The Backstory: SIMPLE GIFTS
Today on The Backstory, Author Ann Harrel joins us with her latest book, SIMPLE GIFTS (Clavis Books, 2023) with illustrations by Malgosia Zajac. This sweet, winter-themed title will help every reader appreciate the simple gifts they have to offer. Keep reading to find out more and for your chance to win a signed copy from Ann.
Andrew: Welcome to The Backstory and thank you for joining us and sharing the inspiration behind SIMPLE GIFTS.
First off, please tell us a little bit about your story.
Ann: Thank you so much for having me, Andrew. I am a long-time fan of The Backstory!
SIMPLE GIFTS, published by Clavis Books and illustrated by Malgosia Zajac, is a story about friendship, community, and finding one’s own “simple gifts.” Excited about their new clubhouse, woodland animals prepare for a Christmas open house. Bear weaves a welcome mat, Fox bakes his famous berry pie, Squirrel fills the snack bowl with nuts, Deer stocks the fridge with homemade apple cider, and Owl composes a poem. It seems everyone has something special to share. Everyone, that is, except Rabbit. He’s not a weaver, he’s never baked a pie, he can’t climb trees to collect nuts, he’s not tall enough to pick apples, and he’s not a poet. Deflated, Rabbit searches to no avail for a way to contribute. But an unexpected discovery helps him realize the only place he needs to search is his heart. Whether it’s making comparisons with peers or not feeling good enough, my hope is children will relate to Rabbit’s dilemma and find reassurance in the story’s conclusion.
Andrew: This sounds wonderful! Children will easily relate to these universal feelings and hopefully learn a little from Rabbit along the way.
Andrew: What’s the story behind the story? What was your inspiration? Where did the idea come from?
Ann: My son is a reading and writing teacher at a Friends School (Quaker) and my two grandchildren have attended the school. Through this family connection, I’ve learned about the many positive Quaker values and traditions—one of which is “simple gift giving.” Every December, on the last day of school before the holiday break, students and teachers exchange “simple gifts,” after having previously drawn names. Simple gifts are those that truly come from the heart. They are handmade, not store bought, and most importantly, have personal meaning for the recipient which requires thought and effort on the part of the giver. Over the years, I’ve looked forward to hearing from my son and grandchildren about their simple gifts—both as receivers and givers. The irony, I suppose, is the gift is not so simple due to the time and thought involved. But the simplicity is in the kindness and generosity of spirit. After all, it’s easy (“simple”) to be kind and thoughtful. So, a few years ago, the title SIMPLE GIFTS popped into my head and the story evolved from there.
Andrew: What a wonderful tradition and the perfect inspiration! I love how the tradition places value on the personal relationships and the individual strengths of each gift-giver. In a season that can easily become focused on things rather than people, this is a welcome reminder.
Andrew: How did you approach going from this seed of an idea to what is now SIMPLE GIFTS? Was it something undeniable you had to write immediately or did you need to sit with this idea and let it grow for a while before it found its way to the page?
Ann: I sat with the title for a while, but the theme was undeniable from the start. I knew I wanted to write a story that reflected the compassion of the simple gifts tradition while providing a layered theme, making it a holiday book for “all seasons.” This was the first time I had generated a story from a title and I initially struggled with a storyline that would do the theme justice. The story did ultimately come together in an unexpected way. I saw a TV commercial, I believe for insurance, that depicted a feather floating down from the sky. As I watched that feather drift in slo-mo I suddenly saw, in my mind’s eye, an Owl character in a treetop writing a poem. A forest scene with a woodland cast of characters unfolded in my imagination. (In one scene in the book, an owl feather floats down and tickles Rabbit’s nose.) As those of us who write children’s books will attest, we never know where story sparks will come from—perhaps, even an insurance commercial! And I’d just like to add, the icing on the cake is the wonderful art by Malgosia Zajac who enhanced the story with her lovely color palate and perfectly captured the essence of each character. When I first saw her rendition of Rabbit, I literally gasped! He was EXACTLY how I had envisioned him.
Andrew: You are 100% right about the crazy places that ideas can come from. It is all about keeping an open mind and being willing to receive those sparks as they flash by us.
Andrew: Did SIMPLE GIFTS undergo any major changes/revisions from the original version? If so, what led you to make these changes?
