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Going digital - interactive Bible stories

An interview with Fiona Veitch Smith, the author of the popular Young David Books, which have recently been converted into interactive e-books. They've come a long way since starting life as children's talks in her Baptist church...

 


Your Young David Books have been converted into highly interactive experiences for children. It’s difficult to describe them simply as ‘books’. They are more like experiences. Can you say what benefits you think the conversion of the print books to the digital space brings to the children’s experience of the stories?
 
Children love to touch, feel and be actively involved in the stories they read or have read to them. My daughter draws pictures when I read to her at bedtime. Children at schools where I read the print version of the Young David Books love to take part in the stories by pretending they have their own catapults to fire at an imaginary hairy beast or giant. The digital enhancements draw on this desire to actively participate in stories.




Watching children interact with the apps is very eye opening. They try something to see what happens. Then try something else. On one page a little figure will pop up at a window when you touch it, on another page it won't. It encourages exploration. The child feels empowered because they can determine what happens on each page. The story may stay the same, but the way they experience changes with each reading. In that sense it is child-directed learning.


How can the Young David Books app instil a love of the Bible in young children?
 
Young David - childrenThe stories are written and illustrated in an engaging and entertaining way. The added dimension of the interactivity allows children to immerse themselves in the stories. By giving children a positive experience of stories in the Bible they will hopefully want to to know more about the Bible and the other stories it contains. Children judge things as being 'boring' or 'not-boring'. If their first experience of the Bible is a boring one, it will be harder to engage them the next time.


They have certainly come a long way from their origins as a church children’s talk in Heaton Baptist Church. What has the experience been like for you seeing the books develop from that initial gathering of children in your local church, to the print books with national distribution and now to digital apps with global distribution? 

It's been a roller-coaster ride! Three and a half years ago these stories were just something that I intended sharing with the children and parents at Heaton Baptist Church in Newcastle upon Tyne. But now they have taken on a life beyond that. And I just know that God is in it: from the creative pairing with illustrator Amy Barnes to the provision of finance and business support from my husband Rod Smith to get the books printed in the first place, God has been in it all the way.

Beyond that I could not have done it without the support of key people in the Christian retail business who have backed the books. Christian retailers (and retailers in general) tend to be very suspicious of self-published or independently published books so it is difficult to break into that market. But when book shop managers Brian Taylor and Justin Dummer from CLC Newcastle and Christian bookshop blogger Phil Groom fell in love with the books, they opened doors for me to be taken seriously by the industry. Then of course there was the God-arranged meeting with Brief Lives' Emer McCourt who took the books into the digital realm. I'm anxious to see what God has next in store for the Young David Books!
 

What were you intending to do through the stories and in particular what messages were you intending to convey to children? 

I want to write biblically-based stories that connect with the real world of children in the 21st century. So we have stories that include sleep-overs, sibling rivalry, the feeling of being overlooked in the busy life of a family. I also want to tie in to the universal themes of fear of the unknown, of feeling undervalued and the need to know our purpose in life.  I want children to know that God is real and that they can talk to him in their daily lives. I want them to be inspired by the example of David as a child who faces obstacles, fears, difficulties and insecurities by drawing strength from God. I want children to learn about prayer and friendship.
 
 
Was it important to keep the Young David Books series as biblically accurate as possible?
 
Young David - GiantThe Young David Books are not word-for-word retellings of Bible stories such as those found in children's bibles. They are an imaginative retelling of core stories that are found in the Bible but have been reworked into unique stories to fit the picture book format.

The ratio of core material to imaginative additions varies according to the amount of source material available. So David and the Giant, for instance, has a great deal of source material to draw on, but David and the Hairy Beast has only the statement that David makes to Saul in 1 Samuel 17:36 that he fought the lion and the bear and the brief background of David's family life gleaned from various mentions in the books of 1 Samuel and 1 Chronicles.

I have used as much of the original source material from the Bible as possible but then added as needed when there are gaps in the story. I have not changed anything that is already there, I have just imaginatively fleshed out the stories. It is important that parents and teachers can take children to the Bible after they have read the picturebooks and show them where the stories came from. 

 
What is the theme of the Young David Books series and how does it reflect your own beliefs?
 
I am an evangelical Christian and believe in experiencing a personal relationship with God. I believe that God can talk to us and that we can talk to God. All of that is reflected in the Young David books. Beyond that there are three recurring themes in the books: finding your value in God even if people undervalue you, having a sense of God's calling on your life for now and the future and what it means to be part of a family.


How do you think stories help children (and adults) encounter God?
 
It is in children’s stories, or the stories that we like to think are only for children, that the secrets of the human heart are laid bare. And what is more human than the quest for the divine? Every generation has its fairy tales – the Cinderellas, the Sleeping Beauties, the Rapunzels and Snow Whites – perhaps not with these names, but we recognise them nonetheless.

In them we see lost and rejected children being saved by some kind of divine intervention – call it magic, if you will. In them the Prince frees us from servitude, releases us from prison and kisses us back to life. In these stories we see patterns of death and resurrection and lives transformed through another’s sacrifice.

And if you read the Bible you’ll find the same type of stories there - but with the core truth that God is at the heart of it all. God is the consummate storyteller. 'In the beginning God ...' are the opening words of the Bible. God has revealed himself to us through stories, many of them written down in the Bible, and others told generation to generation about the great things he has done.

The Bible is a collection of stories that help us get to know God. Some of these are non-fiction (stories or accounts of factual events or lives lived) and some of them are fiction (such as the parables Jesus told). But the fictional stories are no less important than the non-fiction ones. Both aim to communicate a truth about God and our relationship with Him. Through stories we can see examples of people's lives that in some way reflect our own. We can learn as the characters in the story learn. The Young David Books aim to do the same thing as they straddle fiction and non-fiction in their telling of God's story through the example of His dealings with a young boy called David.
 

What has the experience been like for you of bringing Bible stories into secular schools and non-church schools?

When I first started trying to get into schools where I live in the North East of England I was very aware that in the post-Christian culture of modern Britain anything to do with the Bible is viewed with suspicion. Christian writers and speakers are often labelled as Bible-bashers.

However, I have been pleasantly surprised that secular and non-church schools have been keen to have me in. Perhaps it is because the stories are not overtly evangelistic; perhaps it is because the stories connect with the universal experience of children to be valued and loved which is not just a 'religious' need, I don't know. 

Another thing to consider is that RE (religious education) is still part of the National Curriculum and teachers need to fill the 'Christian quota' with material. I have been only too happy to provide it. Admittedly my first entry to schools came through sympathetic Christian teachers, but then invitations started coming from other quarters by word of mouth. There is nothing more fulfilling for me that to see children who may not have experienced the Bible or the Christian faith in a fun and interactive way before getting excited about the stories of Young David.

 

Young David - Fiona Veitch SmiFiona Veitch Smith is the author of the Young David Books, which can be accessed in the Young David Books App for iPad.

To download the app and a free sample visit http://www.brief-lives.co.uk/ or search for Young David Books in the app store. 

Fiona is a member of Heaton Baptist Church in Newcastle upon Tyne

 

 
 
 

Baptist Times, 13/06/2014

 
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