What’s so special about the Christmas star? Why not just go directly to a children’s Bible?
ANTHONY DESTEFANO: There’s nothing particularly special about the Christmas star, per se. But he is child-friendly! And that’s the point. Animals, cartoon characters, talking trees, rocks, sponges, and furry creatures of all sorts — those are all very adorable and very approachable. Kids respond well to them. They’re not part of the more intimidating and often frightening world of adults. So when it comes to educating and entertaining children, characters of this kind are often very helpful. That’s just common sense. The problem is that sacred Scripture doesn’t exactly have a lot of talking animals! Also, we don’t have the liberty of changing Scripture at all, even for the sake of making a particular biblical story or passage or concept more child-friendly. That’s why — although children’s Bibles are very necessary and excellent to use — there’s no reason we can’t also have stories like The Little Drummer Boy, or A Charlie Brown Christmas, or for that matter Little Star. Those stories each have at their core the Gospel message, but they build around that message in a way that is not offensive or theologically inaccurate. I guess you could have started A Charlie Brown Christmas with the famous final scene — with Linus quoting the nativity passage from the Gospel of Luke — and you could have ended it right there. But would that have been as effective? I don’t think so. The reason that story is such a classic is that it introduces children to the biblical message of Christmas by showing children how that message is lived out — in this case, by Charlie Brown, who tries to love and care for the smallest and weakest Christmas tree he can find. The point I’m making is that it’s perfectly okay to invent ancillary inanimate characters, like a star or perhaps a talking animal, and use them in children’s spiritual books, as long as you don’t in any way alter the actual biblical story or change the Gospel message that is being taught. If you are able to walk that line, then you can actually produce something that teaches children about God and Jesus and the Bible, in a way that they really understand and really remember, and, most important, in a way that really prepares them for a lifetime of reading and interiorizing the Gospel.That was my goal in writing Little Star.
LOPEZ: Who is Little Star? And what made him so smart?
DESTEFANO: Little Star is the smallest star in the heavens — ignored by all the other stars and planets. On the night Christ is born, Little Star sees the child being born in a stable and feels sorry for Him. Somehow he has an insight that the child is a king who has a special message to bring to the world — the message of love. I don’t think that Little Star is supposed to be particularly smart. I didn’t conceive him that way. I imagined him only to be the smallest and the weakest star in the galaxy. He’s not supposed to be very smart or even “special” in any conventional way. What he has is a special insight — undoubtedly given to him by God — which the other stars don’t have. And isn’t this exactly what Christianity teaches — that God resists the proud but gives wisdom to the humble? The point is that because Little Star is not arrogant, because he feels genuine concern and pity for the babe in the manger, he is given a special knowledge and light and grace that the other stars don’t possess.
LOPEZ: So what does a parent say to the sixth-grade boy who says this is all nonsense? That there was a star. That some baby in a stable was the king of kings. Kids’ stuff! And a dumb star can’t keep a baby warm anyway!
DESTEFANO: First of all, I would say to that sixth-grade boy that Little Star is a picture book and is really meant to be read by his younger brothers and sisters! But since he apparently has so much to say about it, Iwould also tell him that he was old enough to understand that “talking stars” that can “warm babies in cold stables” are not to be taken literally, but figuratively! Sixth-graders are certainly able to understand this concept, since so much of the “fantasy” reading they seem to love (according to the Young Reader Bestseller Lists) involves stories and characters that aren’t real (like vampires and wizards). But by far the most important thing I would tell this sixth-grader is that there is an underlying truth contained in my book, and I would challenge him to find it. Kids like challenges. And if he really concentrated — even at his age — I bet he could discover what that truth is. The real message of Little Star is that love means to sacrifice yourself, to give every bit of yourself — just like Little Star did — for others. You see, even though Little Star is a Christmas book whose main purpose is to introduce children to the Nativity story, it has a much deeper message as well. It also contains the message of Easter — the message of sacrifice and even resurrection. And that is why I consider Little Star my best book. Even though it’s ostensibly for children, it contains the whole Gospel message, from Christmas to Easter. And it does it in a way that, I hope, even slightly snotty sixth-grade boys can understand!
LOPEZ: Not to be a spoiler, but: What if a family has an angel, not a star, on top of their tree? Your book could be trouble!
