Q & A with Sara O’Leary

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Sara O’Leary is a Canadian writer, who has written some of my most treasured picture books. I’m a big fan and very proud to have the opportunity to present a Q & A we did toether for Magpie That.

How did your collaborations with Julie Morstad start?

The odd thing is that I hadn’t ever intended to write stories for children, but when I was still writing a newspaper column I interviewed Dimiter Savoff about his new children’s press and was so impressed by his whole approach to making books that I gave him the manuscript that became When You Were Small. That was the first stroke of luck.

The second bit of luck was that a friend who was also a visual artist pointed me in the direction of Julie Morstad. She had just started showing in galleries at that point, and when I told Dimiter what a strong affinity I felt for her work he immediately saw the virtue in putting the two of us together.

What do you think it is about her artwork that makes her illustrations such a perfect match for your stories?

I think we share a sensibility–a heightened sense of the absurd perhaps. What I love in her work is that it is beautiful without ever being cute, it is always both fresh and timeless, and that there is some sort of open quality in her representations that I think allows for easy reader identification.

Our first book together was also a first picture book for both of us–meaning we’ve both been learning this as a trade for nearly a decade. We’ve also both spent a few years teaching in our respective areas of picture book creation. And in this latest book I think you can see a greater understanding and respect for the history of the genre and the work of our precursors.

This Is Sadie was our fourth book together and marked both a move to a new editor and publisher (Tara Walker at Tundra Books) and also a very much new way of working together so that the book feels much more like a collaboration than the others.

By the time we finished the Henry Books together, I was really writing to highlight what I believed Julie could do–and then she went ahead and exceeded my expectations.

If you could enter the imaginary world of a book for one day, where would you go?

I imagine that (like Sadie) Alice’s Wonderland would be high on my list. I’m currently thinking a lot about this question as I am trying to write a sample script for a children’s television series based on Sadie’s habit of “diving into” stories. The world of Mary Norton’s Borrowers also holds a tremendous appeal to me. All that playing with proportion is somehow both unsettling and reassuring.

What research do you do when preparing for a new book?

It changes so much according to what the subject of the book is to be. For example, I had to re-learn all the developmental markers for babies for a series of books called You Are One/You Are Two/You Are Three. My babies are now both taller than me so it’s a long

time since I’ve had to think about when they got their first tooth or said their first word! I’m also doing a book about families and it didn’t really take any research at all…just a lot of thinking over different combinations and permutations of family.

Recently, I did a lot of research on both the science of blue moons and our beliefs about them for a book about a boy who has fabulous adventures on the night of a blue moon. It was all very interesting reading and I don’t think any of it finally made it into the story, which is really just about imagination.

Do you have somewhere you like go when you write?

The nice thing about picture book texts is that they are so small you can carry them around in your head and look at them from all angles, even while you may appear to the outside world to be doing something else entirely.

Do you have more picture books planned with Julie Morstad in mind?

I’ve written a sort of sequel to This Is Sadie that may go ahead at some point. Or we could end up doing something else entirely. We both really liked working with Tara Walker at Tundra on Sadie, and so would love to team up again on something.

And we’re both doing books with other people now as well…I’ve got books in process with Karen Klassen, Qin Leng, Ashley Crowley, and Kenard Pak. I feel remarkably lucky to be working with such amazing artists.

Julie’s been really busy the past few years and has some fantastic work to show for it–Julia, Child, her book with Kyo Maclear was marvelous and I’m looking forward to more collaborations from them. Swan, her book about Anna Pavlova with Laurel Snyder is an absolute stunner.

I’m also really happy that she’s planning on doing more books on her own, following on the success of her How To. She has one coming out later this year called The Almost Everything Book that has classic written all over it.

Julie’s got a fantastic career ahead of her. I’m so happy that I’ll be able to say I knew her when! And not so long ago, she said simply the nicest possible thing to me. She said: “I hope we are still making picture books together when we are little old ladies.”

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