BOOK REVIEW: “Danny Celebrates Advent” by Dr. Jennifer Grenardo, Ed.D.

Danny_Celebrates_Advent500Dr. Jennifer Grenardo, Ed.D., provides young readers a catechetical teaching of Advent traditions, as only a mommy catechist could: full of truth, adventure, and lots of creative activities!

I tested this book out with an expert critic of children’s books…my 7 year old, Elie Frances. I wanted to know how she viewed the book, and how she would experience Advent through the story. The results were both fun and eye-opening. Elie loved the story, but she ESPECIALLY LOVED the four craft activities at the end of the book. She asked, “Mom, can we do these activities when you make our Advent calendar this year?” Yes, dear, we can!

Dr. Grenardo presents a compelling story about Danny the Donkey’s ancestors, and their role in salvation history. As she tells the story of Danny, she unfolds the full story of Advent, giving us a little lagniappe (as we say in South Louisiana!). The activities at the end of the book have the busy Catholic momma in mind. They are simple, yet full of meaning. The activities are easily incorporated into family traditions at Advent. I know they will become part of our Advent tradition.

I also love the illustrations in this book. The pictures draw you in, as you read a beautiful story of the nativity. The characters are relatable and realistic. The drawings of Mary and Joseph are compelling. They illustrate the beauty of the Holy Family. It was the icing on the cake both for me and for Elie Frances.

Here is our interview with Dr. Grenardo. We conducted the interview via email…she was very gracious and personable. As a momma of four daughters, and as the momma of the number one interviewer, I was impressed with the way Dr. Grenardo treated Elie Frances questions – like a teacher, a catechist, a momma. “Danny Celebrates Advent,” will be on our shelves for years to come.

Hi, Jennifer. My daughter and I are so happy to interview you about your book, “Danny Celebrates Advent.”

Mary: Please start by telling us a little about you and your family and how you happened to write a children’s book:

After growing up in Pueblo, a small town in Colorado, I earned a full scholarship to Colorado College, which I received based largely in part on my commitment to helping my community. With a strong desire to help those in need, I always wanted to be a doctor. God allowed me to attend the University Of Colorado School Of Medicine for nearly two years; however, God had different plans for me. I moved to Los Angeles with my husband and entered the teaching profession where I attained my Master’s degree in reading at Grand Canyon University. I then entered the doctoral program at Loyola Marymount University and realized my dream of becoming a doctor. I served as a principal at a low-income, inner-city Catholic elementary school in Los Angeles, California. While there, I identified, analyzed and implemented critical literacy changes for Latino students at the school. I also researched educational strategies on leadership, parent involvement, school curriculum, critical pedagogy, action research, literacy, and bilingual education. My knowledge of these researched-based strategies enabled me to collaborate with families in an educational setting.

Despite all of these opportunities, my greatest challenge and reward came with the birth of our sons. Upon getting pregnant, my husband and I moved to Houston, Texas, to be near family as we had decided that I would become a stay-at-home mom. At first, this role was challenging to accept; however, my husband graciously reminded and asked me, “Was Mary just a mother?” I have since valued and cherished every opportunity to teach our children and nourish them in our Catholic faith.

After talking with a number of mothers and grandmothers, some of whom were home-schooling their children and grandchildren, I found that there is a huge need for age-appropriate faith-formation materials for our little ones, especially materials that teach the Catholic tradition. I feel that I have been called to share my talents as an educator, experience as a mom, and experience through working with toddlers and their parents, to write a series of Catholic books that truly touch our newest generation.

Elie Frances’ portion of the interview:

Why do you think Catholics celebrate Advent?

Advent, just like Lent, is a time of preparation. It is a season in which we prepare for Christ’s coming. Whenever you have guests or visitors come to your house, you prepare for their arrival by cleaning house, making special treats, or decorating for the occasion. We do all of those things because we are showing that person that they are important to us and we want them to have a good time at our house. We must also do the same for Jesus.

As we anticipate the birth of Baby Jesus, it is a time to prepare our hearts. Instead of cleaning our house, we clean our hearts and ask God to forgive us through prayer for any wrong things we may have done. Instead of making special treats for our guests, we take time to show our love for God by helping others by donating clothes and food to those in need, similar to alms giving. In addition to decorating our houses, we take time to decorate our hearts by taking extra time to talk to God and serve others.

As Catholics, we celebrate Advent because it reminds us that Jesus’ birth is more than just His arrival at Christmas. If we truly love and care for someone, we anticipate and prepare for their arrival. The focus becomes personal because the season is about growing closer to God so we can then better share His love with others.

Why did you choose a donkey to tell this story?

