Behind the Scenes: “Crafting Memory into Story” by Sandy Brehl

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 BrehlBrehl.headshot

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.

Screen Shot 2021-07-10 at 6.41.34 PMLater 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.

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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


22 thoughts on “Behind the Scenes: “Crafting Memory into Story” by Sandy Brehl

  1. I’ll get the comments started (with no eligibility for the drawing, of course!) by thanking you, Beth, for your warm welcome to share this nw release, and for kind words in the introduction.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ll add here that I replied to everyone, but waited until a winner was drawn in order not to suggest any “influencing”. Some of the replies don’t seem to have come through.
      This is not the only techie glitch related to outreach with this book, so I am blaming them all on the static and interruptions of stormy weather!
      Thank you, Beth, for sharing your blog space with me, and thank you to everyne who shared stories and encouragement. It was fun to read, and I can see the building blocks for more stories in your own memories. Stay safe and dry and she your stories!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Loved hearing the story behind the story of this picture book. I know those Lake Erie storms. Loved your book and glad to see it getting so much attention as it is very timely. It is a timely and perfect read aloud for the entire family.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. What an amazing writing journey, Sandy! It must have been a difficult decision to remove Grandma from the story, but replacing her with the veteran daddy who needs healing certainly tugs at the heart. I love your book’s concept and the illustrations are wonderful. Congratulations on the publication of Is It Over. I can’t wait to read it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much, Pamela. No kidding about the “kill your darlings” grandma edit that tugged from my childhood memory of my own, and then the images of my own mom comforting her grandchild. I’m rusting their loving hearts to forgive me! And absolutely YES to the illustrations! They blew me away faster than a strong storm wind could have!

      Liked by 2 people

  4. My storm story involves an unexpected tornado that arose suddenly while my children and I were visiting neighbors.

    The wind came out of nowhere and whipped through the trees. We immediately headed inside and watched the chairs around the pool leap and tumble across the yard and into the woods. My wise 10-year-old son suggested we head for the basement. The wind stopped as suddenly as it began and when we ventured upstairs, we saw the tops of trees covering on the dry ground. The children were relieved to see our beloved dog who greeted us when we arrived home. We toured our woods at the back of our property and were amazed at the sight of the trees. It looked like a giant had grasped the trunks midway up the tallest trees and twisted them, splitting the wood into slats. We hugged and gave thanks for surviving the day the giant came to visit.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Oh boy, does this bring back memories. I had just moved into a new neighborhood and there came a storm. All of a sudden I had a bunch of strangers on my porch, they had a live wire on their side of the street. They were all talking to each other, but not me. I have used this memory in a book that I’m writing. Love your story, thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. A storm story? I have one from 1987, I think it was. We lived in Connecticut which doesn’t usually get tornados. I had gone to the library with my young daughter. While there, the sky turned almost black…and foolishly, I thought, Oh, we’d better get home. Driving home we passed trees pretty much bending over…but we made it back safely. We had a partially dead tree in the next door neighbor’s yard…and that night, because of the storm, the kids all wanted to sleep in our room. Which was a lucky thing because a huge limb from that dead tree cracked off and hit our roof on the side of the house where my daughter’s bedroom was…and branches crashed through one of her windows.
    Another storm story from 1886…another tornado…this time in Colorado. We had just sold our home in Connecticut and were at the tail end of our 3 day drive to Colorado Springs where we had bought a house. We’d heard tornado warnings on the radio…but barreling down I-25 from Denver, we never thought it would be so close. But from our rear view mirror, we could see the funnel – quite a ways behind us and going in a different direction. That was quite a wild Western welcome, for sure.
    I love your book, Sandy…it will help so many kids and their parents. Thanks for the wonderful post, Beth. I already have Sandy’s beautiful book, so I don’t need to be in the drawing.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. What a lovely story and inspiration for this aspiring author, as I am also turning to life events for inspiration. Thank you for sharing! I don’t have any specific storm stories except that I always recall my grandmother when it rains but the sun is still out. She always said “the devil’s beating his wife!” when that happens. That always seemed so absurd! She must have been told that by her own mother or grandmother. Thanks again for the wonderful story!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Great post Beth! Sandy, although I loved storms as a child – they’ve lost a bit of their charm now that I am the one worried about trees & branches crashing into the house or long periods with electricity. Back then, I didn’t worry about the food in the fridge or the house. The lightning striking the front tree was cool and dinner/stories by flashlight a great adventure! I’m looking forward to read your book. Congrats!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. “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.”

    Sandy, I love that you kept revising this story over the years with a willingness to make it a new kind of special, even if it meant veering away from the fantastic facts of your own childhood experiences. So often, we writers have tunnel vision about our ideas and won’t gift ourselves the freedom to simply play with other possibilities that just might lead to a new and improved story vision. Congratulations on weathering the storms of this tremendous writing journey and achieving the reward of publication of a story more beautiful than you first imagined.

    One of my favorite memories of thunderstorms happened when I was a kid, back when my cousins and I would spend our summer vacations visiting our grandparents in the Mississippi Delta. In those bygone days, our only job was to play the day (and often the night) away — riding bikes, playing baseball and basketball, and eating gobs of tomatoes, blackberries, and honeysuckle right from the bushes in the backyard. Even light rainstorms didn’t drive us inside the house. Instead, the lot of us would squeeze together under the carport to sit on the hood (and roof!) of my grandfather’s pea-green Oldsmobile Delta 88 to watch the rain come down, all the while talking up a storm and playing board games, like checkers, Monopoly, and Mystery Date. Yes, indeed, those were the sweetest storm days I’ve ever known!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Thank you, Sandy, for sharing your use of memory to craft your story. Lightning stuck outside my window one night–not fun!! I was about 3 and the memory lives on! I look forward to reading your book!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I enjoyed hearing about the many revisions that led to the final draft of the book. I look forward to sharing the story with my students. Perhaps it will inspire some of them to write a story about a fear of their own or a storm they experienced?

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I loved this story so much and when my children were small when it stormed they were all in our bed until the storm was over and it was a good memory.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I enjoyed reading about how this idea developed into a picture book. My storm story is once my parents were hosting a small BBQ dinner on their enclosed back porch and while we were eating the worse winds and pounding rain were shaking the structure, but my parents dismissed it. Then we later found out a tornado had touched down a mile away. Now I wonder why the sirens never sounded….

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow!
      I’ll admit that tornadoes are an entirely different subject!
      That calm reaction and steady socializing is one of the drawbacks to lacking fear of storms. It’s always a middle ground that can be hard to find- when to worry, when to relax and enjoy it! Thanks for sharing.

      Liked by 2 people

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