Crisscrossing strands of white lights dangled from the 200-year-old rafters of my friend Jenny’s barn. In one corner, pine-cone angel ornaments hung from a fresh-cut tree. A picnic table at the end of the room held paper cups of markers and scissors, ready for the children and parents who squashed up the rain-soaked hillside last weekend to celebrate the launch of my first children’s picture book, The Christmas Cradle.

After nearly two decades of spending much of my free time alone, clacking computer keys in the fragile hope that what I wrote would someday be published, the party was a true delight. Not just because I got to see dear friends, whose children have grown inches and feet since the last time I wrapped my arms around them. Not just because those who came generously donated $265 and thirteen books to a local prison ministry. Or because there I was, under the glittering lights, sitting in a rocking chair, reading my story to a dozen or so kids.

No, this day was special because the story I read is about a little girl, Molly, and her cousins, Jacob and Sammy, getting ready for a Christmas party at their Aunt Jenny’s farm when they discover a cradle that points them to the true meaning of the holiday. It is special because my real friends Jenny and her husband, Gerry, who hosted the party, inspired the story. And it is special because I was about Molly’s age, living on a farm, when I first heard the name of Jesus.

Like many children, I grew up in a broken home. My father left by the time I turned five. My mom did her best to care for two kids and ten acres, where she grew nearly everything we ate while going to college. But she herself had come from a broken background, and she lacked the tools and knowledge to heal the throbbing wound of pain and sorrow that she’d inherited from her own family.

So there I was, a ragamuffin first grader with a kitchen haircut, wearing my brother’s hand-me-down clothes, when a classmate told me about Jesus. “There’s just something about that name,” an old Gospel chorus says. And there is. When I heard about Jesus, for the first time I knew that I was truly and deeply loved, and I wanted to love Jesus too.

Now, to be able to share that love with other children through this book – and four more to be published next year in my Lantern Hill Farm series – is like the hurting child I was getting to share the gift of knowing Jesus with hurting children today. “It is a barn full of love,” one dear friend said, savoring the lights and food and families at Saturday’s launch. “This whole big barn is just pulsating with love.” Like the first Christmas, I thought. And it was.

Meadow Rue Merrill, author of the award-winning memoir, Redeeming Ruth, writes for children and adults from a little house in the big woods of midcoast Maine. The Christmas Cradle, the first book in her Lantern Hill Farm picture-book series, is available now.