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BookWorthy Chat with JJ LeVan

BookWorthy Season 2 Episode 11
He Made You To Be You Cover


Valerie - Today, we're talking with JJ Levan, the author of the picture book, He Made You to Be You. Welcome to Bookworthy, JJ.


JJ -Hi, good morning. Thank you for having me.


Valerie -It is a pleasure to have you today. Now we are just kind of entering into March and spring. So, what is your favorite thing about spring?


Lilac flowers

JJ - I think... So, a little deep and just brings the smell of lilacs, the color and the burst of lilacs are probably my favorite parts. It's nice to see everything just kind of popping up and green and happy in the yard, but that smell, and you can't beat it. I just love it. I love it. I can't keep my nose out of it.


Valerie -What is it? There's this, I'm down here in Texas and there is this type of bush that can grow really, really large, but it has these white flowers that have this just smell of spring to me. And though it makes me sneeze and I don't know the name of the plant, I was like, that is like the smell of spring for me. So fun.


Valerie - What's your favorite activity to do in the spring now that winter is broken?


JJ -Well, we have a Harley Davidson motorcycle, and when it's just warm enough, so about 67, 68 degrees, we're in Ohio, 67, 68 degrees is a pretty good temperature to get that bike out for the first time.



Valerie - My kids will be watching for the motorcyclists and anybody that's not wearing a helmet, they're like, mommy, we got to pray for them. I'm like, yes, yes, we do.


JJ - Aww. Right, right. Oh my gosh, yes, we've had a couple of close calls. My husband's an incredibly capable driver. He's been writing since he was a kid, but the other people, I know, right?


Valerie - What is it we have a 15-year-old that's starting to learn to drive and we kind of keep telling us like, you know, you can control only yourself in your car. You can't control everybody else. Everybody else you got to worry about. And so, it's been interesting to communicate those things to kiddos. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yep. Okay. We will not get into that anxiety bit.


JJ - New drivers. That’s a conversation for another day.


Valerie - Yes, that's like a podcast unto itself, I think. Well, JJ, tell us a little bit about your book, He Made You to Be You.


JJ - So the book covers a neurodiverse child who explores their day, which can be unpredictable for our kids. The child learns that God is with them no matter what they do, no matter where they go, but he is with them, and he loves them too. So that's my book.


JJ LeVan Interview

Valerie - Very neat. I love how it's so sweet. I've enjoyed getting the chance to get a sneak peek of it. And I love how this neurodivergent child, you introduce elements of stimming and wearing noise-canceling headphones and kind of those things that aren't the norm, but you're introducing it in a way that normalizes it and making kids that are neurodivergent and kids that aren't more aware of why certain things are going on and I love that. What inspired you to write this book?


JJ - So my son Blake, is now 29. So, we started our autism journey 25 years ago. So yeah, I had no intentions of writing a book remotely connected to autism. I had written some other things. So, I'm sort of newly empty nested. Mostly empty nested and there's time now. And I'm like, I feel like I'm called to write. So, I wrote some books, and it was almost like a self-care kind of thing. Just sort of the enjoyment of writing and creating and something fun. And my

child with autism

editor, Leslie Santa Maria, she's amazing. I turned some books in to her and nothing was getting any traction. And I think I had two or three books that I had sent to her. And it wasn't anything, it was just like a lot of editing, and she wasn't feeling it. And one day in the garage, I was like, Lord, I felt like you wanted me to write, and do you not want me to write? I mean, what is happening? So, I was kind of irritated because I'm like, you know, you know, I thought I was following what you wanted me to do. And he said you need to stay in your lane just kind of very directly. And I was like, what, what do you mean? So, I was pretending not to know. And I'm like, I don't, that's not, that's not, that's not fun to me. That is not fun to me. And I had to wrestle through that. Cause I'm like, I deal with that day in, day out. That's not creative writing to me. That's, that's heavy. And he told me to stay in my lane. So yeah, a few weeks later, after I kind of was like, okay, that's what you want me to do. On my business card. I put autism writer because everything that my pen touches now is touched by autism and it's kind of like a thing between me and the Lord. I'm just like you said this to me and so this is my commitment to you that I will write this because you told me to. So anyways, a couple of weeks later, I woke up one morning and I wrote about 80% of the book. It a kind of like in a rough draft sort of way. And then, you know, kind of tried to fine-tune it a little bit before I sent it to Leslie again. And she looked at it and she's like, I think we have something here. I think we have something to work with. And I was like, Lloyd, that's creepy. That is creepy. Okay, okay. So, we're going to go down this road. So, and connecting with, learning to connect. Because you're supposed to, you know, find your readers. I stumbled onto these beautiful, beautiful moms on Instagram, especially those that have just captured my heart. These autistic moms, these girls are my heart. And I'm like, I had no idea what I was missing. And I think the Lord knew exactly what he was doing. Oh, my goodness. So, I love these girls. And they're little people, all these cute little people, oh my word. Yeah, so that was the inspiration.

