Mitali Perkins: Children, Storytelling and the Big Questions
In this interview, Mitali Perkins, author of THE STORY OF US, reflects on storytelling as a vehicle to unpacking some of life's biggest questions for children and adults.
Mitali Perkins is an author of children and young adult literature. Her most recent book, THE STORY OF US, has been described as a ‘lyrical retelling of the biblical redemption story,’ from the beginning of creation, to the Fall and reconciliation. In this interview, she discusses THE STORY OF US, the curiosity and wonder children yearn for and reflects on storytelling as a vehicle to unpacking some of life’s biggest questions, for both children and adults.
Ciara: What shapes and inspires your storytelling? And what topics and themes does your writing often explore?
Mitali: I was born in Kolkata, India as a third daughter in a sonless Bengali family, and always looked up to my two older sisters—Sonali, which means “gold,” and Rupali, which means “silver.” Bearing false ancestral shame over not producing a son, Ma pushed our engineering Baba to seek work overseas, so we lived in India, England, Ghana, Cameroon, and Mexico before immigrating to the United States when I was seven. This early history of crossing borders makes me feel culturally homeless to this day in many settings and safest in the margins between colliding groups of people. On the flip side, I learned to code-switch quickly so that I can make myself at home everywhere. I also try to make others feel welcome in those liminal spaces, which is a good skill as I live up to my name–Mitali, which means “friendly.”
Much of my writing explores this practice of code-switching across cultures and generations, as well as growing up in marginal spaces. Additionally, because I studied political science and public policy (my career options as a child of immigrants didn’t include the vocation of writing fiction for young people), many of my books grapple with nuances of justice in issues like child trafficking, wildlife poaching, international adoption, affordable housing, and microcredit. When grownups hear I write for children, they sometimes expect cute bunnies or cuddly bears. I’m never sorry to disappoint, because children don’t have such narrow views of what they should or shouldn’t read.
When grownups hear I write for children, they sometimes expect cute bunnies or cuddly bears. I’m never sorry to disappoint, because children don’t have such narrow views of what they should or shouldn’t read.
Ciara: Your most recent book THE STORY OF US, has been described as a ‘lyrical retelling of the biblical redemption story,’ from the beginning of creation and humankind’s broken relationship with its creator, to the reconciliation and restoration of all creation. It’s written for children, but as I read it myself, I couldn’t help being drawn in. I found myself contemplating simple sentences that were deep with meaning, and captivated by the artwork, which is stunningly beautiful as well. There are many children’s stories that explore the theme of redemption and the life of Christ. Ofcourse, the beautiful thing about stories, especially those in the Bible, is that they can be retold over and over in different ways, making them timeless. How does your book retell an ancient story in a new way?
Mitali: I grew up in a Hindu home without any exposure to the Bible throughout my childhood and adolescence. Zilch. Nil. I knew nothing about Judaism and next to nothing about Christianity, which seemed to involve a bearded guy in a red suit who skipped our house while distributing presents every December. In college, during my freshman Humanities course, our first reading assignment was the Book of Genesis. I couldn’t make sense of a religious book that began with naked folks strolling with a conversational God in a fruit-filled orchard. After struggling to write my essay, I returned my Bible to the bookstore for a partial discount, convinced I’d never read it again.
Thankfully, a friend told me to read the New Testament first, which I did during my junior year abroad in Austria. He also gave me a copy of Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, an author I trusted because I’d fallen in love with the Chronicles of Narnia at age nine. Thanks to “Uncle Clive,” the four gospels, and the beautiful art and cathedrals in Vienna, I took in the amazing character, words, and deeds of Jesus. My Baba had a Hindu guru, so I quietly decided to take Jesus as my guru. I was baptized in a fountain on the Stanford campus, eventually became a Presbyterian minister’s wife, and am now a full-time writer of books for young people in a long mysterious journey of following my guru.
Because of my early lack of exposure to theological concepts like creation, the fall, sin and evil, redemption, and the eventual restoration of order and complete elimination of chaos, I wanted to offer a primer for children that would provide the big story of God, humanity, and nature. Sometimes grownups who grow up hearing biblical narratives from infancy forget how bits and pieces of it can be confusing to children. Thus, THE STORY OF US.
