A Conversation with Sandra V. Feder
Regardless of age, the answers to many of life’s questions are often found within oneself. Sandra V. Feder has modeled both personally and professionally what a life of listening to one’s gut looks like. Feder, who began her writing career as a journalist with The New York Times, felt the urge to write and create literature that emerged from her experiences with mothers and children. After becoming involved in a women’s writing group, she published an early chapter book series, Daisy's Perfect Word (2012), and the picture book, The Moon Inside (2016). In an interview with Literary Mama contributor Gina Consolino-Barsotti, Feder speaks about her path to becoming a published author, childhood fears, and the literacy problem the United States faces today.
Gina Consolino-Barsotti: Your journey to becoming a children’s author did not involve the traditional pursuit of the MFA. Can you describe how you pursued your childhood dream to become a writer after graduating from Stanford?
Sandra V. Feder: I fell in love with the idea of becoming a children’s book writer when I was in third grade and my school librarian brought in local authors to talk to us. It seemed magical to be able to create characters and worlds from one’s own imagination. While I never stopped thinking about this idea, I got involved in the school paper in college as a reporter and editor and loved it. When I graduated, I pursued journalism as a career. I was lucky that I had the opportunity to work as a news assistant in the Washington bureau of The New York Times and to learn from some of the best writers in the country. I learned so much about how to tell a story, journalistic ethics, and writing quickly to meet a deadline. These are skills I’ve drawn on throughout my career. After I had children, I started writing a column in a newspaper about the joys and funny moments of being a mother. We were living in Pennsylvania at the time, and I was invited to join a group of women writers. These women were amazing, with multiple children’s books to their credit. It turned out to be the best possible environment for learning the craft. My own children, who were young at the time, provided plenty of story ideas, and having these talented women guide me was what finally allowed me to pursue my childhood dream of becoming a children’s book author.
GCB: Did you ever contemplate pursuing an MFA?
SVF: I felt like my writing group, in many ways, was like a master class in writing for children. I’ve never felt the need for an MFA for my picture book writing. I think journalism prepared me well, because, in both formats, you only have a certain, relatively short, number of words to use to convey an entire story. In both formats, being concise is a plus.
GCB: You have said, “Writing for newspapers taught me the power of words and the importance of using words well.” How would you explain the process of “using words well” to future mother journalists and mother writers?
SVF: I think good writing is good writing, whether you’re writing nonfiction for adults or fiction for children. If you’re interested in being a writer, learn your craft. Study, with a somewhat analytic eye, the work of authors you admire. Think about the words they use to tell their stories. Examine the arc of the story. How do the characters grow and change? How do they handle pacing to keep the story moving? An excellent resource for children’s writers, of both fiction and nonfiction, is the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). They have regional meetings and conferences throughout the country. It’s a great way to meet other writers, learn from published authors and editors, and find opportunities to have your work critiqued.
GCB: In your most recent book, The Moon Inside, you take on one of the universal childhood fears: the dark. In your Daisy series, the fear of not being liked or being left behind is addressed. In both stories, we see the protagonists’ ability to conquer their respective fears and understand that the solution lies within them. Can you describe how these stories came to you, both in structure and content?
SVF: I often come at my work with an idea or concept in mind and then find the story that will allow me to explore that idea. With The Moon Inside, I wanted to write about fear of the dark, and I’d noticed that my own children were much less afraid when they were outside as darkness fell. They were the inspiration for the character of Ella, who goes around the house turning on the lights when darkness starts coming into the house. That’s exactly what they did. I tried to think of what would be comforting to a child and realized that the moon’s quieter qualities, as well as other calm parts of the natural world, could provide that comfort.
In the Daisy stories, I loved the idea of a character whose favorite thing was words. I thought it was empowering for kids to think about words and to have fun with them. Some aspects of Daisy are reminiscent of my daughters. For instance, in the second Daisy book, the character makes a up a long, alliterative name for herself. One of my daughters made a up a very long name for herself when she was about four or five. I often start my stories using the name of one of my girls—it makes me feel like I know the character better right from the start. But then I always change the name, both to protect their privacy, and because, inevitably, the character I end up with at the end is 99% a product of my imagination.
I’m glad you noticed that in all my books the solution lies within the character. That’s something children’s book authors generally try to do. We want the solution to the problem to come from the child, not from an adult. It’s often tricky to accomplish, as adults obviously populate the world of children. The key is to have them be present and helpful but not provide the answer. In The Moon Inside, Ella’s mother coaxes her outdoors and asks her what she sees in the night sky. But it is up to Ella to find the moon and the other nighttime surprises.
