Interview with Girls Who Choose God Author Bethany Brady Spalding
A little over a year ago Deseret Book released Girls Who Choose God: Stories of Courageous Women from the Bible. I reviewed it here. Now, authors McArthur Krishna and Bethany Spalding have published a second book, Girls Who Choose God: Stories of Strong Women from the Book of Mormon. I asked Bethany to tell us about the process of writing these books.
Tell us about where the idea for a book about women in scripture came from.
When my oldest daughter, Simone, was almost three years old, we were reading through a book of scripture stories together. At the end of the book, she looked up at me with puzzled eyes and said, “Mom, where are all of the stories about the girls?” Her question struck me. I don’t think my mom had ever asked that question. I didn’t think to ask that question until I was in my thirties. But here, my daughter who was not yet three was already asking the gender question. At such a young age she could already see that she wasn’t reflected in those stories. She could already recognize the discrepancy. It was then that I knew that Simone’s generation was different and that they would demand and deserve a new approach to teaching the gospel. It couldn’t be boy-centric anymore.
Now I am not a writer, and I am not a scriptorian. But I am a mom, and I am a believer in change. So when I couldn’t find an adequate book about women in the scriptures, I decided to write one.
How much time passed between that initial spark and publication?
A very long time–almost five years. It was a busy season of life…having babies, moving cross-continents, adapting to marriage…but through the years, I kept the hope alive that the book would eventually be born someday. In 2011, my husband was offered a faculty position at the University of Richmond in Virginia and that was close to the last place on earth I wanted to live. But despite my strong reservations, we knew it was the place for us—not just for Andy’s dreams but for mine too. Moving to Richmond, we became fast friends with Terryl and Fiona Givens who had just published The God Who Weeps with Deseret Book. When Fiona heard about my own book writing project, she urged me on and personally delivered the finally finished manuscript to Deseret Book’s CEO, Sheri Dew. I don’t think the books would have come alive in any other way. It was a little miracle–hinged on being in the right place at the right time with the right folks.
How did you meet your coauthor, McArthur Krishna?
McArthur and I had been neighbors in Washington DC, both of us working with young women in our inner-city wards. It was there that we realized how crucial role models are for girls. So many of our young women didn’t have positive role models in their lives—someone who looked like them, who they could relate to who had pursued an education, had healthy relationships, and was creating a meaningful life. So many of the young women in our wards didn’t have a vision of what they could become. I think this experience deeply shaped McArthur and I and showed us how crucial role models are for girls.
Our family had moved from DC to India, and we were living in Mumbai when Simone asked her simple but transformative question. McArthur just happened to be traveling through India at that very time and her visit to our home made a book feel possible. McArthur has story-telling in her DNA. She also is a guru of social marketing—spreading ideas to make the world a better place. McArthur was and is an indispensable partner.
How was Kathleen Peterson chosen as the illustrator?
Cartoons can be fun in some settings, but in my mind, they don’t belong in the spiritual realm. I’ve never liked the wacky way in which we so often portray our scripture heroes and heroines. We wanted our book to be different—we wanted the depictions of these women to parallel their depth, their wisdom, their boldness. So we went searching for an artist who was bold and rich and deep. A nd we found Kathy Peterson. She is absolutely magnificent and has surprised and delighted us with her illustrations–a red-haired Eve holding a pomegranate, a fiery Nephi’s wife with lightening striking in the background, a daring prophetess Deborah embarking on a battle. Kathy’s illustrations are filled with detail and symbolism and every single one of them is stunning.
Is it true her original paintings are now displayed in the Conference Center in Salt Lake City?
Yes! Interesting story: when McAthur’s husband, Ved, first visited Salt Lake City to try to understand his wife’s Mormon roots, he went on a tour of the Conference Center. At the end of the tour, he asked the guide with a twinge of cheekiness but mostly sincerity, “Is this a boys’ club?” Ved hadn’t seen images of women anywhere. And yes–this needed to change. So when Kathy wowed us with her art, McArthur worked tirelessly to get the Church to buy the paintings and display them in the Conference Center. It was a tremendous victory. That beautiful building shouldn’t look like a boys club to anyone.
What are you passionate about in life, what do you do professionally, and how have those things informed the writing of the Girls Who Choose God books?
I am passionate about working with communities to design and implement local solutions to entrenched social problems. I currently work on food justice issues in Richmond, Virginia—empowering low-income families to access and enjoy healthy, affordable food. My background in community development has certainly informed my book writing. Lack of visibility and voice for women in the Church is a most pressing problem in our Mormon community. And as we strategized our approach to tackling this problem, McArthur and I adopted some of Socrates’ wisdom, “The secret of change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old, but on building the new.” We’ve chosen to invest our energy in creating beautiful children’s books that offer the next generation a more gender-balanced, more doctrinally-accurate view of the gospel.
