Alexi Sargeant is a Catholic writer, teacher, and gamemaker. He is the proud dad of two little girls, Beatrice and Thalia, and husband to author Leah Libresco Sargeant.
Alexi kindly agreed to an interview with Haley Stewart, Editor of Word on Fire Spark (Word on Fire’s new children’s imprint), about his forthcoming children’s book, Saintly Creatures: 14 Tales of Animals and Their Holy Companions.
Haley: Alexi, as we were getting Word on Fire Spark off the ground, we had a book about saints and animals on our wishlist of future projects. Then you reached out with your idea and it felt very providential! Tell us about how you were inspired to write a book about saints and animals, and what drew you to Word on Fire Spark?
Alexi: I was immediately drawn to Spark when I heard it was starting up. I love the work Word on Fire does, like the wonderful Bible it is putting out volume-by-volume. So it was exciting to know Word on Fire was setting out to publish children’s books! I knew I wanted to make a pitch to you and, as I brainstormed possibilities, what came to me was the idea of a “saints and animals” story collection. I think I wanted to title it The Holy and the Wild. I had a number of stories in mind, including some I had learned while working at Magnificat. And yes, it did feel providential when I made the pitch, and you let me know that you had precisely this sort of volume on your wishlist.
I enjoyed the process of research and consultation where we worked out together what saints would ultimately be in the book.
Haley: Collaborating on that was such a joy!
Alexi: I think our final list here has a good range, with men and women of God from many different eras and regions—plus, of course, a fun mix of animal companions!
Haley: Absolutely! Saintly Creatures really does include such a variety of saints from different parts of the world and different eras of history: children and adults, saints in Asia to saints in Ireland, and saints from the ancient world to the twenty-first century. How did researching their inspiring stories impact your spiritual life?
Alexi: Well, to start, it gave me new saints to turn to and ask for their intercession! I learned about Blessed James Heo In-Baek (who hid from persecutors in a tiger’s cave) for the first time while doing research for this book. And I learned much more about many of the other saints I included, such as the Irish saints Brigid and Brendan. I did not know before, for instance, that Brendan undertook his famous voyage as a religious pilgrimage, one with a cyclical liturgical structure. The monks might have felt like they were sailing in circles—were it not for the trust that God was taking them on an inward journey, deeper and deeper into faith. I pray for that faith in my own life, and for the other virtues these saints embody so vividly: St. Werburgh’s benevolent authority over the flock of geese, St. Martin de Porres’s compassion for the mice, St. Francis’s calm courage in the lair of the wolf.
Haley: As a writer (and a father), what kind of stories do you think children need to read? Do any trends in children’s publishing concern you?
Alexi: When you look at the world of young adult fiction, there are pervasive themes of dystopia, cynicism, a suspicion of or contempt for parents and other authority figures, and some of this trickles down to books for younger readers. I think writing books for children in that mode is dangerous. Children need to be stirred by beauty and heroism, to develop an understanding of goodness and the ability to look at the world with gratitude. Stories can reflect the darkness they may encounter (certainly many saint stories also give us a clear look at sin!), but young readers need that baseline of what is good and what is whole.
Haley: I absolutely agree. I’m reminded of G.K. Chesterton’s famous line about fairy tales: “The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.” In other words, human beings are aware of darkness from an early age, but we need our imaginations to be formed with stories that help us understand goodness and hope. At Spark, we want to offer those stories with St. George! What were some of your favorite books you read as a child that deeply impacted you and formed your imagination?
Alexi: So many! Some favorites from my young childhood were The Velveteen Rabbit, The Little Engine That Could, and, later on, The Phantom Tollbooth. Eventually I started devouring fantasy series, notably the Magic Tree House series and the Redwall series. J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis have probably stuck with me the most, though, and influenced my own literary ambitions and understanding of the author’s role as a sub-creator.
Haley: As a father, what role do you think reading with your daughters has in forming their imaginations and cultivating their spiritual life?
Alexi: I think reading with my daughters is very important. Awakening their imaginations to the beauty of holiness is a huge but crucial task. There are wonderful Catholic children’s books that can play a role in this formation.
I’ve loved reading Meg Hunter-Kilmer’s Saints Around the World with Beatrice (who is three-and-a-half). She’s very interested in Saint Eulalia knocking down the Pagan statue and spitting in the Roman judge’s face (of course we have clarified, echoing Meg’s words in the book, that this is something you can do only if a bad guy is trying to make you worship a false god).
We’re beginning to introduce our daughters, also, to Bible stories and the liturgy through children’s books. We bring along Magnificat’s A Missal for Toddlers and other Catholic board books to Mass, so that if the girls get distracted, it is at least with something that points back to the prayerful purpose of our time in church. But I do think saint stories are a particularly wonderful “way in” for children starting to learn about God. One of the glories of the saints is that they offer in their lives a vivid and visible sign of God’s loving action in the world.
Haley: One of the most delightful parts of editing children’s books is working with illustrators. I adore Anita Barghigiani’s illustrations in your book! What was it like to see your stories come to life with her artwork?
Alexi: A total joy. There’s a great, timeless quality to her style that unites saints from so many eras and places. Anita’s illustrations combine a playful vibrancy and a poise befitting the holy subjects. My daughters love looking at them and pointing out the animals. I think kids and parents all over are going to fall in love with these stories thanks (in part) to the amazing illustration work.
Order Alexi’s compelling book Saintly Creatures for the children in your life! They will be captivated by the beautifully written stories and the enchanting illustrations by Italian artist, Anita Barghigiani.
For a limited time, the book also includes the free stuffed animal, Grigio the dog.