Say Hello to Sally: An Interview with Sally Warner
By Chloe Grant, Read to Them Staff
We are so glad to be reading EllRay Jakes Is a Rock Star! with you over the next two weeks, and are ecstatic to share some ‘rock star’ content to go alongside the book. Today, you are in for a treat! We were lucky enough to exchange messages with Sally Warner, the author of EllRay, and have a feature interview to share with you. Warner, who didn’t start professionally writing until she was in her forties, has now published 40 books! She even does the illustrations in some of her titles. Art was her first love, but today we delve into Warner’s insights on writing, reading, and her advice for you! Enjoy.
What is your writing process like?
In general, I work at my computer every day from about 9–1:30, 6 days a week. Those hours are for original work. But when I am working on a novel, I think about it all the time and make notes when I need to, even in the middle of the night. I use my cell phone to email myself a note.
Inspiration really comes while you are working, though.
Afternoons are for re-reading and editing what I have written, because good writing is really all about rewriting. That's where the art comes in. (I would have hated hearing this when I was growing up, by the way!)
Writing can be a difficult process, and for me, it involves pausing about two-thirds of the way through and really coming to grips with what I am trying to say and where it is going. And then comes the hard work of pulling it all together. I find that my background in the visual arts–making a picture–is very helpful with this part.
One key to my process is that I do not write with a finished story in mind, much less a moral. I write to discover what I truly think or feel about some situation, not to tell readers what I already know.
I tell myself a story as I write, and I try to make it a page-turner. Perhaps the most mysterious part involves somehow tuning into the very young minds and lives of my characters, boys and girls, no matter how many (many!) decades separate us.
What was your relationship with reading growing up?
I was lucky enough always to have had a very positive relationship with reading.
For me, reading was entertainment and escape, as well as the foundation of my education. I read "everything I could get my hands on," as the saying goes: magazines, newspapers, and books I found at home.
This meant that I turned in some very unusual book reports along the way, often heavily-illustrated, since art was my first love.
My teachers read to us in class in primary school as a treat, which I loved, and we soon began having regular library visits as well. And so my lifelong love for libraries began. I felt like a millionaire as soon as I walked through those heavy front doors. It was all mine! I could choose whatever I liked to read. The choice of books made me feel grown-up, and it helped increase my vocabulary a lot.
Reading got me through some tough times as the years passed.
Although reading came easily to me, I want to say that I did struggle with other subjects over the years, so I understand that it might be a difficult skill to master for some for various reasons. All I can say is, it's worth it! You will never have to read aloud once you're a grownup, until you have children of your own, and you can read as slowly as you want. But you'll probably be reading what you want, and it will be fun.
What is something you hope readers get out of reading EllRay Jakes is a Rock Star?
Primarily, I hope readers have fun reading or listening to this book–which really is divided into two parts, I see upon re-reading it ten years after having written it.
(There are 8 more EllRay books, if you're interested, and 6 Emma McGraw books that might be in your local library.)
In broad strokes: First, 8-year-old EllRay makes a big mistake in judgment, as everyone is bound to do from time to time no matter how good they try to be.
But what happens next? How does a person get past a mistake? How do they try to make things right? To me, that's the important part–in real life, and in this book.
I hope young readers see that no one expects them to be perfect, but that if they goof up, they should admit it, and then do everything possible to make things right again.
Also, to see that telling the truth is the least complicated thing to do in the long run.
Growing up can be tough. What should kids keep in mind when they are having a hard time?
Something strange about time is that it goes by much more slowly for kids than it does for adults. A grownup will say, "It's my birthday again? I just had one!" But for a child, their birthdays can seem ages apart.
Maybe that's one reason why going through a rough time can seem to last forever when you're a kid. After all, one year for an 8-year-old is like 5 years for their 40-year-old parent.
But it is important to remember that time does pass. Things will change.
Here are five more things kids might want to keep in mind:
Other kids' attention will always move on to something else before too long.
Whatever problem you are having, you are not the only one having that problem–even if it feels like you are.
You can never tell from a person's "outside" what is going on "inside" them. (So, as the old saying goes, don't compare your "insides"–how you feel deep-down–to someone else's "outsides," how great you imagine they have it.)
Absolutely everyone has something they struggle with, though you probably will never know what it is.
And finally, even if you feel lonely and a little sad right now, know that you will find your own "tribe" of good friends some day. So hang in there.
Do you have any tips on how to establish a "new normal" at a time like this?
This is a strange time in all our lives. In a way, we are reluctant pioneers. Kids especially are pioneers, I think, because their parents never went through anything like this when they were young.
For this reason, I hope lots of kids consider keeping a journal about these days, weeks, months. Nothing fancy. It can be made at home.
Even if a person writes down just one sentence a day, one true thing about what is happening at their house, or what they did that day, or what they wore or ate, or what they were thinking, they will be glad of it some day.
Encourage your child always to be as detailed as they can when they write. Instead of just saying, "I'M BORED!" they might say, "We had Raisin Bran for breakfast for the tenth day in a row because Dad bought the giant size box by mistake. BORING." Or, "Mom makes me talk to relatives I barely even know on Zoom and I never know what to say. Awkward, And BORING."
They might prefer to keep a sketchbook, or to start their own cartoon strip. Or combine drawing and their writing. Anything goes! This is for Future-Them, and no one else.
