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Cathedrals and valleys

Discovering ‘the scarred hands of an unseen Liberator’

Cathedrals and valleys

Perkins (Handout)

You Bring the Distant Near, one of the most widely praised young adult novels of 2017, is a family saga spanning three generations. It’s the story of an immigrant family that comes to Queens, N.Y., hoping to make a better life—and then the father dies in a bicycle accident. Several themes emerge: family conflict, cultural clashes, coming of age, falling in love, crusading for social justice. These are all typical YA themes, but author Mitali Perkins subtly enfolds one more: a moving and realistic picture of Christian conversion.

Of course, it’s no accident. Perkins, born in Calcutta, moved to the United States with her family at age 11. Christianity was far off her radar, and she didn’t realize Christian faith saturated the children’s books she loved—Heidi, Little Women, and the Narnia series. But when a drunk driver killed one of her friends, Perkins’ belief in a benign, impersonal god was shaken.

Perkins had no use for the Bible, but while studying in Europe she encountered images of Christ in every cathedral and museum. The man on the cross haunted her until she recognized the place where a loving God and human suffering intersected. In the words of her character Sonia, who likewise meets Christ in a cathedral, “I finally feel the scarred hands of an unseen Liberator sheltering my own.”

Perkins lives in San Francisco, where her husband pastors a Presbyterian church. I asked her about her work and faith.

Children’s books don’t usually include a parent’s perspective, so what inspired you to tell so much of You Bring the Distant Near through the mother?

The story seemed to demand it. I wanted to show how a family changes through the generations after immigrating. My mother went through a similar arc as Ma in the book—not that Ranee is based at all on my mother.

Fathers are strong and sympathetic characters in your books. What was your relationship with your own father?

All the fathers in my books are my beloved Daddy, who died at age 90 eight months ago. I’m still missing him so much, every day, every hour. I had to go on a book tour for You Bring the Distant Near during the early months of mourning, and so I asked God to turn my traveling into a pilgrimage by revealing His presence with me. Jesus was so faithful. He seems to like to use “the least of these” when we’re really in need of His love.

In Kalamazoo, Mich., I spoke to 100 eighth-graders in a school where most students lack privilege and power. What I didn’t know was that their English teacher had read my book aloud to all of them before my visit. When it was time for questions, a boy’s hand shot up. “Why did you make the Dad die?” he asked. “I loved that Dad.”

I couldn’t answer right away: There was suddenly a lump in my throat. “I wrote the book before losing my Daddy,” I finally answered. And then, to my embarrassment, the tears came. What kind of middle-aged visiting author breaks down during a school visit? I looked around, fighting to regain my composure, and took in the sight of 100 14-year-old faces so compassionate I was immediately flooded with an awareness of God’s presence. That’s just one example of God’s mercy in the valley.

What role did art play in leading you to Christ?

Beauty is important to me, as I believe it is to God. Excellence in paintings, stories, architecture, and music that reflect the magnificence and creativity of God—these are all avenues for me to draw closer to Jesus.

How much of you is in Sonia?

My husband says reading her sections was strangely like being inside my head—but I made up a lot of stuff about her. I like my privacy, so no memoir from me, thank you.

Janie B. Cheaney

Janie B. Cheaney

Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD's annual Children's Book of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.