Ann: There were no major changes—just reworking a few things and some tweaks along the way, but the core story remained the same. My publisher has headquarters in both Europe and New York. While working with my US editor, there was a moment that gave me pause. The book is dedicated to my son and New Garden Friends School. My editor told me she was considering a possible title change until she read my dedication. She said as soon as she read the dedication, she understood the significance of the title and knew it should remain the same. Whew! She went on to express her affinity for Friends schools. Serendipity!
Andrew: That is wonderful that no major changes were needed. And I am glad that this serendipitous connection helped your editor understand the importance of your title and let it remain.
Andrew: Are there any books/authors that you feel influenced your work on SIMPLE GIFTS?
Ann: No, not specifically. First of all, I had never thought about writing a holiday book. But my favorite holiday picture book is GREAT JOY by Kate DiCamillo. She so masterfully conveys empathy through the main character in the story and I am touched every time I read it. I hope Rabbit’s earnest and empathetic spirit will touch young readers as well.
Andrew: As writers there are so many amazing resources available from books to webinars to organizations. What kidlit resources have been the most beneficial to you?
Ann: I can’t imagine writing without my critique group and critique partners. And the amazing kidlit community is so supportive and generous. I’m also grateful for SCBWI, 12X12, Rate Your Story, Children’s Book Insider, Inked voices and other classes and webinars available through resources such as The Writing Barn.
Andrew: Yes! I truly feel that critique groups and partners are such an important part of finding success and joy in this industry. These groups elevate our writing to new levels and provide emotional support and understanding that can be hard to find with people outside of the kidlit community.
Andrew: Do you have any upcoming projects or news you would like to share with us?
Ann: Since SIMPLE GIFTS is newly released, my focus right now is on sharing it through school visits and other avenues. In the meantime, I’m enjoying experimenting in my writing with different story structures and genres, including polishing a chapter book.
Andrew: Best of luck with your promotion and school visits. Students and teachers are simply going to love Rabbit and SIMPLE GIFTS.
Where can people connect more with you?
Ann: People can learn more about me through my author website www.annharrellbooks.com and can connect in the writing community on Twitter(X) @annmharrell.
Andrew: Readers, please connect with Ann on social media and check out her website for more information about her and her latest book, SIMPLE GIFTS. And while you are at it, please consider supporting SIMPLE GIFTS in any way you can.
This could include:
- ordering from your favorite indie
- marking as want to read on Goodreads
-leaving a review
- making a library request
Ann, thank you so much for joining us and for always being such a supporter of The Backstory. I loved hearing how SIMPLE GIFTS came to be and I cannot wait to add a copy to my classroom library.
Ann is generously offering one winner a signed copy of SIMPLE GIFTS!
Ways to enter:
1. Retweet my tweet about this blog post. Additional entry for tagging friends!
2. Leave a comment on this post.
3. Post about this interview on social media and tell me in the comments that you did.
Each method earns an extra entry!
ABOUT ANN HARRELL
Ann is a Clinical Mental Health Counselor (pediatric specialization) and Certified Dance-Movement Therapist, with a Master of Education in Child Development. Now retired, Ann is enjoying another way to reach out to children—weaving and crafting stories for them. She is a traditionally published author of three picture books and a board book that was the winning submission in a National Child Development Contest sponsored by the CDC’s Amazing Books Preschool Series. Ann lives in NC with her husband and a bilingual golden retriever, rescued from the streets of Turkey where Ann grew up. When she’s not writing, Ann can be found in dance classes, being
inspired by her grandchildren, and traveling to her ex-pat roots in Turkey.
ABOUT ANDREW HACKET
Andrew Hacket is a teacher by day, parent by night, and writer in the nooks and crannies of life. When it comes to his books, Andrew aims to create stories that tickle the funny bone and hug the heart of readers both young and old.
Andrew is the author of the early reader, CURLILOCKS AND THE THREE HARES (The Little Press, 2024) and the picture books, OLLIE, THE ACORN, AND THE MIGHTY IDEA (Page Street Kids, 2024) and HOPE AND THE SEA (WorthyKids, 2024). Additionally, his short story, THE TUNNEL, has been chosen for inclusion in the SCBWI anthology, The Haunted States of America.
Andrew lives in Massachusetts with his wife, three young children, and puppy, Gus.
Andrew is represented by Dan Cramer of Page Turner Literary.