Religion is an unusual topic for a children's book. What led you to explore this topic in Perfectly Chelsea? What was your inspiration?
I came to the idea for Perfectly Chelsea one Sunday morning as I was sitting in church with my two boys: The little girl who was acolyte that day was marching down the aisle holding her candlelighter, the perfect picture of piety, when her flame went out. I had to admit I started laughing, because the contrast between the holiness of her stately procession down the aisle and the horror of her sudden misfortune was so hilarious. And I thought: Somebody should write a book about the funny things that happen in church.
Children's spiritual lives don't receive much attention in children's books these days, but church has always been a big part of my life. I grew up in the First Methodist Church in Plainfield, New Jersey, and I teach Sunday School at my current church in Boulder, Colorado, where my two boys, Christopher (now in 9th grade) and Gregory (now in 6th grade), are active in church activities. I had so many experiences to draw on -- playing the wrong bell in the handbell choir, the boys whacking each other with palms on Palm Sunday, scuffles as gifts were carried into the homeless shelter at Christmas. And, perhaps because of my background as a professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado at Boulder, I continue to wonder about the hard questions confronting religious faith: Why do people have to die? Does God really answer prayers? So I have Chelsea ask those questions, too. Religion for me is much more about questions than about answers.
In the book, there is a representation of both Christian and Jewish religions. Why did you choose to juxtapose these two religions and their customs in Perfectly Chelsea?
When I was growing up in New Jersey, almost all of my closest friends were Jewish. The first and only formal party I ever attended as a child was one friend's bat mitzvah. It was always a source of richness in my life that I had friends of other faiths, and in particular, Jewish friends. I wanted Perfectly Chelsea to be a celebration of the role of religious faith in children's lives generally, not one narrowly focused on any one religion, even though Protestant Christianity is of course the religion I know best.
Is there anything else you would like to share with us about the creative process involved in writing this book in particular or your work in general? Because I have a full-time job, as a philosophy professor, in addition to being a writer of children's books, one challenge for me is always finding time to write, in stolen early-morning hours while my family is asleep, or in my favorite cafe while my boys are at their music lessons. But I wrote Perfectly Chelsea while I had a sweet semester of sabbatical from the university, and it was a joy to me to really be able to savor all the time I spent in Chelsea's company.
I knew the book would be structured around one year in Chelsea's life at church, and I remember spending all this time brainstorming about fresh and funny things that could happen during that year. Christmas couldn't feature a Christmas pageant, because no one wants to write about a Christmas pageant after Barbara Robinson's brilliant, classic Best Christmas Pageant Ever. But wait -- one year in my son Christopher's Sunday School class, the teacher had the children place pieces of straw in baby Jesus' manger for every good deed they did. What if this became a competition between perfect Chelsea and her nemesis, imperfect Danny? Easter. . . maybe this could be a time of personal resurrection for Chelsea's grief-stricken friend, Mr. Cruz, who has lost his wife to cancer. . . Wherever I went, whatever I did that fall, the wheels were always turning.