Autism Infographic

Valerie -I love that you're, you know, we always are told as writers to stay in her lane, you know, write what you know. And I love that you have stepped into this space because even, you know, we've seen a rise in autism and neurodivergent kids in the last 20 and even more so in the last 10 years.


JJ - Yeah, I think it's one in 36. The numbers are like one in 36. And I want to tell you, when I was getting started in 1998, for some reason, this number stuck in my head. I think it was one in 188. One in 188 children had autism or were on the spectrum. And now it's one in 36. So we are being touched by autism.


Valerie -Yeah, we are. And it's one of those, there are a growing number of books in the secular market for autism to help kids recognize, that these kids do things differently, but they are amazing. They see the world differently, but again, they just touch your heart in so many ways too. And, but your book brings it into the God space into a space where this is still God's child. You know, no matter what is going on in their heads, in their hearts, God still loves this child. And I think that's such a sweet message, both for neurodivergent kids, as well as kids that might have a neurodivergent sibling. And just to wrestle with that, because I'm sure you had to wrestle with those. thoughts and ideas as a mom of a kid with autism.


JJ - Mm-hmm. I could not find a book. So, when Blakester was little, I shouldn't call him Blakester, he's 29. I try not to treat him like a child, but that's what we always called him when he was little, we called him Blakester. Oh, my goodness. So, when he was little and newly diagnosed, you know, wanting to get some books, there were no books that connected Jesus to my son, God's love with my son. And even now, in that really specific sort of way, it's a struggle to find books for our kids. And yeah, so I guess I wrote the book that I couldn't find, but there are a ton of great books out there.


father and son reading

Valerie - I have a son who has sensor processing disorder, which looks a lot like autism sometimes because most kids who have autism do have some sensor processing struggles. And when we were going through that diagnosis phase and starting our journey, I mean, my little seven-year-old was struggling, like, why did God make me this way? And why is this so hard? Why can't you just go running around in circles in the house? I'm like, ooh, buddy. But it was really, it was hard to find material that not just communicated that he was loved, that God made him the way that he was made with intention and purpose. And these are his giftings. They aren't his struggles and disabilities. They are how he's gifted. And it was hard to find books that helped communicate to him those truths about how God made him, as well as communicating to his siblings and teachers and grandparents. What was it like being kind of on the earlier end of the autism rise to walk with your son through that diagnosis as a family?


JJ - Well, so we're very rural and we didn't have internet. We got the internet a little bit after the diagnosis. So, trying to find information to help my son. I was going through card catalogs and like trying once we got the internet. I was trying to see, you know, there wasn't a lot out there. Available even to be found on that early Internet. And it was just like I was lost. There was a mountain of pamphlets and paperwork and new therapists and scheduling and all the things. And it was just like I am, so I am over my head. It's over my head. I am underwater here. It was just very deep and heavy. It was very deep and heavy. And it got a little bit dark.

For me, my biggest regret is that I did not accept it fully. I wanted to fix it. I didn't accept it. And that was my biggest regret. It was that I don't know if I was fighting it or if it was just you know, and when you go and you get your diagnosis, it's like, you know, we have to get it early and we got to get them, you know, the therapist and all the things. And so it made me go into we're fixing something, you know, mode. And it's a lifelong thing. And we're spicy. I like to say that we're spicy. We're not supposed to use words like high functioning or low functioning, but I'm going to say we're spicy. We may not be habanero, but we're pretty spicy over here. So, we got, we got the flavor. Uh-huh. Yes, we do. So yeah.


