Editor’s note: On June 19, the Rev. Kathy Bostrom received the David Steele Distinguished Writer Award from the Presbyterian Writers Guild during its General Assembly luncheon. This acceptance speech is too good not to share. Read the news story about the award here. ― Jerry L. Van Marter
So let’s talk shoes.
I’ve never liked shopping for shoes. I’ve had bad feet from birth and rarely have found a truly comfortable pair of shoes. My mom forced me to wear orthopedic shoes through junior high school, which, as you can imagine, just gave the other kids one more reason to think I was geeky and weird. I’ve never been able to wear fancy high heels, although I don’t mind all that much. Still, it would be nice to have the option of wearing whatever shoes I wanted without limping in pain.
Sometimes, we writers have to try on a lot of shoes before we find the ones that fit just right.
I began writing for fun and relaxation not long after Greg and I moved our family to Illinois in 1991 to serve as co-pastors of the Wildwood Presbyterian Church north of Chicago. Our children were 2, 4 and 6, and the only free time I could find was in the morning before everyone woke up.
I am not a morning person, I have never been a morning person, I will never be a morning person, but back in those days I loved those morning walks. I always felt inspired to hurry home and furiously jot down my observations and reflections before the rest of the family kicked into gear.
I tried on all kinds of shoes in those early years.
I tried on the soft, leather shoes of a poet, and enjoyed the challenge of finding the perfect word to describe a thought or image. I admired poets like Ann Weems and Barrie Shepherd, and I thought, “I want to be like Ann and Barrie!” I quickly discovered I would never fit in Ann or Barrie’s shoes, so I took them off and reluctantly put them away. I still slip on these beautiful shoes from time to time, and wear them when I write my rhyming children’s books, but I will never be known first and foremost as a poet.
A short-story writer needs a good pair of running shoes, designed to help the writer sprint quickly through a story’s introduction, conflict and resolution. These shoes were barely on my feet before I realized they did not fit, so off they came, relegated to a dusty corner in my office.
How about a pair of novelist’s hiking boots, I thought, footwear that could endure the long process of cranking out a 200+ page manuscript? I wore these for awhile, and did manage to write a young adult novel, but it’s sitting in a box in the closet along with the hiking boots. I hope to get the boots out again one day, but we’ll see.
The sensible, sturdy shoes of a non-fiction writer looked like shoes I could wear. I greatly admired the people who wrote theological non-fiction, books that could be read and understood by even those who were not trained in theology. I loved the non-fiction of Frederick Buechner. Greg and I read everything he wrote and his books often served as gifts between the two of us. I even had the audacity to wish, back in the early years, that I could somehow be the next Frederick Buechner.
We writers can be a strange breed, where a total lack of self-esteem coexists alongside a shocking dose of hubris. We worry that just as we are receiving a Distinguished Writer Award, someone will leap from the audience and say, in the spirit of The Emperor’s New Clothes, “Look! The writer has no skill!” And then the next minute we have the audacity to think, “I want to be the next Frederick Buechner!”
But I knew that I could never fit in Buechner’s shoes. I’ve written a few non-fiction books on spirituality for adults, but the sensible, sturdy shoes of the non-fiction writer are not ones that I wear for long without my feet starting to hurt.
The shoes I ended up going back to time and again were the playful shoes of the children’s writer.
Children’s shoes these days are so much fun, so different from the ones I wore when I was growing up. Children’s shoes are brightly colored, or covered in sparkly sequins. They light up when you walk. They are made for bouncing and hopping and running. And the best thing about kids and shoes is that kids love to kick off their shoes and go barefoot, which is a perfect solution for someone like me who has trouble finding comfortable shoes.
I vividly remember the moment I felt called to write for children. Our youngest son, David, was about three, and as usual before his afternoon naptime he was cuddled in my lap as I read him Charlie the Caterpillar for the umpteenth time. I thought, “These will be some of my most precious memories, holding my child in my lap and reading books together.”
And then I thought, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to write a book ― even one book ― that would create special memories for other parents and children?” So began my arduous quest to be a published author of children’s books.
It wasn’t easy. It took four and a half years before I got my foot in the door. Four and a half years and 250 rejection letters from various publishers. I wore out a lot of shoes! My family lived and breathed my efforts and my despair.
One Christmas, we took our three kids to see Santa, and when Santa asked David, “What would you like for Christmas, little boy?” the poor child sighed and said, “Please, would you just publish my mommy’s books?”
