Here’s the latest from the crossroads of faith, media & culture: 11/08/20

Picture of The Spider Who Saved Christmas
Spinning a Christmas tale. I first spoke with Raymond Arroyo in 2020 following the release of his children’s book The Spider to Save Christmas. A year later, with some deeming it a new holiday classic, he’s on the road for a special national book signing tour. The noted kidlit author of such works as The Thief Who Stole Heaven and the popular Will Wilder adventure trilogy is also known to adults for his on-camera work at EWTN (as creator and anchor of The World Over Live) and Fox News where he provides regular commentary and banter with host Laura Ingraham on The Ingraham Angle. As an author drawn to spinning uplifting tales for kids – and as the father of three – he has some definite opinions about how the psychological impact these odd times are having on the nation’s most impressionable minds.

JWK: So, as it goes into its second holiday season, The Spider Who Saved Christmas is a big success. I understand they have you out on tour meeting with fans.

Raymond Arroyo: Really every weekend until Christmas they’ve got me on the road…They’ve got me going everywhere. 

JWK: Why do you think it’s been so well received?

Raymond Arroyo: I was so touched by the letters I’ve received. So many families experienced the story together. That’s really what I wanted. I wanted this to be a family read and a way to focus people on the truth and the mystery of Christmas.

Look, I take nothing away from Santa, snowmen, snow or reindeer but the central mystery of the season is the birth of Christ, the coming of God as man. Because it is in some ways a thriller, you’ve got this family running for their lives, it focuses you in a new way on this story that we take for granted…Very few stories talk about that flight to Egypt which is one of those shadowy parts of the Gospel. We know about the birth of Jesus and the Wise Men come, and the shepherds come and then we hear Joseph has a dream and the next thing we know they’re coming back from Egypt. But that flight to Egypt – why they went, the circumstances of that – imaginatively, I think, are worth exploring and thinking about because that’s really where we all are. We’re all running for our lives in some ways.

As I told you when we last talked, I think the other reason this story has so resonated is because people have been in their own caves for the last year and a half, tucked away trying to protect their family from death outside their door. The story here is, if you look hard enough and you have the eyes of faith, there is hope and there’s light there in the cave with your family. I think that is a consoling message and a challenge.  

JWK: You have children yourself, right?

RA: I do?

JWK: May I ask how many?

RA: Three.

JWK: How has being a father influenced your writing?

RA: It was when we had children that I started thinking about why certain stories appealed to them and others didn’t – and, frankly, we ran out of things to read. We had read through all the classics and things I loved growing up. As we made our way into new things that were being published, there were some things they loved and series that they really were attracted to but I thought I should try my hand at this.

So, the first thing I did was write the Will Wilder series for Random House. My hero (Will) has a supernatural gift not unlike the spider in this story. He is kind of an overlooked kid, forgotten, who has a special gift that not only could save himself but his community and the world. That’s really, I think, all our stories in some ways. It’s about not forgetting that you’ve been given gifts for a reason and not letting the world talk you out of using them because they might be very important to others.

JWK: As a children’s author – and, of course adults also know you as the host of EWTN’s The World Over and as a commentator for The Ingraham Angle on Fox News – I’m sure you have some thoughts on the recent elections particularly regarding Virginia and the clear voter rejection of Critical Race Theory tenets thrust upon kids in the classroom.

As I travel the country, I talk to a lot of children – and not a few children in very poor school districts – and, when I look out (at them), I see the possibility. I see the imagination of these children. I don’t like the idea of isolating or marginalizing any child because of their race – no matter what that race is.
There’s a line in the book where Mary says “All are here for a reason.” I think that’s so true. I live in a city, New Orleans, that is a true melting pot – where you had nine races, nine peoples from different parts of the world, come together and create one of the most rich cultures and closest communities in the United States. People are reluctant to leave. Despite the awful hurricanes, the termites, the crime and the weather, people stay. They stay because of that tight-knit community. Every race, every people, every nationality contributed something to the music, to the food. If you pull a strand of that out – if you pull the African-American influence out, if you pull the Italian influence out, if you pull the French influence out, you lose the gumbo, you lose the architecture, you lose jazz.
So, I think that’s an interesting allegory for everything in our country that we don’t often pay enough attention to. We are all called to contribute something. All are here for a reason – and that’s every child of God in a classroom and everyone in the United States. We need to all treat each other with respect and not allow any idea or ideology that marginalizes or demonizes people for their race or any other reason. It’s just not humanity. It’s not human – and it’s certainly not what we’re called to as Americans.

JWK: You yourself come from a Hispanic background, right?

RA: I do – half Hispanic, half Italian. I can be angry, John. It can be very, very ugly for you. You know, we break your knee caps and turn red (with rage).

