The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview w/Sarah Bagley Steele and Revies of The Happiest Kid

After a career producing theater, Sarah Bagley Steele turned her attention to her own writing and fell in love with the wonder of children's books. When not writing stories, she loves devising inventive activities and adventures for kids and sharing them on her Instagram feed. Born and raised a California girl, Sarah now lives in Brooklyn, NY with her husband, two children and rascal puppy.

Sarah’s debut picture book, The Happiest Kid, released March 15, 2022.

Welcome Sarah, thank you so much for stopping by to talk about your debut book and your writing.


First, thank you so much for having me!


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?)


My background is in theater; I worked as a Literary Manager off-Broadway for many years, reading submissions and working with writers on their new plays. I also produced outdoor Shakespeare in Pennsylvania for ten summers. There was always part of me that wanted to take the plunge and write myself. I started writing picture books in 2017 and sent out my first query almost exactly four years ago.


I like to sit with a story in my head, working it out like a puzzle, before I begin writing. How a character changes and why is central to the process for me and I make little charts plotting that out. I like to write when the apartment is still and everyone else is asleep and my dog is cuddled up at my feet. I love writing picture books but am also working on a chapter book series and hope to return to a middle grade draft I abandoned too soon.


Sounds like a wonderful time to work. Good luck with that middle grade novel. What is something no one (or few) knows about you?


When I was a child, I loved memorizing capital cities. I know all the US States and most countries. If I ever find my way onto a geography quiz show, I’ll be ready!


Ha! Have you found anything particularly helpful in keeping you inspired and writing these past couple of years?


My favorite part of The Happiest Kid being out in the world has been visiting schools and sharing the story with kids. I often get asked what new stories I’m working on. I would love to return in a couple of years and share those stories too. That keeps me writing.


So, even kids ask you that question! What was your inspiration for The Happiest Kid?

I first had the idea for the story when I was feeling sad about something and bumped into a friend on the street. She asked how I was doing, and I immediately said, “Great! Wonderful!”, almost like a reflex. It made me think about the ways we hide feelings and wonder if my very cheerful daughter ever does the same. I had written three previous picture manuscripts that were cute and sweet – the kind of books that I assumed kids and parents would want to read. This was the first story I wrote that was honest, and it’s the one that resonated with people.


Writing what is close to our heart makes the best book, regardless of the genre. How many revisions did The Happiest Kid take from first draft to publication?


I just looked back through my old drafts and found one from 2019 titled, “Really the Best Rewrite”. That made me chuckle. I began querying earlier versions of The Happiest Kid in the spring of 2019 and there were two major revisions along the way. The first was for a revise and resubmit request I received from an agent, in which I rewrote the ending. Something was still not clicking, though, and she ultimately passed on the book.


Then, in February 2020, I submitted it directly to Yeehoo Press. A few months later I received a lovely, lengthy email from my future editor, Zhiqiao Wang. He engaged with the main character in a way others had not and asked new, insightful questions that led me to an “aha” moment with the story. I dove headfirst into a second rewrite, sent it off, and received an offer three weeks later. There were tweaks and cuts after that, but the bulk of the text remained the same.


I love the title of that draft. I'm afraid I just number mine. What was the toughest aspect of writing The Happiest Kid? How hard was it to keep from being too didactic or “lesson-like” with the text?


The toughest aspect was figuring out the actual plot. I knew I wanted to write a story about a happy kid who felt sad, but I also knew it needed an active story line kids would want to follow, and one that would lend itself to a compelling visual journey. This is where the cloud came in, which my character Sally tries to hide over the course of the book.


The idea for the cloud came from a line I wrote in a college essay about “stuffing my pain in my pocket.” The image stuck with me over the years, and I thought of it when struggling to activate this story. What if sadness were an object she literally tries to stuff in her pocket? My hope is that giving the character a lively journey for readers to track (Can she zip the cloud in her backpack? Will it stay put it she shoves it behind her back? What if she sits on it?) helps kids invest in and relate to the story without it feeling overly didactic.


It's so fascinating what sticks with us. As a child, who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book?

I loved Miss Nelson is Missing by Harry Allard and James Marshall. Viola Swamp was such an amazing character, and as a child, it was fun to solve the mystery of her identity. I read single book in The Babysitter’s Club by Ann M. Martin. I’ve loved watching my daughter experience the characters and series through the reimagined graphic novel versions. I vividly remember the experience of reading Katherine Patterson’s Bridge to Terabithia.


Is there anything you want your readers to know about or gain from The Happiest Kid?


Everyone feels sad sometimes, and it’s okay.


How did it come about that you had the slightly unusual circumstance of having two illustrators?


Text © Sarah Bagley Steele, 2022. Image © Elsa Pui Si Lo & Clarice Yunyi Cai, 2022.


Elsa Pui Si Lo and Clarice Yunyi Cai did such a beautiful job. I particularly love the way they captured Sally’s emotions, and made the cloud come alive as a character. Originally it was just one illustrator, but there were circumstances regarding her health that required another illustrator to come onboard. I am grateful to them both.


