I'm so excited to have Sarah Bagley Steele on the blog today with her debut picture book!
Sarah Bagley Steele is a children’s author who loves stories 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 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.
Sarah, thank you so much for sharing your time with us! To start off, what inspired you to write The Happiest Kid?
First off, thank you so much, Bethany, for having me on Picture Book Therapy. It’s an honor to be here, and I’m grateful for all you share.
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.
I got the idea when I was feeling sad about something 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 think about the ways we hide feelings and wonder if my very cheerful daughter ever does the same. The inspiration for the cloud 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 activate my character Sally’s story. What if sadness were an object, she literally stuffs in her pocket?
What was the process like from inspiration to publication?
The Happiest Kid is my debut picture book and I sold it directly to the publisher, Yeehoo Press.
I began querying earlier versions of the manuscript in the spring of 2019 and there were two major revisions along the way. The first was for a revise and resubmit request I received from an agent, in which I rewrote the ending. Something was still not clicking, though, and she ultimately passed on the book.
Then, in February 2020, I submitted it to Yeehoo Press after reading they had an interest in children’s books about emotions. A few months later I received a lovely, lengthy email from my future editor, Zhiqiao Wang. He engaged with the main character and asked new, insightful questions that led me to an “aha” moment with the story. I dove headfirst into a second rewrite, sent it off, and received an offer three weeks later. There were tweaks and cuts after that, but the bulk of the text remained the same. The Happiest Kid came in March 2022 with gorgeous illustrations by Elsa Pui Si Lo and Clarice Yunyi Cai.
First, congratulations on getting your book picked up for publication! The process of a book coming to life always looks so different for everyone, but a common theme always seems to be that the story itself changes so much over time. The end result for The Happiest Kid is beautiful.
Do you have a scene or sentence in the finished book that is your favorite?
My favorite part is when Sally holds the cloud in her hands and takes a moment to really look at it for the first time.
Why do you think this book is important for kids to have on the shelves?
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.
Yes! It's important for not only kids but adults to know how to handle these emotions. How do you think parents, teachers, or counselors could use The Happiest Kid to engage in deeper conversations with kids?
After a recent school visit, I received a thank you note from the class and one student wrote, “Your book reminds me of myself.” That meant the world to me. Sally is a mirror for kids who hide challenging feelings, and I hope her story gives them courage and helps them know they are not alone. For a different class, I teamed up with the art teacher; I read the book and she led the students in an art project using weather imagery to express different feelings. Many students combined a sun and cloud together, which was a lovely way to acknowledge feelings are complex. I’ve heard from parents who see the book as a reminder themselves not to put labels on their children, and to give them space to feel a range of emotions.
Those little moments where you can see your work resonating with kids and parents alike are so beautiful. Do you have any advice for authors who want to write about tough topics for kids?
It can be hard to write about difficult topics without being too instructive. In The Happiest Kid, I tried to use the cloud not only thematically, but as a lively plot line readers would want to track. Can Sally zip the cloud in her backpack? Will it stay put it she shoves it behind her back? What if she sits on it? My hope was that an active, visually interesting journey would help kids invest in and relate to the story without it feeling overly didactic.
I also think it’s important to give your protagonist agency. They might receive help or guidance in the story from parents, teachers, or peers, but how do their individual choices and actions shape the narrative? Most of all, be honest. Kids are so smart, and they know if they are being talked down to. Don’t underestimate them!
Do you have any upcoming projects you would like to share?
I am working on a few new projects but nothing to announce just yet. I do continually share book recommendations, activity ideas and popsicle recipes on my Instagram @sarah.writes.for.kids, though, and am always thrilled to connect with others online.
Sarah, thank you again for taking the time to visit with us! As part of her blog post, Sarah is generously donating a SIGNED copy of The Happiest Kid! All you have to do to enter is comment here on the blog, or on the Facebook or Instagram post for this blog.
Contest closes August 31st and winners will be announced September 1st.