“I just got my first copy today,” Jennifer was excited as she picked up the phone for our interview. I had called Dr. Jennifer Myhre to ask about the story behind her first book: a young adult fictional story called A Chameleon, A Boy and A Quest.
“So you received the book to your African address?” I wondered and marveled that I hadn’t received my pre-ordered copy yet.
“No, we are back in the U.S. on our Home Mission Assignment. For the first time ever, Scott and I have a place that is our own.” Jennifer explained, referring to the family farmhouse they inherited and rehabbed in West Virginia.
“For the first time?” I asked for clarification, surprised that this could be the case for a pair of doctors with more letters after their name than letters in their name.
“Yep,” she confirmed and went on to explain that they have always rented here in the U.S., in Bundibugyo, Uganda, (1993-2010) and in Nairobi, Kenya, (2010-15). As Jennifer described their housing decisions, I felt a pang of conscience at my clearly untested American Dream assumptions about my own life.
Jennifer and her husband Scott serve as Serge’s Area Directors for East Africa and have served with Serge for more than 20 years. As Jennifer is a mother, a pediatrician, and now a published author of young-adult fiction, I was particularly keen to talk with her about her experience raising her children in East Africa.
As our conversation moved along, it went like this:
Me: So who is the inspiration for the protagonist of your story – the character Mu? Did you have a specific person in mind when you wrote his character?
Jennifer: Mu is a composite character of the kids we had in our house in Africa—the friends of our children. We knew a lot of orphans. Hardly any kids we connected with had both parents living, so the children often end up being passed around between various family members to be cared for.
In the book, I wanted to acknowledge the realities of being an orphan and also show that there is room for choices and show the implications of those choices. The hardships described in the book may be a little rough for small children, but the issues involved are realities that our family saw first hand. For instance, when my kids were growing up our next-door neighbor was a teen who joined a rebel group that later attacked our area. It was heartbreaking, but it also put a face to these rebel groups – some of the rebels were just disenfranchised young men who naively signed up for what they hoped was a way out of poverty.
Me: You raised your children in a place where poverty was before them everyday. How did you help them cope with that?
Jennifer: There is always a question of how much is OK and how much can each of us handle. Our children didn’t grow up with indoor plumbing initially—but that was not a hardship. They love Africa. They are very comfortable cross-culturally. They have an outside-of-the-box awareness.
I think the hardest for them was having to share us with other people and the other things going on. We were caring for patients, training local doctors, and caring for a dozen orphans by putting them through school. Sharing their parents to that extent—they would call that hard. Not the material stuff.
They also had to bear the weight of what their friends were going through—parents dying of AIDS and children joining rebel groups. As they got older, they saw their own opportunities and it’s hard seeing their friends still struggling.
Me: We naturally want to protect our kids from danger, but when do you think it is right to let children know about the challenges we face in our world? How did you help your children cope with the suffering they saw and to enter into it as servants? Your book addresses some these themes.
Jennifer: Well, I think you need to be developmentally appropriate—small children need protection and can’t handle too much reality, but pretending like danger or suffering don’t exist isn’t helpful either. Children already know that bad things happen. But they also need to know that in hard things there are always choices and hope. They can make choices that can lead them in a better or worse direction. There is always hope. That is the first thing.
Secondly, it’s important to give children a glimpse of the bigger picture of what is going on—good is overcoming evil. There was so much sadness that we worked with every day, but we were with our children in Uganda long enough to see the trajectory that good was happening in spite of the losses. We faced an Ebola outbreak and rebel attacks where people died. These were irrevocable losses and yet they took place in the context of God’s Kingdom coming, which we could see. That said we have tried not to add it up—it’s not OK that this person died so that this other thing could happen. You can’t add like that because we can’t see the hidden things going on and that sort of calculus is heartless and crass. Elizabeth Elliot in her epilogue at the end of her memoir resisted this—it is never OK to say her husband and those men died because there was a church established. It’s still sad and wrong that kids lose parents; this is not the way its supposed to be. There’s a rip in the fabric of the world. We don’t gloss over suffering because it totals up to some greater good. The truth is that the Kingdom is coming and the world is being put to right and we rest in that hope—it levels out the ups and downs of everyday life.
So kids need to see there is hope, a bigger story and finally—they need a community that is caring. In the African village context, no matter how horrible the situation there is always someone else in your family that you can turn to. This is the same for us in our missionary community and our African friends. We had a huge community of friends that were super supportive. When you live in that kind of intensity, team forms very deeply.
My kids experienced gunfire and running from home and disease and loss—they experienced them in the context of hope, a bigger story of good overcoming evil, and in context of community. In my story, I try to show that the main character moves through his sorrows in the same way, gaining perspective as he places his story into a broader context and is propelled towards a community he did not know existed.
Me: Is there anything else you would like people to know about your book?
Jennifer: I hope the story makes it out of Christian circles. I think it is a good enough story that you can read it for the fun of the story. The gospel analogies can start to make sense later. I also want to draw attention to Acacia Masso who illustrated the story. She did a great job capturing what I had imagined since she was living with us and experiencing much of the same things along with us.
Me: Where will you and Scott be based after your Home Mission Assignment is over?
Jennifer: We considered working in Liberia after Scott went to Liberia earlier this year to help with the Ebola crisis there. The country is in the midst of a huge rebuilding effort. But our heart is still with our teams and friends in East Africa, so we are asking God where we should focus in that region. As Area Directors we want to connect with people this year who will be potential colleagues on new teams.
Me: Should we expect more young adult fiction from you?
Jennifer: This is the first part in a four-part story that I wrote for our family to read every Christmas for four years in a row. If A Chameleon, A Boy, and A Quest does well, you can expect the others will be published too. They are all loosely related, with some characters connecting the stories, but each deals more in depth with a different contemporary issue that children like Mu must face.
>> You can purchase A Chameleon, A Boy, and A Quest here. The image above is by Acacia Masso.