In this episode, Belinda Pollard, Alison Young and Donita Bundy interview Karen Kepert, Christian songwriter and author of the children’s picture book Scruffy and Silk. Karen talks about the challenges of packing a lot of meaning into a small word count, and how her songwriting began seemingly from nowhere and grew in surprising ways.
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In conversation in this episode:
- Belinda Pollard, author of mainstream crime novels, writing coach, accredited editor with qualifications in theology, writing and publishing blogger at smallbluedog.com, and Gracewriters founder
- Alison Joy, romance author, former early childhood teacher and mother of 4 adult children
- Donita Bundy, writing teacher, preacher and author of the Armour of Light urban fantasy series
- Karen Kepert, Christian singer/songwriter and children’s picture book author
Topics covered in this episode:
- Karen’s songwriting process and where she finds inspiration.
- How someone who avoided writing at school is now using writing as a ministry.
- How a secular book can have kingdom values.
- The process of working with an illustrator on a children’s picture book.
Connect with Karen
- More about Karen’s speaking and writing
- More about Karen’s songwriting and singing
- Facebook: Karen Kepert Author
- Facebook: Karen Kepert Speaker
Click the cover to view Karen’s book on Amazon, or order direct from Karen at: https://karenkepert.com.au/store-2/
Please use the sharing buttons at top and bottom of this post to share on social media or directly with Christian writers you know.
Belinda Pollard: Welcome to the Gracewriters Podcast – Christian Writers Changing Popular Culture. Hit subscribe on your favourite podcast player so you never miss an episode and find show notes, useful links and a full transcript at gracewriters.com.
Welcome to today’s podcast with our special guest, children’s author and song writer, Karen Kepert.
I’m Belinda Pollard. I’m an author, editor and publishing consultant with a theology degree and 20 years in the publishing industry. Find links to my books, blogs and online courses at belindapollard.com.
Alison Joy: Hi, I’m Alison Young. I’m a former early childhood teacher and I live in south-east Queensland. I have four adult children and I write romance under the pen name, Alison Joy. You can find all my information at alisonjoywriter.com.
Donita Bundy: Hi, I’m Donita Bundy. For the past 20 years I’ve been using my theology degree to underpin my preaching and public speaking and more recently to inspire my urban fantasy Armour of Light series. You can find out more about this and my other projects at donitabundy.com.
Based in Melbourne, Karen Kepert is a mother of three and grandmother of three. While working as a TAFE and secondary teacher, her work and heart for special-needs students led her to becoming a primary school chaplain. Now retired, Karen writes children’s picture books to encourage discussion about issues which may hinder students learning or emotional wellbeing.
As well as children’s books, Karen has written and recorded music for churches. Welcome to the program, Karen.
Karen Kepert: Thank you.
Donita Bundy: Before we begin, we’d love the opportunity for our listeners to get to know you a little bit better and we were wondering if you would be willing to undergo the rapid-fire five?
Karen Kepert: Sure!
Donita Bundy: Okay. To begin with, who is your target audience?
Karen Kepert: My target audience with my latest book is little children aged probably zero to six and, of course, the people who buy the books. So, the parents and the grandparents and hopefully some schools, as well.
Donita Bundy: Considering you have quite a number of tools in your toolbox regards to productions and what you’re involved in, what would you say would be your main genre? Your main outlet?
Karen Kepert: Main outlet, obviously, the music, which is written for churches and then the first of my published books is a children’s one so that’s my main audience with my writing, so far, but I’m also planning on writing my memoirs also to take to churches and hopefully to reach the broader audience with that too.
Donita Bundy: Does your heart lie more with one than the other or are they like children and you love them all equally?!
Karen Kepert: I’m gradually getting used to the writing. I mean, I love my music and I’d be quite happy if I was just doing my music all the time but the writing of the book, it’s just like a new love that’s just developing and I’m learning so much more about it. It’s fantastic.
Donita Bundy: When is your optimum time for writing?
Karen Kepert: I wish I had an optimum time! Ideally, I think I would do it straight after my quiet time in the mornings for an hour and do that but there’s not always time to do that so I tend to squish it in when I can.
