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The nuns living under Chesterton’s floorboards: A chat with Haley Stewart

This is the cover of "The Pursuit of the Pilfered Cheese," by Haley Stewart. (OSV News photo/courtesy Pauline Books and Media)

What could possibly bring G. K. Chesterton, a religious order of female mice and a prize wheel of cheese together? Perhaps just some human imagination and a gifted mom’s wish to give young readers an adventure — one that helps to both hone deductive reasoning skills and burnish the faith in a delightful way. Award-winning writer Haley Stewart, editor of Word on Fire Sparks (a children’s literature interest at Word on Fire), mother of four and longtime host of the recently ended “Fountains of Carrots” podcast, chatted with OSV News about the origins of her children’s book, “The Pursuit of the Pilfered Cheese” (Pauline Books and Media, 2022).

OSV News: What inspired the story? Was it one of those things you just woke up with? And why mice-nuns?

Haley Stewart: As strange as it sounds, it really was one of those things you just wake up with. I awoke one morning from a vivid dream about an order of mouse nuns who live under G.K. Chesterton’s house. The more I thought about the rodent nuns the more I fell in love with them. The idea simmered for a few months, and then I finally started writing it out during the COVID lockdown.

OSV News: Is there any particular reason why this active mouse world exists under the floorboards of Chesterton’s sitting room?

Stewart: Initially it was just because that was part of my dream, but the more I thought about it, the more I liked having the nuns be inspired by Father Brown’s detective skills so they could solve local crimes and mysteries. I also really love British children’s literature from Chesterton’s era, so having the story set in England in the first half of the 20th century just felt right.

OSV News: Closing the school under threat of the orange cat — was the COVID lockdown feeding some of this, do you think?

Stewart: Perhaps, although I didn’t think of that at the time. More practically, the story needed a reason for the stolen cheese to be such a big deal. Without it, the fundraiser might fail, and they couldn’t keep their beloved school open and safe for students!

OSV News: Lord Reginald wanting to buy the prize cheese seemed a “tidy” resolution that would have solved all their problems but would have also been a loss to the community. Can you go into that a little bit?

Stewart: I wanted to highlight the difference between someone who was guided by love and charity, like the abbess, and someone guided by greed, like Lord Reginald. He doesn’t even necessarily want to eat the cheese; he just wants to collect it and to protect it from being enjoyed by those he considers less worthy or less discerning than himself. He’s such a snob, and I think Chesterton would be disgusted by him! I also wanted to show how there is no such thing as a personal sin — sin always affects the community, and this seemed like a good way to show how greed hurts everyone, not just the greedy person.

OSV News: Without spoilers, what can children and their families learn about how to address complex dilemmas from your story, and about mercy, too?

Stewart: There are several moments in the story when it would be easy for the nuns to jump to conclusions, make accusations and understandably respond with anger. While they find the whole situation of the theft highly distressing, they don’t react this way. The Sisters of Our Lady Star of the Sea are so compassionate, even to people who become entangled in the crime. But they are also just; they refuse to allow powerful people to harm the mice of the village. They put all their faith and creativity into trying to do the right thing, and in the end it all works out!

OSV News: The illustrations by Betsy Wallin are really delightful. Had you ever worked together before, or was that a happy accident?

Stewart: Finding the right illustrator was a long, difficult process. When my publisher found Betsy, I could tell she was perfect. The way she has brought the characters to life is such a gift! I think she must love the mice of St. Wulfhilda’s every bit as much as I do.

OSV News: “The Curious Christmas Trail” was a happy surprise for fans of the Sisters of Our Lady Star of the Sea and their students. Will the community be chasing down another mystery anytime soon?

Stewart: Yes! Our mouse friends are going on holiday to the seaside, where a new mystery awaits them in “The Strange Sound by the Sea,” which releases this summer!

Elizabeth Scalia is culture editor for OSV News. Follow her on Twitter @theanchoress.

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