Six Questions with Sarah Bagley Steele
Sarah Bagley Steele is a children’s author who loves stories of all kinds, especially ones that 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 10 seasons of free Shakespeare in the Park. Sarah's first picture book, The Happiest Kid (Yeehoo Press), released earlier this year. 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. On her Instagram feed @sarah.writes.for.kids she shares book recommendations, and activity and craft ideas. Visit Sarah's website to learn more about her work.
1. How did you begin your journey as an author?
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. There was always part of me that wanted to take the plunge and write myself. 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. I started writing picture books in 2017 and sent out my first query almost exactly four years ago.
2. Did you have a favorite teacher when you were a child? What made them so special?
My second-grade teacher, Mr. Hafner, had a legendary annual egg drop competition. He stood on the roof of the school and dropped the student-designed contraptions himself. He also had a corner of the classroom reserved for half-gallon cardboard milk cartons, some of which were empty, some filled with sand. The class would break into teams and see who could build the tallest milk carton tower without it falling. This was in the 1980s, long before “STEM Challenge” became part of our lexicon. He was a visionary!
3. When you begin writing a book, do you always know where the story is going?
Usually, yes. I’m a planner! I think of picture books like a puzzle, and I like to work out the pieces as much as I can before I start writing. I make outlines and plot out how a character changes over the course of a story. There are always discoveries along the way and always revisions but having a structure in place at the beginning is helpful for me.
4. Where did you get the idea for The Happiest Kid? What was your inspiration?
One day I was feeling sad 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 consider the ways we hide feelings and wonder if my very upbeat daughter ever does the same. That was the original impulse for the story and its themes. The idea for the actual 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 make my character’s journey more visually active. What if sadness were an object, she literally stuffs in her pocket? That was the starting place for me in writing the cloud that Sally tries to hide over the course of the book. Can she zip up the cloud in her backpack? Will it stay put it she shoves it behind her back? What if keeps growing?
5. What was the process or timeline for this book, from idea to publishing?
The Happiest Kid is my debut picture book and I sold it directly to the publisher, Yeehoo Press. I wrote the first draft in the spring of 2019 and submitted it to Yeehoo in February 2020 after reading they had an interest in children’s books about emotions. In June 2020, I received a revise and resubmit request from my future editor, Zhiqiao Wang, along with the most helpful feedback. 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 book came out in March 2022, with gorgeous illustrations by Elsa Pui Si Lo and Clarice Yunyi Cai.
6. Who should read The Happiest Kid?
I think the social-emotional themes in the story are important topics to everyone and hope this book will encourage conversations both in the classroom and at home. Everyone needs the space to have a bad day. When Sally hides the cloud, it grows bigger. I hope Sally’s story helps young readers normalize big emotions. Adults too! Everyone gets sad sometimes, and it’s okay.