At a gathering of friends, each was asked to bring a favorite thing, or an object to represent something she loved, to share with the group. One who enjoyed baking brought a mixing beater. Another who liked to write brought a pen.
When it was Beth Hjort’s turn in this grownup version of show-and-tell, she held out a small notebook with a worn black leather cover. It was given to her by her grandfather, for her high school graduation. In it, he wrote down lessons he learned, his philosophy for living, and prayers. Before he died at age 90, he had written a similar book for each of his eighteen grandchildren. Whenever Beth needs inspiration or comfort, she opens the book and reads her grandfather’s words. It is a connection to a man she loved and admired. His words in his own handwriting. Little pieces of his life she can translate into her own.
People often wish to hear the stories of those who have gone before and to pass along their stories to those who come after. Well-chosen words and stories carry the assurance of love. They share knowledge, perhaps providing a clearer path for another. They reveal the ties that connect family and friends to the world and to each other.
Ultimately, sharing stories is what every author does. A book is a way to pass along significant ideas, to convey what one has learned about the universe. Some with a gift of words to bestow may feel unequal to the task of becoming an author, but Beth’s grandfather’s writing reveals that a meaningful book can be a very simple thing.
When my oldest son, Will, was preparing to leave home for the first time, I began writing a book for him, filling a leather-bound journal with handwritten entries. I recalled stories and experiences from his life and included Bible verses, to illustrate principles his dad and I hoped he would carry with him through life. I did the same for our daughter, Jessie, the next child to leave the nest, and now I’m working on the third edition for Wesley, our youngest.
When I visited Will and his wife recently, I saw the book I wrote for him on a living room shelf alongside some favorite books.
Just days before that visit, I talked to my daughter on the phone. She’s out of college now and has been going through the transition from college life to working life. She was telling me about some of the lessons she is learning in her newly independent life.
“I’ve been reading through that book you wrote for me again, Mom,” she said, “I read it when you gave it to me, and it was great then. When I picked it up this time, it was even more powerful because of the transition I’m going through now and the way I’m living through it. What you wrote spoke to the way I process things, because you know me so well.”
One heart speaking to another doesn’t require a publisher, a book tour, a notch on the bestseller list. A book can be significant, even to a readership of one.
Karen Pavlicin-Fragnito drew on the wisdom of close friends and family members to create a book for her son, Alexander, for his thirteenth birthday. She asked significant people in Alexander’s life to send words of advice to him as he entered his teen and young adult years.
“The theme for his book was ‘It takes a village.’ His dad died when he was very young,” Karen says. “Many people have played important roles throughout Alexander’s life, even though some live far away. I wanted him to realize all those people love him, and their wisdom will continue to influence him.”
Her stepdaughters, Ciana and Malaina, are younger than Alexander, and Karen made “wisdom books” for them as well, on their respective thirteenth birthdays. She created each child’s book very different from the others in content and appearance, to go along with their personalities. Contributors to Ciana’s book filled her pages with affirmations, along with life advice. Malaina, the youngest, after seeing the older two receive their wisdom books, said she did not want “a book full of people telling her what to do.” So Karen had to be a little more creative with Malaina’s book.
“She enjoys baking, so I decided to make her a recipe book,” Karen says. “I asked friends and family to contribute recipes and to creatively weave in ‘recipes for life.’”
When creating the books for her stepdaughters, Karen asked the girls’ mom to help her get input from extended family and friends on all sides of the girls’ family.
“This was a way to bring our blended families together in a special way, so our kids could feel good about themselves, their families, and their situations,” Karen says. “Their books are a way to show they have so many people who love them. All kids need reminders of how much they are loved.”
This is true for children of any age. Emily Bush was about to become a mother herself when her mom, Amy Houts, created a wisdom book for Emily and her husband, Nick.
Amy began with the idea of a photo album of the parents-to-be as babies, but by the time it was complete, and Emily gave birth to twin boys, Amy’s creation was much more than a collection of pictures. During the months of Emily’s pregnancy, Amy had contacted relatives and even carried the book to family gatherings to collect handwritten wishes and wisdom to go with as many of the pictures as possible. Amy said she especially liked having photos of smiling grandparents, aunts, and friends holding Emily and Nick as babies, showing how much they were loved.
Nick’s father died in a car accident when Nick was two, so the photos his mother, Julie, contributed showing Nick with his father were especially meaningful. Both grandmothers-to-be contributed nursery rhymes and lullabies, as well as advice for the new parents.
“It was a celebration of our family and the love we felt for our daughter and son-in-law and the precious gift of life they were bringing into the world,” Amy says.
Emily says the words of support in the book were helpful when she was a new—and sometimes overwhelmed—mother of twins.
“I also used the lullabies and nursery rhymes that our moms included, both with my twin sons and now with my five-month-old daughter. I remember saying and singing some of them with my mom as a young child,” Emily says. “Seeing the love that was put into the book makes me want to create and preserve special memories for my children, too.”
Linny Gardner enlisted the help of her adult children to create a book for her husband, Scott. Her book began with a number: 30.
“I started thinking about all the cars we’ve had over the years, and realized we’d owned 30 cars in 30 years of marriage,” Linny says. So, for their 30th anniversary, she made a book for Scott that told the story of their life together—in cars, complete with photos and some of the stories that went along with each vehicle.