What was your approach for selecting the women featured in Girls Who Choose God: Stories of Courageous Women in the Bible? And how was the approach the same or different for choosing the women featured in Girls Who Choose God: Stories from Strong Women in the Book of Mormon?
We were very deliberate about the selection of our Biblical women. We wanted to highlight a wide range of women—mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, friends, and community members who had a wide range of roles—queens, servants, judges, generals, social advocates, and more. And we worked hard to select women whose choices taught diverse principles—from courage to leadership to generosity. With hundreds of women in the Bible, we had a plethora to choose from. The Book of Mormon was another story. There are only six women named in the Book of Mormon, and three of them are from the Bible. We didn’t even think it was possible to do a volume from this book of scripture…but then we dug deeper…
Many of the women featured in the second book are not named in the Book of Mormon. How did you approach the challenge of writing about nameless women?
For a long time, I’d been stuck on the discouraging fact that there are so few named women in the Book of Mormon. But thankfully, some existing research opened my eyes to the encouraging fact that over 80 women are mentioned in the Book of Mormon. It became clear to McArthur and I that we shouldn’t allow the lack of a name to prevent us from learning about these fascinating women. Many of them had made remarkable choices that shaped the course of civilizations. And they deserved to be honored. Writing about women without a name wasn’t necessarily hard, but writing about women with so few details to go on was extremely challenging. We were committed to staying true to the text, yet felt comfortable ascribing natural human emotions and attributes to the women. But what we were adamant about was proving that these women had made an actual choice. Nephi’s sisters chose to break from false tradition, the daughters from the land of Zeniff chose to defend their families from a ferocious army, the maidservant spy chose to speak up against wrongs. These nameless women gave us powerful, timely messages for our day.
Something I like very much about these books is that they frame the choices people make as between two if not equally good, then equally reasonable alternatives. Things are not always black and white in real life, even for children. For example Nephi’s sisters choose between following tradition and staying with the older brothers or breaking tradition and going with the younger brother. I’m curious about how you came to this perspective amid so many stories in the Book of Mormon that frame right and wrong in stark, warlike terms?
We were inspired from the very beginning of the book-writing process to frame the women’s stories around the concept of choice. We wanted to celebrate these women as agents and active participants—not as by-standers and supporting roles as they are often cast. Eve’s experience gave a perfect framework for us to follow. Eve was presented with an extremely difficult dilemma: stay in a beautiful place filled with God’s presence and void of heartache and conflict…or subject herself to pain, disappointment, and loss in order to progress and procreate. Not an easy choice. Not a black and white situation. But the wrestling with this dilemma is what made her wise. The wrestling all of us do in our own moral dilemmas is what enables us to grow. We wanted to share the women’s stories in such a way that we could highlight their choices and encourage our young readers to reflect on their own.
What response have you received about the books?
McArthur and I have been deeply humbled by the wildly positive response to the books. We have heard from readers all around the world who have been empowered by the stories at bedtime, FHE, Primary lessons, Activity Days, Young Women events, Girls Camp, stake Relief Society meetings, and even High Councilor talks. Mormons are hungry for more material about faithful women and these books have helped to fill that craving.
The profits from these books are donated to educational opportunities for women. Can you tell us about some of the good that’s been accomplished from the support nonprofit groups have received?
All of our authors’ proceeds from the Bible volume are donated to Interweave—an extraordinary non-profit organization that brings literacy and entrepreneurial training to women around the world. We just received an email from Interweave’s Director who has been working in northern Uganda. During many years of civil war, hundreds of women were captured by rebel soldiers. They are now being released as single mothers without any education or skills. With the royalties from our book, Interweave has created a unique program for these Ugandan women to develop skills to support themselves and their children. It is so rewarding to know that our book can empower women in such crucial ways.
What’s next for you and McArthur? Will we see a Girls Who Choose God church history book or other books for girls and boys?
We always have something brewing. A Girls Who Choose God: Women from Church History is currently in the works–so send us the names of your favorite Mormon women who have pioneered around the globe! The Girls Who Choose God series has hopefully helped our Mormon community feel more comfortable talking about strong, spiritual women and has provided an array of roles models for our girls and boys. And now, we are elated to have created another book that shines lights on our ultimate female role model—Heavenly Mother. In fall of 2016, Deseret Book will be publishing our children’s book on families. The book celebrates our understanding that earthly families are modeled after our heavenly family, and illuminates the role that Heavenly Mother–in addition to Heavenly Father–plays in leading and loving the human family. The book presents the model of equal partnership between women and men in heaven and on earth. And hopefully after reading it, far fewer young ones will have to ask the question, “Mom, where are all the stories about the girls?”
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