Valerie - You've got to have flavor, right? You've got to have some flavor in life. I know in a process where you get any type of diagnosis, you know, at a young age, there's almost a grieving process that has to happen because, you know, as parents, when we're holding our baby, you know, or even before, you know, when we're pregnant or in the process of adoption, we have visions for our children and visions for what life will be like for them. And any type of diagnosis kind of hinders that. And you have to grieve that hope, that vision that you had. And I know I had to do the same with my oldest and it's like, this is going to be different. This is not going to look like everybody else. This is not going to be the same. We will not be able to do certain things because of just the way that he operates. And it's one of those, you know when we don't, I, my husband's a big fixer and we, you know, he had a, he had a hard time with this isn't going to change. Is it like, no, this is just constantly discovering what's going to work and function for our kiddo?


mother and son

JJ - Yeah, the sands shift. The sands can constantly shift as you build on your skills and your child learns, and you learn. And yeah, yeah. And then it's like that when the sands shift, it creates a new level of needing to accept that. So, you're constantly letting go and taking hold and building and you're building together. That's kind of what it seems like to me in our experience.


Valerie - Well, JJ, I have a kind of a deep question for you. So sorry for throwing this one at you. But for any parent or caregiver who might be facing a new autism diagnosis, what would you say to them?


JJ - Um, I would just say... I'll go right back to kind of ground zero. I had a little come apart at my kitchen table. And I had some girls that were coming over for a Bible study. And it was at my house, because it was convenient to do it at my house with my kids, and my husband was on second shift at the time. And so I'd get them tucked in early on, on Bible study night, you know. And one by one, they did not come. They called to say they could not come for whatever reason. And I sat at that table alone. And I was like, Lord, I needed this time with these girls. I needed to have their camaraderie, their prayer, and their support because they had just been so encouraging at that point. And it was, again, very, very early in the stages of diagnosis. And I'm like, don't you understand? Don't you know? I needed them so much. And he was just like, they may have forgotten you, but I have not forgotten you. And I have a daughter. She won't look at me and she won't listen to me. I can't get our attention. I can't get her to focus on me. And I do understand. I do understand. And all I want is to connect with her and hear her.

JJ LeVan Quote

Just speak my name and just say the words to me. And I just want to encourage anyone with a new diagnosis that he hears you, he sees you, he is with you. And it is hard. And I am not sure how I would have done it without him. And I don't know. And that's one of the things with my girls online, I want to connect with those girls because gosh, I don't know how to do that without him. I can't imagine, I can't imagine the comfort and the kindness, and his mercies are new every morning. You know, you've had a bad day, you've had a meltdown day and it's just, you know, you have wet pillow nights and it's just like the comfort and the encouragement and the strength that he gives. I would encourage people to trust in the Lord. And you want to call it a crutch, you want to call it whatever, whatever you want to call it. I don't care. I can tell you; that he is good. He is good. And he loves your child. And he loves you so much.


Jesus' Loves the sheep

Valerie - Yeah. What is it? We kind of say around our house that when things get thrown away or, you know, diagnosis has come in, we're always kind of like, this is not a surprise to God. It might be a surprise to us, but it's not a surprise to him. So, he's brought us to it and he's going to bring us through it. And so, it's, it's one of those things we constantly have to remind ourselves. And it's been fun to see my kids start using that language too, to be like, yep, done it. This is God's plan. And I was like, okay, yep. Because of his plan, what is it? I heard someone say recently that God's plan, even if it feels hard and feels, you know, negative or bad, it's still the most loving thing God can do for you to take you to the next place, to be closer to him, to be drawn to him, to rely on him and to grow in that relationship with him. It's one of those hard truths to wrestle with, but it's so sweet when you see God show up in those hard times too. So, now, JJ, did you always want to be an author?


JJ -I enjoy the story. You kind of made me tear up here. I have to have a moment. I've always enjoyed the story. I've enjoyed writing, but it wasn't until the diagnosis that I even considered a book or writing in a large form there. So I wrote like a page about our story and I showed it to one of my friends and she was like, uh-huh, that's great. It's a little dark. It's a little dark. I'm not going to lie. So, you know, it was like, okay, so into the trash it went. I'm like, forget it. So, I hung the pen up. I hung it up and then, you know, once Facebook rolled around, I would kind of like blurb some thoughts out there, almost like a blog, now and then. And people would respond and, you know, of course, these are friends and everything, but they're like, you need to write a book. And I'm like, thanks. No, no, no. Okay, just this is enough, you know. And it kind of kept going. And, you know, and it would be different people and thoughts and things like that. And it dawned on me one day, like, do you think I should write a book? But the Lord had to do transformative work on me and my heart. And there needed to be some acceptance and growth because it was dark. She was right. It was a little dark. And we have those moments, we have those seasons and it's just like, man, this is so stinking hard, you know? And you know, the verse, he's made all things beautiful in its time, and he had told me early on, he's like, you need to enjoy the beauty that is Blake, and I'm like, you know what, right now, there is no beauty here, this is just hard, this is just hard right now, that's what this is, this is hard, I'm telling you, you know, pointing your finger, look, this is hard. My word, you know, it took a good long while and I've seen beauty and I have felt joy that not everybody gets to experience when you accomplish the small victories or those little milestones, just the teeniest milestones and it's just like water in a desert. It's just beautiful. So yeah, so that's when I started thinking, get some time here. Maybe I'll do some writing.


