Q&A with Sarah and Laura
Muskeg Press sat down with Sarah McChesney and Laura Wiebe, the authors/illustrators of their forthcoming publication, The Lemon Tart. They talk about the inspiration for this children's book, and what they hope kids & adults alike will learn from it.
Chris Armstrong (CA): I'm here with Sarah McChesney and Laura Wiebe, the authors and illustrators of The Lemon Tart. Welcome.
Laura Wiebe (LW): Hello.
Sarah McChesney (SM): Thank you.
CA: Sarah, you've lived here a while. And Laura, you've just got here. And together you joined forces to write a book. Why don't you tell me a little bit about how this book actually came to be?
SM: Hi Chris, thank you. Yes, I was born and raised here in Prince Rupert and am so thankful and grateful to have grown up here around such a strong support system. Last year, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the schools were shut down to kids, but they were still open for teachers. We had to figure out a way to continue to teach and make connections with our kids. So Laura, and I collaborated on the best way to do that. And we decided that we were going to deliver learning packages to our students. At the time we were both working at Conrad Elementary School.
LW: And then we just kind of started doing that. Started being able to connect with different kids at different times. And then one day, we were talking to a couple of kids, connecting with them. And we were making conversation, we were talking about food. Asking, “what's your favorite food?” And we were just talking to different kids. One of little boys popped up and was like, “I love lemon tarts.” And he was so excited about it. And we went on our way, we didn't really think much of it. We were like, “that was hilarious and really cute.” Then we were thinking about it here and there, and then it kind of went from there. We said, let's write down some ideas, and see what happens. I had to used Photoshop and Illustrator a bit before. So I was playing around with it and seeing what I could make. And Sarah was learning Canva, a different design platform. And so she went with that, and I went with mine. We just kind of went from there.
CA: I don't know if you realized, Sarah, but you said “last year” when you referenced the pandemic.
SM: When you work in schools you tend to look at the year in school years. Not to mentioned it feels so long ago.
LW: But during the heart of the first wave – when everything shut down originally, and the schools were technically open, but children were not allowed in them.
CA: Right. But it does feel like more than a year has passed. Time has been moving very weird this year. And you guys are in your first year of teaching?
LW: I have now gone into my second year of teaching.
SM: And I'm back in school as a student.
CA: But when the pandemic hit, you were mid-way through your first year of teaching?
SM: And I think Laura and I looked at each other more than once, and said, “What more could happen? What else could happen just this year?”
LW: And then more always happened.
CA: Well, one good thing that's come out of it is the book of course, right?
LW: Yeah, For personal growth, 2020 has actually been very kind to me. Which is a hard thing to say. And I don't want to take away from the fact that a lot of people have gone through a lot, there's been a ton of hardships, and a lot of people have struggled. But I've been in a very fortunate situation that 2020 has actually brought a lot of good, in terms of being able to focus on myself. But it's not lost on me that the world is in turmoil. But with stepping back, I think I've been able to find some good in it.
CA: So let's talk about the world in turmoil, then for a second. One thing I noticed about the book, which is very charmingly written, you touch upon the fact that this is really a worldwide pandemic, of course. And you bring it right down to the level of this little boy who's living in Prince Rupert. What did you notice about the students? Why did you want to tell that story, about the sort of the worries about the pandemic?
LW: I think when something this big happens in the world –
SM: – the kids seem to get….not forgotten about, but –
LW: Sometimes it's hard to remember to say, okay, let's go right down to their level, and let's explain it to them. Because if we want the kids to do their part, then we need to explain their part to them. And there's different ways to do that. But big words like “pandemic” and “virus” and “respirators” – they don't always make sense to a five- or six-year-old.
SM: Laura and I, our first thing that we sent home in our packages to all the kids was a sheet that says, “What on Earth is going on?” And our goal was to put it into kid-friendly language. “what exactly is going on? What is a pandemic? What is a virus? Why are people getting sick?” For us, even just to be able to simplify it for the kids that we teach, it put it into perspective for us.
LW: Sometimes, if you have a 50 cent word, but you also have a 5 cent word, sometimes clearer is just better. If you can say “sick” instead of “COVID-19” – finding different words to use that are going to make sense and then build from there. So find the base knowledge. If everyone knows that people are getting sick, then you can ask the question, “why are they getting sick?” Well, because of a virus. Okay, now everyone knows the word virus, now what's a virus? And you can build from that. So start at the bottom and work up.
