At age 19, Nicole Lataif made that promise to God while riding in the elevator at Boston Children’s Hospital where her 12-year-old sister was a few hours away from succumbing to cancer. Then, an instant later, Nicole changed her mind.
Speaking out loud, she said, “Even if You don’t save her life, I promise to dedicate my life to You.”
In a situation that might have driven some people away from believing in a loving, compassionate God, Nicole’s humility and faith grew stronger. They would grow even more a few hours later when she and her parents sat with her sister on her deathbed, and her heartbroken mother told her child, “It’s okay, go be with Jesus.”
During an interview on “Christopher Closeup,” Nicole recalled, “I remember watching that in complete awe. I felt like I was watching the Virgin Mary when she had to sacrifice her son in the same way…That defining moment was when I realized this life is not about me. It never was. And so, [my sister’s] death led me to faith.”
In the year’s since her sister’s passing, Nicole has not only embraced her Catholic faith, but found a way to live it out in a special way: she writes Catholic books for young children (ages four to eight). Her talent and passion for writing emerged at a young age, so she felt called to pursue a career as an author.
Beyond that, there’s also a cultural reason for her genre choice. She said, “There’s a deep need for faith-based, value-based books for children. If you turn on any children’s station on television, or just watch how children are acting or dressing, [you can see] there’s a significant migration away from sacrificial love, being respectful, and honoring your body. My goal is to help turn that all around.”
You Can’t Have One Without the Other
Nicole’s first book was “Forever You: A Book About Your Soul and Body,” and it earned a 2012 Christopher Award (photo, left) for its fun, colorful illustrations (by Mary Rojas) and vital message about “the soul being present in every moment, action and emotion in a child’s life.”
Though the interconnectedness of our souls and bodies might seem like an adult concept, Nicole knew that she could communicate them in a child-friendly way.
She explained, “The whole book is full of concrete examples of how our soul is animated through our bodies: ‘Your soul is in your hands when you clap along. It’s in your ears when you hear a song. It’s in your toes when you splash the bath. It’s in your smile when you hug your cat. Your soul is in all you are and do—soul and body, forever you.’ Then we talk about how your soul is in what you feel…It shows through in your hopes…Then we move into your soul showing through when you love your friends, family, God. Where did it come from? ‘Your soul came from God when your life began. Because He wanted to love you forever.’ We talk about how everyone is a body with a soul….So, ‘Your soul is a gift for safekeeping. Care for it and nourish it, protect it, watch what you choose to do. Treat your body with love.’ Then, ‘Your soul is for helping. To those who are sad, offer comfort. To those who are sick, give care. To those who are hungry, bring food.’ So it’s not just about you; it’s about sacrificing for others and giving. Ultimately, [I write], ‘Your soul is for God….Your soul is for heaven, To one day return to God and live with the saints, and the angels, and your family, in your forever body, in your forever home.'”
In light of Nicole’s sister’s death, that last concept hits close to home for her, and can be especially comforting to anyone who has lost a loved one.
From Grudges to Forgiveness
Nicole’s latest book is called “I Forgive You: Love We Can Hear, Ask For and Give” (illustrated by Katy Betz) – and it was inspired by her own shortcomings in this area when she was a child. “I was not a kid who knew how to forgive!” she exclaimed. “I held grudges, especially with my little brother. But yet I never thought I had a problem with forgiveness…until I became an adult. God will stack the bricks on your head if you need to learn something, and that’s exactly what happened.”
While going through the toughest time in her life and needing to both forgive and be forgiven, Nicole realized that she had no idea how to learn to practice forgiveness. She discovered a book called “Forgiveness: A Catholic Approach” by Father Scott Hurd, published by the Daughters of St. Paul (who are also now Nicole’s publishers).
Father Hurd’s book, says Nicole, “helped me through the process of forgiveness, processing my feelings, learning the Christ-like way to forgive step-by-step. For example, [I learned] that forgiveness may take time – and that’s okay! It’s more important to be genuine with your ‘sorry’ than to be quick with your ‘sorry,’ and vice versa. [There’s also] the concept of, ‘Don’t be a doormat!’ I think that there’s a huge misconception in the Christian community. Jesus told us to forgive seventy times seven times. What that means is not to return evil for evil. It doesn’t mean, ‘Stick around if you’re being abused.’ So there are a lot of revelations, throughout [Father Hurd’s] book. By the end of it, I knew that I had to write one for kids.”
As Nicole wrote “I Forgive You,” she repeatedly thought back to her “brattiness as a kid” and asked herself how the steps to forgiveness could have been presented to her as a child in a way that she would have understood them.
For instance, regarding the damaging effects of holding grudges, Nicole writes, “Not forgiving is like having an elephant in your heart. He grows and grows. He gets heavier and heavier until…CRACK! He breaks your heart.” In this sense, there’s a continuum between “Forever You” and “I Forgive You” because it shows the effects that unforgiveness can have on both our souls and bodies, how it can move us away from being the loving beings God created us to be.
Another important concept in “I Forgive You” is summed up in the line, “God loves you. No matter what you do, He never says, ‘I’m through with you.'” That doesn’t mean misbehaving doesn’t have consequences, but rather that God will forgive us anything if we ask Him. “And if we can recognize how merciful God has been to us,” says Nicole, “then we will recognize how much He loves us and we can therefore love others in forgiveness.”
Nicole closes the book with a beautiful children’s prayer meant to give kids an easy way to review all the steps involved in forgiveness. She concludes, “I wanted kids to bring their hearts and their forgiveness issues right to the hands of God because He’s ultimately the only one who can truly help them through this. This book is a tool, adults are a tool, but God is the answer. So, I wanted them to remember that in a concrete way and a detailed fashion, you can speak to God about what you’re going through and He will listen.”
(To listen to my full interview with Nicole Lataif, click on the podcast link):