Happy March, Creatives!
It’s the March Madness of Kidlit. There are events everywhere you turn. And I am adding to the wealth of Kidlit goodness with an author interview and giveaway. I am extremely excited to welcome Sarah Bagley Steele to this Behind the Page interview.
Sarah Bagley Steele is a children’s author who loves stories of all kinds that not only make you feel but help you see the world differently than when you began. Before turning her attention to her own writing, Sarah worked in the theater industry, developing new plays and musicals off-Broadway. She founded a summer theater company in Pennsylvania and produced ten seasons of free Shakespeare in the Park.
Sarah now lives in Brooklyn, NY with her husband, two children, and rascal puppy. When not writing, she loves reading, cooking, and crafting of all sorts.
Today we are chatting about her upcoming picture book debut, The Happiest Kid, illustrated by Elsa Pui Si Lo and Clarice Yunyi Cai (Yeehoo Press) available on March 15th, 2022.
The Happiest Kid is the story of Sally, who is usually the happiest kid until one morning she wakes up to a gloomy cloud hanging over her. She doesn’t know why it’s there, but she doesn’t want anyone to see it—not her parents, who call her their ‘happy girl’, not her teacher, and certainly not her friends—so she hides it away. But hiding a cloud is difficult, especially when it won’t stop growing.
Sarah, Welcome to Behind the Page! What was the inspiration behind The Happiest Kid?
First off, thank you so much, Brittany, for having me on Behind the Page! With The Happiest Kid, I knew I wanted to write about a happy kid who wakes up one day not feeling happy, but I struggled with the actual plot. When I was in college, I took a personal essay writing class, and in one particular assignment, I wrote a line about stuffing my pain in my pocket. It was a single line from a school paper long ago, but the image resurfaced in my mind when I was wrestling with this story. What if sadness were a physical object that my character Sally literally stuffs in her pocket? That was the starting place for me in writing the cloud that Sally tries to hide over the course of the book. It became the motor the plot needed, and it also lent itself to an active visual journey, which Elsa and Clarice told beautifully and playfully with the illustrations. Can Sally zip up the cloud in her backpack? Will it stay put if she shoves it behind her back? What if she sits on it? What if it keeps growing?
That’s a great reminder to go back and mine our older work for those little nuggets of gold. What has been your favorite experience while working on this book?
It was thrilling to see the first illustrations, to hold the finished product in my hands, and to see my kids’ names in the dedication. And I’ve loved connecting with other writers in the Kid Lit community. But I think my favorite experience of all was receiving the very first email from my future editor expressing interest in the book. I had sent queries to several agents and, while I received positive feedback and even one revise and resubmit request, ultimately, I never received an offer of representation. I was about to shove the manuscript in a drawer and move on when I decided to submit it directly to Yeehoo Press after reading they had an interest in children’s books about emotions. I emailed it off in February 2020. Shortly after, the whole world changed. Like so many other families, we pivoted to work from home and remote learning. I didn’t write anything for months.
Then, in June 2020, I received a lovely, lengthy email from Zhiqiao Wang at Yeehoo Press. He engaged with the main character in a way others had not and asked new insightful questions. I dove headfirst into a rewrite, sent it off, and received an offer three weeks later. There have been ample special moments after that, but I will never forget the experience of seeing that email in my inbox. The privilege of having a new beginning, in that moment of time, is not lost on me, and I will always be grateful.
I love the way you phrased that, ‘the privilege of having a new beginning’. That’s a powerful phrase! We often don’t realize the power of words. One phrase that stood out to me in the book was how the parents used “happy girl” as a term of endearment but were unknowingly adding to the pressure that Sally was feeling. Can you talk a little bit about that choice and other ways you reinforced the social-emotional theme?
Thank you for mentioning that. I wanted to explore not only what happens when a happy child experiences sadness, but also, more subtly, her perspective of the people around her and the pressure she feels to act or feel a certain way. We all need room to have a bad day! And acknowledging rather than hiding our feelings can help us process and understand them.
I hope Sally’s story helps young readers normalize big emotions. Adults too! Everyone gets sad sometimes, and it’s okay.
Was there a piece of advice that really helped you or applied when working on The Happiest Kid?
If you want to write picture books, read lots of picture books! I read a piece of advice in an online discussion about reading 100 recently published books from your genre, which is a tall order if you write adult historical fiction, but completely achievable if you write picture books. Reading a lot helped me better understand the deceptively simple craft in which I was working.
Also, “Think about the art that might appear on the page. Is there enough happening? Are the details kid-friendly? Do the page turns reveal something fun and new?” This was advice a friend in the industry gave me years ago after generously reading my very first attempt at a picture book manuscript. (Attempt is a generous word). It stuck with me, and I refer to it each time I start a new draft.
Were there any skills from your previous life in theater that translated to writing picture books?
I used to work in the New York theater industry on the literary side of things – lots of reading new plays and writing script notes. My aspiration was always to find what question or piece of feedback would most help a playwright have that moment of, okay, this is what I’m trying to say, this is what my story wants to be. What would help someone “unlock” the story they were trying to tell.
Even in a completely different genre, I do think the process of working with and learning from other writers has helped me unlock my own stories. It’s helped me rewrite. I love all the meaty ingredients that make up a story – conflict, character, language, stakes. I’m a sucker for structure. Some of it applies in picture books, some of it doesn’t, but there’s no question that time spent talking about story with other storytellers has influenced my own writing. Theater is also a collaborative art form. It’s not a perfect parallel, but just as it takes a director, designers, and actors to bring a script to life, it takes an illustrator to realize a picture book text. On a practical front, the theater is similarly an industry with a low success rate where patience and preservice go a long way. It’s prepared me for the long haul.
Speaking of the long haul, has publishing your picture book debut changed anything about your writing process?
I have a better understanding of the industry now. I was slow to join online groups and connect with other creators on social media. I was a total noob, as my kids would say. Now I follow the trade announcements and try my best to keep abreast of trends. I read more. It’s changed my process in a mostly helpful way, in that I’m more aware of what I’m writing and where it might fit in the current landscape. At the same time, though, there was something honest and freeing about writing The Happiest Kid when I didn’t know what I was doing. It came from the heart.
Thank you for stopping by and giving us a look behind the page, but before you go, what snack fueled you while working on this series?
Blue Diamond Almonds – Wasabi and Soy Sauce flavor. Yum!
Thank you for reading this fun Interview with Sarah Bagley Steele. Make sure to grab your copy on March 15th or request it from your local library. If you love it, write a review. Reviews are a free and priceless way to support authors and illustrators. If you’re not following Sarah already, you can find her on Instagram at @sarah.writes.for.kids where she shares book recommendations, and activity and craft ideas. You can also find her on Twitter @SBagleySteele and at www.sarahbagleysteele.com.
Want to win a copy? Sarah is giving away a copy of The Happiest Kid. To enter into the giveaway: Retweet our Behind the Page tweet. Follow Sarah on Twitter for an additional entry.
If you enjoyed this interview, make sure to comment, share, or subscribe. (or all three if you feel called to.) Our next Interview at Behind the Page is an Interview with Brian Russo, author and illustrator of A Friend for Yoga Bunny. Until then, take care and stay creative!