Putting Pen to Paper
Middletown Author Sherry Howard Talks First Children’s Book
Longtime Middletowner Sherry Howard has spent the bulk of her life and career in education. First as a teacher and then as a principal for various schools in the Louisville area. Much of that time was spent in the area of special needs kids, a unique aspect of her past that reflects heavily on all facets of her life. And none more so, Howard discovered, than in her writing and, particularly, in her first children’s book “Rock & Roll Woods.”
After retirement, Howard sought something to fill her time and she found herself with the literal pen — Howard says she still uses pen and paper.
“It was sort of a gradual journey to publication,” she says. “Initially, I just wrote for my own enjoyment. I took a lot of online classes specific to writing.”
Eventually, she happened upon the world of children’s literature and “fell in love” in part due to her love of children. What resulted was “Rock & Roll Woods.” As with anything in Howard’s life her family had a large part to play in her book, especially her granddaughter.
“It’s acknowledged in the acknowledgments that I asked my granddaughter, who was eight at the time, what she’d like me to write about next because my family is all part of my writing,” she says. “And she said, ‘let’s write about a bear.’ Then we brainstormed a little bit and she said she wanted the bear to be named Kuda. So we named the bear Kuda and I wrote the story.”
Kuda, the star of Howard’s book, is a bear that faces “sensory integration issues,” which is more formally known as Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). SPD is a neurological disorder in which the sensory information that an individual perceives results in abnormal responses according to The STAR Institute for Sensory Processing Disorder. It’s an issue that affects many children — 5% to 16% according to one study — something Howard discovered for herself firsthand at a recent school reading.
“When I did a reading at Stopher Elementary there were 150 first-graders and when I asked who was afraid of loud noises over half the kids shot up their hands,” Howard says. “And that is a sensory integration issue. But it’s also a universal issue. There can be a lot of overlap in what is typical at a young age and what turns out to be a bigger issue. You just never know.”
So Kuda became Howard’s hero for these children but it wasn’t an entirely intentional idea.
“I didn’t really sit down and think ‘oh, I’m going to write about a bear with sensory integration problems,’” she says. “I just wrote about a bear and gave that bear the personality of a special needs child I had in my mind and developed the story. After the story was finished I realized that Kuda really is a special needs bear. That what I’d written about was sensory integration.”
Howard’s publisher, Clear Fork Media Group, saw Kuda’s struggle as something that should not only be part of “Rock & Roll Woods” but actually central to the theme. They decided that, Howard explains, “not only would the story itself feature sensory integration issues but that there would be back matter included in the book which is not typical for a fiction book. There’s explanation about what sensory integration is because it’s not really limited to children who have big problems.”
For most people, the idea of writing a children’s book seems, perhaps, a daunting prospect but not so much when compared to a full-length novel. Not true, Howard laughs.
“In a certain way, those 50,000-word books are easier than trying to write a really good story in 600 words,” she says.
That might seem counter-intuitive but Howard explains further:
“It’s recognized that picture books are really hard to write because you can’t use very many words in the writing,” she adds.
Fortunately, Howard’s background in writing, and specifically poetry, lent itself well to her endeavor though challenges still presented themselves.
“Picture book writing is really different,” Howard says. “When you do a picture book you have lots and lots of edits. You put it out to critique partners who look at it and you go back and forth and back and forth on it before you ever submit it to a publisher. It was a long process. But being a poet and that background lends itself really well to picture book writing.”
Illustrations for a children’s books are as equally important as the words, and Howard was fortunate enough to land artist Anika A. Wolf. Wolf’s vibrant style brings a crisp and colorful pop to Kuda’s tale. From the outsider’s perspective, it probably seems relatively simple. You write the book and you get someone to do the art. According to Howard, however, the process lies completely in the hands of the publisher.
“The publisher chooses the illustrator and, typically, if you’re an author only rather than an author and illustrator, the publisher and the illustrator go off and do their thing and you’re not really involved with it until the very end,” she says. “Then you’re kind of pulled back in. Typically, they don’t want a writer to pair up with an illustrator outside of their process. It’s very unusual for it to happen.”
Ultimately, Howard simply wants to put out a good piece of work into the world. And just because it’s a children’s book doesn’t mean there can’t be nuance and depth to it, as well as a message.
“I want to write books that kids enjoy and have a feeling about after they read it,” she says. “Rock and Roll Woods” deliberately has multiple layers in it. The first and most obvious layer is a fun, noisy story that kids love to chime in with when it’s read out loud. That level is for all kids, sensory issues or not. Another layer is for the child with sensory issues, who sees a bear (child) struggle with those issues and survive because he has great friends. Another layer is for those parents of kids with those issues. The book gives parents and teachers of kids with sensory issues a little private joke, the grumpy reluctance to accept that is common with a lot of young kids. And, the information at the back gives the adults specific information about sensory issues. I have lesson plans developed that teachers can use, and I’ve also developed it as a play for kids to act out, giving them a venue for discussion about how Kuda’s friends help him get through a tough time.”
While “Rock and Roll Woods” is Howard’s first book, she’s already garnering acclaim for it. Kirkus Book Reviews has awarded it a two-star review, which, Howard says with delight, is not something handed out pell-mell. But Howard was already an established author before. Many of her poems and short stories appear in various online literary publications and anthologies making it safe to say she knows a few things about getting one’s writing out there for people to read. So if the idea of writing a children’s book is something you’ve ever considered and you’re not disheartened by Howard’s own journey to publication she has some advice for you.
“The important thing about books for children is they all need to see themselves, their feelings, their friends or their families in books,” she says. “Kids really need books like this to help them feel less isolated and give them hope and a voice for something they sometimes don’t understand in themselves. So for people who are new to writing these, I want to tell them to hang in there. That it’s a hard journey and a long journey and you really have to study and work at it. Even if you think you already know all you need to know.”