Questions and Answers with Sarah Sullivan, author of Once Upon a Baby Brother
1. How did you get the idea for Once Upon a Baby Brother?
As often happens, the first few lines came into my head. I heard the voice of a young girl telling her stories. It soon became clear that she had certain issues with her younger brother Marvin. Sadly, the entire story did not come so easily. Once I had the beginning, it took a lot of plain, old-fashioned work to find my way to the end.
2. Once the idea came to you, what happened next? Did you jot it down right away? Let it simmer?
I took down those first few lines right away. Then I jotted down various lines that might fit somewhere, not necessarily in the order in which I was writing them down. I knew that Lizzie would make Marvin the villain in her stories. And I always knew it would be a funny story But, I had trouble with the dramatic structure, (a common problem for me), until Melanie Kroupa expressed interest in the manuscript. With her expert and inspired guidance, the story started to develop the dramatic arc it needed.
3. What did you find the most challenging about writing this book? The most rewarding?
The most challenging part of writing this story . . . hmm. There were two major challenges. The first challenge was figuring out how to integrate the home story with the school story in the space of a 32-page picture book. The second challenge was figuring out how to succinctly tell the story of turning Marvin into a comic book hero. My editor and Tricia Tusa had A LOT to do with making that work! Creating a picture book is truly a collaborative enterprise!
4. How did the illustrations come about?
People are often surprised to learn that writers do not select their own illustrators – ( at least, not usually). Once Melanie and I finalized the text, she began looking for an illustrator. As you might imagine, I was THRILLED when she mentioned Tricia Tusa's name and was DOING BACK FLIPS when Tricia agreed to illustrate the book. As time passed and I had the opportunity to see sketches and then, proofs with color art, the joy and excitement continued to grow.
5. You have written two other picture books, Dear Baby: Letters from Your Big Brother, and Root Beer and Banana. How does your writing process compare from book to book?
That's a good question. The process has actually been quite different from one book to the next. I wrote the first draft of Dear Baby long before I started writing Root Beer and Banana. Dear Baby came about because my then 7-year-old son was talking about how well (or sometimes, not so well) two of his friends got along with their little sisters. I wondered how my own son would get along with a younger brother or sister if he had one. I also thought about the way my older brother used to complain about how much I used to bother him when I was little. Add to that the fact that I had just finished reading Lee Smith's epistolary novel, Fair and Tender Ladies, which meant that I was thinking about ways to tell stories through letters. All of these thoughts swirled around in my head and the first draft of Dear Baby was the result.
Root Beer and Banana, on the other hand, came directly out of a picture book workshop led by George Ella Lyon. She guided us through a writing exercise in which she directed us to focus on the details of a particularly vivid memory and then write a poem about it. I remembered a summer spent with my grandparents in a small town on the Rappahannock River in Virginia. I wrote a poem about going with my grandfather to buy a popsicle at a mom-and-pop grocery called Mister Mac's. I put the poem away for a while, as George Ella suggested that we do. Some time later, I was sitting up late reading one night when the voice of a young girl came into my head. "My name's Miracle," the girl said, "on account of the doctor said Mama couldn't have any more after my brothers, but I came anyway." I have no idea why this young girl appeared out of thin air one night – but she did and I knew instinctively that she belonged in the world of my poem. When I added Miracle to what I had already written, the story began to take shape immediately.
6. How did you know you wanted to become a writer? (Or: When did you begin to think of yourself as a writer?)
I guess I have a little bit in common with my main character in that, like Lizzie, I have always loved to tell stories. The writing fever really took hold once I learned to read in first grade. I started reading everything! Books, magazines, comics in newspapers, cereal boxes, the courtesy light sign on the dashboard of my grandfather's Oldsmobile – everything! And I started writing stories too. My first story was about a dead bird I found lying in the grass in our yard. I know that sounds a bit morbid, but the bird was so lovely. It was a cardinal and it made me sad to see it lying there so still. I had to write about it. I suppose, then, like now, a lot of my motivation for writing came from a need to try and understand why things happen the way they do.
Later on, my best friend, Nelle, and I had a secret club in a room in the basement of her house in Colorado. We collected Sugar and Spike comic books and wrote comic books with our own characters. Wait a minute -- This is starting to sound familiar . . .
I still have trouble calling myself a writer, even though I write every day. But, I have come to understand that, no matter what I call myself, I will always write. I will always tell stories. It's a need. I'm unhappy if I don't write.
7. What is the best piece of writing advice you have ever received?
Anne LaMott's advice in Bird by Bird is pretty hard to beat. Give yourself permission to write terrible first drafts. (Okay. She didn't use the word terrible.)
8. What advice do you have for young writers—especially those with little brothers ;-)?
There is no better training for a writer than to read. Read all the time. Read all different kinds of things. And then follow your passion and, as one of my writing teachers, Jane Resh Thomas, advises her students, write what moves you. Write about things that you care passionately about.
9. When you aren’t writing, what are some of your favorite things to do?
Long walks, reading, canoeing, theater (both from the audience and backstage), and travel.
10. Do you have a muse like the main character in your book does?
Hmm. A muse? Not really, although my husband has suggested it's a little odd that I've written two books involving sibling rivalry. I am inspired by the work of other writers. My list of favorites is long and changes constantly. Some of the people whose work I find particularly inspiring are Eudora Welty, Sharon Creech and Kate DiCamillo. I love certain works like The Great Gatsby and the opening pages of My Antonía. Lately, I've been completely knocked out by Colm Toibín and Column McCann. And I go back to some of John Cheever's stories with regularity. But, ask me tomorrow and I will probably give you a completely different list.
You can find more information about Once Upon a Baby Brother or author Sarah Sullivan at http://sarahsullivanjournal.blogspot.com/
The illustrations were really great too. They fit so well with the story and could tell the stories themselves, which is great for my prereader. He loves looking at the pictures, then pointing out some sight words that he knows and trying to tell the story. I highly recommend this fun book!
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