Yes, we all suffered through those early years!
But I kept putting on the children’s writing shoes and finally I had my first acceptance letter. The whole family rejoiced. “I’m so proud of you!” said Greg. “Great going!” said our eldest son, Christopher. “Hooray!” said our daughter, Amy. “Finally,” said David. I think he was relieved that he could go back to asking Santa for toys.
One summer evening I was reading with our daughter, Amy, about 10 years old at the time. She had my latest book displayed prominently on the shelf next to her bed. She said, “Mom, I love your books, but what I’ve learned is this: if you believe in something and work hard enough, it can happen.” I knew then that all the time I’d spent trying to get published was worth every minute.
Once I found the shoes that fit best, I poured my energy into writing for children.
I met so many wonderful children’s authors, and many of them became my friends. I came to know and love Katherine Paterson when I was writing my book of biographies on the Newbery Medal winners. I would travel to see her, and we’d meet over a meal.
Often, her husband, John ― a Presbyterian pastor ― joined us. Sadly, John passed away last fall. He was a wonderful man, and like my husband, the biggest supporter of his wife’s writing.
I love Katherine’s books, I love Katherine ― who doesn’t? ― and yes, there were times when I thought, “I want to be the next Katherine Paterson and win multiple Newbery Medals!” There goes that hubris again! But I know better. I will never wear Katherine’s shoes. She is one of a kind, but that doesn’t mean I can’t have aspirations!
Our eldest son, Chris, always wanted to be an actor, and he is now living in Los Angeles pursuing that dream. He is a handsome and talented young man, and once I jokingly told him, “You could be the next George Clooney!” He shook his head. “Mom, I don’t want to be the next George Clooney,” he said. “I want to be the first Chris Bostrom.” He knew more about shoes than I did! Amen, Chris. Amen.
Many years ago, I was asked to speak at a big presbytery event in another state. The speaker the previous year had been a former moderator of the General Assembly, and I felt totally inadequate in comparison. I said as much to my congregation in worship the Sunday before. “I could never fill that man’s shoes,” I said, for that’s how I felt.
A few days later, I received a lovely note in the mail from Midge, an older woman in my church. She wrote, “You don’t have to worry about filling anyone else’s shoes. Your own fit you just fine.”
I have never forgotten Midge’s words. They have served me well through the years. I’ve quoted them to lots of other people trying to find where they fit in. I believe that they are some of the most eloquent words ever written.
I no longer seek to be the next Barrie Shepherd or Ann Weems or Frederick Buechner or Katherine Paterson nor anyone else. I seek to be Kathleen Long Bostrom, writer in her own right.
I like to experiment with different shoes every now and then, but the shoes in which I am most comfortable are my children’s shoes. I love writing for children. Children have such wonderful spirits. They are curious about God and the world. They have fantastic imaginations and they are not yet jaded by the cynicism and negativity that too often and too soon weigh us down. When I write for children, I become like a child myself. Didn’t Jesus have something to say about that?
I get the most inspiring letters and emails from my readers, especially for my book, What About Heaven? A family in Iowa read that book to their 2 year old just weeks before she died in a sudden accident. The grieving mother read my book at her daughter’s funeral and gave copies to everyone who came to grieve and honor their precious little girl. If that had been the only book I’d ever written and that the only letter I ever received, it would have been enough. My dream of writing a book that would be a bond between parents and children has come true, in ways beyond what I ever would have imagined.
I thank God for never letting me give up on my dream of getting published. I thank my husband, Greg, and our now-grown children who believed in me the whole way. I thank my fellow writers, many of them members of the Presbyterian Writers Guild. I thank my congregations who put up with weird sermons like Green Plagues and Lamb. I thank my team of editors, publishers and agents.
I thank my readers, for without them my books would be nothing. I thank the people who have taken time to write me and let me know that something I wrote brought them joy, or helped them through a rough time. I thank God for the living Word, the written, spoken, sung and heard and read. I thank God for giving me a pair of shoes that fit just right.
So go out, do a little shoe shopping if you’d like. Experiment with a variety of styles. But remember, your own shoes fit you just fine.
Kathleen Bostrom has published numerous articles and more than three dozen books. She is included in Something About the Author and Contemporary Authors, two of the premier reference sources for information on children’s authors.
Bostrom’s books have sold several million copies in the 16 years since her first book was published. Sales of her “Little Blessings” series total more than 3 million in the U.S. alone and have been printed in 17 languages.