Welcome, Sheila! Now, tell me about your most recent work. What inspired the premise? What about your story is topical right now?
On A Higher Hill: A Christmas Journey was published in 2021 for three-to-seven year olds. I chose the pen name of S.E. Tee, based on my name Sheila E. Tucker. My plans for writing a series of children's books began quite recently and, in a way, accidentally. I'm a Literature Section member of Toronto's Heliconian Club for Women in the Arts and Letters, and in November of 2017, the Drama Section Head asked if I'd compose a Christmas poem to read out during the annual December dinner held in the Club. It is a tradition to invite various members of all the sections to perform onstage during the dinner. (Our several sections are music, visual arts, drama, literature, dance, and humanities.) My poem "On A Higher Hill" was well received. However, I then put it aside and forgot about it.
A couple of years later I came across the poem again, re-read it and realized it could make a good book for young children if I made the first-person protagonist into a child. It had all the elements: adventure, becoming lost and found, meeting Santa, being taken on the sleigh up and past the Star of Bethlehem and down to a small village with a stable, inside which the child sees the manger and baby Jesus—before waking up in bed on Christmas morning. It had all been a dream.
Having been a graphic designer in an international company before retiring in 2012, I realized I could illustrate the book myself, using InDesign. I added puzzles at the back, as well as educational pages about the story of Christmas and about the tradition of Santa Claus, including his being based on a real person: Saint Nicholas of Myra. I also added a "letter" page at the front, for the giver to hand-write a note. This will make the book a treasured possession in later years—loving words written by a mom or grandfather or aunt, for instance.
What do you hope young readers, and perhaps even parents take away from your story?
Young children have always enjoyed poetic adventures and rhyming words. With my book, I hope they will enjoy hearing the poem read out to them by their families. They can learn to recite it themselves: the flow of the words, the rhyme and the beat are easy to memorize. Children relate to characters in their books, and the protagonist of On A Higher Hill: A Christmas Journey is deliberately androgynous, thus could be a girl or a boy. Any child can identify with the main character.
Parents and grandparents will like the fact that this little book will fit into a Christmas stocking. It is 5 x 7 inches: a slim book in full colour and only $10 plus shipping. Those living in Canada can order from me, for shipping would be cheaper at only $1.50 for up to three books. Otherwise, Barnes & Noble and Amazon carry it. I can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or else via my FB page.
This Christmas book makes for an excellent little additional gift for any child. It is easy for tiny hands to hold. As well, parents will appreciate the teaching pages. These are a good way to learn about Christmas—both the biblical story and the Christian acts of giving and kindness.
What are your favourite scenes, and why?
One of my favourite scenes is when the main character, who is lost in the woods, hears the chiming of bells and sees Santa in his sleigh in the forest—the look of happy surprise and the feeling of safety and goodness. As well, the images of being flown through a glowing red sky in the sleigh, with the star above. Another favourite scene is the image of the child's hand reaching out to touch baby Jesus' hand. We don't see the baby, just the manger and the hands. The special moment will be conjured up in the young reader's mind, of what the protagonist is seeing.
Where do your ideas for stories generally come from?
I have decided to make a series of stories based on world religions. This idea stemmed from creating the Christmas book, which is partly fiction, and partly fact. After On A Higher Hill: A Christmas Journey was published, I thought it would be a good idea to create an adventure poem, puzzle pages and teaching stories on a Jewish holiday, and later a Hindu festival, and so on. I did take some world religion courses at the University of Toronto years ago as a minor with English Literature being the major, and I enjoy and appreciate the spiritual side of all world traditions. I believe children can embrace not only their own traditional heritage but also learn of others. This encourages tolerance and understanding in a multicultural society.
All the books will have the same format: adventure in poetic form, some puzzles, historical and factual accounts easy for a small child to understand, and in the same 5 x 7 inch size for small hands. Each book will also have a positive message in the front pages as well as the "letter" page for the giver to write something.
For the other children’s writers out there in my audience, could you share a little advice on either writing or marketing children’s picture books?
Writing children's books means deciding which age group and writing for that target market. For early-childhood, easy language is helpful but it doesn't hurt to throw in words they might not be familiar with. This is because they are being read to at this age, and can ask the adult to explain words they don't know. It is how they expand their vocabulary. For older age groups, the language can be more complex and so can the tales themselves.
I would also suggest consideration of setting. Is your story based in the past? If so, research customs, clothing and tools of that time. What did people back then do in their recreation time? Sing or dance, perhaps? When writing a contemporary story, you would add characters holding mobile phones, perhaps, or sitting in a car. If you can illustrate the book yourself, that is great: otherwise, review illustrators' work to see which would best fit with your vision.
How has the current pandemic changed or shaped how you write your books? What about how you market them?
During the winters of this pandemic, we did not socialize at all, other than online or else sitting outside on folding chairs with others on the days it was not too cold. I see this kind of winter social distancing continuing, at least for us, for now. I find that as a writer, it is a good time to stay in and enjoy quiet time to think up new ideas: not just children's books but other genres too.
Working on social media marketing during the pandemic has been a good use of time when not writing stories. For my new children's series, I created a Facebook group page last year in order to post kiddie-themed pictures and clips. Closer to Christmas, I'll start re-advertising On A Higher Hill, and will focus on posts re my upcoming Sukkot book during the time leading up to that festival. I'll do this each year. I found that last November and December, I sold a lot of my Christmas book this way.
Tell me about some of your other books and projects!
Currently I'm illustrating my second children's book. This one is on the Jewish Sukkot festival. Part of this holiday remembers Moses and the freed Israelites wandering the desert for 40 years to reach the Promised Land (based on the Hebrew Scriptures). However, those with a Christian background can also embrace this, for the story is part of the bible's Old Testament.
Another part of Sukkot celebrates the harvest and thanksgiving for crops. The tradition is for Jewish families to sleep in a hut, or booth, for at least one of the seven nights of Sukkut or, if in a colder climate, then to eat their meals in this hut (named a Sukkah and built with wood and leaves, with the inside decorated.) For children, it would be akin to camping with the family and actually, the idea is to remember ancestors who slept outside in this way during their journey through the desert. As well, farmers often slept in huts during harvest time, in order to be near their ripe fruits and vegetables, and make the most of daylight hours to reap their fields.
Currently, Danila Botha, a Jewish writer of five books including Too Much on the Inside, is kindly reviewing my Sukkot draft. This is important, because I wish to ensure my book's educational pages are correct according to the Judaic faith. When I begin my Hindu-holiday book, I'll enlist the help of a person of East Indian heritage to advise me. There are several in my writing circle.
As well as this project, I'm working on a sci-fi/gothic novel for adults. I'm about halfway through the first draft.
What's next for you?
The next children's book after the holidays of Christmas and Sukkot will be a Hindu celebration of some kind. I will research that closer to the time. Later on, others will follow such as a Buddhist and a Shinto children's book. They will be similar in format: a poetic adventure, quizzes, puzzles and educational pages. All will have an illustrated 'letter' page for the giver to write a note.
And tell us something people might not know about you.
I wrote a memoir that was launched in the fall of 2019: Rag Dolls and Rage is available from Amazon, and from Barnes & Noble. It is available as a Kobo or Kindle e-book as well as in print. It can also be ordered from me at a special price of $15 plus shipping by emailing email@example.com (just mention you saw the book details on Regan's blog). Many readers have said they relate in some way to my story and found it hard to put down. Do read some of the reader reviews on my site.
Another thing you might not know: One summer, many years ago, I was a donut maker at a holiday resort.
Get your copy of On A Higher Hill: A Christmas Journey HERE!