JWK: It’s good you have a sense of humor. So many people these days seem to have lost theirs. Do you think we’ve finally turned the corner not just on the humorlessness but on the aggressive shaming, victimizing and overall nasty and unhealthy divisiveness.

RA: I’ve said this before – and I’ll probably say it a few more times – people are willing to follow a narrative and even pursue and listen to their own ideology for a period of time even if they suffer because of it – because they are committed to that ideology or that narrative. When it begins to affect your children, when you see the negative impact on your own children, suddenly there is an internal instinct that kicks in and people get very defensive. They want to protect their own and that’s what I think we’re seeing politically happen.

That’s what happened in Northern Virginia. I can tell you because I know some of those parents, I’ve interviewed them and I lived in Loudoun County for eleven years. They would describe themselves as liberal Democrats (and) were willing to put up with a lot – but, when the children came home and were telling them what they were being taught and how they felt about that, they had an instant reaction.

I think all you’re seeing is a political reaction (of) protecting families. That’s a good instinct and maybe a good sign that people are focused on their families again. Let the parties fight over who best represents the interests of families because that’s the nucleus of society. That’s the conversation we should be having politically because politics is downstream from everything else. Politics does not run the world. Politics is an afterthought.

It’s why I write for children. I want kids to be informed, literate and close to their families because a child that’s loved and a child that can read can find his way or her way in the world. That’s what we want – engaged, moral citizens. You can’t get there if you have uncouth, uncivil and illiterate kids. You can’t do it. That should be our focus as people and as a government.

JWK: There’s that old saying “Politics is downstream of culture.”

RA: Always. Always…You asked me is this a turnabout? I don’t know if it’s a turnabout. It’s the pendulum swinging back and forth. I worry about reading too much into this. I always try to look at the cultural foundations and the movements beneath the surface because that’s far more important than anything a politician says. I think it’s a good sign that parents – regardless of party – are engaging and worried about what their children are being taught. That’s a good instinct! That’s what I hope (for) everyone no matter your political persuasion. Put your children first. Put your family first. We’ll figure the rest out. If that’s the centerpiece of both communities and public policy, we can only go up from there. We can only grow from there. When it becomes about other things and ideology takes precedent it never ends well.

JWK: You know as someone who is engaged in the culture as you are – and as the creator of the Will Wilder adventure franchise – I’m wondering what your feelings are when it comes to the rebooting of classic cultural properties like Superman, Star Trek and several others. Often they seem to be interpreted in ways that are almost the exact opposite of how they were presented originally. For instance, the earlier incarnations of Star Trek were very optimistic in tone whereas the newer ones appear much darker and with an agenda that seems almost intent on undermining the original shows.

RA: Culturally, we are in a regurgitative moment. That is not a good thing. It bespeaks a culture that is in collapse, really, because it doesn’t know what it is. So, it looks back and tries to replicate something in the past. It’s never as good.

I mean look at the ferment that we saw in American culture coming out of World War II. You had such originality with musicals, movies and books. We were the envy of the world and the cultural leader of the world, the greatest storytellers on the planet in almost every genre – whether it was mysteries, musicals, romances or serious novels. Death of a Salesman on Broadway! We really were reshaping the world through stories – and it was fresh and it was new!

Now, we find ourselves collapsing into these old brands. The only things people want to produce are established brands – old TV shows, old movies, old characters. You just keep reviving them in an endless carousel approach of mediocrity, frankly.

JWK: It also seems to me – and I wonder if you agree – that, beyond just not being original, that the goal of the revivals isn’t to pay tribute to the original or to build on them but to, instead, deconstruct them.

RA: Correct. Again, you’re reflecting the age. The age is a self-loathing age. So, when you go back and try to recreate something that was, that (work) was created in a particular era. My Fair Lady, The King and I and James Bond didn’t just pop out of nowhere. They came out of an era, a time and a culture. When you try to impose your current culture on those old works, forms, brands or characters, you inevitably distort them.

So, that’s where we are which is why I always say stop redoing the past. Write new characters! Tell new stories! I see this debate almost annually. You know, should we have a black James Bond? Should we have a female James Bond? Why? James Bond is James Bond. He’s a British playboy/spy. That’s that character. Go write a great African-American spy thriller if that’s what you want. Tell his or her tale. Make that new character.

Again, it’s this insufferable appetite for just regurgitating and repeating what was. Frankly, the more you redo it, the less impact it has. I find it all sterile and deeply uninteresting. Look at the (new) Halloween movie. This has got to be the 15th or 16th Halloween movie since the one in the seventies. We’re on the 25th James Bond. There are reboots of TV shows that really weren’t that big a hit when they were coming around the first time. So, I don’t think that gets us anywhere.

