Back Porch Book Chat: Josiah Pettit (Director of Westminster Books)

Back Porch Book Chat: A casual, virtual conversation about books. Join us as we chat with book lovers like ourselves about a topic we all love! Our guest today is Josiah Pettit, director of Westminster Books. He chats with us about reading with his family, directing a bookstore, and more! Books are linked to RR reviews, where applicable. Interview conducted by Betsy.

Getting to Know Josiah Pettit

Before we begin, tell us what beverage you’d like as we sit in our (virtual) rocking chairs on this late spring day: Sweet tea? Lemonade? Ice water? Maybe you’re a milkshake fan like Lucy Gundersen?

For me, the right beverage selection has everything to do with time of day. On a spring morning, it’d have to be a black coffee pour over, brewed with freshly ground beans. (To quote an uncle, “coffee is the closest thing to a personality that I’ve got.”) In the afternoon, I’d pick a local IPA to sip on. In the evening, I may go with a splash of Chattanooga Whiskey. If alcohol isn’t appropriate, I’ll have what Lucy’s drinking–any time of day!

Confession: I’m dying to know which uncle said that! [Readers, you’ll find out that I go way back with Josiah’s family, and I worked with one uncle and went to church with another….]

Josiah Pettit and family

Our readers don’t know you yet, Josiah, so I’d love for you to share a bit of background with us: Tell us a bit about your family and your favorite ways to spend time together when everyone’s at home.

My family has deep roots in Tokyo, Japan, where my mom grew up as a missionary kid, and Lookout Mountain, Georgia, where my dad taught at Covenant College (more on that in the next question!). My wife, Anne, and I met playing soccer at Covenant where we were both Art majors. After a 10-year stint in Philadelphia where our two boys were born–Levi (6) and Hudson (3)–we moved back to Georgia and purchased my childhood home from my parents. As a family, we spend a lot of our time slowly breathing fresh life into this 100-year-old house which is right next to the Covenant College campus on Lookout Mountain. Growing up, my parents called this the “Hesed House” echoing the steadfast, covenantal, and ultimately home-making love of God towards his people. One of our favorite things as a family is carrying on that legacy in this place. We host a church small group, have a young family that lives in our basement apartment, and are raising 12 chickens and a puppy. At any given time there are usually 2 to 4 grandparents here as well.  

I didn’t know that your house was called that! It’s such a lovely home. Our connection to you on a personal level actually goes way back. It’s nice in this digital/virtual world of ours to have actual personal connections “in real life.” Will you share a little bit about your history with Megan and me?

Yes! As my dad would say, “coincidences are how we know God has a sense of humor.” My dad was the librarian at Covenant College and taught English and Children’s Literature. Since our house was right next to campus, growing up we always had students in our home for meals or class gatherings. I believe he taught both of you, and played a role in planting some seeds of inspiration for what has become Redeemed Reader! In some ways I feel like I’m carrying on his legacy of books in my role at the Westminster Bookstore as well.

Yes! Megan and I took Children’s Literature from your dad, and she worked for him in the library at Covenant. He was also my senior thesis reader (which was on George MacDonald’s children’s stories). He profoundly influenced our philosophy of children’s literature, among other things.

Reading in the Midst of Real Life

What books has your family particularly enjoyed this past year?

cover of Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel

I learned to read on The Adventures of Tintin, Calvin and Hobbes, and Peanuts, and as my boys are getting older, I’ve loved pulling those off the shelves to read with them. Other recent bedtime reading favorites are Frog and Toad, Piggy and Gerald, Saint George and the Dragon, The Steadfast Tin Soldier, and Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. Any Bill Peet or Dr. Seuss book is also always a crowd pleaser. In the last couple of weeks we started our first attempt at a chapter book, kicking off The Chronicles of Narnia with The Magician’s Nephew. The wonderful thing about great books is you never outgrow them, and there are fantastic selections for every age. I can’t wait to re-read all my favorites together. After Narnia, we’ll probably introduce Redwall, Harry Potter, and, of course, Lord of the Rings.

