Family Stories As Multicultural Kid’s Books!

My mom was an avid genealogist. As a child I found the dry dates and names boring (and I certainly didn’t want to look for them on ancient microfilm reader machines!).

But in 2007, a publisher asked me to write a children’s picture book about an immigrant child. I remembered that my great-great aunt had immigrated as a ten year old from Sweden and had a remarkable experience when she arrived. Her story was found in her short autobiography and in my great grandmother’s journal. The hybrid book, Anna’s Prayer, was the result (beautifully illustrated by Shari Griffiths).

I became hooked on family stories and digged up/cobbled together biographies on about seven generations of my ancestors. I’m Swedish, South African, English, Irish, Scottish, Swiss, and French. (We hope to learn soon whether there’s American Indian in the mix.)

It has taken ten years, but I finally have published my great grandmother’s part of Anna’s story as an illustrated book/ebook. It’s called Ida’s Witness. I grew up hearing Ida’s account as read on occasion by her son, Vernard Beckstrand, my grandfather. Ida was the first of her siblings to join The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Sweden, quite vocal about Christ’s gospel, and fearless in the face of religious persecution.

Because of chronic illness, Ida was often confined to her bed (or hospital beds) and had time to study the Bible as a girl. When Ida’s mother tried a poultice from a local plant on Ida’s arm as a remedy, Ida’s arm suddenly became swollen and useless.

Fearing Ida would lose her arm, her mother took her to the city to find a doctor, but it was apparently Sunday afternoon when they got to the city and a doctor wasn’t likely to be found until Monday. The ladies ended up in a conference of the Church of Jesus Christ, where Ida received an overwhelming conviction that this was Christ’s church restored to the earth.

She was baptized that evening and given a priesthood blessing. The next day, her arm was completely back to normal. From that time Ida told everyone she could about living prophets, continuing revelation, and priesthood authority. Such declarations brought fierce opposition from peers and authority figures. But Ida would not be silent.

When Ida and Anna had the opportunity to come to America, they left their mother and brother—hopeful that they could be reunited again in the United States one day. Because Ida had been contracted to work in Idaho and Anna had to stay with an aunt in Salt Lake City, the sisters had to separate. They each had harrowing experiences as strangers unable to communicate in English.

But my great grandmother was a determined woman. She worked to be able to communicate her testimony in this new country. I’m so grateful for her courage and grit. She concluded her autobiography with this message:

“Even though I have had a lot of pain during my life, I have had a wonderful, happy, pleasant life. … I made a resolution many years ago that I would bear my testimony every time I had a chance. … I want to [tell] my children, grandchildren … and all of my descendants—and to the whole world—that I know I am a member of the *true Church of Jesus Christ. I know that Joseph Smith was a true prophet, that Our Heavenly Father and his Son, Jesus Christ, visited him. … I [am] very thankful to my Father in Heaven for protecting me; that through the inspiration of his Spirit I was able to bear testimony of the true Gospel, restored to the earth through the Prophet. … May God bless you all that we may all be together in the hereafter.”

It’s a thrill for me to be able to make her witness available “to the whole world.”

[Note: *Because of the phrase “true church,” some people have erroneously concluded that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is exclusive. In reality, Church doctrine states that all people (except a handful of enlightened, but rebellious, Latter-day Saints) will be saved in glory. Contact me for information on why we search for our ancestors and “seal” them as eternal family units.]

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Anna’s Prayer Re-released

Almost ten years ago, I was getting ready for my wedding (which I, ultimately, didn’t attend). A publisher approached me about writing a non-fiction story about an immigrant child. I told them I had such a story in my family history. Former LDS Relief Society General President Bonnie Parkin had, in a General Conference talk, told the story of my Great-great Aunt Anna, who immigrated from Sweden as a child—without her parents. I had more details in my Great Grandmother Ida’s journal.

I contacted Sister Parkin and asked if we could collaborate. While she had other priorities on her plate, she sent me copies of Anna Matilda Anderson’s journal (Anna is her husband’s grandmother) and told me I could use it as I pleased.

It was fun to compare my great grandmother’s perspective to her sister’s. Each had her own miraculous experience in her youth, which bolstered their new-found faith. Each had frightening experiences traveling without parents—separating mid-journey to live in different states.

BYU illustration graduate Shari Griffiths was asked to illustrate the story once it was complete. While Shari and I each got painful educations in the publishing process, she did an outstanding job on the art.

