Briercrest alum publishes <i>Open Eyes</i> series to teach kids storytelling

Posted: January 12, 2010

By Amy Robertson

Kathleen McMillan.
Kathleen McMillan (College '06) smiles as she surveys the cover of BlueBeary, a children’s book that was released in August. She’s read and handled hundreds of picture books in her twenty years as storyteller, teacher, and mother of three. This one is glossy and yellow, and it features a fuzzy, earnest-eyed white bear poking his head out of a pile of blueberries. There’s something different about it, though.

It has her name on the cover.

Kathleen has always been a storyteller. When she was little, she daydreamed. When she grew older, she loved books. And when she had children, she shared her love of stories with them. Instead of watching TV (her family has never owned one), the McMillans would all dress up and live the adventures from their favourite storybooks in their living room.

Sometimes Kathleen would share made-up stories of her own. Some were in the form of a letter from the tooth fairy, who always seemed to be running late by a day or so. One such letter explained that a butter truck had turned over on an icy highway nearby, strewing butter everywhere. The tooth fairy made an unfortunate landing into a pat of butter, and ended up being locked in a refrigerator until breakfast time.

Now, years later, her children are teenagers—and they still talk about the storied adventures their mother took with them.

Kathleen has also always loved children. Ever since she was old enough, she helped in church nurseries and at summer camps, and spent her summers babysitting. After high school, she got a certificate in early childhood education and began teaching preschool. She’s been doing it ever since.

Kathleen has not always been a writer.

She says it began when she came to Briercrest College and Seminary with her family several years ago so her husband, Grant, could go to seminary and later work as the college registrar. She opened up a preschool in her home and decided to study on the side, never imagining how it would change her.

Kathleen McMillan holding the BlueBeary cover illustration
by Rebekah Joy Plett.
In her first class, “Understanding and Applying Your Bible,” her professor emphasized the importance of story in the Scriptures. A full 70 percent of it is narrative.

Kathleen was intrigued.

As she continued to take classes, Kathleen realized that the stories she’d always loved were far more than entertainment—they were one of the key ways that she had learned to engage with the world. They were how she turned knowledge into understanding, and they were how she learned solve problems and empathize. They were the basis of her understanding of God.

Kathleen developed a passion for storytelling and its effect on child development, and read everything she could about it. Within a few years, Briercrest College and Seminary would look to her to lead workshops in children’s ministry at their annual SERVE conference.

As she studied, Kathleen also overcame her fear of writing. There was a time when she would have cringed at the prospect of publishing her stories. Telling stories had never been a problem—she just couldn’t bring herself to show people her written work.

Joel From, one of Kathleen’s professors at Briercrest College and Seminary, said that she was, in fact, a good writer—she just needed some practice. Another professor, Colleen Taylor, who also became a friend, said, “If you’re going to write, someone is going to have to read it!” Colleen encouraged Kathleen to write more. So she did.

After Kathleen graduated in 2006, she began to notice that preschoolers don’t tell stories as well as they used to. They seem to play video games and watch television more than they read, she says, and she’s afraid that’s damaged their ability to notice, imagine, and tell their own stories.

Kathleen couldn’t bear to see children miss out on the gift of their own stories. “Stories help us discover what’s meaningful to us,” she says, explaining that storytelling acts like “connective tissue” between generations, helping us remember where God has taken us and those before us, and what he’s taught us along the way.

Kathleen McMillan with a BlueBeary bear.
“I want people to understand that they have stories to share.... Storytelling is a generosity, a gift. [It’s] a way to reach into someone’s heart—a respectful way to speak into people’s lives. [It’s] an opportunity to hear God’s voice.”

Kathleen decided to do something about the problem by writing the Open Eyes series, a set of children’s books about a blue and brown bear named BlueBeary (the star of the first book), his little girl, Samantha, and her brother, Simon. Their adventures are based on something that’s a fixture in preschools and early grades across the continent, something that embodies storytelling in its most basic form: Show and Tell.

Through these books, Kathleen is opening children’s eyes to the world around them. She’s teaching them to be attentive, to communicate well, and to identify meaningful experiences and be able to share them.

She’s teaching them to tell their stories—and she hopes they’ll never be the same.

The first book in the Open Eyes series, BlueBeary, launched in August, and more than 500 copies have sold so far. Kathleen has been touring with BlueBeary (both the book and a stuffed bear based on the character) throughout British Columbia, and several newspapers and bloggers have written about her. BlueBeary has gone to Taiwan, Germany, the U.K., and the U.S.A., and he has more than 300 fans on Facebook. Follow Kathleen (a.k.a. @openeyeslady) on Twitter as she writes this chapter in her story.

The Open Eyes series is being published by Siretona Creative.