In June, we featured the Children’s Writer in Residence Fellowship, which is run by the Associates of Boston Public Library– each year the Associates award an up-and-coming children’s author $20,000 and an office in the library to help him or her complete a book. We’re excited to share the other half of that incredible relationship on the site today by interviewing one of the lucky authors about her experience. Don’t forget to check out our interviews with other BPL Residents, Hollis Shore and Hannah Barnaby! ~Erinn
Library as Incubator Project (LAIP): So you were a Writer-in-Residence at Boston Public Library. Tell us a little bit about that experience. What did you work on, and what was it like for you as a writer to have an office in a busy urban library? What made you apply in the first place?
Sarah Searle (SS): I saw an advertisement while job hunting and the application stewed in the back of my mind for some time before I seriously considered it. I remember being intimidated –– I never thought I’d get it, to be honest –– but a more experienced cartoonist friend encouraged me, so I figured it wouldn’t hurt. At the point of application, I’d been working on a story for several years. I’d started it multiple times, but due to other obligations, had never been able to push it past a chapter or two of finished art. This was my chance to make it happen.
Under the Apple Tree is a graphic novel based on history and lore from my hometown. In the midst of World War II, a teenage girl moves from a Boston suburb to Kennebunk, Maine. When she meets the Civil War era ghost haunting her house, it’s on her to discover the truth behind his mysterious fate. It’s essentially a historical coming of age story with a paranormal twist. You can read more about it on my website, www.swinsea.com.
At this point, it’s obvious that I’m a bit of a history geek, and that’s what first drew me to BPL. I don’t think I need to elaborate on just how incredibly impressive it is as an institution.
Surprisingly, though, the most positive aspect of my experience working with the library itself was running comic-making workshops with children and teens. I visited various library branches, schools, and museums in Greater Boston, and had the opportunity to do creative projects with kids of all sorts of ages and backgrounds. I learned a lot from them and every single session was immense fun
LAIP: What are you working on now? Anything new in the hopper that you’re excited about?
SS: I have a couple things in the works, but right now I’m actually taking a breather to experiment a bit with new tools, style, and voice to find myself better as a writer and artist. I post some of these experiments on my blog. Once one of my larger projects is ready to share, I’ll announce it there!
LAIP: Have libraries always been a part of your artistic process, or was this a new phenomenon for you? If you have a long relationship with libraries, can you share some of the most influential ones? Ones that made a mark on your development as an author?
SS: I’ve had influential experiences at a few, but nothing competes with the public library in my hometown. I joined the teen book club at the Kennebunk Free Library when I was fourteen because I saw an ad that they were doing a unit on graphic novels. After growing up on X-Men and Sailor Moon, this exposed me to whole new genres and styles of art. I discovered Maus through them and it had more influence me on a writer, an artist, and simply as a person than anything we ever read in English class.
Someone I’ll never forget is the woman who ran the club was this super hip, young librarian who was involved in the zine scene. She self-published her own little indie magazines which she sold up in Portland, shared her collection with me, and encouraged me to try making some, too. I was incredibly lucky to have a role model who could expose me to that sort of thing and support my growth as a young creator. Self-publishing is huge for up-and-coming cartoonists, and though I didn’t know it yet, those early attempts set me on an important path for my future career. She only stayed for a year or two after I joined, but Leila (of Bookshelves of Doom) took over from there and was just as awesome.
I still visit KFL fairly regularly, if not for the same reasons. I did a lot of my research for Under the Apple Tree there. I’d go look up old newspapers on microfiche, then hop across the street to the Brick Store Museum where they have their own collection focused on Kennebunk history. I owe both of those libraries huge amounts of gratitude for their help with that project.
Photos from Sarah’s workshops at BPL branches.
LAIP: Not every library can support a fellowship like the Children’s Writer in Residence program. In your opinion, what are some things that any library could do to support authors in their communities?
SS: A few things come to mind, but the first is simply carry their work. Support them by making their books accessible, even if they’re in self-published or zine format –– they may not always be pretty or durable, but everyone knows you should never judge a book by its cover. Many locally owned bookstores have sections for indie authors and that’s something I’d really love to see extended to more libraries. Sharing those kinds of publications help inspire new generations, too, so you’re supporting future creators as well as established ones.
This wish might be specific to supporting cartoonists, which are a unique breed of author, but I think we are in the midst of the great rise of sequential art as a respected storytelling medium. I’m really excited for the future of comics.
Some favorite indie/zine-friendly establishments to take inspiration from:
- Casablanca Comics (Portland, ME –– sold my first self-published comics there!)
- Papercut Zine Library (Cambridge, MA)
- Roberts Street Social Centre/Anchor Archive (Halifax, NS)
- Quimby’s Bookstore (Chicago, IL).
SS: It’s funny, when I first got the fellowship, I admitted that I always felt more of an artist than a writer. But you know, the fellowship helped me prove something to myself: I’m a cartoonist because I love to create art and to write, and I don’t have to compromise. This is how I was born to tell stories.
Cartooning is great because you can switch between writing and drawing when you encounter a block on either side. Exercising different skills that complement each other in the way art and writing do lends to a really unique and, at times, invigorating workflow. Even if the work is hard at times, it’s rarely boring.
LAIP: What 5 books do you wish you could find on the shelves of every library you walk into?
SS: Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud is a great foundation for understanding communication and media in general, not just comics. I learned a ridiculous amount from that book.
I Saw Esau: The Schoolchild’s Pocket Book by Iona Opie, Peter Opie, and Maurice Sendak is a little sassy for kids, but that’s exactly why they should read it.
Peter and Wendy by J.M. Barrie –– the novelized version of the Peter Pan story, not the play, important distinction –– deserves more recognition. There’s an entire mythos behind Peter and Neverland, as well as a delightfully macabre obsession with death, that remain untouched in other adaptations. I secretly hope to turn it into a graphic novel someday.
Bulfinch’s Mythology by Thomas Bulfinch might technically make six books since Maus is two, but I’m going to add it anyhow. Any aspiring creator of anything needs good resources, and that was my go-to for inspiration in my pre-internet-savvy years.
LAIP: What would your ideal library be like? What would it look like? What would you be able to find and do there?
SS: Oh goodness, this is an impossible question to answer. I have no one ideal library because every one I’ve visited has been worth knowing for its own reasons. I have a soft spot for historical buildings –– nothing like wrapping collections in a piece of history, itself –– but grand architecture isn’t necessary to create the perfect library. Most of my favorite ones have occupied more modest spaces: street corners, an art college, a small local museum, a house rented to a co-op of zinesters.
I think I’d like to trade in my ideal library for a door like the one in Howl’s Moving Castle, so I can visit my favorites whenever I please. Having access to all of them from one place is about as perfect as it could get.
Sarah Winifred Searle grew up in southern Maine, earned a degree in new media, and then embarked on a grand adventure to Boston where she got her first art gig working on children’s games. She’s been based there ever since, earning a second undergraduate degree in humanities and expanding her portfolio of professional illustration and writing. After a wonderful nine months as Children’s Writer-in-Residence with the Associates of the Boston Public Library, Sarah currently works as a freelance cartoonist and a Digital Arts and Humanities Fellow at Harvard University.Pin It