Like all young couples anticipating the arrival of their first child, Amy Julia and Peter Becker dreamed of their new life as a family. A child with Down syndrome was not something they had considered possible.
“A Good and Perfect Gift: Faith, Expectations, and a Little Girl Named Penny” is Amy Julia Becker’s candid and fearlessly honest account of her daughter’s birth: from pregnancy test to fleeting glances between delivery room nurses, the first inkling that something was not quite right, to the Beckers’ own complicated mixture of joy, sorrow, and fear; from perplexed questioning to self assurance and the birth of a second child in 2008.
Read the prologue and you will be hooked. The book, which will be among those featured at Princeton Public Library’s Local Author Day on Saturday, March 24, raises a counterfactual, one of those nice philosophical points that disturbs the mind and plumbs the soul. If only . . . But then, as Becker intimates, if only one thing had been different wouldn’t everything be altered? What then of Penny, of this particular child?
The book’s title has its origin in the Christian Bible, from the Book of James: “Every good and perfect gift is from above.” This quote, together with a verse from Emily Dickinson’s “Hope is the thing with feathers,” opens the book, which resonates with religious and literary lines and quotations, giving this reader goose-bumps on several occasions — as when Becker quotes from the St. Mark: “Whoever receives this child, receives me.” For Becker and her husband, faith and the support of friends, family, and their church community play a profoundly supportive role.
Amy Julia Becker (or AJ, as she is known) grew up with three sisters in North Carolina and Connecticut. Her father is a former investment banker working now in bankruptcy management. Her mother returned to teaching when AJ’s youngest sister reached school-age. Becker graduated in English from Princeton University in 1998 and received a master’s of divinity from the Princeton Theological Seminary in 2010.
In 2003 she moved to Lawrenceville with her husband, Peter, originally from New Orleans, when he landed a job as history master at the Lawrenceville School. The Beckers live in a campus apartment in a dormitory of thirty high school boys. Today they have three children: Penny (6), William (3 and a half), and Marilee (13 months).
Becker’s book raises a host of questions: about abortion, testing, parenting, assumptions of normalcy, moral values, sources of information, and faith. It offers insights into Down syndrome beyond the clinical. “The medical community focuses on medical problems and while that information is accurate it isn’t the whole story,” said Becker in a recent interview. “Trying to convey a human life in terms of such information is doing women a disservice.”
Becker’s story includes moments of laughter, albeit tinged with tears, as when Becker, faced with her second child, a healthy boy, blurts out: “but I only know how to raise a child with Down syndrome.” It’s hard not to gasp when this young mother (all of 28) shares her fear that having a Down syndrome child might have been her fault for having old eggs! Likewise when, shortly after Penny’s birth and she is all dressed up and going out to dinner with her husband, the only thought in her head is: “my daughter has Down syndrome.”
Bombarded by well-meant homilies and stories of the achievements by children with Down syndrome, meant to console but achieving just the opposite, Becker shares one that sticks with her and the reader. One veteran administrator of Special Olympics competitions describes a group of eight-year-olds like Penny who abandoned their race when one of them became injured. They simply stopped to help the one who needed their help. Penny (and by extension others with different abilities) has something to teach the rest of us: an opportunity for growth, a chance to “slow down, to love deeply, to compete less, to live more fully.” To teach us, in other words, what it is to be human. With the lightest of hands, Becker makes the point that every child is a challenge to parents. Part of her enormous success as a blogger is her ability to appeal to all parents, not just those with kids with disabilities.
When all is said and done, this book is about Penny. It ends on the day when she becomes a big sister and with Becker’s realization that “Penny wasn’t a perfect child. Neither was William. We weren’t a perfect family, and we never would be, at least not by the standards I would have set out for us years earlier.”
Becker’s book draws upon journal and blog entries. “A friend encouraged me to blog for friends and family as a way of keeping them involved,” said Becker. “I found I was getting a lot of positive feedback from parents of children without Down syndrome.”
When Penny was two and Becker was trying to publish a manuscript she had written about her husband’s mother (and Penny’s namesake) Penelope Ayers, an agent picked up on Penny’s story. “She became interested in my blog and although she thought my manuscript well-written, she said a ‘cancer/death memoir,’ as she described it, would be hard to publish.”