I'm sorry that there was a health issue, but they did a great job collaborating. What is your favorite National Park or Forest, regional park, or city park? Or the one you’re longing to visit. Why?

I grew up in California and have wonderful memories of visiting Kings Canyon and camping among the Redwoods. For city parks, I have to go with Prospect Park in Brooklyn, where I've lived for almost 20 years. Prospect Park is where my children play baseball, where I walk my dog, where we ice skate in the winter, where we have lazy picnics in the summer. It is a huge part of my life and I am grateful for its existence.


Thank you, Sarah for stopping by and sharing your time and thoughts with us. It was wonderful to chat with you.


To find out more about Sarah Bagley Steele, or contact her:

Website: https://www.sarahbagleysteele.com/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/SBagleySteele

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/sarah.writes.for.kids/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/sarah.b.steele.52



Review of The Happiest Kid


This has been such a crazy two years. And for many, the hits keep coming. It's hard enough for adults to sythesize what's happening and acknowledge and deal with our emotions. How do we explain half of this world to kids? This book could be useful in helping kids understand and cope with their emotions.

The Happiest Kid


Author: Sara Bagley Steele


Illustrator: Elsa Pui Si Lo and Clarice Yunyi Cai

Publisher: Yehoo Press (2022)


Ages: 4-8


Fiction


Themes:

Sadness, emotions, and acceptance,


Synopsis:

What's the happiest kid supposed to do when she wakes up not feeling happy? A reassuring picture book debut about recognizing sadness and talking about big feelings.


Sally is usually the happiest kid. She wakes up every morning with a bright sun shining over her bed, and she knows it's going to be a good day. But one day she wakes up feeling different and there's a gloomy cloud hanging over her instead. She doesn't know why it's there, but she doesn't want anyone to see it—not her parents, not her teacher, and not her friends—so she hides it away. But as the day goes on, the cloud grows too big and heavy for her to carry, and Sally must find the courage to let it out. In this sweet story, Sarah Bagley Steele, Elsa Pu Si Lo, and Clarice Cai offer a gentle reminder that everyone feels sad sometimes, and that's okay.


Opening Lines:

Sally was the happiest kid in the world.

She always waved hello to everyone.


She was so happy that every morning when she

woke up, there was a bright yellow sun hanging

over her bed welcoming Sally to a new, happy day.

Then one day, something happened.


What I LIKED about this book:

Even the happiest, easy-go-luckiest of us can have a bad day. When everything seems to wrong, Sally's sunny mood is interrupted by an unwelcome newcomer. A cloud which refuses to leave.

Text © Sarah Bagley Steele, 2022. Image © Elsa Pui Si Lo & Clarice Yunyi Cai, 2022.


Unsure what to do with this new feeling, Sally forces it under a pillow. Then she rolls it into a ball and shoves it in her pocket. But as most of us know, and Sally soon discovers, feelings don't vanish because we force them down (or squish them into our sweaters). They have a way of making sure we know they are still there.


After wrestling with her cloud, during a "paint-your-feelings" projects and seeing her friends laughing and playing at recess, Sally is unable to pretend to smile and grumpily hauls her expanding, heavy cloud to a far corner of the playground. Yelling at it to "Stop growing." The soft illustrations do a good job of personifying Sally's sadness and grumpiness as a growing, unhappy (frowning) cloud.

Text © Sarah Bagley Steele, 2022. Image © Elsa Pui Si Lo & Clarice Yunyi Cai, 2022.


There are so many reasons why everyone has at some point - "put on a brave face." Whether to protect someone's feelings (child or loved one), follow a belief about society's expectations, or perhaps uncertainty. And kids with their limited experiences often don't know how, or if, to share what they are feeling. Sally discovers that trying to suppress or hiding her cloud doesn't make it go away, it just makes it bigger. Until ...


With a simple, straightforward dialogue, Sally learns something that allows her to accept and even embrace the cloud; allowing it to exist without being a cumbersome weight. Kids will easily identify with and relate to Sally. I think this will be a good book for teachers and parents helping kids understand and accept their range of feelings. To know that everyone gets sad sometimes. It's what you do with the sadness that's important. The end pages beautifully encapsulate Sally's journey in learning to accept her feelings. Kids will be able to identify with and relate to Sally.


Resources:

- make a collage of your feeling(s).


- when you are sad, what does your sadness look like? Draw a picture of your sadness or of you when your sad. Now, draw one of you when you are happy. Add to your pictures things that make you sad or happy.


- pair this with Big Bear Was Not the Same by Joanna Rowland, illustrated by John Ledda (fear/PTSD), The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld (a range of emotions/grief), The Snurtch by Sean Ferrell, illustrated by Charles Santoso (anger), and Ruby Finds a Worry by Tom Percival (worry).

Decorative scroll design
Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

Decorative scroll design

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