The Backstory: THE HAPPIEST KID
Sarah Bagley Steele joins us today on The Backstory to share the inspiration behind her debut picture book, THE HAPPIEST KID (Yeehoo Press, 2022) with illustrations by Elsa Pui Sil Lo and Clarice Yunyi Cai. Read on to discover what real-life event inspired this amazing story and for your chance to win a signed copy.
Welcome to The Backstory and thank you for joining us and sharing the inspiration behind THE HAPPIEST KID.
First off, please tell us a little bit about your story.
Thank you so much, Andrew, for having me on The Backstory to discuss my debut picture book! The Happiest Kid is the story of a happy kid who wakes up one morning not feeling happy. Where she normally sees a bright sun, there is now a cloud. She doesn’t know why it’s there, but she doesn’t want anyone to see it—not her parents, not her teacher, and not her friends—so she hides it away. But as the day goes on, the cloud grows too big and heavy for her to carry, and she must find the courage to let it out. It’s a reassuring book about recognizing and processing big feelings.
What a wonderful concept! I love how the book gives kids permission to feel all their feelings, not just the positive ones. As a parent and a teacher, I see instances of children hiding their less than positive feelings all of the time and now I know exactly what book I will be using to help them work through that and accept these emotions.
What’s the story behind the story? What was your inspiration? Where did the idea come from?
I got the idea when I was feeling sad about something and ran 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 think about the ways we hide feelings and wonder if my very cheerful daughter ever does the same. I started writing a story about a happy kid who felt sad.
I also wanted to explore, more subtly, my character’s perspective of the people around her and the pressure she feels to act or feel a certain way. We all need room to have a bad day. I hope the story helps young readers normalize big emotions. Adults too! Everyone gets sad sometimes, and it’s okay.
It is so clear to see how this inspiration wove its way into THE HAPPIEST KID. It feels like such a knee-jerk reaction to give those "Great! Wonderful!" responses instead of acknowledging our lows. Your book is a great reminder to the grownups sharing THE HAPPIEST KID that we also need to model for the children around us how to acknowledge and accept our big feelings.
How did you approach going from this seed of an idea to what is now THE HAPPIEST KID? 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?
The character trajectory came easily but I struggled with the actual plot. I knew it needed a lively narrative kids would want to follow. When I was in college, I took a personal essay writing class and in one assignment, I wrote a line about stuffing my pain in my pocket. The image resurfaced in my mind when I was trying to activate my character Sally’s story. What if sadness were a physical 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. It became the motor the plot needed, and it also lent itself to a visual journey, which Elsa Pui Sil Lo and Clarice Yunyi Cai told beautifully and playfully with the illustrations. Can Sally zip up the cloud in her backpack? Will it stay put if she shoves it behind her back? What if she sits on it? What if keeps growing?
Once I had that piece, I wrote quickly, though there was still something about the ending I couldn’t crack. I submitted it directly to the publisher, Yeehoo Press, 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, along with the most helpful, insightful feedback that led me to an “aha!” moment with the manuscript. I tore through a revision, sent it back, and received an offer the following month.
The idea for the physical representation of her feelings in the cloud is perfect. I think that idea combined with the amazing illustrations from Elsa Pui Sil Lo and Clarice Yunyi Cai gave THE HAPPIEST KID the right balance to tackle a conversation about emotions while keeping it light, playful, and non-didactic.
And thank you for sharing a bit about your path to publication. These are the moments that aspiring authors can feel in the dark about. I am so glad your editor's feedback resonated with you and led to the current version of THE HAPPIEST KID for all of us to enjoy.
Where do you tend to find your inspiration or your sparks for ideas?
All sorts of places. The idea for one picture book came from watching an episode of NOVA with my children. Another came from a conversation with a parent about planning a trip to Disneyworld. I just started working on a new manuscript that came to me while putting my son to bed after a long evening that involved a broken-down car and sick dog. I usually have a flash of an idea, and then spend stretches of quiet – walking in the park, riding the subway – sitting with a story in my head, working it out in my head like a puzzle before I ever start typing.