Donita Bundy: And where is your favourite place to write?
Karen Kepert: Outside. I find if I’m out walking down on a beach or through the bush or even just down our local creek and park, that’s when ideas tend to come to me. Songs will pop into my head and ideas for stories but then, of course, you’ve got to come home and do the hard work at home in front of the computer.
Donita Bundy: And how did you get into writing?
Karen Kepert: I felt called to write songs not long after I became a Christian. God started to give those to me and then I hated writing when I was at school. I actually avoided doing the equivalent VCL. I was in WA so the equivalent of that, year 11 and 12, I did English Literature instead of English because then I could study other people’s writings instead of having to make something of my own up. So, I avoided anything like this.
I never thought I could write a story and then I was at a retreat and the lady was reading a children’s picture book and as she read, suddenly, I had this urge to write a picture book of my own. So, it must have come from God because it wasn’t from me!
Donita Bundy: Thank you.
Belinda Pollard: That’s really interesting.
Alison Joy: Yes. As you know from my intro, I was an early childhood teacher so I’m very, very into picture books and that’s been a passion of mine. I’m just curious, how did writing picture books come out of your desire to help kids with learning difficulties and issues with things like self-esteem and social skills and emotional trauma?
Karen Kepert: Well, as I said, that wasn’t the first thing that led to me writing the children’s picture books. That was an urge from God to do it but I’ll just go over a little bit of my past.
When I started teaching, I was at TAFE and I was teaching students who had dropped out of school before they finished year 10, teaching them literacy and numeracy so they could go and find work.
There was a lot of other stuff that became apparent to me. I never really understood why people were homeless and things like that and I soon learnt about their backgrounds and how some had been in foster care, some had been in prison and then on drugs. There was all sorts of stuff there. And then I moved into secondary teaching, teaching Special Ed literacy and numeracy. These were students in year 7 and they could barely read or write. Some couldn’t count past 20 and if they did manage to write a sentence, they couldn’t read it back to me.
But again, it soon became obvious to me, at least with some of these students, that these were due to home problems. So, there was a child who’d seen his mother being raped. There were a lot of refugees. There were some who had just been left alone because their parents worked really long hours. And so, there were all these other problems that interfered with their learning.
And then, I wanted to do something other than just teaching these kids and I didn’t know what but God led me into chaplaincy which is a whole other story. But as a chaplain, I was able then to talk more closely with the kids and hear more about how they were feeling at school and there would be things like peer pressure and people who felt like their parents favoured the other child over them. All sorts of other things that came out of their backgrounds or just normal kid things for kids who were being bullied at school, that sort of stuff.
And so, that’s when I started to think, when I wrote my first book, I thought, “Wow! I could actually cover a lot more of those issues in future stories,” and so, I have a few going around in my head. Nothing solid has come out of many of them yet but that’s in the pipeline.
Belinda Pollard: Writing picture books is pretty hard, isn’t it?
Karen Kepert: It’s very hard!
Belinda Pollard: Like it’s surprisingly hard. I think people think, “Oh, it’s only got 300 or 500 words in it. Knock it over in an afternoon!”
Why do you think it’s so hard?
Karen Kepert: It’s hard because you’ve got to say so much in so little. And it’s got to be something that kids will relate to so the language has to be so simple. You’ve got to really cut it down and down and down. I’ve found that the hardest thing was letting go of some of my favourite sentences!
Belinda Pollard: That’s the battle of writers everywhere.
Karen Kepert: Yes, true! Even more so with picture books because, as I said, you’re so restricted with the number of words you can use. But then you’ve got the illustrator to bring it to life, too.
Alison Joy: Yes. I think if you choose your illustrator well, the illustrator can put so much more into the illustrations that you wouldn’t be able to have in the words themselves.
Karen Kepert: That’s right. Yes.
Alison Joy: So, tell me, going on the illustration thing, how did you actually find an illustrator that you were happy with?
Karen Kepert: Yes. I looked at websites that had lots of illustrators on them to choose someone who suited you and I just didn’t see anything that really matched what I had in my head because I had this sort of picture and nothing matched.
