Scores of kids’ books come out around this time of year that share Christmas and holiday messages. Not all have lasting power.
A new Christmas tale for children goes beyond most, as it captures, with texture and tension, the truth of everyday families — and offers some smart solutions to our modern-day challenges. In “Back to Christmas,” a young daughter has just a few days to help her family relearn what togetherness really means. And there is no guarantee they will achieve that.
“If communicating online displaces interacting with family members, things have gone too far.”
Dennis Canfield is the author of “Back to Christmas” as well as “The Robin and the Sparrow,” an illustrated book of children’s poems. He and his family live near Chicago, Illinois. With Christmas just up ahead and families all across the nation coming together at this time of year, LifeZette engaged him about his tale, his meaning, his messages — and what the rest of us can learn.
Question: What sparked the idea for your new book — and gave you the passion and drive to get it done?
Answer: Like many people, I’m concerned technology is too often separating us from the people we love. We are connected to devices, but not each other. Couple that with the real meaning of Christmas getting lost in materialism, which has long been the case — and that gave me the idea for “Back to Christmas.”
I wanted to write a Christmas story that family members of every age could enjoy together, one that would have meaning, too.
Q: Share the life lessons you feel your story has for readers of all ages.
A: There are two interconnected story lines, each of which addresses one of my concerns, and each of which has its own main character. A lot of the fun in writing the story was figuring out how the two main characters could come together to help each other. In one story line, Amanda, a social media-obsessed 12-year-old, needs to learn the importance of reconnecting with her family. The rest of her family needs to learn the same lesson. We see early on that Amanda and her brother and their parents have become so connected to their smartphones and social networks they’ve lost their connections to each other.
In the other story line, Marmel, the elf in charge of Santa’s Department for Labeling Humans Naughty or Nice, needs to relearn the meaning of Christmas. At the end of the story, Marmel tells the other elves and Santa what he’s learned about Christmas. It’s a profoundly Christian message that can also be read in an entirely secular way.
So parents who want to encourage their children to think about what Christmas really means can ask, “What do you think Marmel means by that?” and start a discussion that helps kids translate the secular view of Christmas into the Christian understanding. And they can do this while reading a Christmas story that they and their children will really enjoy.
Q: No matter what season it is, talk to us about the value of reading, language, and stories for children. Too often, this gets lost today, given our technology and our iPhones, iPads, laptops, and more.
A: Technology-assisted parenting may be more prevalent now than it was in prior generations, but it’s not a new phenomenon. My mom put my siblings and me in front of the TV when she needed to get stuff done, and my wife and I did that with our kids when they were little. The problem arises when technology replaces time that we should be spending with our kids. So, for example, if everyone in the family is at the dinner table looking at their smartphones and communicating with all their friends but not each other — that’s a problem.
Being focused on technology when we could be focused on each other causes us to miss opportunities to create memories of doing things together with our kids — memories our kids could enjoy for the rest of their lives, long after we’re gone.
That’s not to say that we shouldn’t enjoy the benefits of modern communication. All of the new ways of communication are great for staying connected with old friends and distant relatives we might otherwise lose touch with, and for keeping up with what’s going on in our friends and family members’ lives. But if communicating online or playing online games displaces interacting with family members, it’s gone too far. Mea culpa — from time to time, I’ve really struggled with limiting the time I spend playing online games, especially chess and flight sims.
Q: How does reading with children create family memories?
A: It’s so interactive. Plus, it only costs the price of a book! My wife and I have really enjoyed reading with both our daughters. We’ve read all the Laura Ingalls [Wilder] books, Nancy Drew, all seven Harry Potters and many others as well. Even though my younger daughter is now in high school, we still enjoy reading together.
There is also a timelessness about reading with our children. It’s been going on for hundreds of years, ever since books have been widely available. Moreover, our children may very well want to read the same books with their children that they read with us. And when they do, they will undoubtedly say, “I remember reading this with my mom and dad when I was your age.” How cool is that if you’re a grandparent?
Q: Was there anything in your personal background that contributed to your story or your writing for children?
A: I always loved to read when I was a kid, but I never thought about becoming a writer until my older daughter was cast as Wendy in the local theater’s production of Peter Pan, and I was the one pulling the ropes to make her fly above the stage. I had so much fun being involved with the theater that I decided to write a play. It soon dawned on me that I had never read a script, but I had read lots of books, so I decided to write the book version of “Back to Christmas” first; then I went back and wrote a stage musical based on the book. I just finished a draft of a screenplay as well.
“We hope they’ll say, ‘I remember reading this with my mom and dad when I was your age.'”
Q: For children just learning to read, what thoughts would you share — for their parents as well?
A: I hope they’ll find books they love to read so much they’ll curl up in a chair and forget everything but their story. And I hope they’ll enjoy reading with their parents, too.
Also, for anyone who is thinking of becoming a writer — know that it’s vastly more time-consuming than most people imagine. In my case, it often seemed like a second full-time job. The only thing that enabled me to see this project through to the end was a really strong belief in my story — that it was a good story that met a need.
That, and the fact that I had lots and lots of help along the way.
If you are starting your own writer’s journey, good luck to you!