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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview w/Sara O'Leary + Review of Little Book of the Little Brontës

Sara O'Leary is a Canadian writer for both children and adults.

Author photo of Sara O'Leary.

Her books for children have been translated into multiple languages (including Braille), selected by Junior Library Guild and included in Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library program. This is Sadie was adapted for the stage by New York City Children’s Theater. Her novel, A Ghost in the House, was published by Doubleday Canada.

Collage of Sara O'Leary's 13 picture book covers.

She is the author of a number of critically acclaimed picture books, including A Kid is a Kid is a Kid, illustrated by Qin Leng (2021), Percy’s Museum, illustrated by Carmen Mok (2021), This is Ruby, illustrated by Alea Marley (2021), Gemma and the Giant Girl, illustrated by Marie Lafrance (2021), Maud and Grand-Maud, illustrated by Kenard Pak (2020), Night Walk, illustrated by Ellie Arscott (2020), Owls are Good at Keeping Secrets: An Unusual Alphabet, illustrated Jacob Grant (2018), The Boy and the Blue Moon, illustrated by Ashley Crowley (2018), This is Sadie, illustrated by Julie Morstad (2015), A Family is a Family is a Family,Qin Leng (2016), When I Was Small, illustrated by Julie Morstad (2011), Where You Came From, illustrated by Julie Morstad (2008), and When You Were Small, illustrated by Julie Morstad (2006).

Her newest picture book, The Little Books of the Little Brontës, released on October 17th.

Welcome Sara, thank you so much for stopping by to talk about your newest picture book and your writing.

Tell us a little about yourself (Where/when do you write? How long have you been writing? What is your favorite type of book to write?)

I’ve been writing for a very long time but only started writing children’s books when my own children were small. I was working as a book reviewer at the time and so we had a constant supply of very good books coming into the house and it made my fingers itch to try one of my own.

Something about reading a lot of picture books seems to spur people to writing them. What do you like to do outside by yourself or with family or friends?

I like to take walks and am very lucky in that we have some tremendous beaches in our area. We live close to the Bay of Fundy where there are the highest tides in the world and so every time you visit the beach it is just a little different from the time before. I grew up right in the middle of the country so living by the ocean is a ridiculous form of luxury for me.

I totally agree with you and would love to live closer to the ocean. What was the inspiration or your spark of interest for The Little Books of the Little Brontës?

Book cover - three young girls and a boy sitting on a picnic blanket on a hillside reading books.

My desire to write this book had less to do with the novels of the Brontë sisters than with seeing a digitized version of the little book that Charlotte made for Anne. It’s thought to be the earliest of the little books made by the siblings to have survived and there are so many things about it that I love—foremost of which is not just that little Charlotte Brontë made a book, but the fact that she made it for somebody.

That is really an interesting tidbit. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or your favorite book as a child?

Book cover  - Christopher and Pooh holding hands.

I was talking with another writer friend this week about the A.A. Milne books and how much they meant to each of us. I still have my own childhood copies and more than that I have great swathes of his verse stored away in my head and accessible to me at any moment.

There is just something magical about his books. What was the hardest part of writing and/or illustrating The Little Books of the Little Brontës? And though we don’t often ask, what was the most fun?

The hardest part of writing this book was finding a way to tell the story that felt accessible to children. There were concerns early on that readers years away from reading Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights wouldn’t care to learn about the childhood of their authors. Also, a fear that it would be too dark or too frightening. But I really wanted it to be a joyful story and one in which children could easily see themselves. Finally, it is a story about childhood creativity and that hasn’t really changed in two hundred years.

Which I think can be both a happy and a sad thing. I do love the format you ultimately chose. How long did it take from the first draft to publication for The Little Books of the Little Brontës?

I think we first started talking about this book in 2016! So, there was the time it took to get the draft to where it needed to be, but even more than that was the time it took for the team at Tundra to settle on exactly the right illustrator. When I saw Briony’s sketches for the characters of Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne, they were so lively and delightful that all my fears about the book sort of fell away.

It's always so amazing what the right illustrator can do with a book! When you first saw Briony May Smith’s illustrations in The Little Books of the Little Brontës, did anything surprise, amaze, or delight you? Which is your favorite spread?

Internal spread - father and four kids sit at one end of a table with three empty chairs at the other end.

Text © Sara O'Leary, 2023. Image © Briony May Smith, 2023.

It’s really hard to choose a favourite spread because I could name so many—the bedroom one where the children are acting out plays which we used on the poster for the book is perfectly stunning, and full of all sorts of brilliant tiny details. But the one that made me gasp when I turned the page is that of the family sitting around the dining table with empty chairs in the places of the mother and two sisters who had died. I think it conveys that sense of grief so beautifully but at the same time there is so much life going on around the table (and under it, where Emily is feeding her dinner to the dog just as she always did). And I do love all the images of the children out on the moors!

That is a visually poignant scene. Is there something you want your readers to know about The Little Books of the Little Brontës?

We talk about the grown Brontë sisters as geniuses, but this was a term they chose to claim for themselves as children. And I do think that all children possess genius in that they have the ability to create and to revel in the satisfaction in making something yourself. For the Brontës it was books.

Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?

Nothing I’m working on has been announced yet, so I can’t say much. One thing that I have been doing lately is approving foreign editions of this book and it’s been lovely seeing it going into other languages and to think of it reaching children around the world.

