|Excerpt from Writing the Bible for Children: How to write blazing Biblical stories and picture books for kids.|
I never write a story I don’t love.
But sometimes, it’s possible to write a story you don’t like very much, at least at first. Stories can grow on you surprisingly quickly.
The scrawny chicken baby
Years ago, I wrote a personal essay about how I didn’t bond with my daughter instantly. She was a preemie, scrawny and demanding, her wail high-pitched and insistent. Her birth was unexpected, my marriage was in trouble; it just wasn’t the best time in my life to have a baby, and then she was whisked away to the neonatal ICU moments after birth.
Trust me, it wasn’t the best setting for mother-baby bonding.
Yet I fell in love with my daughter anyway, albeig on her second day, because the first was just so crazily difficult. That story, one of my most successful, was later anthologized in the book Chicken Soup for the Mother-Daughter Soul.
The fact that editors loved it, that it sold almost instantly tells me two things: one, I’m a great writer (yay for modesty!) and two, a lot of people have gone through that experience of not bonding instantly – of falling in love with their baby a little late but just as deeply.
(That daughter, who will turn 19 soon, has never forgiven me for referring to her as a “scrawny chicken baby” in the story. She doesn’t care that there’s a happy ending!)
I mention this because you may experience the same thing with a Biblical story. Or perhaps with all Biblical stories.
Most of them are hard to love, at first.
Most of them are pretty scrawny, for one thing. From a modern perspective, they’re short on details: there’s almost no attention to basics like character development, establishing the setting, or on making sure the thing flows from one narrative to another.
If it wasn’t God’s book, you could easily imagine it getting one or two stars on Goodreads or Amazon.
Filling in the stories
I was surprised when I discovered that many Christians set out to read the Bible cover to cover. This isn’t a thing many religious Jews do, for the simple reason that a) it’s almost impossible, and b) it doesn’t seem like it wants to be read in any kind of linear way. It seems like a great big hodge podge, like reading an encyclopedia.
But for a writer, as so many of us have discovered over the years, those gaps – plot, character, scene, chrolonolgy – are all opportunities to fill in details and flesh the story out in our own unique way.
(Depending on your religious background and community, you may or may not want to do that with some degree of “orthodoxy,” in keeping with the traditions you believe and follow in your own life. Even atheists write Biblical stories, and they probably feel somewhat less constrained and free to take liberties with the text.
Despite having written many books and curriculum materials for kids revolving around Jewish customs and holidays, I honestly never thought I’d write a Biblical story.
Oone reason is because my Biblical knowledge is woefully weak. Anything in the Torah, the first five books, I’m pretty solid, Otherwise, not so much. So I figured there would be too much research (more about that in chapters two and three).
But the other reason is because I’ve always found Bible stories deathly dull.
Until, that is, I found my “chicken baby” – a Biblical story that at first didn’t inspire me much, but later, ignited a weird little spark within me.
It started with a very short story my kids and I encountered in a collection of Hebrew kids’ stories. It was about Elijah the prophet.
Elijah approached a farmer to ask if he could buy one of his melons. The farmer said no (he lived in northern Israel, which at the time was thoroughly corrupt by idol worship). So Elijah got mad and started kicking the watermelons… and each melon he kicked turned to stone. Legend has it that the odd melon-shaped rocks still found in the area today are the last traces of those rocks and of Elijah’s anger.
So here was not a boring Biblical story but an intriguing premise.
Against the fascinating background of a political and spiritual rebellion in the heart of a divided nation, with the added crisis of a three-year drought.
Turning it into fiction
Of course, the first rule of fiction is to give your protagonist a need, a mission. Here was the most urgent kind of need of all: God told Elijah to go do something he really, really didn’t want to do. Even something potentially dangerous. Telling idol worshippers to stop worshiping their idols? Um, I wouldn’t want to be the one picked to do that, and I figured he probably didn’t want to be either.
Remember Jonah? His story came after Elijah’s, but he had a similar mission. Head up to a group of sinners and convince them to quit sinning. He hated that idea so much he jumped in a boat and ran off in the other direction.
Now that, I thought, was something Elijah wouldn’t do. As an early prophet, he would be more dutiful than Jonah. He would go and do as God asked. But he didn’t have to like it.
A cranky prophet, I thought. Now that’s kind of cool.
A cranky prophet is the kind of prophet who kicks the smithereens out of a field of melons.
The Bible may not have filled in Elijah’s motivation (indeed, I should point out that this story comes from Jewish tradition and doesn’t appear in the Bible at all), but it’s easy to see why he’d get that mad at the farmer… especially after a long trek from central Israel to the north. Especially if he’s hot (like I am every day here) and tired (he’s on foot) and thirsty (it hasn’t rained in 3 years).
Sitting down with a sweet, cool melon would be really nice at a time like that.
But the farmer was under the sway of the warrior King Ahab and the god Baal, and he knows Elijah’s come to set them all straight (that part is in the actual Biblical text). So he says no. So Elijah kicks the melons.
A desire driving actions driving consequences driving further actions… sounds a lot like a story. At least, the skeleton of a story.
Finding the "local angle"
But here’s what ultimately hooked me: the local angle.
This story, if it took place, happened on the site of modern-day Haifa, a 10-minute drive from where I live (if there’s no traffic). This wasn’t just a cool story, this was a cool story in my own backyard. I figured I could capture some kind of ephemeral “local angle.”
(Even in non-religious schools here, sections of the Bible are taught as part of the history curriculum. How great is that?)
I liked this story, by the way, because there is a spiritual lesson – Elijah ultimately triumphs and proves God’s might – but there are enough fascinating physical details so it’s not all about the spirituality. And it’s definitely not about a “lesson.”
It is a great story, first and foremost. As storytellers, our job is to tell stories.
Anytime you sit down to write a story, you have to make sure it's one you're going to love. And the secret to doing that is finding the "local angle" - the key factor that makes the idea resonate for you.
This is an excerpt from my upcoming short & cheerful ebook, Writing the Bible for Children: How to write blazing Biblical stories and picture books for kids. (Coming soon! Join my list for updates and notices about freebies once it is released.)