DESTEFANO: Yes it already has caused me trouble! I’ve had many letters and e-mails from moms who told me that after their children read Little Star, they absolutely insisted on going out and buying a star for the top of their trees. This unexpected development is making me seriously consider going into the Christmas-star business! Seriously, though, I don’t think angels — who are real spiritual beings and really do exist — could ever be upset by being displaced by the Star of Bethlehem. I frankly think they would rejoice to know that a child would actually connect the star on top of the Christmas tree to the true meaning of Christmas.
LOPEZ: The images of Mary and Joseph look like they could be a child’s older brother and sister. Was that important to have? It’s of course unlike many artistic portrayals of Mary and Joseph.
DESTEFANO: No, it wasn’t particularly important to the story to portray Mary and Joseph as being youthful. I suppose they could have been drawn older. But I do think it’s probably truer to historical fact that they were younger. We know that girls in ancient Palestine usually got betrothed and married in their early teens. I also think that the youthfulness of Joseph and Mary lends a certain vitality to the illustrations. It certainly doesn’t hurt. In writing spiritual books, whether for children or adults, the challenge is always to take something that’s beautiful and familiar (in this case the most beautiful of all stories) and try to present it in a way that seems newand alive and unfamiliar, without, of course, changing one iota of the truth. This is very hard to do, and if the illustrations can assist in the effort, so much the better.
LOPEZ: Have any parents complained that their kids now think stars are all chatting away up there?
DESTEFANO: Not so far! No more than they think rabbits can really talk because they’ve seen Bugs Bunny cartoons, or donkeys can talk because they’ve seen Shrek, or cars or toys can talk because of the Disney movies that have been made about those inanimate objects. I really think today’s kids are pretty sophisticated when it comes to this subject. I think they are not as educated as they should be when it comes to history or English or basic theology or the Classics, but when it comes to identifying the difference between make-believe characters and real life, they’re as savvy as adults. In fact, this whole technological revolution has created a race of child prodigies! Last week I was talking to my five-year-old nephew, and he said to me: “Uncle Anthony, do you have Skype?” I’m not making this up! So no, I don’t think these kids will have any problem knowing that stars really can’t talk.
LOPEZ: How do you write for kids, not being one anymore? (Or do I assume too much?)
DESTEFANO: You assume way too much! I am certainly a big kid — just ask the women in my life! Seriously, though, I really do believe the biblical injunction that you must be like a child to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Not a child in terms of maturity, of course, but in terms of having a child-like openness and playfulness and trust in God. My whole ambition as a writer is to write books for adults that explain complex and even profound spiritual truths in a way that everyone can understand (without, of course, compromising or watering down the theology), and to write books for children that contain truths that even adults can appreciate and benefit from.
LOPEZ: What’s a “haunt detector”?
DESTEFANO: A haunt detector is just a fun way of saying that we can sometimes sense when something eerie and out-of-the ordinary is going on. Human beings have all kinds of “detecting mechanisms” built into our nervous systems. We all have “lie detectors,” for instance. When someone who’s not very slick tries to scam us, we usually know just from their body language and their voice that they’re not being straight with us. We all have “right-and-wrong detectors” — better known as consciences. When we do something we know isn’t right, we feel that unmistakable pang of guilt. We all have “love detectors,” and can feel it in our bones when someone has deep feelings of affection for us. And of course, we all have “sex detectors,” which let us know pretty quickly when we’re physically attracted to another person! Well, we all have “haunt detectors,” too, and they sound the alarm whenever something mysterious or supernatural has occurred. You know the kind of thing I mean. You can be sitting around at home one day, and, for no special reason, you start thinking about someone. Maybe you haven’t thought about this particular person in years. Then the phone suddenly rings — and it’s that person. It’s a weird experience. It’s eerie. And you can feel the eeriness. That’s what I mean by “haunt detector.”
LOPEZ: Are you more attuned to angels and demons than the rest of us are?