CA: So in a way, the writing of this story in very simple language is almost like it helped you clarify your own opinions on the pandemic. Is that fair to say?
LW: To a degree, it helped clarify them. A part of us, I think, also wanted to do our part to try to settle our minds about it. Because if we could settle our minds about it, we could better help the kids that we were working with. The kids were great, though, they did awesome. Some of them were unfazed.
SM: Yeah, it didn't even faze them that, you know, we're washing our hands when we come into school, before we sit down at our tables, we're sanitizing our hands before we go on the playground. After we go to the playground. When we go back into school we wash your hands. Now they're just accustomed to it.
LW: Because at schools there's a lot of cleaning going on at the moment, but that's okay.
CA: Okay, so we're about five minutes in this interview, maybe we should start talking about the book. Without giving too much away, tell me about the story.
LW: The basis of it is there's a little boy who is talking to two adults who happen to be teachers, and he's told them his favourite food. And then there is an adventure and different ways to how he gets that food. And does he even get that food? That’s kind of the main storyline of it: how does he get it? Does he get it? And is it what he wants?
CA: And what does he learn by the end of it?
SM: Throughout the book, there are some worry tools that he uses to help calm his mind.
CA: And he’s not worried at all about the pandemic.
SM: No, not at all.
CA: He’s worried about the lemon tart.
LW: Which I think is a really good thing to remind adults about kids. Okay, there's a big pandemic going on. But sometimes the kids’ worries are still the little things. We're all thinking, “are there enough respirators?” And they're like, “why is soccer cancelled?” There's a different perspective on what their world is seeing and what our world is seeing. But I think he learns patience. I think he learns a little bit of resiliency. I think there's some worry tactics he can go through.
CA: And let's talk about the worry tactics, because that's come up a few times in this interview. And obviously it's in the book as well. Now, as mentioned, he doesn't seem to be that worried about the pandemic, but is that just maybe something inside him that's not really coming out? Is the lemon tart story sort of the manifestation of that worry about the pandemic?
LW: I think it could be. I think during a time like what we went through in that first initial shutdown, whether we showed it or not, I think there was a little bit weighing on everyone. Thinking, “what's going on?” And for a kid, it might be, “why aren’t my parents going to work? Or, “why can't I go to school?” And it might not be communicated to them, or it might just be they don't know how to ask the questions. So it could very well be that this character is worried about his situation that you'll read about in the book, but he could very well be worried about a lot of things too. And when it all manifests, you have to find some way to kind of keep your body in check.
CA: Tell me if I'm out to lunch with these questions, because digging really deep, even though it’s – I don't want to use the word simple. It comes down to the most basic level. And even the illustrations are very basic, clear illustrations. Is that something you wanted to get across too? Like, simplify everything?
SM: Well, I think you want to make it visually appealing to children. You want them to be able to see that this is what's happening in the story.
CA: So I’m hoping that parents read this with their kids cuddled around them. Normally, I ask authors what they hope the reader takes from the story. So for you guys, it’s actually two questions. What do you hope the reader, and the little child that’s being read to, what do you hope they take from the story?
SM: A couple of things. I think first, the social-emotional aspect of things. Jack is calming himself down by doing yoga, he's coloring, he's drawing – what can I do to calm myself down? When I'm worried about things? Or, even the talk about, why am I worried about this? Why is this bothering me? I think to spark the conversation about that, that it's okay to be worried about things. And there are ways to get out of feeling down and frustrated and worried. And for parents and children, just that kids are resilient. And, you know, of course, Jack's worried about the lemon tart. But like we said, it could be more of the pandemic.
LW: It would just be just to take a moment. During really stressful times, just have light moments. It’s a fun story, it’s a hopeful story. But finding those moments, even when it kind of feels like everything's caving in.
CA: That's a good point, actually. Because we've got some pretty heavy conversation here, but it is really a fun story.
SM: And it was very fun to write.
LW: Yeah, it was fun to write. We enjoyed it, we found a lot of joy in it.
SM: And the kids brought us so much joy. And I think that's one of the reasons why we wrote the story. It’s for not only the kids that we teach, it’s for the kids of Prince Rupert. Our dedication is to the children of Prince Rupert.
LW: Yeah, at the end of the day, that’s who it’s for. That's what it's about, that’s who it's for. Because the story wouldn’t have happened without them. The story was because of them. And the story is for them.