I’m always looking out for things that are eternal. Obviously (with) your story (and) your characters, you want something that’s universal and that touches a lot of people but you want to tell new stories – stories that haven’t been told or have been forgotten.

In The Spider Who Saved Christmas I found an old tale that had been neglected. It hadn’t really been told. It was an old legend that dates back to probably the second century but it hadn’t been refurbished and reimagined and that’s what I’ve done here. I created new subplots and expanded it a little bit. We put the shadow of Herod and his soldiers there because the shadow of Christmas had really not been explored and I thought that was important. It provokes great conversations for families at Christmas time and that’s what all art should do – create conversations and change the conversation a bit.

JWK: Between The Spider Who Saved Christmas, The Thief Who Stole Heaven, which we also talked about last year, and, of course, your Will Wilder series, have you had any talks about turning any of your books into movies?

RA: I have had discussions – and am having discussions with – several outlets about adapting both Will Wilder and the Spider story. So, we’ll see what happens. I’d better leave it at that.

You know, these things are very tender. Adaptations also have a way of branding. Being in TV, I’m very conscious of branding and what happens when you allow an adaptation of a work. So, I would have to be involved in that because these works are so personal to me. I wouldn’t want them to disturb what we’ve already done in print. You want to build on that and not disturb it. There have been some adaptations that, frankly, disturb and ruin the original inspiration.

JWK: Anything else you’d like to say before we wrap up?

RA: Only that last year I wasn’t able to go on a book tour because of COVID. So, like Nephila (the Spider), I’m going to go out and spin my web all over the country. It’s a neat opportunity to reconnect with my readers and my viewers…around something that I do think is so important. That is both the central mystery of Christmas and the importance of spending time together as a family- not only passively watching something but imaginatively engaged in a story which is why I wanted this as a family-read picture book. Everybody can take part. It’s not so childish that an adult can’t appreciate it and it’s not so adult that a child can’t enter it. It was written intentionally that way, to include multi-generations of readership.

JWK: That again, I think, speaks to what we were talking about. When they reboot and play around with enduring franchises like Superman or Star Trek the do so in a way that doesn’t exactly appropriately speak to multiple generations or invite experiencing as a family.

RA: That is correct. Again, you asked me earlier “What made you start writing children’s literature? Why did you get into this? “Do you have children?” The easy answer is after reading so much children’s literature to my kids, (including) contemporary children’s literature, I wanted to create something that I wouldn’t get bored reading and that would hold my attention and something that would engage (kids) imaginatively as well.

So, (with) all my works, I’m writing on two levels. You know what really tipped me off to this? I was a big fan of Treasure Island as a child – and Sherlock Holmes. I read all the Sherlock Holmes stories and I read Treasure Island multiple times. When I returned to it as an adult – thirty years or forty years after I read it originally – it spoke to me on an entirely different level. Characters that I had impressions of or ideas I had of that story were totally transformed because I’m now looking at it with the experience of life. That’s great literature! And I thought this is the kind of work I want to write and create because it has a gift for the child reader and it has a gift for the adult reader later on.

So, The Spider Who Saved Christmas operates on that level too. Beneath this story of this spider who performs this great service for the Holy Family, it’s really about sacrifice, love, motherhood and protecting your children. That’s what it’s about but a child isn’t going to be able to apprehend all that. The adult gets that. I get letters from adults saying “I was crying as I read this to my children. They were asking why I was crying and I would (try to) explain to them because they were just touched by the illustrations or they loved the way the story turned.”

There’s a sweet illustration on the cover of the Baby Jesus kind of touching the web (in) the cave and it lights up. The children love that. They instantly get it. I had a letter where a little child – a four-year-old – said “I love the part where Baby Jesus thanked the spider by touching his web and making it glow.” Well, we didn’t think of it that way. We just saw it as kind of the Child grazing the web and this amazing thing happens. So, children are going to take their own thing from this story and adults will as well. That’s the type of work I try to create.

And Will Wilder‘s the same thing. It’s about family. It’s about sacrifice. It’s about tending to the gifts you’re given. I guess that’s something that runs through all my work.

Note: This holiday season Fox Nation is rerunning last year’s lightly-animated Christmas special featuring Raymond Arroyo reading The Spider Who Saved Christmas.

Apropos of the conversation above, here’s a new preview for upcoming movie that’s not a reboot. Even better, King Richard spins am inspirational true story that has something positive to say about both the power of faith and the American Dream. The Warner Bros. release, starring Will Smith as Richard Williams, the father of tennis greats Venus and Serena Williams, is slated for U.S. release in theaters and on HBO Max‘s premium ad-free plan on November 19 and on standard HBO Max a month later. Here’s hoping it’s as good as it looks!

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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