Danny Celebrates Advent © tells the story of Advent through Danny the Donkey and his family in this fun and animated book for early learners. I chose the character of a donkey because it is a Biblical animal, and Mary rode on a donkey on her journey to Bethlehem. From the very beginning, the story is filled with nativity themes. The book is extremely interesting because even though Danny is a traditional character, his family is very modern in appearance. The book seeks to appeal to all ages and truly merges the past and the present.

How did you pick the donkey’s name?

I chose to name the donkey Danny based on a commonly used literary tool called alliteration, which is the repetition of a particular sound. Donkey and Danny both start with the letter D. It is often fun and interesting for readers to hear sound patterns, especially when reading the book aloud.

Back to Mary:

Danny talks about his ancestors in their role in salvation history. How can we relate to this as Christians? How does Danny’s journey relate to our own?

We are all on a journey to grow closer to Christ. In Danny Celebrates Advent, Danny grows closer to Jesus with his family and by celebrating various traditions. Yes, our journey with Christ is very personal. However, it is with the love and support of those around us that we become better people here on Earth. During Advent, the traditions merely serve as a means to deepen our walk with Christ. Putting ornaments on the Jesse Tree helps us to read the Bible. Lighting Advent candles reminds us to pray and focus on different values every week. Putting hay in a manger encourages us to help others as Christ has helped us. And making an angel reminds us that God is always there to lead and guide us where ever we may go.

The illustrations in the book are so heartfelt, and beautiful! How did you collaborate with your illustrator?

I was so blessed to work with the Emmy-nominated artist, Jeff West. Jeff West works as an in-house illustrator for Tau Publishing Company, a Catholic publishing company. After signing a contract with Tau, the publisher provided me with the illustrator. After reading the entire story, Mr. West would send me illustrations for each page. He started by sending me a sketch of Danny, which I totally adored. He then sent me a sketch of Danny’s family. I loved his interpretation of the family because the family is very modern in appearance. I felt that the modern family paired with traditional practices would appeal to all audiences. Mr. West continued to send me illustrations and every one of them was perfect! I truly feel that God put this entire book together from the author (me), to the illustrator, to the publishing company, to truly reach our youngest Catholics and help bring Christ’s love into our homes during the Advent season.

Tell our audience about the nihil obstat from Very Rev. Lawrence Christian. What does such a designation mean?

Danny Celebrates Advent received a nihil obstat from the Vicar General, the Very Rev. Lawrence Christian on behalf of Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller from the Archdiocese of San Antonio. A nihil obstat is a Latin term declaring that a publication has “no obstacles in regard to matters of faith or morals.”

Grenardo family
I am sure many of the ideas in your book are the very traditions for you and your family. What other ways do you guys celebrate?

My family and I incorporate all of the Advent traditions in Danny Celebrates and more. In addition to putting up our Christmas tree, we always put a purple table cloth on our dining room table along with our Advent wreath for all of Advent. We also display our nativity scenes and play Christmas carols. On the first Sunday of Advent, we all wear purple. We try to go to mass early and see the first lit Advent candle. We also wear pink for the third week of Advent. We also donate items and gifts to various charities for Christmas. Every Christmas before we open presents, we also tell the Christmas story to our boys by acting it out with our nativity figurines.

What advice do you have for busy Catholic moms in terms of “fitting in” family traditions in general? What about specifically at Advent, with all the hype about Christmas in the secular world?

Traditions only become traditions when you do them all of the time. Try to find and incorporate traditions that work for you and your family. For example, my sons were not old enough last year to do all of the traditions associated with the Jesse Tree. Instead of reading a story every night associated with an ornament-symbol to put on the Jesse Tree, we simply read a story from our Toddler Bible as part of our nightly story time. However this year, we will incorporate the ornament-symbols. I plan on buying a Jesse Tree ornament kit. It is great because even if we don’t do it every single night, I will definitely have a time when we sit and look at the ornaments and read the stories. Sometimes my children will want to read five stories at a time, and then other times they will not be interested at all. My advice is to really cater to your children when they are interested in learning. If putting an ornament on a tree becomes a chore, then it loses the joy of learning, especially for little ones. As they get older, children will learn the value of consistency, but for our youngest Catholic, sometimes you just have to go with the flow.

Tell us about your ministry, “Bible Story Time.” How did you come to the idea? What strategies do you use to maintain and grow the ministry?

While living in Houston, I had my sons involved in swimming lessons, Gymboree gym classes, library story time, and Bible Story Time. These classes enabled me to see how learning styles and personalities develop in children at an early age, and how important it is to present and teach our faith from the beginning.

We then moved to Naples, Florida where my husband was a law professor at Ave Maria School of Law. We resided in Florida for the past two years.

As a Catholic mother of a four year-old son and a two year-old son, I yearned for them to receive formal faith formation, even at this early age. If our children can learn “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” then they can definitely learn “Jesus Loves Me.” In Houston, our parish held a Bible Story Time for mothers and/or fathers and their young children. I felt God calling me to replicate and improve upon this program, which I created at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Naples, Florida. The Bible Story Time program in Florida was a huge success.

