Sandy Brehl is one of those kid lit people who shares picture book love through thoughtful interviews and posts. I’m just one of many kid lit creators who is grateful for her support and honored to call her a friend. Here, Sandy shares how a memory kept calling her through time, finally resulting in her new picture book, IS IT OVER? She started like many of us, trying to write a memory as story. Through feedback, she learned to let go of her reality and craft the emotional core of that memory into a picture book.
Sandy is offering a GIVEAWAY!—a copy of Is It Over? signed by her and the illustrator, AND a stuffed elephant! Leave a comment below for a chance to win.
“Crafting Memory into Story” by Sandy Brehl
Thank you for your warm welcome, Beth. The “story behind this story” goes back many years, tracing a path to a picture book that parallels my own development as a child and as a writer.
The first glimmers of this story appeared when I wrote a fictionalized family story that closely reflected my childhood memories. It was a compilation of vignettes that I bound as an anniversary gift for my parents. One chapter featured our annual summer vacation to Lake Erie, packed into a rattletrap station wagon, with Grandma and Grandpa squeezed in, too. It included the time we huddled on a screened porch, power out, assaulted by thunder and lightning, waves crashing barely a hundred feet from our door.
At the heart of that chapter was the power of storytelling to distract and soothe: Grandma said angels were bowling, scoring strikes. Grandpa described a heavenly field of rumbling harvesters and flying grains of wheat. My brother conjured war scenes, but Mom quickly shifted that to a waterpark with squeals and squirt guns. As writers do, I dropped my copy in a drawer and moved on, only to have those scenes float to mind periodically between working on other picture book manuscripts.
Over time I pulled it out, revised, and submitted various versions for critiques and workshops. Each attempt remained firmly focused on imaginative explanations for thunderstorms. In every case the adults recounted stories they had heard in childhood. I have never been afraid of storms, although I know many people are– not just kids, and certainly including pets! I often thought of darkening, massive storm clouds as a herd of elephants. I love elephants, so my story, like those others, seemed more entertaining to me than threatening.
Later I had a young niece who was terrified of storms. She struggled to the point of panic attacks, and was soothed only by cuddling in her grandma’s arms (my mom). I wanted to write a story for Andrea, who has long since grown. (She tells me that the dedication to her made her cry.) I kept her in mind as I revised, but many other elements changed. I limited it to the storm scene, removed several characters, and centered the comforting grandma as the problem solver. It included a brother telling a “war” story, and a veteran father who spoke up to change the subject. That version was submitted during an agent pitch session. (Yay, Wisconsin SCBWI!)
The agent suggested that there are more than enough grandma stories, but far fewer father-daughter stories, and even fewer stories about dads with fears of their own. By that point in my writing life I welcomed such feedback in critiques. I not only shifted to Daddy being the source of comfort, but also removed GRANDMA! (Can you believe it? That was tough.) Then it occurred to me that the child, Risa, might be able to rescue herself through storytelling. Leaning on the comfort and security of her relationships with Daddy and her faithful stuffed elephant, she finds a way. In the process, she helps her Daddy. My own dad was a WWII veteran, one of the countless who came home and built families with few words about what they had experienced, burying their PTSD (which did not yet have a name). That agent critique led to the spare text of IS IT OVER? I let go of early details, characters, and even personal memories, while retaining the emotional core of loving relationships, empathy, and those appealing elephants from my childhood.
Rebecca S. Hirsch illustrated, and she sensed the power of the relationships and emotions immediately. Her earliest sketches and embodiment of Risa, Daddy, and Ivan blew me away. Character interactions, subtle sensitivity, and color transitions allow humor and love to buffer a reader’s journey through fear, empathy, and courageous imagination. When Risa and Daddy reach the lighthearted and happy ending, they have both resolved some inner storms.
I hope that readers of many ages will enjoy this story, and might also enjoy gathering and sharing storm stories and personal histories from those they love.
For a chance to win a signed copy, by both Rebecca and Sandy, along with a stuffed IVAN, just leave a comment below. If you include a storm story of your own, it will count as a double entry! (USA only for the drawing, but global stories are welcome!) Drawing 7/30.
Sandy Brehl is an award-winning author, member of the Wisconsin chapter of SCBWI, and a Holocaust outreach educator. Visit her website: https://sandybrehlbooks.com. Find picture book reviews and interviews here: http://unpackingpicturebookpower.blogspot.com . This is Sandy Brehl’s first picture book. Twitter: @SandyBrehl and @PBWorkshop