Today the spotlight shines on Mike Allegra, author of Sarah Gives Thanks, (Albert Whitman, Aug. 2012, illustrated by David Gardner). Mike’s debut children’s picture book explores the life of Sarah Josepha Hale, relentless advocate for a national holiday celebrating Thanksgiving. Sarah Gives Thanks is already receiving accolades, “…this well-researched, engaging read-aloud offers youngsters a glimpse into the lives of women and families in 19th-century America as well as to the history of how Thanksgiving became a national holiday…” (School Library Journal) and “The informative text is clearly written, and the watercolor artwork is fluid and engaging…” (Booklist). Currently, Mike is the editor at The Lawrentian, carving out time for his own writings after his full workday, while somehow balancing it all with family time. Welcome to the spotlight, Mike!
Q) Would you share how you came up with the idea for your picture book Sarah Gives Thanks, how much research did you do to prepare for the book, and what was the process like writing and finding a home for this work?
A) Discovering Sarah Hale was a happy accident, really.
Years ago I had gotten to know a wonderful editor at Albert Whitman who liked my writing. Much to my delight, she would sometimes contact me to let me know what the publishing house was on the lookout for. One day she said, “We’re looking for Thanksgiving books. Do you have a Thanksgiving book?” to which I replied, “Yes I do!”
That was a fib, but I’m an optimistic sort. I figured I could come up with something in a couple of weeks. So I scrambled to turn my little white lie into a belated truth.
I had remembered once hearing that Lincoln declared a national day of thanksgiving in 1863, right in the middle of the Civil War. That seemed like a good story to tell. When I began my research, however, I realized that Lincoln didn’t play much of a role in the story of Thanksgiving. He just signed the proclamation. The story of Thanksgiving is Sarah Hale’s story. And her story is awesome.
Sarah Hale is one impressive person. Not only did she lead a 36-year grassroots campaign to turn Thanksgiving into a national holiday, but she also was the first female magazine editor in America. She was one of the first female novelists in America – and the very first to condemn slavery in a novel. (Take that, Harriet Beecher Stowe!) She was a tireless advocate for women’s education. She led huge fundraising drives to turn Bunker Hill and Mount Vernon into national landmarks. She even wrote “Mary Had a Little Lamb!” And she was influential – sort of the Oprah of her day. When she said something, America listened.
I was amazed that I had never heard of her before. The more I learned about Sarah, the more I wanted this book to happen. Sarah’s story was just too good. Her story needed to be told.
The problem was I knew I couldn’t do Sarah justice in the couple of weeks I had to bang this story out. I did the best I could, but was sort of disappointed with the result. With a heavy sigh, I sent the draft off to the editor. I assumed it would be rejected.
Instead, the editor saw promise in what I had written and wanted to see more. She asked me for another, more detailed draft. I was ecstatic; I had the time to do the research I wanted to do. So I read Sarah’s books, her correspondence, and pored over many, many issues of her magazine. I kind of geeked out a little. A couple of months later I sent another, much longer draft, which was accepted.
Q) Mike, tell us about you: how you started writing, what your first job was, and what your dream writing gig is.
A) I was always writing something. When I was a little boy, a part of me had this insatiable desire to tell stories. Another part of me – the little boy part – loved the explosive ka-thwacks that emerged from my Dad’s electric typewriter. So putting my thoughts down on paper was a joy.
I wrote at all times of the day, but most of my writing took place on Sundays at dawn because there was nothing good on TV. I would ka-thwack away until my parents started yelling at me for making too much noise.
I began to think of writing as a possible career in sixth grade when my teacher, Mrs. Snelback, a wonderful, curmudgeonly woman, sang my praises at a parent/teacher conference. Snelback didn’t just tell my parents that I was a good writer; she told them that I would be a writer. It was sort of a command. And when Snelback commanded, you listened if you knew what was good for you.
After that fateful conversation, my parents saw my early morning writing antics in a new light. “Fine! Go ahead and type,” they told me. “Just take the typewriter downstairs.”
My first full time writing job was at a newspaper, which is arguably the best training any aspiring writer could ever hope to receive. It’s a job that forces you to write quickly and cleanly and on deadline on a wide spectrum of topics. I wrote about everything, from government malfeasance to the specifics of a new pooper scooper law. It was quite an education.
My dream writing gig, I think would be to write children’s books. I found my calling, Roxie.
Q) Describe what your writing habits are like, what your writing space looks like, and give us one juicy detail about an upcoming project.
A) I write at night after work. I also write on Sundays (just not as early as the old days).
In my house I have a tiny, tidy office that is filled with things that make me smile. I have a poster of the three-eyed aliens from Toy Story, a stuffed Cat in the Hat doll, a goat calendar, some photos of my wife and son, and shelves piled high with classic animation books. Sometimes when I can’t write very well, I’ll doodle at my drafting table, practice my juggling, play a terrible rendition of “Boil Them Cabbage Down” on my banjo, or dig into some of those books. It is a wonderful little room.
A juicy detail? Okay, how about this: I have recently completed another picture book biography about an entertainer who wore glasses. I’ll give you three guesses. And if you guess right, I still won’t tell you.
Perhaps you’ll give additional hints on your blog ? Whether we learn in advance who this next book is about or not, I know it’ll be fab, Mike!
Sarah Gives Thanks is available both in e-book and hardcopy: purchase online today or pick one up at your local bookstore this weekend!