Our family recently moved to San Antonio because my husband is now a law professor at St. Mary’s University School of Law. Our eldest son attends St. Matthew Catholic School, and I will continue to stay at home with our youngest son. We are pleased to call St. Matthew Catholic Church our new parish.

I met with the pastor at St. Matthew Catholic Church, Father Dennis Arechiga, and shared with him the Bible Story Time program. He completely loved the program and set everything into motion to make it successful. The church provided a room, purchased little tables and chairs, and will reimburse the cost of supplies and materials. I advertised Bible Story Time in the bulletin and spoke before several masses to share the new program with parishioners. The local Catholic school also advertised the program.

For our first Bible Story Time lesson, we had over 75 participants! In fact, we had to move to a larger room. Every week we are getting more participants. It is amazing to see mothers, fathers, grandmothers, and grandfathers yearn to share our Catholic faith with their little ones. There is such a need and hunger for families to share God with their little ones. This unique program not only teaches the children, but it also reminds parents and grandparents how to bring God into their homes.

To maintain and develop Bible Story Time, I am sharing the program through various avenues. I send a weekly e-mail to participants telling them about the upcoming lesson and provide them with prayers and lyrics to the songs we sing in class. I also write weekly articles with pictures of our lessons to share with the community about Bible Story Time and ways to teach about God to the little ones. On a larger scale, I have been meeting with the Archdiocese of San Antonio in regards to the possible expansion of Bible Story Time on a diocesan level, which coincides with one of Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller’s pastoral initiatives, family faith-formation.

I am also sharing Bible Story Time with Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of San Antonio. I recently presented a workshop on incorporating Bible Story Time into the classroom for the Professional Development Day for the San Antonio Department of Catholic Schools. The workshops received great reviews, and I am scheduling times to visit Catholic schools in the diocese to share Bible Story Time and Danny Celebrates Advent with their students.

How do you fit it all in? Wife/mother/ministry/earned doctorate?

God has blessed me immensely with a myriad of opportunities and talents. I am able to do so much because of my relationship with God and because of my amazing husband. My husband has always encouraged and supported me in any and every avenue I chose to explore. From an inner-city principal, to a stay-at-home mom, to a Catholic children’s book author, my husband has not only helped me, but inspires me to do more.

I earned my Doctorate in Education from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles while I was a principal at an inner-city Catholic school in Los Angeles. We didn’t have children at that point in our lives, and I was able to accomplish all of my personal goals at an early age.

Because I was able to fulfill my personal goals, the transition from a working woman to a stay-at-home became easier because my only goal at the time was to raise my children to the best of my ability. I must add that being a stay-at-home mom has been the most challenging and rewarding job I have ever had. I spent the first few years of my sons’ lives focusing on the basics, like eating, sleeping, and we are still in potty-training. It has not been until the last few years that I felt that I have been able to do more.

I created Bible Story Time because I wanted my children to have a faith-formation program. I wrote a Catholic children’s book because I wanted them to learn Advent traditions. Because God blessed me with the talent and opportunity to create these ministries for my children, I feel called to share them with others. As I lead these ministries, my family is part of the process. My children come with me to the Dollar Store to buy supplies for Bible Story Time. As I cut out templates for the lesson, my older one will help. He often tells my younger son, “We are doing this so little boys and girls can learn about God at Bible Story Time.” I see my ministries as time to share God’s love with others and to teach my children how to serve God and help others through my actions.

I must add that I am not the type of mom who takes her children with her everywhere she goes. My boys are extremely energetic and active. My husband often takes care of them when I am presenting. He changed professions from a practicing attorney to a law professor so he could have more time with our family. It is because of his decision to put our family first that God has blessed us with a lifestyle that allow me to stay at home and volunteer to minister to others.

What would you most like readers to understand about your approach to Advent?

I chose to write about Advent because there are so many rich traditions that we have, in addition to giving gifts at Christmas. The book teaches families that there is more to the Christmas season than shopping. Advent is a time of preparation. It is our time to prepare our hearts and minds to be like Christ and live as He did. I also wanted to make Advent tangible to our little ones. Often our children are unable to grasp a concept unless they can see it, touch it, or eat it. This book is unique in that not only can readers enjoy a rhythmical, animated story, but they can also create simple Advent crafts using the simple directions (with pictures) found after the story. Advent becomes more than a story; it comes to life in your home.

Thank you, Dr. Grenardo! Mine and Elie Frances’ suggestion: Go out and add “Danny Celebrates Advent to your Advent bookshelf!

Peace of Christ to you and yours!
Mary (and Elie Frances)

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