by Candice Marley Conner
Sometimes, your differences make you a hero.
Squirrels need their tails for balance and to communicate. So, with her stubby tail, Sassafras is the laughingstock of the live oak --always falling, tripping, and tumbling. It feels like no one understands her. But when danger strikes, what makes her different might just help her save the day.
Creatives know walks are great for inspiration and I found this to be true by accident one stroll around our neighborhood when my now ten-year-old was a baby. I had just started writing my first young adult novel and my daughter was teething so we both desperately needed to get out of the house and into the fresh air.
Just down the road, a squirrel scampered down a live oak, looked at us, grabbed an acorn, and scurried back to safety. Pretty typical behavior. But this squirrel had the shortest, stubbiest tail I had ever seen. I had questions! Squirrels use their tails for counterbalance, so was this squirrel clumsy? Squirrels communicate with their tails so could this one signal alarms when needed? Was it misunderstood by other squirrels? Squirrel tails are fur coats in the winter and umbrellas in the rain so did this poor thing get chilly and rained on?
All these questions tumbled around as we strolled. Picture books I had recently read with my daughter made it into the creative brainstorm like Cannon’s Stellaluna, Drachman’s Leo the Lightning Bug, and Andreae’s Giraffes Can’t Dance, encouraging me to look at the squirrel’s potential story from a different angle: what special abilities and adaptions could this squirrel have in response to a short stub-of-a-tail?
By the time we returned home, Sassafras the brave squirrel with the bristly tail was born. But could I write a picture book? I had written poetry, a short story or two, flailed around on a middle grade manuscript in college, and was getting serious with a YA, but picture books were a whole other ballgame.
Still, it felt right, that heady inspiration, so I scrambled to get it down on paper before my daughter woke from her stroller-ride induced nap (ha! That didn’t happen.) I queried the manuscript to a few publishers with form rejections for my troubles, changed the names of the squirrels who tease Sassafras from Sam and Sally (I cringe now!) to Pine and Maple, and realized I had a LOT to learn about writing picture books. So I continued to learn as I finished that YA manuscript (which also debuts this June!) and signed it with an agent. Then I heard about a publisher who focused on books about how one’s differences make them awesome and even printed books in dyslexie font to make the stories more accessible to everyone. I asked my YA’s agent if I could submit to them since she mainly focused on young adult and adult titles. She gave me her blessing and off Sassafras went to MacLaren-Cochrane Publishing!
A big thanks to Tannya at MacLaren-Cochrane Publishing for believing in Sassafras and making picture books that are dyslexic inclusive, and to the illustrator, Heath Gray, for making the squirrels and oaks come alive in bright and kid-friendly illustrations. And to Lynne Marie for creating this fun and informative space to share our story behind the stories!
Candice Marley Conner is the kidlit haunt at a haunted indie bookstore (but not haunted how you’re thinking), an officer for her local writers’ guild, and a Local Liaison for SCBWI. Her poems and short stories may be found in Highlights Hello, Smarty Pants Magazine for Kids, Babybug Magazine, and more. Her debut picture book, SASSAFRAS AND HER TEENY TINY TAIL releases June 8, 2021, and her YA Southern mystery, THE EXISTENCE OF BEA PEARL, debuts June 15th, 2021 with Owl Hollow Press. She lives in Alabama with her husband, two children, two cats, and one furry potato.
Candice loves to talk to other writers and readers!
GREAT NEWS! Candice is giving away a copy of her debut picture book! Please share this post and note in the comments of this blogpost where you posted for a chance to win. Candice will choose a winner on July 8, 2021.