November 2, 2018

27th ‘Christmas In My Heart’ Volume Is Author's 100th Book

The recent release of volume 27 in the Christmas in My Heart series is a milestone moment for beloved author Joe Wheeler. It is his 100th book!

James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, has dubbed Wheeler “America’s Keeper of the Story.” Dobson writes, “Congratulations, Joe, on your 100th book. Thank you for dedicating your life to stories, and for enriching the lives of countless people during the Christmas season.

“My great friend, Joe Wheeler, has been blessing folks with his compilations of Christmas stories for over 25 years. In 1993 a colleague brought his first book to my attention and specifically the story, ‘The Tiny Foot.’ I remember reading that true story and being moved to tears.” 

Dobson shares that he then called Wheeler, and the two immediately struck up a friendship that has now spanned more than two decades. “In fact,” Dobson writes, “Joe has permitted me to use several Christmas in My Heart stories over the years for my December newsletters — and they’re always very well-received.

“I’m proud to be his friend!”

Wheeler, who has a doctoral degree in English from Vanderbilt University, is considered to be one of America’s leading short story anthologists. His Christmas stories, now with 27 volumes, are the ones readers have found most endearing through the years.

Christmas Beginnings

In 1991, Wheeler visited Penny Estes Wheeler, book acquisitions editor at the Review and Herald Publishing Association. She recalls that day nearly 30 years ago.

“Despite our sharing the same last name, we had never met,” she said. “He wanted to talk to me about an idea for a new book, a collection of Christmas stories. I was usually super cautious when approached with a new idea for a book. But that day I did not hesitate. I told Joe that he had a great idea and I could hardly wait to see the manuscript. But I added that it would be read by members of the book committee and others, and that, of course, I could not guarantee acceptance. The reason I was excited about Joe’s proposal was that for decades our family had read aloud Christmas stories from several collections of books we’d bought over the years.”

When that first manuscript of Christmas stories arrived on her desk, Penny noticed that the author hadn’t given it a title. But it had to have a title when it was sent to readers for evaluation. How the name for “Christmas in My Heart”  came to be is an interesting story in itself.

“A few years before,” Penny said, “I had made a little booklet of my own Christmas memories and given it to my mother for Christmas. I had named my booklet ‘Christmas in My Heart.’ So I wrote ‘Christmas in My Heart’ across the first page of Joe’s manuscript. As we all know, the title stuck!”

Penny continued, “Who would have guessed that Christmas in My Heart would still be going strong after 27 years! Not me. But Joe’s thousands of readers thank him. He has put his heart and soul into these books, and surely that is a prime reason for their success.”

Twenty-seven volumes later, this insight has been proven again and again. Still, that first volume of Christmas in My Heart didn’t carry a number. No one involved in publishing it imagined that it would be the first of a long series. In 2008, after 16 volumes had been published at Review and Herald, Pacific Press Publishing Association picked up the series with volume 17.

Adventist Heritage

Wheeler has a deep Adventist heritage. He is the great-great-great grandson of Frederick Wheeler, known to Adventist historians as the first Sabbath-keeping Adventist minister. Joe’s mother, Barbara Leininger Wheeler, homeschooled her son for the first 16 years of his life. She was a stage-performing elocutionist in her own right, and so she filled him with a love of stories and poetry. He later went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history from Pacific Union College, a master’s degree in English from Sacramento State University, and a doctorate from Vanderbilt University.

Another mentor in his storytelling career was Walter Utt, legendary professor at Pacific Union College. Wheeler went on to teach for 34 years in junior high, high school, junior college, college, and university, including teaching at Oakwood College (now Oakwood University) and Columbia Union College (now Washington Adventist University) — all the while infecting his students with his own passion for story. He is the author, editor, or compiler of 100 books.

Wheeler is professor emeritus of English at Washington Adventist University, general editor at Focus on the Family, and co-founder and executive director of the international Zane Grey’s West Society. Besides the best-selling Christmas in My Heart series (the longest running series of story collections in America), Wheeler has also edited the Great Stories Remembered, Heart to Heart, Forged in the Fire, The Good Lord Made Them All, and My Favorite Stories series. He resides in Conifer, Colorado, United States with his wife, Connie.

According to Wheeler, in 1992 “God booted me out of the classroom into a full-time ministry of stories,” out of which came the 100 books. Sixteen publishing houses have been involved in publishing his books.

As the wording reads on the jacket of one of the Christmas In My Heart books, “Not just any stories, but rather stories that move the reader so deeply that they prove all but impossible to forget; and the stories incorporate values worth living by.”

Treasured Work

Wheeler’s works have garnered recognition, with Great Stories Remembered receiving “The Seal of Quality,” Family Television’s highest honor. Christmas in My Heart was chosen as a finalist for the Christian Booksellers Association’s Gold Medallion award. Wheeler said he doesn’t take any credit for his books’ reputation or their US$1.5 million sales, saying, “It’s all a God thing — I’m just humbled that He stoops down to partner with the least of His children.”

Mark Thomas, former president of the Review and Herald Publishing Association, who worked closely with Wheeler, says, “Joe Wheeler was a good friend of the Review and Herald. Our employees loved it when he would come for our special Christmas in My Heart chapel and read a chapter from his newest release. They would line up to have him sign stacks of his books to give as gifts. My wife and I have given his books as gifts for years, and all who receive them treasure them. Thank you, Joe, for putting Christmas in all of our hearts!”

On May 12, 2018, Joe Wheeler took a tumble down some stairs, resulting in a traumatic brain injury. Along with his family, we all pray for his full recovery — and his ministry of stories.