Author Spotlight: Sarah Bagley Steele
May 27, 2022
We are excited to feature author Sarah Bagley Steele and her debut picture book THE HAPPIEST KID, illustrated by Elsa Pui Si Lo and Clarice Yunyi Cai (Yeehoo Press, 2022) Enter to win a copy!
Tell us about yourself and how you came to write for children.
First, thank you so much for having me! I’m originally from San Diego but moved to New York almost 20 years ago and have been here ever since. 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 had stops and starts on a young adult novel but could never get enough momentum to complete it.
I have long loved picture books, but it wasn’t until I had kids that I began reading a lot of them and knew that’s what I wanted to write. I love the shared experience of a picture book – parents reading to children in bed, teachers to classrooms. There’s a ritual to picture book reading that I find very moving. I’m inspired by the way the illustrations and the text dance together to tell a complete story. I think of writing a picture book as a puzzle; I love working out how the pieces fit together. Picture books are not easy to write, but I can finish drafts more easily than with novels, which has allowed me to grow as a writer.
Congratulations on your picture book debut, The Happiest Kid! Tell us about the story and what inspired you.
Thank you so much! The Happiest Kid is the story of a happy kid who wakes up one morning not feeling happy. Where she normally sees a bright sun, there is now a cloud. 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 she must find the courage to let it out. It’s a reassuring book about big feelings and understanding that everyone feels sad sometimes, and that’s okay.
I knew I wanted to write a story about a happy kid who felt sad, but I also knew it needed a lively visual journey kids would want to follow. My inspiration for the plot 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 my character Sally’s story. What if sadness were an object she literally tries to stuff in her pocket? Can she zip it in her backpack? What if it keeps growing? It became a motor for the story, which Elsa Pui Si Lo and Clarice Yunyi Cai told beautifully and playfully with the illustrations.
Was your road to publication long and winding, short and sweet, or something in between?
A winding beginning, with a short and sweet ending. I started writing picture books in 2017 and sent out my first query (for a different book) almost exactly four years ago. The Happiest Kid was my fourth manuscript. I sent it to agents in the spring of 2019 and, while I received positive feedback and even one revise and resubmit request, ultimately, I never received an offer of representation. In February 2020, I submitted it directly to Yeehoo Press after reading they had an interest in children’s books about emotions. 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 my future editor Zhiqiao Wang at Yeehoo Press. He engaged with the main character in a way others had not and asked insightful questions that led me to an “aha!” moment and helped me unlock the story. I dove headfirst into a rewrite, sent it back, and received an offer three weeks later. The privilege of having a new beginning, in that moment of time, is not lost on me, and I will always be grateful.
The Happiest Kid was released on March 15, 2022 and is available now.
What are some of your favorite classic picture books? recent ones?
My favorite picture book growing up was Miss Nelson is Missing, and it’s also a book I loved reading to my own children. A truly memorable villain is a special thing, and such fun in a read aloud. I do a great Viola Swamp voice.
As for recent picture books, The Longest Letsgoboy by Derek Wilder and illustrated by Catia Chien completely destroyed me. What a beautiful story about friendship, loss, love and hope. My whole family was fascinated by the nonfiction picture book Battle of the Butts by Jocelyn Rish and illustrated by David Creighton-Pester, about how animals use their behinds for evolutionary advantages. Together by Mona Damluji and illustrated by Innosanto Nagara is a gorgeous poem with an essential message and has become my go-to board book for new babies.
What projects are you working on now?
I’m currently working on two new picture book drafts, and a chapter book series. Fingers crossed.
What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
After generously reading my very first attempt at a picture book manuscript, a friend in the industry wrote this to me – “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?” That advice remains hugely helpful to me, and I return to it with each new draft.
Be honest and don’t shy away from hard topics. Kids are smart – don’t underestimate them! If you want to write picture books, read lots of picture books. Follow trade announcements, connect with other creators, and join online groups – like this one! I have learned so much from Kidlit411 and am thankful for all you share with the community. Be gentle on yourself but also do the work.
What is one thing most people don't know about you?
Both sides of my family have a long history of service in the US Navy. There is a destroyer (USS Bagley) named after my great grandfather and his brother.
Where can people find you online?
On my Instagram feed @sarah.writes.for.kids, I share book recommendations, crafts ideas and popsicle recipes. I also have lots of activities for kids listed on my website, www.sarahbagleysteele.com. On Twitter, I am @SBagleySteele.
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 lives in Brooklyn, NY with her husband, two children and rascal puppy. When not writing, she loves reading, cooking, and crafting of all sorts.
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