that becomes a cosmos,” said Walt Wangerin. “What makes the story present and grants us the opportunity to be in the story at this present time is the telling.”

He reminded us of Deuteronomy 5, when Moses tells the story of Sinai to those about to enter the land. The generation who were there at Sinai are all dead, but Moses spoke to the generation before him as if the story were their own. His words echoed Heidi Johnston’s from earlier in the day, “History is someone else’s story; memory is your own.”

“Beware the man who makes himself the hero of his own story,” said Russ Ramsey in his sermon on Sunday morning. He combined the warning with this, “May we try to be brave, believing that trying to be brave is being brave because the author of life controls the narrative, and we are in his hands.”

On Saturday night, as the Settles Connection sang “Blessed Assurance” they invited us to sing along.

Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!
Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine!
Heir of salvation, purchase of God,
Born of His Spirit, washed in His blood.


This is my story, this is my song,
Praising my Savior all the day long;
This is my story, this is my song,
Praising my Savior all the day long.

“This is my story…” My story.

My story is that of a bride adorned for her bridegroom.

My story is that of a people whose God chased after their wayward hearts like a lover.

My story is that of a hard-headed disciple who betrayed his best friend and his Lord, only to be restored over a coal fire on the beach.

My story is that of a servant, entrusted by his master with five talents and turning them into ten.

My story is that of a king who took what he lusted after and killed to keep his sin hidden.

My story is that of a man who took his son to the mountain to sacrifice him, only to learn that the God he served would never ask such a thing like the gods of his past did.

My story is the story of a group of people who came together to discover the strangers they’d met were already their friends.

My story is the tale of a people made in the image of God who once turned away from him, but found him a gracious God with mercies new each morning, who shows steadfast love thousands of those who love him and keep his commandments.

These stories are my own, so deeply pressed into my soul they’ve left a mark. That mark, when watered, will become the seed of new stories. And I can throw out those stories into the world like a line, awaiting a hand to catch them and tie them to the hand’s own stories. And the line will go out again and again, so that strand after strand after strand all lead back to the truest story of all: that of a God who loved his creation so much he lay down his own life to save it from its brokenness.

Post-Moot

We are post-Hutchmoot again, and I am certain I will have many things to say in the next few days, but I’ll begin with a few quotes:

“A song or a painting or a story can play on the imagination of the reader or the listener or the viewer almost in the same way a pianist can play on the piano keys.” -Doug McKelvey

“This is not forever, we are just living in a day of a story that spans all of time.” -Heidi Johnston

Hutchmoot 2015“What makes story present and grants us the opportunity to be in the story at this present time is the telling.” -Walter Wangerin, Jr.

“Beware of the man who makes himself the hero of his own story.” -Russ Ramsey

(and for a bit of fun, please imagine the following in a Northern Ireland accent)
“Have you ever been at a conference with so many references to Deuteronomy?!” -Heidi Johnston

Three New Twitter Followers

You know it’s a big week when you get three new followers on Twitter. Fine, sure, I know that some people get follows in mass quantities regularly. I’m not that cool.

But this week I must have been brought to the attention of some fine folks and they managed to find me in the Twittersphere and therefore I now have my ego stroked enough to last me for a couple of weeks, I’m sure.

Why did I come to people’s attention?

Well, it may have been this recent blog post at the Church at Charlotte blog, “When Everything is Broken, Remember”:

There is something wrong with this world.

We know it, deep in our souls. When we see a 24-year-old young woman on hospice care, we know it. When we hear of refugee children drowning in the Mediterranean Sea as they try to find a safe home, we know it. When a marriage falls apart, when a child dies, when a man is beaten on the street—something inside us says, “This isn’t how it is supposed to be.”

Everything is broken.

Or it might have been this story up at Story Warren this week, “A Man Named John Smith”:

A snippet of Jamin Still’s amazing illustration for my story.

