Conversations with his daughter led to 13-year project to create a children’s book, “When God Was a Little Girl”
By JAN WILLMS
What began as conversations between a father and his daughter has resulted in an award-winning book written by Hamline Midway resident David Weiss, who teaches a religion class at Hamline University. The book was recently awarded a nationally recognized 2014 Nautilus Award in the category “Children’s Picture Books (grades 2-6). It has also won a Gold 2014 Moonbeam Children’s Book Award for Religion and Spirituality.
“When God Was a Little Girl” did not derive from one specific conversation he had with his young daughter, according to Weiss. But, when she was small he told her stories about himself when he was a little boy, and stories about her brother and herself.
Joan Hernandez Lindeman (left) who illustrated the book “When God Was a Little Girl” and author David Weiss (right).
“Eventually, we began to tell more fanciful tales that we made up together, and these were often ‘creation’-themed,” Weiss said. And so a story, depicting God as little girls of different ethnicities, was born.
“The book was first written with my daughter in mind,” he said. “I wanted to offer her an image of God as a five, six or seven-year-old girl.”
“The story is one that I first created back in 2001,” Weiss explained. “The final edited version is 90 per cent of that.”
Weiss said that although he wrote it as a story for his daughter, as he shared it with friends many of them said they thought it would make a great picture book.
“I talked with Joan Hernandez Lindeman, who had been one of my students,” Weiss explained. “She connected with the story immediately, being a strong feminist herself.”
But at the same time she was working as an elementary school teacher, and what she had thought would be a three-year painting of illustrations for the book ended up taking eight years.
“Then we spent close to three years researching and sending the manuscript off,” Weiss said. “When we couldn’t find a publisher, we decided it was an important enough project to us that we would self-publish.”
The two created a Kickstarter campaign and raised over $9,000. “Most of the money came from classmates, former students, family and friends,” Weiss noted. “But at least $1,000 came from friends of friends or people who had just found our Kickstarter page.”
Raising enough to cover all editorial expenses, the book went to press in November 2013.
“With a Kickstarter campaign, you have to offer something to funders, and so by Dec. 6 we had the first 371 copies going out to donors in over 30 different states,” Weiss said.
They have just finished selling out the first printing, and the book is now on its second printing.
Weiss said he described God as female both for his little girl and for feminist reasons. Trained as a theologian, he said he had the opportunity to study feminist theology in school. “My personal beginning place was feminine theology for grown-up women, but when I became the father of a little girl, my question was how do I take this feminine theology with all the big words and theories and explain what that theology would mean for her,” Weiss said. And the book describing God as a little girl who loved to sing and create art projects and use her imagination was the result.
Although written as a children’s book, “When God Was a Little Girl” also appeals to adults.
“I have heard so much from women who wished they had this book as a child,” Weiss said. “Especially women who are 70 or 80 years old and have spent their whole lives swimming against the current. They told me they shed tears of joy and release on reading it.”
Weiss’ role as a theologian expresses his strong belief in diversity and a welcoming God.
“Most of the time the image of God that is brought into politics or public discourse is that of a fist-pounding God who says ‘This is what God has said, and the conversation is over,’” Weiss stated. He said that what he really has tried to capture in his book as well as his classes, and the Adult Ed forums he presides over, is a different way of thinking about God.
He emphasized that the book is a creation story, not literal fact. “It does what myths do best; tell us the truth about the world we live in.”
In the book, Weiss depicts God as creating “humus beings out of humus.” He describes people being created from what is under their feet, showing a kinship with the earth and the need to take care of it.
The artwork for “When God Was a Little Girl” was created by Joan Hernandez Lindeman, a former student of author David Weiss.
The book also shows bunches of human beings, in all shapes and skin colors.
“Diversity has been with us from the very beginning,” Weiss said, “and it is what God considered very good about creation.“
His desire to see religion as a welcoming experience was impressed upon him as a child. “I think as a kid, I was aware that I grew up in a family that had hospitality as a family motto,” he explained. “And as a college senior, I became keenly aware who wasn’t receiving this hospitality, the LGBT population.”
In his work as a “free-lance” theologian, as he calls himself, Weiss has reached out to the LGBT community both in this country and abroad, during recent travels to Uganda.
He said in his Hamline class on intro to religion, he doesn’t teach names, dates and history. But he focuses on religious diversity in the world, and he hopes his students leave the class more religiously literate and knowledgeable.
Weiss said his life is sometimes like a mad dash from one paying project to another, but he could imagine doing other writings, similar to his first children’s book. “I do have another biblically-based picture book in mind,” he said. He also is considering drawing on his family’s history for a book. He writes hymns and blogs, as well.
Winning the Nautilus award for “When God Was a Little Girl” has meant a great deal to Weiss and Lindeman. The award is given to “books that inspire and connect our lives, offering spiritual growth, green values and positive social change.”
Weiss said he hopes the readers of his book can derive a sense of a God they can feel close to and joyfully celebrate. “The book doesn’t pretend to be fact, but the message is one you can really feel good about sharing with a child,” he said.
The book is available online at www.whengodwasalittlegirl.com, HWY North (the new local arts shop at 719 Hamline Ave. N. at the corner of Hamline and Minnehaha) and at Ten Thousand Villages at Grand and Victoria.
NOTE: Weiss will have a book reading on Sat., Dec. 6, at 1pm at the Hamline Church United Methodist, 1514 Englewood Ave. during Hamline Church’s Last Chance Christmas Sale. The book will also be available during the sale: Dec. 6 (9am-3pm) and Dec. 7 (10:30am-2:30pm).