This weekend, the New York Times called This Is Sadie an "elegant tribute to the inner life of an imaginative girl" and declared the book to be "an appealingly rounded glimpse of girlhood that’s somehow both timeless and modern." It's a fitting reception for one of the season's most anticipated picture book titles. Sara O'Leary and Julie Morstad have scored another winner.
Here, O'Leary answers our questions about Sadie as bildungsroman, the wisdom of five-year-olds, the genderization of play, and reading and empathy. She also suggests Sadie's summer reading list.
49th Shelf: I am having a lot of fun thinking about This is Sadie in conjunction with the idea of coming-of-age and coming-of-age books. Sadie seems to have so many of the fundamentals of the universe worked out already. How old is she, in your imaginings?
Sara O’Leary: I think Sadie is about five—five for me was the year that I started school, received the tremendous gift of a baby brother, and read my first word (wagon). It was a big year.
But Sadie could also be older. There's a beautiful Mary Norton line in Bedknob and Broomstick where she slyly tells you that one of the characters is "about your age." And I hope Sadie's a little like that—about the age of whoever is reading themselves into her story.
It's funny to think of Sadie as a coming of age book—a juvenile Bildungsroman or Künstlerroman even!—but I suppose the book is very much about all the things that go with the individuation that happens around then. Sadie is very independent (or at least she imagines herself to be) and firmly at the centre of her own little universe.
49th Shelf: She is the hero of her own story, firmly in control of the narrative—the point so many literary characters are written toward, but there she is from the outset. But so often that kind of strength gets lost in real life. True coming-of-age is very much an undoing. Or do you think that’s necessarily so?
SO: When I was that age I'm pretty sure I knew everything. And when my own kids were small they not only knew everything—they remembered everything. Things that had happened before they were born. Things that happened when they were big and I was small. Little kids can be spooky.
I was an obnoxiously confident five-year-old and had lost all of that by the time I was ten. Where did it go? The obnoxiousness was no real loss but that misplaced solid sense of self was a genuine cause of grief to me.
49th Shelf: Your own kids are boys. If Sadie had been a boy, would you have written her any differently?
SO: When I was writing Sadie I really hoped that it wouldn't matter if she were a girl or a boy because really at that age all children have the same basic interests and concerns. I've been following Let Books be Books/Let Toys Be Toys for a while and when you read that stuff you really do see how ridiculous things have become.
When I think of myself up to about school age, I think that I was pretty much genderless. I wore dresses and I wore overalls depending on where I was going or what I was doing. Wasn't really into dolls but did love Lego. And a lot of that is because I had such a cool mother but I also think that maybe things were not so gender-prescribed back then. I'd like to think little kids are free to identify with the main character of the book whether it is a boy or a girl or a badger!
49th Shelf: That sounds very reasonable. Certainly I’ve identified with a literary badger in my time (hello, Russell Hoban’s Frances!). Sadie herself has no trouble imagining her way into all kinds of characters’ stories. Can you talk about some of your favourite literary allusions from the book?
SO: Once I decided on the idea of Sadie visiting classic children's books I posted on twitter to find out what books people would visit, which was really a lot of fun. Not sure I would have thought of The Jungle Book but once it came up it was irresistible and how great is that little Sadie-Mowgli? My own top pick didn't make the list but I'd love to sleep in Arriety's cigar-box bed from The Borrowers.
49th Shelf: You’ve written a lot online about the importance of teaching empathy in order to combat issues of bullying. How do you think reading plays a role in this? Sadie "has been a girl who lives under the sea. She has been a boy raised by wolves ..." Is this learning empathy, do you think?
SO: Reading and empathy just go together in my mind. There's an article here that explains it much better than I could. My basic feeling is that reading helps children understand what it is like to be someone other than themselves and that this is the foundation of empathy building.
There is a lot of talk about children and bullying but my sense is that the real danger is that of being a bystander. None of us would like to admit our child might be a bully or even that we might have been ourselves at sometime. But think of the times you didn't step in to break up a fight, or to defend someone from ridicule, or even simply stop to talk to someone who looked forlorn. I can feel a blush of shame creeping up my neck at the thought and I'm sure I'm not alone. I think reading—at any age but particularly when young—helps us to imagine ourselves as other people. And from there the next logical step is to be looking out for other people. And yes, I guess Sadie is kind of modeling that behaviour in the book, but really she's just imagining herself into other stories because it is such good fun.
49th Shelf: School’s out in just a few weeks. What are Sadie’s plans for the summer months? What CanLit books would be on her summer reading list?
SO: What will Sadie be reading this summer? Well, the first thing to say about this is that Sadie is not me ... I had no idea she was so interested in snails, for example. And the other thing to remember about Sadie is that she's not real.
That said, some good books for Sadie-ish kids might be:
- Sidewalk Flowers, by JonArno Lawson and Sydney Smith
- Eat, Leo! Eat!, by Caroline Adderson and Josée Bisaillon
- Where Are My Books?, by Debbie Ridpath Ohi
- Butterfly Park, by Elly Mackay
- Song for a Summer Night, by Robert Heidbreder and Qin Leng
49th Shelf: And one more question: what do you think Sadie’s mother gets up to while her daughter is so creatively whiling away her days?
SO: Sadie's mother is no doubt off somewhere exceeding the recommended hours of daily screen time ... trying to get work done and talking to her "imaginary" friends if I'm anything to go by.
Sara O'Leary is a writer for both children and adults. She is co-creator with Julie Morstad of both the critically-acclaimed This Is Sadie and the award-winning Henry Books (When You Were Small, Where You Came From, and When I Was Small). She has an MFA in Screenwriting from UBC and has taught Writing for Children at Concordia University in Montreal as well as being a weekly literary columnist for the Vancouver Sun and CBC Radio One. She is currently working on a novel titled The Ghost in the House. You Are One, illustrated by Karen Klassen, will be published in March, 2016. Her picture book celebration of diversity, A Family is a Family is a Family will be published in fall 2016 and is illustrated by Qin Leng.