Congrats on the translations and good luck with your other projects. What is your favorite National Park or Forest, regional park, or city park (anywhere in the world)? Or the one you’re longing to visit. Why?

Boardwalk trail in Pacific Spirit National Park, B.C.

When my children were small, we lived near Pacific Spirit Park in Vancouver. It was a magic place for all of us and the amazement was always in how quickly the city disappeared as you followed the path into the woods.

Thank you, Sara for stopping by and sharing with us. It was wonderful to meet and chat with you.

To find out more about Sara O’Leary, or contact her:

Review of The Little Books of the Little Brontës

And ingenious invitation into a moment in the lives of four children who become famous English authors. A moment when they shared a hunger for books, a love for creating their own imaginative stories, and a deep connection to each other.

Book cover - three young girls and a boy sitting on a picnic blanket on a hillside reading books.

The Little Books of the Little Brontës

Author: Sara O'Leary

Illustrator: Briony May Smith

Publisher: Tundra Books (2023)

Ages: 5-9



Siblings, imagination, books, and storytelling.


The inspiring true tale of young siblings who loved to make stories — and grew up to be among English literature's finest writers. A picture book for fans of Mary Who Wrote Frankenstein.

Many years ago, the four motherless children of the Brontë family — Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne — lived in a windswept house by the moors with their father. Although their lives were often filled with sadness and their world was only as large as the distance they could walk, their INNER worlds were bound only by their imaginations. Hungry for stories, these children devoured novels and poetry, history and fables. And with the gift of a group of toy soldiers, they were inspired to make their own stories, and their own tiny books . . . a passion that would last them a lifetime.

A moving and atmospheric story about the power of imagination, the joy of storytelling and the love of books, The Little Books of the Little Brontës will enchant both those who love these literary sisters and those who are learning about them for the first time. Includes an author's note, timeline of the Brontës' lives and a fun craft with instructions on creating your own little book.

Opening Lines:

Many years before you were born,

sometime in the long ago,

a child named Charlotte Brontë

made a little book for her little sister Anne.

If you look through the window of this house,

on the edge of the wild moors, you can

see the two of them there, sitting at the table.

What I LOVED about this book:

This is such an inventive and inviting opening, with a simultaneous somber and cozy illustration. The warm room and tender time between the sisters is in such contrast to the baren, bleak, grey day on the moors. I love how the lyrical text invites the reader to turn the page and how we "physically" enter the Brontë children's world.

Internal spread - on the left is a bare tree and the gloomy, grey moor. On the right,  through a window, a young girl watching her sister working on a little book.

Text © Sara O'Leary, 2023. Image © Briony May Smith, 2023.

Once the reader is drawn inside, it is a wonderful biography of the lives, imaginations, and companionship of Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne Brontë. Beautiful period illustrations, along with the sepia tones and rough edges make it feel almost like we are looking through a family scrapbook, from "sometime in the long ago."

Internal spread -  upper left Anne watching Charlotte create a little book. Lower left, Charlotte sewing the little book. On right, aglow from the book shines on Anne's mesmerized face.

Text © Sara O'Leary, 2023. Image © Briony May Smith, 2023.

Immediately we feel their affection for each other and the magic contained in the books they read and create. I love the glow emanating from Anne's little book and Charlotte's illustrations fanning out above her head against the wall paper. And perhaps most telling is the "innocuous" line - "And the story ends happily."

A sudden shift to an arial, withdrawn point of view, with the children with their father at a meal (look back at the image in the interview) makes the full-bleed illustration so poignant and the text "there has been sadness in the house for a long time" so powerful. After shifting back to an album-like feel to highlight their father aunt, housekeeper, and pets. And most importantly their relationship and reliance on "each other," there is finally a spot of color as they visit the village - wraps, store fronts, and a blue-grey sky pop against the tan brick buildings in another full page spread.

Kids will enjoy looking for their pets featured on almost every spread. Although the young kids never physically venture far, their creative storytelling fuels their imaginations, creating many virtual journeys.

Internal spread - children enacting a story in their room by lantern light, with  shadow shapes of a castle, knight on a horse, and a dragon on the walls.

Text © Sara O'Leary, 2023. Image © Briony May Smith, 2023.

The books they write are tiny but the worlds inside them are huge.

They contain continents and oceans, love stories and battles.

There are heroes and antiheroes. And sometimes those who die

in one story are brought back to life in another.

Adults and maybe some empathetic and older children will sense the undercurrent of hardship, loss, and isolation. But I love how the primary focus revolves around their loving, tender moments together, as poems and stories fill their lives. It's a great biography of four kids coping, imagining, learning, and exploring together. After a brief nod to the enduring stories they would write as adults, the reader's asked to "leave them there now. Happy with their stories and with each other."

The ending is unexpected and perfect. A fascinating author's note and timeline detail their lives, what is known, and what is surmised. You don't want to miss this book. It is unique and ingenious, just like the four Brontës. A stunningly illustrated and lyrical ode to the power of imagination and stories.


Intro of YouTube vidoe with hand shadows of an wol, dog, hammer, and rabbit.

- draw the outline of animals or persons and attach them to sticks make your own shadow story. Or learn to make hand shadow puppets.

- follow the directions at the end and make your own little book(s). What stories would you tell?


Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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