I began my writing journey as a shy introvert who deeply loved (and still does) the solitary side of the craft. But now that I have two picture books published, I can see that my passion for story has also opened my heart and extended my sense of community. What’s the magic ingredient? The simple experience of sharing my picture books with others.
Early on, I didn’t think much about the post-publication stage. I just knew I had a passion for playing with words. I also had two small children at home, so writing was a soul-feeding necessity. I wrote during any quiet moment I could find — when they napped, before they got up, after they went to sleep. I especially loved rhyme and spent hours filling notebooks with rhyming poems and stories.
Through the internet and in person, I also connected with other children’s writers. Soon we were exchanging stories and offering each other wonderful feedback. But even with that small community, writing for me was still primarily a private craft. I hoped, of course, to be published someday, but I had no grasp of what that would actually feel like.
All that changed with the publication of my first book. Suddenly my story was out in the open for all to see, read, and respond to. Reviews started appearing in journals like Publisher’s Weekly and on websites like Goodreads and Amazon. Though most of the reviews were good, some were more critical. And each response felt surprisingly personal, like part of me was being poked, prodded, and analyzed.
My calendar also quickly filled with reading engagements. Though shy by nature, I had always enjoyed interacting with kids and so the prospect of these events should have filled me with pure elation. I had, after all, been an elementary school teacher in a previous career. And read-aloud time was my favorite part of each day. Now I would be sharing not just any story but my story. What I would really be sharing was an extension of myself. That made the introvert in me feel like hyperventilating.
I soon realized, however, that there is a special joy in opening myself to others through my stories. My first book is about bedtime on Noah’s ark. As the storm escalates, different pairs of animals get scared and bound into Noah’s bed. I always preface the story by explaining that it was inspired by my own kids who used to climb into our bed during night-time storms. Youngest readers can totally relate to that situation. Then, fully engaged, they listen, mesmerized, with intermittent fits of giggles, as we read the story together. After, we talk about what they do to feel safe during a storm. Usually there are a few spontaneous hugs as well. And through this shared reading experience, we connect at a deeply human level.
Not all engagements involve reading. At some I just sign books. At first, I was reluctant to reach out of my comfort zone to talk with total strangers. But now I embrace these opportunities. As I’m signing books, we chat about the little ones who will be receiving them. Sometimes we’ll marvel at how special it is to read with a child or share our favorite picture books with them. All this connectivity is sparked by my willingness to be open to, and sometimes even initiate, conversation as I’m signing my books.
Last summer, my new willingness to initiate conversation led to an especially memorable interaction. It began with a simple exchange with a local mom at a book signing. “My son, Benjamin, loves your books,” this mom raved, “and heads straight for the spot where they’re shelved whenever we go to Barnes and Noble!” I was touched, and as I inscribed the books to him, I asked his age. The answer stunned me. “Seventeen. He’s autistic.”
Before she left, on impulse, I asked if she thought he’s like to meet me, and a few weeks later I extended an invitation for tea on my front porch. The tea turned out to be special for everyone on the porch, including my kids, who were eager to be included. My daughter even baked the treats. And as we each shared about our favorite bits in the books and then conversed in general, I thought this is what meaningful connecting is all about.
And what was the magic ingredient? The shared experience of reading a picture book —my picture book—though, really, what I was sharing was myself. And Benjamin, through his enthusiasm, was sharing part of himself as well. We were connecting at a deeply human level, a level not bound by any outward limitations or fears. The shared experience of story connected us.
This interaction, especially, has helped me recognize on a deeper level how universal, ageless and timeless picture books can be — and that we can connect through them on many different levels. I may have begun my writing journey as a shy introvert, but I now see that that is just half of the picture. The other half involves stepping out of my comfort zone to connect with others using my picture books as the spark. And that’s exactly what I’m doing.
Laura (South) Sassi ’91 has a passion for writing picture books in rhyme and prose. She is the author of two picture books, Goodnight, Ark (Zonderkidz, 2014) and Goodnight, Manger (Zonderkidz, 2015) and is excited to announce that there are more on the way. She lives in New Jersey with her husband, Jonathan Sassi ’89, and their two kids.