Sarah Wilson wrote and illustrated her first story at the age of four. She remembers putting it together in a small book with help from her mother. By the age of five, Wilson pecked out simple stories on her father’s typewriter. And in second and third grade a few of what Wilson dubs her “little poems” were published in a newspaper and a children’s magazine. According to Wilson, “I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing.” But in fourth grade, a visiting art teacher planted the seed in Wilson’s mind that she could write and draw for a living. “Max was such a gift,” Wilson says of the visiting teacher. “He’s why I’m so willing to go into schools to speak to kids.”
Wilson plays with words as a form of entertainment. She carries a little notebook and scribbles down funny word combinations or words that sound good together. Sometimes she gets a title idea, sometimes a story idea. “There is so much stimulation from every direction, ideas come faster than I can get them down,” she says. “Trying to catch them is like catching milkweed down.”
One book idea grew out of Wilson’s love for the month of June. “June is a Tune That Jumps on a Star [Simon & Schuster, 1992] is me making an effort to put it into words.” Wilson’s gentle poems illustrated with her sweet-faced cherubs cover a variety of June characteristics—tomatoes, fireflies, the summer sky, bugs. They show-off her word-play at its best:
My yellow string beans
in a gravy navy
on spinach greens.
I sail them safely
through the straits
of mashed potatoes
on my plate.
Wilson attended several different schools as a child because her father was in the Navy. Many years later, she wrote George Hogglesberry, Grade School Alien (Scholastic, 2000) about a new boy in school. A friend of Wilson’s and fellow Navy-brat claimed she knew exactly why Wilson wrote about George—to rewrite the script of her own life so being the stranger in a class would somehow be better and easier. Wilson agrees with her friend now, but admits that the parallels to her own life were subliminal as she wrote the book.
On a good day, Wilson writes for about five hours. Her desk is the dining room table of her Danville home. Her files, boxes and boxes of saved doodles, sketches, paintings, scraps of paper scrawled with ideas, and clippings. Before beginning a new project, Wilson curls up in an easy chair in front of the fire and sifts though her collections for stimulation. As she sifts, she jots down ideas and musings that appeal to her until they gel into something more structured.
The artist in Wilson visualizes her stories as she writes the words. “It’s like I’m watching a movie as I’m writing,” she says. Even when she doesn’t illustrate her own stories, Wilson knows what her characters are wearing, how they’re moving, and the expressions on their faces.
The idea for Big Day on the River (Holt, 2003) began with a girl named Willie who wanted to raft down a river alone. “I made up relatives to love her and interact with this idea and started imagining what might happen from there,” says Wilson. As she replayed the “movie” of Big Day on the River in her mind, she dropped some scenes and added others. “I had a wonderful time playing with the words and dialogue in Big Day. People have asked what part of the country the particular way of speaking comes from, but it was all imagined.” In Wilson’s opinion, Willie is one of her strongest characters. She’s adventurous and wants to be independent, but her overprotective relatives are reluctant to let her go.
According to the soft-spoken Wilson, one of the perks about her job is visiting with children in schools and bookstores, talking about the books she writes. “I am committed to writing for children,” she says, “but I want them to know that I don’t pull ideas out of the air and have them accepted. I have to work at it. I may make mistakes and throw stuff away, but I know in the end I’ll have something I’m happy with.” Whenever she talks to children, Wilson thinks back to the visiting art teacher who made such a difference in her life. “If this is something they want to do, I want them to know they can do it,” she says.