The result was Anna’s Prayer, the true story of 10-year-old Anna, who arrived alone in Salt Lake City—not knowing anyone and unable to speak English. Alone in the train station in the middle of the night she prayed for someone who could speak Swedish to come to her aid. The answer to her prayer went beyond what she could have hoped.

The book was well received and sold out in some local Costco stores. After a few years, publishing rights to Anna’s Prayer reverted to me and illustration rights to Shari (who now has several active children—and no desire to illustrate). This year, I purchased rights to the artwork and, finally, have re-released Anna’s Prayer in more affordable, paperback and ebook versions. I’m now working on my great grandmother’s story—as a prequel to Anna’s. I’m so excited to tell this—also true—story to the world! Here are some links to Anna’s Prayer: http://gozobooks.com/annas-prayer.php       http://tinyurl.com/zgnb5ka

Family Stories

This month I shared with librarians around the country my adventures in Family History. Where is your family from? How can your personal or family story impact others? People of all ages find inspiration from the biographies of great men and women who faced difficulties. What many people don’t realize is that within their own families are stories of great courage and resilience. I grew up hearing the dry names of people I didn’t know—dates and places—that kind of bored me. But I also heard their stories. THAT always got my attention. My ancestors include pilgrims, Mormon pioneers, and possibly American Indians. I’m preparing the second book in a series on ancestors who immigrated to America as children. My roots are South African, Swedish, Scottish, Irish, and English. I read that a young man in prison said (after learning about his heritage), ‘Had I known who I am—who I came from—I would never had ended up here.’ Knowing where/who you come from can change you.

To start go from the known to the unknown. Find your oldest living relative and interview him/her!

  • Prepare questions prior
  • Audio/video record it!
  • Take notes too (for unplanned questions—and technology backup)
  • Start with geography
  • Have fun being a detective!

Research ONE person at a time (but know a few family names, in case you stumble across Uncle Bob. Names are often repeated across generations). Know town, township/city, county, state, region, and country of origin (where possible. Sometimes towns disappear, counties split or merge, and countries’ borders shift—be sure any map you look at is from the correct era). Sometimes, just by Googling a name and place, you find gems.

Before governments kept records, they were mostly collected in:

  • Church records (birth, death, marriage, ordination, bar mitzvah, adoption, service, cemetery/headstones)
  • Family Bible, photo albums, scrapbooks
  • Family letters & heirlooms
  • Diaries/journals/biographies (DAR, DUP. Don’t overlook those of siblings, cousins, etc.)
  • Announcements, phone books, bills, organization directories

The best records are official (and can substantiate or disprove rumors)

  • City/county/national records: Census, military, Social Security Index, taxes
  • Certificates: education, awards, achievement
  • Wills, deeds, lawsuits/probate/court cases/jails
  • Immigration records, passenger lists
  • Business records/lists, hiring/promotions
  • Adoption/orphanage or hospital records
  • News articles, obituaries, event ads, museums
  • Bank/Insurance records, ledgers
  • Funeral/cemetery records (headstones too)

Historical & genealogical societies can be more helpful than city/county/state clerks. Find them online (also family tree-building sites):

Queries: It is NOT unusual for a stranger to happily search records—even headstones in local cemeteries for you (offer to cover copy/travel costs). Families often have official sites or Facebook pages, you can query those page owners too. Have friends or family in an ancestral place (you’re not in)? Ask if they’ll look up data/certificates/headstones for you. When all else fails, consider hiring a professional genealogist (or get free help at any LDS Family History Center. Ask for a tour. Become a volunteer indexer).

What do you do with the data?

  • Put copies of everything in your binder (pedigree chart, family group sheets, individual timelines, and a source/research log)
  • Share it on Ancestry.com and/or a specific family site (create one if you want)
  • Have a reunion to meet, swap stories, share data, and get emails for ongoing collaboration
  • Set up a family site/FB page
  • Publish it as an ebook and even physical book (for posterity—and even the world)

Dead men (and women) tell no tales. Document your own history. On a sheet of paper, write the year of your birth and then (a few spaces down) write the year ten years after that (add ten and ten … until the present). Fill in major events, and you’ll soon have a quick outline of your life. Here are some data ideas (also good for interviewing relatives):

  • Birth date/place, Christening/baptism
  • Siblings, education, special/funny experiences
  • Marriage, career, military, hobbies, travel
  • Affiliations, talents, accomplishments, volunteer work, church service
  • Children
  • Places lived (where died/buried)

If you’d like more info on publishing your story. There is a free audio here: KarlBeckstrand.com/Presentations