Kids' Free Time
Some of kids' free time should be spent resting and day-dreaming, in my opinion–and even in being bored. A little boredom–without TV or screentime–is what leads to creativity.
And creativity means making new things.
After having caught up on our rest, though, many of us have discovered recently that there are a whole lot of hours in the day to fill. where we aren't busy with our usual routines.
Kids don't usually think of free time as "hours to fill," though. They might think of free time more as a surprise gift. Imagine a gigantic box full of the best Legos ever, or maybe picture an old trunk stuffed with every art supply that you could ever want, and then some.
Kids might want to try to exactly copy the dinosaur on the cover of a Lego box, just because, to carry these combination examples/metaphors further. Or they could invent half-a-dozen figures of their own. Or they might want to make one big thing. I heard a rumor once that George Lucas (or some designer) built the original Star Wars Millennium Falcon from combined old yard sale Lego sets that he then painted and aged.
And if he didn't do that, maybe your kids could.
With the art supplies example/metaphor, some kids might want to make something useful, such as a set of holiday cards, or yard sale signs. Others might prefer to create something new: a drawing, a painting, a collage, a sculpture–or some combination of these things, "mixed media."
The best thing for kids to aim for in this gift of free time might be a combination of variety and concentration. Mix it up with lots of different physical activities, old and new; with mental challenges such as doing puzzles or memorizing something; with learning new skills; with teaching somebody something; with helping a neighbor.
But take play seriously–at least some of the time. Go deep.
Free Family Time at Home
"What day is it?" we have asked ourselves and each other all spring.
The idea of "Taco Tuesday" gives us a big hint about how to lend a little structure–the fun kind–but also variety to our days, weeks, and months.
My husband and I have grown children now, and they all live elsewhere, mostly far away. We are no longer "in the trenches." But even at home, where it's just us and an elderly dachshund who loves to sleep, and though we have worked at home for many years, I started coming up with special things to do on certain days soon after the quarantine began. And we keep adding to the list.
It just makes life more fun.
Sunday afternoons? A TV movie and popcorn. Even our dog wakes up for this.
Tuesday and Thursday afternoons? We learned the rules to an old card game.
Fridays? We pick up curbside delivery from a local restaurant trying to stay open.
These are all new activities for us. And the days are (sort of) flying by.
That said, not only were we never in the position that you are now, being home with your children 24/7 for months on end, with all outside activities canceled, I can't even imagine coping with such a situation.
Even so, and with the greatest respect to each of you, I have had some experience. And I stealth-follow a number of imaginative young Facebook families' activities.
Oh, and I have been watching way too many YouTube vlogs lately.
So here are a few random ideas I've gleaned that might help keep things lively.
Some families have long enjoyed a family game night each week, and yours might too.
Or you might want to start making your own pizzas one night a week. (There are places that sell pre-made pizza dough. Just saying.)
A baking project once a week might also be fun. Cookie Day!
Or consider "Opposite Day," at least one that involves having pancakes for dinner.
A family fashion show or talent show could create lasting memories too. (Especially if you make a video!)
Even household chores, which should be shared by everyone, even if that takes a lot longer, can be less of an ordeal if, as a family, you come up with a list of simple daily chores. Write them out on identical pieces of paper, fold them up, then put them into a basket or jar for the morning drawing.
And then announce that you are adding a secret handful of fun "chores," too.
"Practice your cartwheels!"
Or, "Pet the cat for five minutes."
Or, "Listen to your favorite music for half-an-hour."
Or, "Be in charge of the remote tonight."
Or, "Choose a new first name for yourself that the family must use all day long.'
(And don't forget to celebrate Taco Tuesday, if tacos sound good.)
Any Advice for Young Readers and Writers?
Your reluctant reader should be allowed to read whatever they can get your hands on: cereal boxes, newspapers, books. But for once, they shouldn't worry about looking up unfamiliar words as they go along. With this kind of informal reading, they come to learn what the words mean over time simply by the context in which they are used.
Also, they might want to try e-books, just to get going. E-books are available in many libraries. And a related tip I once heard from a woman who teaches ESL was to listen to the (unabridged) e-book and read the "real" book simultaneously.
If the narrator is reading slowly enough, the printed words will start to make sense over time.
Another idea is for you to borrow or buy some magazines that might be of interest to your reluctant reader, not you, and to let your child start reading them. (You won't need to borrow or buy them once our libraries open again.) Skateboarding, nature, surfing, cooking, fashion, travel, mixed martial arts, popular culture: the important thing is not what your child is reading, but the fact that they are reading.
They should simply keep reading!
But perhaps they might stretch themselves a little by reading longer fiction, or nonfiction, if their choice is usually fiction, for example.
But their reading should still stay fun.
Please re-read some of the advice given earlier, under "Pioneers!" for some writing hints. They include keeping an informal journal, and being as detailed as possible when writing.
As your writing children get older, encourage them sometimes to try writing from a different point of view. For instance, if she has written in a journal about a fight with her cousin and shared that with you, you might try asking her to write about that fight from her cousin's point of view.
Your writing child might try that when making up a story (writing fiction), too.
That's not "taking sides" in the argument, it's stretching that child's writing muscle–and, perhaps, empathy.
Thank you to Sally Warner for sharing her time and advice with us! Next week, we’ll have a bonus blog: An EllRay Q & A with Sally.
Happy Reading & Writing!