I don’t know how I found this other page. I don’t remember. I just remember seeing two books on this web page and the pictures on both of those actually matched what I had in my head and so I contacted both of them and one of them was available straight away so I got her to do it and I just love what she did. It really matched what I was thinking. It was great.
Belinda Pollard: And it’s been a good working relationship with her?
Karen Kepert: Yes. It was very easy to put my trust in her because I can’t draw anything so, I just let her go with it.
Alison Joy: Given that you had the ideas in your head, how much creative control did you have over the end illustrations?
Karen Kepert: She would send them to me as I’d done them and ask for feedback. She tweaked a few things that I asked to be changed but really, they were minor things like which way a person was facing or the colour of the skin of one person and, really, it was minor things. Otherwise, I just let her go and there were no conflicts with it, really.
Alison Joy: You obviously gave her a very good brief.
Karen Kepert: I actually had to change it a few times because I sent her my original story and then she was drawing the pictures and then I got more feedback and was told I need to change stuff and I thought, “Oh, dear,” so I sent her another email saying, “You might want to pause this for the time being.”
Most of what she’d put in there was fine. I just needed to add more stuff, really, to the story and so, it was a bit of come and go but I trusted her and she did a great job and, in fact, people look at the book now and they say, “Wow! What fantastic pictures!”
Alison Joy: That’s actually one of my things that I want to do is picture books, as well. So, I’ve got a few ideas there. They’ve just got to see the light of day.
Donita Bundy: Karen, you’re a self-published picture book writer; is that correct?
Karen Kepert: That’s correct, yes.
Donita Bundy: But you have your books in bookshops. Could you explain to us the process of getting your self-published books out in print in the bookshops. How did you do that?
Karen Kepert: It’s a fair bit of work! I did manage to find a site, I don’t know how I found it, that had a list of Melbourne bookshops that accept self-published books and so, I went through those. Unfortunately, we were all in lockdown at the time. A large number of them didn’t even reply so, that’s fair enough.
And then I started to take them out and as soon as they looked at the books, those that saw them, said, “Yes, we’ll take this.” But again, they took them in different numbers. So, there was one shop that only took two and another shop took 20 and so, it’s a tricky thing and I don’t know if I would concentrate on it much more because it’s so time consuming. I would rather find an agent, I think.
Belinda Pollard: You mean a distribution agent?
Karen Kepert: Yes.
Belinda Pollard: Yes. I actually found that when I first self-published a novel, I was all excited, wanted to get it into physical bookstores because you do, don’t you? As booklovers, we’ve grown up going to bookstores. We want to see our book there. The fact is, it’s just so massively complicated and I had a lot of them doing it on consignment so then you’ve got to keep track of who owes you what.
Karen Kepert: Exactly.
Belinda Pollard: Have they sold it yet? Do they know where it is? Do they know if they’ve sold it yet? And I got to the point where I thought, “No. I think perhaps online selling fits better when you’re using print-on-demand.”
Karen Kepert: The problem with online, though, is that picture books, I think, people like to actually pick them up and look at them.
Belinda Pollard: They do.
Karen Kepert: That’s trickier.
Belinda Pollard: Have you thought of reading it on YouTube and showing the pictures?
Karen Kepert: I have. Some people have suggested that to me. It’s one of those things that I’d have to get my head around the idea and decide, “Yes, I really want to do this,” and then, of course, it’s the time. Yes, it probably will happen.
Belinda Pollard: Because it would be interesting to try that because you might think, “Oh well, then I’m giving the book away, essentially,” because people can just watch it instead of buying a copy but I’m not sure if it would work like that because they might still want to have a physical copy.
Alison Joy: When you’re reading to kids, they want the same book over and over and over again. When my kids where little, we saw some on Play School that they loved and I went and bought them and we just wore them out because they just wanted to read them over and over and over again. So, I think that could be a good way of introducing the story and if people like it, they’ll go, “Okay.”
Karen Kepert: Yes. I’ve had the same issue with my songs. I’ve realised, yes, I need to get some of those up in video form for people to listen to but you’ve put so much work into them and you think, “Well, now they’re going to get them for free. No. I need some of this money back that I’ve spent on all this music.”