I am sure many writers can relate to this approach. It is a great strategy to let those ideas ruminate and tease themselves out, making sure there is some semblance of a path forward before diving in.
What books have been the most inspirational/impactful on your writing?
Even more than individual books, the most inspirational and impactful thing on my writing has been time spent with other writers. My background is in theater; I worked as a Literary Manager off-Broadway for many years, reading submissions, writing script notes, and spending many late evenings conversing with playwrights about their new plays. Even though plays and picture books are different mediums, talking story with other storytellers influenced how I approach writing myself, particularly in terms of character and structure, and I’m grateful for these conversations. Tracking how a character changes and why is always central to the process for me.
Yes! The creative energy that flows from talking to other members of the kidlit family is powerful. And I don't know about you, but I think many of us creators do not have a big network of authors locally, so when the opportunity does arise to connect and be together it is such a place of acceptance and belonging that it is impossible not to be inspired.
What are the must haves for your workspace? Tools? Inspiration? Reference materials?
We have a set of mugs made by a friend who is a potter that say, “Just Do The Work.” The story behind them was humorous, but I love having one filled with pencils as part of my workspace. Any time I get distracted, I look at the mug and it inspires me to get back to work!
I write on a laptop, but I also like to use post-its. Each post-it gets a plot event or character turning point and I move around their order. I prefer to write in silence, so that often means when everyone else is asleep. I have a blanket on the floor next to me where my dog curls up at my feet.
Any inspirational words of advice for aspiring authors?
Read as much as you can. Don’t shy away from hard topics or dumb anything down for kids – they always know if something isn’t honest. Follow trade announcements, join online groups and connect with other creators. Join a critique group. Don’t be afraid to reach out to other writers with questions or for advice. Believe in each manuscript but allow yourself to move forward and grow.
This is an amazing list of advice!
Do you have any upcoming projects or news you would like to share with us?
I’m currently working on two new picture book drafts, and a chapter book series. No news to share yet, but we’ll see!
I am sure that good news will be right around the corner and when it comes I can't wait to hear about it. Best of luck as you continue on with your latest projects.
Where can people connect more with you?
On my Instagram feed @sarah.writes.for.kids, I share book recommendations, crafts ideas and popsicle recipes. I also have lots of activities for kids listed on my website, www.sarahbagleysteele.com. On Twitter, I am @SBagleySteele.
Readers make sure to follow Sarah on her socials so you don't miss any of her incredible content or latest book news. And while you are at it, be sure to pick up a copy of THE HAPPIEST KID (Yeehoo Press, 2022) with illustrations by Elsa Pui Sil Lo and Clarice Yunyi Cai.
Thank you again Sarah for joining us and sharing all about THE HAPPIEST KID. It was a pleasure learning about your inspiration and process.
Sarah is generously offering a signed copy of THE HAPPIEST KID to one winner. (US only).
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 FB/Instagram and tell me in the comments that you did.
Each method earns an extra entry!
ABOUT SARAH BAGLEY STEELE
Sarah Bagley Steele is a children’s author who loves stories of all kinds that not only make you feel, but 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 ten seasons of free Shakespeare in the Park. 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.
ABOUT ANDREW HACKET
ANDREW HACKET always dreamed of writing picture books, but never believed it was possible. Then one day he thought, “I could. I should.” So he did (with a lot of hard work). And while he hopes no one swallows acorns as a result of his story, OLLIE, THE ACORN, AND THE MIGHTY IDEA (Page Street Kids, 2024), he does hope kids will be inspired to grow kindness in their communities and stand up for themselves — without eating anyone, of course.
Andrew lives in Holden, Massachusetts with his wife and three children, all of whom are very mighty.
Andrew is represented by Dan Cramer of Page Turner Literary.