Pauline sister's time travel series takes children back to Jesus' time

By Betty Ellen Walter

Catholic News Service

Rachel, Samuel and Emily Lesnak pose for a photo with Pauline Sister Maria Grace Dateno at the Pauline Books and Media store in Alexandria, Va., July 18. The Lesnak children of Fort Belvoir, Va., were among the first to hear Sister Dateno read from her n ew series "Gospel Time Trekkers," books that take children on a journey back to the time of Jesus. (CNS photo/Nancy Phelan Wiechec)

ALEXANDRIA, Va. (CNS) -- Sister Maria Grace Dateno remembers reading voraciously as a child, but she never thought she would become an author of children's fiction about time travel.

Her series, Gospel Time Trekkers, is being published by Pauline Books & Media. The official release date of the first three books in the series is Aug. 1.

Sister Dateno has high hopes.

"I want children to know that what they have learned about Jesus aren't just stories," she said in an interview. "The people who lived when Jesus walked the earth were real people and their lives were forever changed. I hope that my books will awaken a desire to know and love Jesus more deeply in the hearts of my readers."

Sister Dateno knows a thing or two about books. She is a Daughter of St. Paul. Her congregation's mission is to ignite the faith through various forms of media. They model themselves after St. Paul who spread the good news about Jesus to the early church.

The Paulines publish books, produce radio programs, sing and sell publications at 15 bookstores in 11 states and in Toronto. Sister Dateno manages the Pauline Books and Media store in Alexandria, a Washington suburb.

A teenage Maria Grace Dateno found herself at a mother-daughter dinner at her home parish, St. Lawrence Church in Alexandria. The guest speaker, a Pauline nun, spoke about the order's mission and shared a display of books.

"That was a key moment for me because I had occasionally thought about being a sister, but I didn't feel called to teaching, nursing or living a contemplative life," she recalled. "The Daughters of St. Paul were into books, and that was something that caught my attention."

She joined the postulancy immediately after high school, and will celebrate her silver anniversary as a religious in 2014.

Sister Dateno's path to writing began when she joined the Paulines.

"Writing is part of the charism of our community. The desire to communicate Christ to others is what spurs me to write and this desire increased as I realized that God has given me some ability," she said.

In 2007, one of her biological sisters gave her an added push by introducing her to, the site of National Novel Writing Month, dedicated to motivating budding writers to give one month a year to their dream.

"In 2009, the third time I participated in the National Novel Writing Month challenge, I wrote a draft of the novel that has turned into the 'Gospel Time Trekkers' series. After I had a draft, I worked on developing the stories to the point that they could be published."

Sister Christina Wegendt, her editor at Pauline Books and Media, said that Sister Dateno's "careful research, attention to detail, enthusiasm for children's books, and deep love for the Gospels infuse these books. She immerses readers in some of the most unforgettable moments in the Gospels, helping them imagine what it would have been like to have been there themselves."

The first three books in the series, Shepherds to the Rescue, Braving the Storm, and "Danger at Sea will soon be available at or through local Catholic bookstores. The three concluding books in the series will be released in January 2014.

In the stories, three siblings, Hannah, 11, Caleb, 9, and Noah, 6, are mysteriously transported to the time of Jesus. They encounter people who met Jesus and were present for events that are described in at least one of the four Gospels.

In the first book, the children meet a shepherd boy whose grandfather tells them about the angel he saw who heralded the arrival of Jesus.

In the second one, the children meet the boy who provided five loaves and two fish to Jesus and his disciples for feeding 5,000 people.

For the third journey back in time, the children meet a girl who overheard the disciples squabbling about which among them was the greatest. Readers see through the eyes of this girl how Jesus spoke to the disciples about who is first and who is last.

The books also provide many insights into what life was like during Jesus' time.

Sister Dateno explained, "Not knowing the cultural details of life in the first century detracts from an understanding of what Jesus is saying in the Gospels. Most people today know little about being a shepherd, for example. Or what fishing was like, or how grapes were grown.

"So when Jesus says he is the Good Shepherd, or speaks of putting out into the deep, or pruning the vine, how are we supposed to grasp his message?"

The Pauline sister believes that her books introduce children to some of the cultural background to help them better understand the good news.

In each story, the children return from their adventures, and on Sunday attend Mass. Various details of the liturgy and Father Joe's homilies connect to what they have learned on their journey. Each book ends with a section called "Where is it in the Bible?" that offers the biblical foundation for the story.

"I really hope kids love my books!" said Sister Dateno. "I've been praying, and will continue to pray for each reader -- that these books will give them a little push in their friendship with Jesus, a little help in grasping his mind-boggling love for each of us."

Copyright (c) 2013 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops 

ALEXANDRIA, Va. (CNS) -- Sister Maria Grace Dateno remembers reading voraciously as a child, but she never thought she would become an author of children's fiction about time travel.