Valerie - Well, I'm glad you did. Now, what has been the most impactful book in your life, JJ?


JJ -Impactful. Um... I love the Psalms. Psalms 4:3 has become just my verse. It's my go-to verse

Psalm 4:3

that he had brought me out of this horrible pit, and it was slimy and muddy and mucky, and he gave me new footing and he put a new song in my mouth and even praise to our God. And many will see it and they will put their trust in God. I got attached to this verse in college. And you know, there were just some rough roads there, but I never dreamed, you know, at this age, but I'd look back and be like, Oh, my word. Look, I get to speak to people. Um, I get to be on a podcast. Who knows what you're doing? Who knows what you're doing in the Lord? That they would turn to you in any little way. If I could water, water that seed, that would just be a blessing. So yeah, the Psalms, they're all over the place and we're not supposed to live in our emotions. I know we're not supposed to live in our emotions. I tend to feel the emotions, but you know, David felt the emotions. You got to read through there and he's just like all over the place. I'm like, I feel this, this guy, he knows I like this guy.


Valerie -That's what I love about Psalms is you, you feel the humanity in the Psalms. David always comes back to, I praise you, Lord. I praise you, Lord. And that's kind of one of those things is I was convicted going through the Psalms recently of like within seven verses, David goes from where you are God to God, you are good. And I was like, can I say the same in my heart and my sticky? In just seven sentences, I could go from why God to Lord, I love you and you're good. And it's been a challenge for me too. So I love the Psalms too. Well, JJ, what can we expect next from you?


JJ -Oh gosh, so I've been working on a project. It's called We Saw Mice. Hang on, I've got a little blurb. I should know it. So, my little blurb about We Saw Mice is with rhyming rhythm, readers learn a little bit about disabilities, a little more about awareness, and a whole lot more about believing that our friends with challenges can shine every day. So, it's still it's not quite done, but that's kind of where I'm at. That's kind of what I'm working on. So, it does touch on our little friends with the Spectrum challenges.


Valerie -I love that you are stepping into this space for those Christian families that are having kids that do fall on the spectrum somewhere because it is, like you said, there's those dark seasons that rub off hard and to have books that celebrate and accept in these kids that are so unique and different don't fit into the box, which that's okay. But by allowing them to stand out, they challenge our world in a good way too. And so it's one of those that you're providing books that can speak to not only the kids that are neurodivergent but also to those that experience kids that are neurodivergent. Because as autism rises, so does our need to be more understanding and be more willing to accept and know and include those that are just a little different. Well, JJ, where can people find out more about you in your books?


JJ -Oh, if you're on Instagram, you can go to JJ Levan Writer. If you're on Facebook, it's JJ Levan Author. And if you want to go hit my website and visit my blog Travels with My Rainman, or check out what's going on, or subscribe and get my newsletter, that's going to be at


Valerie -Sounds wonderful. Thank you for joining me, JJ. I enjoyed talking with you.


JJ -Oh, thank you so much for having me. This has just been fantastic.


Valerie - My pleasure. And thank you for joining JJ and me on this episode of the Bookworthy Podcast. Check the show notes and any books and links that we discussed. And let us know in the comments, what's your favorite thing about spring.

Happy reading.


Five Fun Facts about JJ LeVan

JJ Levan Author
  • Her father had a team of Belgian horses that pulled a sleigh in the winter, including jingle bells.

  • As a teenager, she dreamed of becoming a Sesame Street puppeteer.

  • Her favorite animal at the zoo is the capybara.

  • She never submitted a piece of writing for publishing until she was 50.

  • Their motorcycle is lovingly called "The Bumblebee."


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