A child of missionaries, Penny Reeve grew up wanting to be a missionary herself, but her passion was storytelling and writing – and what use could that be in growing God’s kingdom?
Over the past two decades, God has shown Penny just how fruitful her creative imagination can be when allied with her active faith and writing ability.
She was galvanised into action after her daughter was born in 2000, when people started giving her Christian books and she couldn’t handle how sickly sweet they were.
“I just thought ‘this isn’t who God is’… so that’s when I thought I would see if I could write something myself,” she tells Eternity.
At that time, no Christian publisher was producing children’s books in Australia – too expensive, she was told – so she contacted UK publisher Christian Focus, which picked up her idea for a board book and turned it into a series – God Made Something Strong, God Made Something Clever, God Made Something Quick and God Made Something Beautiful.
“I try to explore who God really is and not to water that down but to see who he is in relation to what’s relevant in the kids’ lives to tackle those kinds of issues,” she explains.
“I try to explore who God really is and not to water that down.”
“The ‘God Made’ series are extremely repetitive and I got bored of reading them to my own kids, but they take the characteristic of the animal and compare it to God, and God always trumps it – he’s always more clever, more beautiful and strong – and so just getting kids to enlarge their imagination of who God is and why he’s worth believing in.”
While Penny did fulfil her ambition to be a missionary, going to Nepal with her husband in 2001 with INF (International Nepal Fellowship), she continued to write, publishing two junior novels and a book called Himalayan Adventures, a collection of devotions set around the animals in Nepal.
A lot of it, I just found, was ‘how to be a good Christian kid’ and I thought following Jesus has got to be more than that.
By the time the family returned to Australia, the publishing scene had changed and Penny was picked up by an early imprint of what is now known as Wombat Books in Queensland. She also has produced a series of seven children’s Bible studies for Anglican Youthworks’ Growing Faith series.
Her children’s novels, aimed at ages six to 10, follow the adventures of 10-year-old Tania Abbey and her friends as they live out her crazy ideas and grow in faith.
“I think my kids’ novels explore what does active faith look like for kids? Because a lot of the children’s fiction comes from America and they’ve got a different perspective on things over there than we do here. A lot of it, I just found, was ‘how to be a good Christian kid’ and I thought following Jesus has got to be more than that.
“It’s not a passive cultural Christianity that we’re inviting kids to but actual relationship with God.”
“When I was a kid, I knew it was more than that and I wanted to do something active with my faith, so that’s what I explore with the Tania Abbey novels. Two of them were published by Christian Focus, one was published by a small Australian publisher that then went out of business and the latest one, Camp Max, is with Wombat.”
Excitingly for Penny, Camp Max not only won the 2018 Children’s Literature Category of the Caleb Awards for faith-inspired writing but also won the overall grand prize.
Penny says she is trying to provide stepping stones for children to a “more real, more relevant, more active” faith.
“So it’s not a passive cultural Christianity that we’re inviting kids to but actual relationship with God that will make a difference in their lives and make a difference in the world because of what they believe.”
Her daughter was again the catalyst for her writing children’s Bible studies through Anglican Youthworks.
“I wrote the first one for my daughter when she was 11 – same problem, I went to Koorong, I couldn’t find anything that would meet her needs. They were either devotionals with one tiny Bible verse or some American story about a kid playing baseball, or I had to go to teenage Bible studies, and I was like this age group – they know how to read, they have got the literacy skills, why don’t we invite them to study God’s word?
“So I wrote that one for her and when I got to the end of it I thought, I put a lot of work into that, I wonder if someone else would appreciate it as well; and so I pitched it to Growing Faith and they took it.
“They basically take a chunk of Scripture – six or seven verses long – and throughout the study the kids will memorise one verse at a time, see how it links to the rest of Scripture, see how it links to their own lives, so it’s quite practical and very open-ended.”
While Penny has a score of children’s titles to her name, she had always aimed at a Christian market. But her latest book, Out of the Cages, is her first aimed at the general Young Adult market, and is published under the nom de plume Penny Jaye.
It’s a confronting read, following the story of two young Nepali girls who are trafficked into the brothels of Mumbai and the one who escapes. It is the work perhaps closest to Penny’s heart, having brewed in her mind from her earliest days in Nepal.
“We arrived in Nepal in 2001 and I’d say within the first three years of being there I started my research for it, so it’s been simmering along in the background for such a long time,” she says.
Penny started submitting the manuscript in 2008 to all the big publishers and it was rejected 11 times. She reworked it a couple of times, before and after a research trip to India in 2013.
“People do tell me it’s the best thing I’ve ever written and I just don’t know how I wrote it.”
“The key thing about this book is I’d been getting good rejections. So even some of early ones like Allen & Unwin said ‘it’s an important book but we can’t publish it,’ so when I rewrote it and made it even better, I sent it back to them and they were willing to have another look – again they rejected it.”
Eventually Rhiza Edge, a YA imprint of Wombat Books, launched it last July, since when it has sold about half of its print run.
“This book is interesting because people do tell me it’s the best thing I’ve ever written and I just don’t know how I wrote it. And I sometimes pick it up and have a read and it’s like I’m reading someone else’s stuff.”
Now in the middle of a rewrite for her new kids novel, Penny is wondering how she can take the next step in the incredible opportunity God has given her to use her writing to build his kingdom.
“Children are never given the opportunity to wonder about whether following Jesus actually does anything to your life.”
“Where does he want me to go next? I’m just trying to keep sensitive to where God is asking me to write and I do believe that I’m supposed to write for the general market because there’s a lot of dark stuff that’s coming out for children,” she says.
“I think we need Christian writers, who aren’t necessarily teaching about Jesus specifically, but people who are just planting seeds and encouraging that spiritual hunger.
“In children’s and YA fiction it seems to be the case that Christian characters are either stereotypically useless or they’re just religious, and so children are never given the opportunity to wonder about whether following Jesus actually does anything to your life. It’s a trend around the world but in Australia especially we silence questions about spirituality and particularly in our YA fiction.”
Penny says she finds that people often have her books on their shelves, but they don’t realise she is Australian.
“They haven’t put two and two together and so they just assume that I’m one of the people that they pick up at Koorong. So for me it would be helpful to remind people who I am and that I’m writing specifically for them because I think Australian families need Australian stories.”