She says her children helped her remember some of the stories about each car and where the family lived when they owned them. A military family, the Gardners have collected car stories from all over the world: Germany, Alaska, Nebraska, North Carolina, several more US states, and even Iceland.
Linny says her method of creating the book was simple. She typed up the stories connected to each car, printed those and the car photos from her computer, and glued them onto colored paper. Then she put the pages in a binder. Recently, she suggested to her husband that she should have one of her daughters recreate the book in a more professional format, but he disagreed.
“This is your handmade book,” Scott told her. “It has your fingerprints on it.”
Linny agrees: “It was a labor of love. It wasn’t just about the cars. It was all the places we lived and how we got there, the moves, the long road trips to visit family,” she says. “It’s a book about how the stories of our lives and our cars intertwined.”
A wisdom book can take many forms: Scrapbook, photo album, journal, cookbook, or a personalized combination of any of these. It can be handwritten or typed, printed professionally or at home. A wisdom book can be created by one person or collected from multiple sources. It might commemorate a milestone, such as a birthday, parenthood, or graduation, or become the perfect Christmas gift.
Any book will be a “labor of love,” as Linny says, requiring thought, planning, and preparation. The holidays—when friends and families gather, when meals and memories are often exchanged—is a good time to think about creating a book. Long-range planners can start now for events in the coming year, though industrious creators might be able to put one together in the weeks before Christmas.
Mine took a lot longer. The handwritten books required only a blank journal, a good pen, and subject matter for the entries. Each entry took twenty minutes or so to write, but the preparation and research may have taken up to two hours or more before I started writing. I began collecting ideas and material to fill each book several months to a year ahead of the time I wanted to present them.
For their books, both Karen and Amy allowed plenty of time for their contributors to respond, as well as time to create the books. This is the case whether they are made by hand, at a local printer, or online at a photo or book creation site like Snapfish or Blurb.com.
For the short or long project, creating a wisdom book requires a plan. Here are some things to think about:
Occasion: Wisdom books can commemorate a milestone or event like a wedding, birth, retirement, farewell, birthday, or anniversary. They can also be presented for any other occasion, or simply to pass along love or legacy.
Timeline: Decide when the book has to be completed, or when it must be sent to a printer or ordered. Allow some extra time for unforeseen delays. Create one sample page so you have an idea how long it will take you to create content for the book you have in mind.
Format: Choose a scrapbook, journal, cookbook, or other structure. Fill-in-the-blank journals are a simple way to record memories for children or grandchildren. Books can be handmade, handwritten, printed at home or created professionally, produced either online or at a local printer. You can ask contributors to give you a finished page in a certain size, or you can create the pages yourself by hand or on the computer, transferring words from emails or letters and placing digital or scanned photos.
Theme: Creating content for the book will be easier with a unifying theme, like the cars in Linny’s book. Travel, hobbies, and quotes from favorite authors can provide a good framework. Or focus on an occasion, milestone, or special interest of the recipient.
Contributors: If the book will include other contributors, decide who will provide the input, and if you want photos, words, or artwork. Decide theme, format, and timeline, and provide guidance to contributors about photo size and length of letters. Contact people early to allow time for all to respond. Follow ups and reminders are helpful. Request materials early enough to allow for late arrivals and to allow time to fill in if necessary for no-shows.
Have a party: If enough contributors live close by, consider a book-making or writing party. The holidays provide a perfect opportunity. Gather the potential contributors in one place, and feed them in exchange for their help and input. If a family gathering is already scheduled, follow Amy’s example and use that opportunity to get in-person contributions.
Materials: Resources abound for all kinds of wisdom book choices. Collect materials before beginning to be sure all necessary materials are available. Blank books, scrapbook paper, professionally printed photos, photo paper to print at home, glue sticks or adhesive tape, markers, stickers, scissors, page protectors, all are available at craft stores and online. When choosing materials, consider longevity and who will be looking at the books. Page protectors are a good idea for any photo books, so readers of all ages can handle them safely.
Online resources: Online sites like Shutterfly and Picaboo.com print photo books and also allow for some journaling capability. There are also many online sites for creating cookbooks. Some of these allow multiple users to enter photos and recipes, allowing easy access for multiple contributors, no matter where they live. Friends and relatives who are less comfortable with the computer can still send contributions by mail or email to the book creator.
Multiple copies: With multiple contributors, there may be some requests for multiple copies if the book will be professionally produced. Consider ahead of time how to handle these requests and whether to create additional copies if possible, even if it’s just one to keep and one to give. It can be a gift that gives back to the author as well as to the recipient.
“I don’t know if our kids will look back at these books in the years to come,” says Karen, “but I can already see how the wisdom shared is developing in their lives.”
Whatever form they come in—wisdom book, photo collection, fill-in-the-blank record, or a legacy journal passed along like the book from Beth’s grandfather—words from a loved one matter. A personal book created especially for someone communicates love and belonging, and it can make a difference, even to a readership of one.
Photos courtesy of Karen Pavlicin-Fragnito.
Terri Barnes is a writer, editor, and the creator of multiple books, several of them written especially for her husband and children. She is also the author of Spouse Calls: Messages From a Military Life, a collection of her columns for Stars and Stripes.