Perhaps a bonus recommendation: my wife and I read Shoe Dog out loud before bed recently. It’s a memoir from the guy who started Nike (I think Matt Damon and Ben Afleck just made a movie about parts of it). It scratched a lot of “itches” for me, from sports, to design, to business, and even had some nostalgic detours into Japanese culture. Might be a good one to get a sports-loving teen reading.

I’ll save my Christian book recommendations for the last question… 

Thanks for the memoir suggestion! And I have read all of those books you mentioned before to my own sons.

Josiah’s Tips: Reading in Real Life

We obviously love books at Redeemed Reader, and we love passing along good tips for making reading happen in the midst of busy family life. Do you have any favorite tips or routines that work for your family when it comes to finding and reading good books? How do you juggle reading as a family (like listening to an audiobook)? What books have worked well for reading together?

My Dad taught me that in a good children’s book, the words and the pictures both tell their own complementary but unique story. It’s similar to the way the Four Gospels portray a unified and inerrant message about Jesus, but from 4 distinct perspectives. So tip #1 would be: pictures matter. Before they can read the words, give your kids stacks of books with stunning illustrations that they can get lost in–comics like Tintin are great for this, especially for boys. Don’t wait until they can read to give them books, and don’t be afraid to give them big encyclopedias with tiny print. As long as the pictures tell a good story, they’ll be hooked. 

For tip #2, I am the “foremost sinner” when it comes to this, but we’ve found that the more time our boys spend on screens the harder it is to get them to sit and read. This is true for adults too, right? The more I’m on my phone, the harder it is to read a real book for an extended period of time. When we eat sugar, all we want to eat is sugar. And even the sweetest fruit seems bland and unappealing. In the same way, if our brains are stimulated passively from mindless watching and scrolling, active reading feels like a slog. 

Tip #3: your kids will love what you love, especially in those early years. This is probably the world’s most obvious statement, but as it relates to building a culture or reading in your family, if you don’t genuinely enjoy books and reading with your kids, good luck getting them to read. Pick books that you love to read and that will be infectious–see question 4. 

Tip #4: read to you kids every night before bed.

Tip #5: read at the dinner table (see the last question).

Hear, Hear! Your dad was the one who first taught me to really read a picture book, pictures and text.

Josiah’s Job: Westminster Books!

You’re the current director for Westminster Books, an online bookstore the RR team is familiar with but which may be new to some of our readers. Can you tell us a little bit about Westminster Books? For instance, how did it start, what sorts of materials you carry, and what your vision is?

This year we’re celebrating 20 years of selling books online! In 2003, during the early days of blogging and Amazon, wtsbooks.com went live. Our aim was to serve the church by leveraging new marketing and logistics technologies to distribute an age-old tool. Twenty years, and over 6 million books later, we are driven by the same conviction–that reading plays a profound role in the life and health of the church.

As a ministry of Westminster Theological Seminary, our mission is to curate the best biblically faithful books, “Kindergarten through MDiv.” So although we do carry scholarly works and commentaries, we’re equally excited about resources that equip the everyday Christian to understand and apply Scripture to everyday life. We’re a small team of parents, seminarians, and book lovers passionate about books that foster biblical faith, redemptive imagination, and Christ-like character formation. Shout out to Andrew Colpitts, Kyle Whitgrove, Remley Gorsuch, Alfie Ariwi, Jimmy Adkins, Pierce Hibbs, Faith Chang, Christine Park, Juan Estevez, and Josh Currie.

Last fall, we launched Westminster Kids, a new website for discovering biblically faithful books for children. Our aim with the new site is to help parents, grandparents, and teachers discover books that will fulfill the command in Psalm 78 to “tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord.” If you want to learn more about Westminster Kids, you can check out our video.  

How did you personally get involved with Westminster Books? Were you always interested in the book business or did you come to this profession from a roundabout way?

As I mentioned above, books–and particularly Christian books–have been a big part of my family history for at least 3 generations. But the Westminster Bookstore certainly wasn’t on my radar, and books weren’t a specific ambition. I majored in Art at Covenant College, with an emphasis in Photography and Graphic Design, and minored in Missions. My dream job was to be a National Geographic photographer. While my wife Anne and I were engaged, I did a journalism internship with the International Justice Mission in the Philippines, and Anne moved up to Pennsylvania to begin a Masters of Biblical Counseling Degree at Westminster.