GCB: The moon can be regarded as sacred, feminine, cyclical, qualities that many women may identify with. Ella experiences it as a source of comfort and confidence while being alone in the dark. In your life as a child, a mother, a wife, and a writer, where have you found comfort and confidence?
SVF: As a child, I spent a lot of time outdoors, running around the hills of Northern California. For me, nature was always a playmate and a source of comfort. As an adult, I find comfort in the ocean—its sounds and size help me feel calmer and put things in perspective. My husband, who always believed I’d be a successful writer even when I had my doubts, is a tremendous source of comfort and unending support, as are my children. I’ve loved each stage of motherhood, and watching my children turn into kind, compassionate, and thoughtful young adults has been a great joy. My advice to young mothers is to live each stage fully, but don’t mourn the end of any one stage too much, because the next stage will have its own surprises and wonders.
GCB: Do you have any plans to integrate other childhood fears into your stories, perhaps even from the mother’s perspective?
SVF: I mentioned that my daughters were afraid of the dark, which was true for two of my three girls. The third was convinced giants lived in our basement. I have been thinking how I might explore that fear of monsters at night. Because I was a part of helping her overcome that fear, I think there would be a bit of a mother’s perspective in that story. However, I think children’s fiction writers must be careful to make sure the story comes from the child’s perspective. When I wrote a column about motherhood, I loved that I could explore so many touching and funny moments from my own, adult perspective.
GCB: Finding a publisher for your first literary work can prove challenging. Could you give our readers any suggestions for how to make this process more efficient and less stressful?
SVF: When I first started out in children’s literature, writers could submit directly to editors, which is what I did. I received the nicest rejection letter from the woman who eventually became and still is my editor/publisher. She offered to talk to me about my work, and I took her up on it. We had a lengthy phone conversation and then had the opportunity to meet in person later. We’ve been friends ever since. But it still took several years before she bought one of my stories. I like telling this story, because I think it’s important when you’re starting out to be able to take criticism, learn from it, and try to get better. Now, most children’s book authors have agents. Again, the SCBWI is a great resource for learning how to write a good query letter, how to find an agent, and how to polish your work.
GCB: What was the most difficult piece of bringing any of your books to life (i.e., writing, revising, getting published)? How did you balance motherhood and writing?
SVF: Initially, for me, the creative process–thinking of stories and writing them–was like candy. It’s fun, sometimes hard, but always the sweetest part of my day. Getting published was the most difficult part. Now that I’m working on some longer-format works, the revising and editing parts are proving to be quite time-consuming. Like many mothers who love to write, I remember when my kids were little, stealing away into my study for a few precious minutes here and there to get down an idea, an outline for a story, or to write a few pages. I always felt a little guilty taking time away from my family to do so. It helped a lot that whenever I did, my husband and kids would say, “You’re so happy when you’ve had some time to write.” It made me realize how important it was. I also believe motherhood is an inherently creative activity that lends itself to creative output. Mothers are always improvising. Finding ways to meet the needs of one or multiple children requires a lot of creativity. So, to me, motherhood and writing are naturally linked.
GCB: The National Institute for Literacy reports that approximately 45 million Americans read below a fifth-grade reading level. Besides encouraging our children to read and modeling this behavior ourselves, what would you suggest we as mothers do at either a community or national level to mitigate the literacy problem that is plaguing our nation?
SVF: I feel very passionately that improving literacy nationally and locally should be a priority. At the community level, I think getting involved with school-based programs is a wonderful way to have an impact. Many communities have programs where volunteers go into schools and help children who are struggling. Students who fall behind after third grade have a very difficult time catching up. That means any inroads we can make to help children before they’re in fourth grade will have huge benefits down the road. There are many groups doing work to promote literacy on the national level. I do worry that, in the coming years, funding priorities may shift away from things like early childhood education and elementary school literacy programs and that we all should use our voices to let our representatives know that this is an issue of concern to us.
GCB: What writing adventure are you on currently?
SVF: My next book is called Bitter and Sweet and will be released in 2018 by Groundwood Books. It’s a modern folktale about finding the sweetness in life after a difficult change. After that comes Angry Me and then Peaceful Me. Both books deal with emotions from a child’s perspective and will be released by Groundwood Books in 2019. I’m also working on two middle-grade novels and several new picture books, including one about sibling relationships. I’m a big believer in parents helping their children learn to develop strong sibling friendships.