When her mother-in-law got cancer, Becker became her primary caregiver. “She died in the spring of 2003 and in the process of writing about her, I realized I wanted to be writer,” said Becker, who was encouraged to begin putting a book proposal together for “A Good and Perfect Gift.” She began looking for a publisher in April 2009.
“Immediately there were positive responses from six publishers but in each case the marketing department passed on the book because I was an unknown.” Undaunted, Becker began blogging more frequently. Soon she was being asked to blog for Christianity Today and other religious sites. It wasn’t long before book publishers came calling.
“A Good and Perfect Gift: Faith, Expectations, and a Little Girl Named Penny” was named among the Top 10 Religion Books of 2011 by Publisher’s Weekly. Becker’s self-published memoir “Penelope Ayers” is available from Amazon. For a scrapbook on Penny, visit: http://www.amyjuliabecker.com/
Local Author Day
Amy Julia Becker will join Carla Ulbrich of Somerset and Cranbury resident Bart Jackson as featured readers at the fifth annual Local Author Day. Ten other authors, chosen by lottery, will present their work in shorter slots throughout the afternoon.
Ulbrich, aka “The Singing Patient,” is the author of “How Can You Not Laugh at a Time Like This?,” a collection of humorous essays about her own experiences (http://thesingingpatient.com/). Jackson, the author of Garden State Wineries Guide, will talk about the series of business guides he publishes, in particular, “Behind Every Successful Woman is Herself.”
At last year’s event (which, incidentally, this reporter attended as author of “Images of America: Institute for Advanced Study,” Arcadia Publishing, 2011) each participant had a unique perspective and a surprising story to tell. This year promises even more of the same. Author Day has almost doubled since last year.
“Applications began arriving earlier this year than ever before and at a faster rate,” says Janie Hermann, public programming librarian. “We faced the dilemma of having to turn people away or else expand.” Forty authors chosen from 55 will display and sign their books in the Community Room from 1 to 4 p.m.
Interest in Local Author Day is now coming from well-known authors from New York and Philadelphia. But, says Hermann, the focus “remains on having at least 60 percent of participating authors from within a 20 mile radius of Princeton.” This year, participants include Cynthia Drew, GK Stritch, Eileen N. Sinett, Stephen Tow, Sandra Bonaldi, Finnoula Louise, Joseph Glantz, Henry Henkel, David Gray, Tony Lomon, Katie McVay, Linda Levy, Kate Gallison, Gigi Arnold, Carol Schultz Vento, Diane Currie, Thomas Reeder, Hilton L. Anderson, Carrie Turansky, Sylvia Brown-Roberts, Brent Monahan, Patricia Rusch Hyatt, Tracy Kelleher, Doris Spears, Janet Purcell, Richard Stoll Armstrong, Doug Elwood, Nancy B. Kennedy, John J. Marnien Jr., Jim Weaver, Gail L. Johnson, Gerrit Argento, Kevin Simme, and Robyn Odegaard.
The all-day event will kick off with two writing workshops open to all: Scott Morgan, author of “Character Development from the Inside Out,” Open Door Publications, 2011, at 10 a.m.; and Karen Hodges Miller, author of “Finish Your Book! A Time Management Guide for Writers,” at 11 a.m. Morgan, a newspaper journalist and former business editor with U.S. 1 newspaper, began his writing career early with a series of Agatha Christie-inspired mysteries penned at age seven, (http://www.write-hook.com/about-me/). Miller, the founder of Open Door Publications and also a contributor to U.S. 1, helps writers bring their own ideas to market and has published more than a dozen books since 2006. (http://karenhodgesmiller.com/wordpressfinishyourbook/about-karen-hodges-miller/)
Members of the Philadelphia Liars Club will wrap up the day’s activities in front of the first floor fireplace around 4:15 p.m. This intriguingly-titled group of professional journalists and authors with an enormous sense of fun offers advice on writing and getting published (http://liarsclubphilly.com/) and takes its name from a remark by John Fowles: “If you want to be true to life, start lying about it.”
“It’s going to be a very full day,” says Hermann. For more information, call 609-924-9529, or visit: www.princetonlibrary.org.