After my internship, I moved up to Philly with no plans apart from marrying Anne. She was in a small group with Chun Lai, who was Director of the Bookstore at the time, and before I knew it, I was interviewing for a shipping position in the Bookstore warehouse. We joke that I was only hired because I’m tall enough to pick from the top shelf of books. I soon discovered this was my dream job, providing me with an avenue to invest my photography and design gifts within a ministry context–not to mention my love for books! Over the last 11 years at the Bookstore, I’ve had the privilege of being mentored by some of the most godly, book-loving, and Kingdom-minded men, who also happen to be incredibly skilled in business and leadership. Shout out to former Westminster Bookstore Directors Chun Lai, Ben Thocher, Ben Dahlvang, and John Kim.  

Do you have any suggestions for our readers about how to find out more about Westminster Books? Do you have a newsletter readers can sign up for, or a blog they can follow?

Our email newsletter is in many ways the “heartbeat” of our ministry. Each week we partner with publishers to run deeply discounted book deals on the best new releases and classics. We take a lot of pride in the design and curation of our emails, and with each promotion work hard  to highlight the unique value, audience, and “job” of the featured book. You can sign up here.

Last Words from Josiah

Any last words of encouragement for your fellow dads of busy school-age kids as we seek to disciple our kids? Do you have a favorite Christian/biblical resource you use as a family?

I’m in many ways a novice when it comes to discipling my boys, but I’m deeply convinced that books are one of the best tools at our disposal for this task. I already mentioned some tips above for building a culture of reading in your home, and thankfully we have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to excellent books that point to Jesus. 

In addition to bedtime reading, we try to use dinnertime for family worship. Perhaps it’s encouraging to share that dinner at our house is not an idyllic scene. About half of the time, half of us are in tears. But Be Thou My Vision is a resource that we’ve found to be rich and doable despite the mealtime chaos. It’s a collection of Scripture, prayers, and liturgies that repeats on a 31 day cycle. So it’s simple to flip open to the corresponding day of the month and read a few passages, trusting that His “word will not return empty” (Isaiah 55:11).

Another mealtime devotional we use is The New City Catechism. We shamelessly bribed our boys with Lego sets if they can memorize the first series of questions, and we’ve successfully worked our way through the first 10 or so. I like how it’s designed to be adapted with longer or shorter questions depending on the age.  

The Biggest Story Bible Storybook has become our go-to bedtime read. DeYoung’s experience as a pastor, father of 9 kids, and seminary professor shines through in each story. It’s clear that he knows kids, he understands the Bible, and he loves his Savior. These qualities make each story like the best kind of sermon–faithful to the text, engaging, and relentlessly pointing forward to Jesus. We’ve read it through 3 times already over the past year. 

My other two favorite resources for sharing the Gospel with my boys through bedtime reading would be Little Pilgrim’s Progress (stunning illustrations!) and the Tales that Tell the Truth Series

Those are such great suggestions. We used Little Pilgrim’s Progress as one of our summer reading books last year.

Readers, we’re thrilled to be partnering with both Storyglory Kids and with Westminster Books. Check out our interview with Lucy Gundersen for more on Storyglory Kids.

You can read the rest of our Back Porch Book Chats here (our guests have been business owners like Josiah, bookstore owners, teachers, and more).

Josiah is the son of a librarian and children’s literature professor, the grandson of a missionary-pastor, and the great-grandson of theologian James Oliver Buswell. His role as Director of the Westminster Bookstore and Westminster Seminary Press is basically just carrying on the family business. He loves reading with his 2 boys, playing soccer, and renovating his 100-year-old home with his wife. His favorite book is Tolkien’s Leaf by Niggle.

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Get the information you need to make wise choices about books for your children and teens.

Our weekly newsletter includes our latest reviews, related links from around the web, a featured book list, book trivia, and more. We never sell your information. You may unsubscribe at any time.

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Betsy Farquhar

Betsy is the Managing Editor at Redeemed Reader. When she reads ahead for you, she uses sticky notes instead of book darts and willfully dog ears pages even in library books. Betsy is a fan of George MacDonald, robust book discussions, and the Oxford comma. She lives with her husband and their three children in the beautiful Southeast.

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