Alison Joy: Yes.
Belinda Pollard: One of the very weird things about online marketing is that the more you give away for free, the more you can sell. Very strange.
With your song writing, how did that come about?
Karen Kepert: It started not long after I became a Christian and I remember my first song, I was walking to kindergarten, that was a long time ago, walking up the hill and just having this quiet time with God while I was pushing the pram and this song just popped into my head. I was very excited about that and took it along to a friend who helped me to write it down and took it to church that week and everyone was really encouraging. So, I wrote a few, very early on, which now I would never look at again because I don’t want anyone to hear those! They were pretty bad!
Then God just started to give me more and more songs especially when I was going through really difficult times. I had depression about ten years ago and at that time it was like the songs were given to me as a form of comfort. Usually when I was out walking out in the bush.
There was one He had a bit of a sense of humour. My husband was in the process of building a shed and he’d done the floor and he took us all out there to show us his floor and then he took me to dance and started to dance around on the floor with me! Now, we hadn’t danced since we were married and that was about the only time he’d ever danced but I did ballroom dancing as I was growing up. And then after he’d left the floor and I was out there on my own, I just started waltzing around the floor by myself and I thought, “Gee, Lord, it would be so nice if I had someone who could dance with me,” and then God gave me a song called, “Dance with the Lord.” Popped that into my head. So, He has a bit of a sense of humour, as well, but He also comforts us with the music.
Alison Joy: Karen, I was just wondering, you said when you first got your song you went to a friend to help you, do you actually have a musical background, at all?
Karen Kepert: Not much, no! I didn’t learn any music at school. It wasn’t on offer in the school that I went to and so, I learnt guitar on the side privately for a few years as a teenager but I never really got anywhere with it.
And then I joined a choir when I started at Uni and so there were little bits of music. I gradually learnt some basic theory and stuff like that but nothing big. And so, I can’t call myself an instrumentalist in any way and so, when I write a song, it’s actually very time consuming because I’ve got it in my head, I have to pick up my guitar and pluck out the notes that match what’s in my head and then going on the little theory I have, put some basic chords in. And then I take it to my pianist and he just turns it into a piece of music and that’s such an amazing experience going from this tune in your head to something that’s just so musical. So, I can’t take all the credit for my songs!
Belinda Pollard: I wonder if there’s an App or something that can recognise what note you’re singing and you could sing it out loud and get your song line that way?
Karen Kepert: There is stuff now but back then when I first started writing songs, there was nothing like that. And even so, you still need to know some of the ways that it needs to be written on paper because the Apps, from what I can see, they’re so technical that unless you sing it exactly in tune then it’s going to put down the wrong timing. It’s pretty tricky.
Belinda Pollard: With writing the words, is writing the words of a song similar to writing the words of a storybook or quite different? What’s the process like for you?
Karen Kepert: It’s much quicker than writing a book! It’s different in that you’ve got to have the timing to match. I guess it’s more like writing a rhyming children’s book which I haven’t done. It would be a lot more similar to that. You can put more words into a song then you can in a picture book, obviously. Again, it’s similar in that you’ve got your theme of your song, your theme of your story and you’re basing it around that.
The words that come to me are basically from God. There are times when He’ll give me a whole song. I’ll be walking and this whole song comes to me and other times it’s just these little snippets which He gives to me to work on.
There was a time when I’d visited my husband’s grandmother and she’d just turned 90. After I’d seen her and I was walking around a lake close to us and I was just thinking, “Wow! Ninety years, that’s such a long time,” and as I was walking this song popped into my head. I called it A Moment in Time. The chorus said, “Life on earth is just a drop in the ocean of eternity,” and that was God giving me those words.
Alison Joy: Karen, do you have a notebook with you when you’re walking or do you just put it onto your phone or how do you remember it between walking and coming home because I’d probably forget!
Karen Kepert: I used to have a notebook, now I can use my phone that’s got the recording that you click. Just record myself singing it. Yes, much easier nowadays!
Alison Joy: Karen, the Gracewriters slogan is Christian Writers Changing Popular Culture. How does that challenge you?