Once upon a time there was a man named John Smith. When Mr. Smith was little, he was very concerned that with such a plain name, he would be lost to history, forever forgotten in a sea of John Smiths down through the ages. If you make it to the end of this harrowing tale, you shall discover that young John’s worst fears were realized. Do not worry, though, I haven’t given the whole thing away—there’s still a surprise or two waiting for you just down the page.

When Mr. Smith was a little boy—(How little, you say? Well, littler than me. And probably littler that the eldest among you, but certainly older than the littlest ones.)—Anyway, when John was a boy, he lived on a farm—(Where was the farm? Indiana. But that really doesn’t have any bearing on this story at all. Now hold your questions to the end or we shall never get through this.)

Or maybe it was the exciting news that I get to present this year at The Rabbit Room’s Hutchmoot 2015. I’ve written about Hutchmoot before, and The Rabbit Room has certainly been formative in my life for the past few years, so I’m utterly honored and grateful to be speaking this time around. And getting to do so with Russ Ramsey on the topic of baseball? Yeah…so cool. I’ll let you know how it goes later!

(See what I did in this post? I turned a “catching up” post into a real one. Tricksy. I may just attain the level of coolness my Twitter followers expect of me someday.)

Catching Up

I have, again, been remiss in posting here, but I do have some recent posts elsewhere. Here’s a bit of a recap:

Saturday: Sabbath

Wondering what the day between the crucifixion and resurrection sounded like.

When I lived in Pennsylvania, my small town had a Chabad- Hasidic Jewish synagogue at the top end of State Street. Newtown was full of historic buildings where George Washington had slept, and most along State Street—the main street of the town—had been converted into boutique shops and restaurants. I lived at the bottom end of State Street, and on a Saturday afternoon, the street and sidewalks between my apartment and the synagogue were crowded with chatting shoppers, hands full of bags and Starbucks beverages.

Every Saturday afternoon, quiet in the midst of the bustle, families, dressed in their finest, their heads covered, their prayer shawls showing from beneath their coats, walked slowly up State Street to worship.

Community and Compulsion

A baseball game and John 14.

And here’s the thing, the risk doesn’t always pay off. Sometimes the person you were vulnerable with proves untrustworthy, sometimes entering into another person’s mess leads to getting taken advantage of.

Earlier this season, in a Detroit Tigers baseball game, Victor Martinez (a.k.a. V-Mart) scored a run from second on a single from Yoenis Cespedes. V-Mart was never the fastest runner, is now in his mid-thirties, had an off-season knee surgery, and had just tweaked the same knee a few days earlier: speed is not his thing. He only made it home because J.D. Martinez, another player on the team, got caught in a run-down between second and third and the opposing players didn’t have time to throw V-Mart out.

I’m Not the Queen

Discovering what it means to be a part of the Body.

A few weeks ago, I sat reading over breakfast at Panera. I watched a woman come in and strike up conversation with the employee behind the register, looking up at the menu to determine her breakfast choice. She paused every few sentences and sipped from the beverage already in her hand: a coffee from Starbucks.

I posted the observation on my Facebook page. I considered commenting on it, but decided to simply post it as a statement: “There’s a woman standing in line at Panera drinking from her Starbucks beverage while she orders.” I had my own opinions on the matter, but I was more intrigued to see what people would say in response.

Writing with Light

photocampLearning about photography and the Author of Light with a crew of teenagers.

On Monday, David Johnson, the Director of Silent Images, presented some initial thoughts on photography to the students. Two of the things he noted stuck with me particularly. He began by asking us to think about the meaning of the word “photography.” I’d never thought about it before, but the root words are “photo”—light and “graph”—writing. Photography is, David said, “writing with light.” One of his rules for the week was “look for the light.”

The second thing David noted which stood out to me was the idea that a photograph tends to be seen as an objective witness to events. He asked us to think about how cameras on our phones have in recent days impacted the course of history. From showing the abuses of corrupt governments to recording a sequence of events in a conflict, a camera in the hands of an individual standing on a street can have tremendous power.