DESTEFANO: I wasn’t before I wrote my book, The Invisible World — Understanding Angels, Demons, and the Spiritual Realities That Surround Us. I think that now that I’ve studied the subject so much, I may be more aware of them on a daily basis than some other people. But you know, it’s very important not to be overly concerned with spiritual creatures, either. C.S. Lewis identified that as a mistake on par with ignoring those spiritual realities altogether. I know some people who are so obsessed with angels that they seem to forget about the Holy Spirit Himself! And I know some people who are so frightened of demons that they forget two very basic spiritual principles: First, that human beings usually don’t need the help of demons to do bad things. We are quite capable of behaving very badly and indulging in all kinds of sins without the least bit prompting of the devil. (At least I am!) Second, that demons have absolutely no power over us if we are in union with God.There’s a great story about Teresa of Avila, the famous Spanish mystic who lived in the 16th century. She was a very holy woman, and supposedly there were these demons who were always trying to tempt her and disturb her peace. One night she was in bed sleeping, and one of these demons made a big, noisy commotion — he was really trying to frighten her and shake her faith. Well, she woke up, took one look at the demon, and said: “Oh, it’s only you” — and rolled over and went right back to sleep! The point is, demons can’t harm you if you have a strong faith in God and are trying to do His will. In the presence of grace, evil always flees. Always.
LOPEZ: How did you get into writing about all these holy things?
DESTEFANO: From the time I was very little I wanted to be two things — a writer and a doctor. I had this great desire to be a brain surgeon. Later I changed that to a heart surgeon. Anyway I wanted to be a surgeon of some kind. And I would have succeeded, too, but a couple of little things got in the way — like organic chemistry and integral calculus! So when that didn’t work out, I went back to my other ambition, and got involved in writing political speeches, and ghostwriting textbooks for teachers, and other things like that. Then, sometime in my mid-twenties, I started to become committed to my faith again. There were a lot of reasons for this, but it really had to do with some of the books I was reading and some of the people I was meeting — especially Fr. Frank Pavone (before he became national director of Priests for Life). About this time, I took a trip to England, and found myself on a train from London to Lancashire. I had purchased a paperback copy of C. S. Lewis’s book The Screwtape Letters at the Westminster Abbey bookstore in London, and I started to read it. All I can say is, it was an experience. This was the first time I had ever read anything spiritual that made me laugh and think at the same time. It was so clever and so intelligent and so well written that I actually read the whole thing cover-to-cover and then started over again right after I finished. I’d never done that with any book before. Anyway, I had an epiphany on that train ride. I realized that maybe there was a way I could combine both of the great ambitions of my life. I realized that maybe God had given me the desires of my childhood for a reason. If Icould write books like this (of course not as good), then perhaps I could be both a writer and a healer at the same time. Maybe I couldn’t physically heal people with surgery, but perhaps I could help heal them mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. And maybe I could do it through my writing. It was quite an important train ride. I remember I didn’t once notice the beautiful English countryside.
LOPEZ: What do you say to people who think you’re living in a daydream? Escapism with your starsand spirits?
DESTEFANO: Honestly, I think that’s the last thing anyone who knows me would say. If I were sitting around idly, twiddling my fingers and thinking about frivolous things, you might be able to accuse me of that. But I’m not. I’m channeling these spiritual ideas into my writing. In other words, there’s a purpose to them: I’m trying — hopefully — to help adults and children. Now, I admit there’s nothing I would like more than to be able to kick back on some beach somewhere and daydream a little. But the truth is, I haven’t had a real vacation in about seven years! I work full time in the pro-life movement, I have a company of my own, I have contracts for adult books and children’s books I have to write, and I have a ton of family commitments. I think the last time I actually indulged in escapist fantasies was 1986! From the time I was very small, I’ve had a great sense of the urgency of time. Life goes by very quickly. I really want to try to make the most of whatever time I have. And I think there’s something significant in that desire. Atheists and agnostics sometimes try to claim that people who believe in God and who believe in Heaven are more interested in the next life than they are in this one. What nonsense! The exact opposite is true. When you have a strong belief in God and the immortality of the human soul, it makes you less of a daydreamer, less of an idler. It makes you more active, more energetic, and more concerned with this world. Why? Because you know that human beings are more than just biological specimens, more than just blobs of tissue. They have souls made in the image and likeness of God, and therefore have a dignity that transcends all the planets and stars and galaxies put together. That means they’re worth fighting for, and inspiring, and loving, and saving. When you look at the history of the world, the people who have done the
most in every field of endeavor, be it art or music or government or even science, have been believers, not atheists.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.