Karen Kepert: It’s challenging because we’re out in the mainstream and like with my music, I have this fear sometimes that people are not going to like what I write. But there’s a balance, too.
We’re sharing His love without actually preaching to them and so, when I wrote Scruffy and Silk, I actually thought, “Okay. I’m writing this mainstream book. It hasn’t got a Christian message. It’s just a book for kids to read.” And then when I came along and shared it with all of you at the Gracewriters meeting you pointed out that, “Yes, there’s a Christian message in there, because it’s about all people being important. All people having their strengths and weaknesses and God loving all of us, regardless.”
And so, it’s great that we can do that but at the same time we need to not be sounding preachy, I think, in what we write. So, it’s finding that balance, isn’t it?
Donita Bundy: Yes. It’s always a challenge to do that. Yes.
Belinda Pollard: Continual challenge.
Donita Bundy: So, Karen, how did your faith impact how and what you write?
Karen Kepert: Well, I don’t think I’d be writing without my faith because it has all come from God. He’s led me down these paths that I never would have dreamt I would be going down.
I had a lot of self-doubt before I knew Him and as I said before, no formal training so there’s no way I could have sat down and written a song, for instance. He gives me the ideas and I never know what He’s going to give me next, basically.
Donita Bundy: So, conversely, how then has your writing journey impacted your faith and relationship with God?
Karen Kepert: When I write the songs, it’s all really exciting especially when they first pop into my head. So, when He first gave me those songs, I was just singing in the worship team. Quite happy doing that. And then He told me to start leading worship and that was a bit of a challenge. And then I started sharing my testimony and songs in churches. It’s like He takes us each step of the way, very gradually.
From when I had depression and prayer ministry, that’s when I started journaling every day. So, I guess that was the start of my writing journey, just doing that journaling and I’ve still kept that up. I find that’s a great way to spend time with Him. Just let it all out on paper before I do anything else for the day. In fact, if I don’t do that, then the rest of the day doesn’t seem to fit together as well. It just runs more smoothly when I do that first.
So, each time I write a new song or a new story, I can just feel His presence more. I get that sense of excitement, that tingling when a new idea comes and I’ve found at the start of the COVID lockdowns, I did this business course thinking that would be useful. But they were encouraging me to do all these other things like go and speak in other public places and stuff and I found I was going the wrong way but God turned me back.
So, even when we make the wrong choices, He redirects us so that we know He’s with us. He’ll lead us the right way. It’s such a comfort to know that and so, everything is just part of my journey with Him and I never know where He’s going to take me next.
Belinda Pollard: What a wonderful story. Thank you so much, Karen. I’ve really enjoyed the things that we’ve learnt from you in this discussion today.
Karen Kepert: You’re welcome.
Belinda Pollard: How about I pray for you, and for the Gracewriters before we finish.
Heavenly Father, we thank you so much for Karen and we thank you for what You’ve taught her, for what You’ve shown her about other people and what they’ve experienced and opened her mind, opened her eyes and that then You’ve given her the courage to walk forward into this process of Gracewriting children’s books and songs and producing things that nourish and help other people.
We just thank you for the way that You’ve helped her with that. We pray Your abundant blessing upon her. Your strength and sustaining and encouragement and guidance. And we pray for all the other Gracewriters out there, too, who are wrestling with the difficulty of a picture book or trying to work out whether they can write songs and who might be able to help them.
We pray that You will open the right doors for them and help them to walk on through them, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Donita Bundy: Amen.
Alison Joy: Amen.
Karen Kepert: Amen.
Belinda Pollard: Karen, how can our listeners find you online?
Karen Kepert: I have two web pages. So, there’s karenkepertministry.com.au. That’s the one for me speaking and singing in churches. Or there’s just karenkepert.com.au which is my writer’s page. And I’ve got the two Facebook pages, as well.
Belinda Pollard: Lovely, and we’ll also have the links to those for you on the Gracewriters.com website if you’re looking for the actual links to those.
Thank you, Karen Kepert, Alison Joy and Donita Bundy.
I’m Belinda Pollard and we will see you next time on the Gracewriters podcast.
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