Sometimes grownups who grow up hearing biblical narratives from infancy forget how bits and pieces of it can be confusing to children.
Because of my early lack of exposure [as a child] to theological concepts like creation, the fall, sin and evil, redemption, and the eventual restoration of order and complete elimination of chaos, I wanted to offer a primer for children that would provide the big story of God, humanity, and nature.
Ciara: Your book starts by introducing the reader to the physical elements air, water, earth and fire, and how the Creator used them to make us, organizing messy matter into our form, his likeness. I’ve never read a creation story framed this way—what a poetic and beautiful way to bring Genesis 1 to life! What drew you to include these natural elements in the creation story? And can you speak a little into how your book guides us through humankind’s relationship with the Creator and his Creation by using these elements?
Mitali: We need these four elements to survive so we must care for them. It’s a symbiotic relationship. Oddly, when they are powerful and chaotic they destroy us, and when we are powerful and chaotic we destroy them. Fire, earth, water, and air provide a way for children to grasp the beauty and order of creation as well as the destruction and aftermath of the fall. I wanted to show how Jesus used all four elements on a “small” scale when he walked the planet as Redeemer. Last but not least, the Book of Revelation uses them to paint a picture of heaven and a newly restored earth in the future, as we tried to depict in the last third of THE STORY OF US.
Children yearn to ask big questions because childhood is designed for wondering. Young people are curious about evil, tragedy, and injustice. We do them a disservice by giving pat answers and keeping things tidy and safe in our art.
Ciara: The Biblical Story is not necessarily the most child friendly. There are mature topics like sin, suffering, and death that adults struggle to reconcile with and understand. How do you as an author who writes primarily for young readers, communicate the whole of this story, the beautiful and ugly, miraculous and messy for them? When communicating scripture to young audiences, how do we preserve the integrity of the message without euphemizing it in a way that could set them up for faith crises down the road?
Mitali: Children yearn to ask big questions because childhood is designed for wondering. Young people are curious about evil, tragedy, and injustice. We do them a disservice by giving pat answers and keeping things tidy and safe in our art. The old fairy tales acknowledged a brutal world full of disasters and evil, and yet affirmed that order, mercy, and beauty triumph in the end—that’s why children loved and still love such stories. A good piece of art will leave space for a child to express and experience doubt, laughter, wonder, fear, joy, faith, or sorrow. I’m a firm believer that trying to control a “message” to be received warps the creative process. We authors must leave room for a reader to have power over the story; artists must do the same with their products.
Ciara: Scientists are trained to communicate plainly, and hopefully clearly so as to be understood by their intended audience. We are trained to talk facts and data to our colleagues, not necessarily trained to communicate with a more general audience. But, I’ve learned and research has shown that metaphor and storytelling can be effective tools to communicate the truth of science in a way that is accessible to the general public. As someone who regularly communicates to the broader public, especially children, through the vehicle of fiction, can you discuss the utility and benefits of using metaphor and storytelling to communicate complex and even hard truths?
Mitali: Jesus spent a boatload (pun intended) of time telling stories, so it’s worth taking a look at the unique characteristics of that media to communicate truth. A human soul is shaped to receive stories, no matter our age, culture, or education level. Being drawn into a tale encourages us to uncross arms, suspend disbelief, breathe, and take in truth with an open heart and a curious mind. A good story transforms us; good science informs us. We need both. That’s why a combination of intellectual rigor and a gripping narrative arc makes any message memorable.
A good story transforms us; good science informs us. We need both. That’s why a combination of intellectual rigor and a gripping narrative arc makes any message memorable.
One note—as an emotional Bengali without a stiff upper lip who grew up with a Baba who was a hilarious storyteller, I’d add humor and pathos to your list along with metaphor. When people laugh or cry while listening to our stories, defenses drop. You won’t have to fight so hard to get them to value (and maybe even fund) your research. Stories are a powerful way to package science—why not use them?
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