Laura Sassi has a passion for telling humorous stories in prose and rhyme. She is the author of Goodnight, Ark Hardcover (Zonderkidz, 2014) and Goodnight, Manger (Zonderkidz, 2015), Diva Delores and the Opera House Mouse (Sterling, 2018) and Love Is Kind (Zonderkidz, 2018) She lives in New Jersey with her husband, two children, and a black Cockapoo named Sophie.
Laura’s book Diva Delores and the Opera House Mouse was recently featured in my Appreciating What You Have post. Thank you, Laura, for joining me!
Portions of Diva Delores just beg the reader to sing the line, as if performing opera. My kids absolutely love this change of pace (despite my poor singing voice), and I love the opportunity to introduce them to some musical theatre concepts. Are you a fan of opera or musical theatre? How did this setting for your storyline develop?
I didn’t attend my first opera until college, but I am a lifelong fan of musical theatre. I spent hours as a child singing and dancing in the living room to the strains of my parents old musical LPs. Name a song from almost any musical from the 30s – 60s and I can probably sing it for you on the spot (much to my children’s great mortification). I also have memories of going to see the movie versions of many of those musicals in a once posh, but by then a little worn, old theatre in Paris (where I lived as a child) that bore a lot of resemblance to the opera house I envisioned for my story. That love of musical theatre, plus my experience as an audience member both at the opera and in that wonderful old theatre, made an opera house an obvious pick for a story starring spotlight-loving diva and her mouse assistant.
When I read Diva Delores, I often think about how there are some personalities in the world that are driven to the spotlight and others that are driven to be helpers. I love how your book gives each a role that depends on the other. How did your experience as a teacher and a parent influence the development of these characters?
I probably would have written this story even if I hadn’t had the experience of being a teacher and a parent. However, I think my role as both opened my eyes to how different people really are and the truth of the matter is that in the classroom (and world) we need all kinds of personalities to thrive. Indeed, in a healthy, well-balanced class, family and planet, we can and must learn to complement and bring out the best in each other.
As the parent of a child who falls into the “helper” category, however, I wanted to make sure that Fernando, in his kind-hearted helpful spirit, wasn’t a doormat. When Delores didn’t treat him well, I wanted him to stand up for himself, civilly, by using his words. Likewise, and knowing there is a bit of the self-focused “diva” in all of us, I wanted Delores to be contemplative and willing to grow so that together they brought out the best in each other.
You were a teacher before becoming a published author, and you’ve mentioned in past interviews that you especially loved teaching reading and writing. As you can tell by my blog, I love using picture books to teach my kids (we homeschool). Did you use picture books much in your classes? What do you hope kids and teachers take away from Diva Dolores, and how do you think picture books can best be utilized in classes?
I taught primarily fourth grade and, yes, I often used picture books to enhance lessons. I found them especially helpful and engaging in adding an extra dimension to our science and social studies lessons. I remember, in particular, using Lynne Cherry’s The Great Kapok Tree: A Tale of the Amazon Rain Forest as an introduction to a project we did every year as part or our rain forest unit, in which, students had to defend the preservation of a particular species in the ecosystem. Now, as a homeschool mom, I often use picture books as a visual, engaging way to teach a writing or reading concept. For example, when learning about how to map out a story pyramid, instead of starting with the novel we were reading, I had my daughter begin by mapping out several of her favorite picture books. I’ve also used picture books as examples of what tight writing and good vivid imagery look like so that we can then emulate that in our own homeschool writing.
In the class room setting, Diva Delores and the Opera House Mouse lends itself beautifully to discussions about community and the importance of even the smallest helping hands. It also models for kids how to be a kind and thoughtful friend. It could also be used as a fun companion for an introductory unit on various music genres.
As a professional teacher and author who is now homeschooling, I’m wondering how you go about teaching your children about writing. Do you do have any pointers for other homeschool parents looking to teach creative writing?
The key to successfully teaching writing, at least with my daughter, has been to make it relevant and meaningful to her world. When I started homeschooling my daughter for fifth grade, she really struggled to construct a sentence, let alone a paragraph, or a literary response, essay or creative piece. I knew that if she was going to make any progress the first step was to make the writing meaningful so I situated lessons on sentence structure, paragraph development, etc. within the context of things that she wanted to write about. That first year for example, she wrote an entire autobiography. Each week she picked a topic that was meaningful to her and we used each of those three – four paragraph “chapters” to meaningfully work on expressing and organizing her ideas. And it worked! Her writing got richer and better organized week by week.
Now, whenever possible, I raise the interest-level on writing assignments by tying them into her world. For example, for a unit on letter writing and persuasive argument, my daughter enthusiastically wrote a letter to a world-renowned ballerina she admired, first describing the impact this dancer had on her and then seeing if she could persuade her to come visit her dance school. And when she was working on a creative assignment to write a fractured fairy-tale, we raised the stakes by deciding to submit it for publication (which she was eager to do). This, in turn, led to another whole learning experience on formatting work for submission, writing a cover letter, handling rejection etc.
Homeschool educators interested in more ideas like these for bringing writing to life for their kids, might enjoy a couple of blog posts I have written on subject:
You write a weekly blog where you often use creative analogies between life and writing. In what way are these writing exercises useful in your pursuit of writing picture books?
For me, a big part of picture book writing is making creative connections—taking a snippet of inspiration and then playing with it, combining one idea with a seemingly totally disconnected different idea, pairing characters with unusual settings, switching things around etc. But to do that, I need to warm up and I do that by beginning each day with my journal. I use that journal to record free-flowing thoughts, observations, joys and struggles and… analogies! This time spent journaling is crucial for getting my creative juices going and those creative analogies just seem to flow out of me—much the way my rhymes do. And once written, it seems a shame not to share them, especially since over the years I’ve gotten such positive feedback from writers and friends who find them encouraging and inspirational.
You’ve mentioned in past interviews how helpful you believe participation in your critique groups has been. Do you have any advice for novices about how to best use their time and energy when participating in critique groups?
I’m so glad you asked this question because critique groups are, in my opinion, one of the best ways to grow as a writer. Not only will you receive valuable feedback from the other members in your group, but you will gain just as much, if not more, insight from critiquing the other members’ pieces. Also, a good critique group can provide a nice sense of community in a field that can feel daunting and solitary. My best advice for making best use of time an energy in a critique group would be to first carefully choose a critique group that fits your needs and style. Critique group format and expectations can vary greatly so it’s helpful to think through what you can offer and what want from the experience ahead of time. Do you want to meet in person? Or would an on-line group be better? Do you want it to be just picture book writers or a broader spectrum? How often would it be helpful for your writing goals to submit a piece for critique? And how much time are you willing to put into critiquing others’ pieces? Over the years, I have found that for me, it works best to be in a group of no more than 6 or 8. I find that 6 or 8 opinions is plenty when receiving feedback and that reciprocating in a group that size is manageable and enjoyable. I hope this helps the newer writers out there who are just contemplating this step in the writing journey.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Oh, my goodness, I’m afraid I’ve already given your readers an earful! Thank you so much for having me today, Margaret. It has been a terrific pleasure. The questions you have asked have been some of the most thoughtful I’ve received and I hope my answers have done them justice. Happy reading and writing to you and all your readers!