H(om)e: A Conversation with Children's Book Author Sarah Warren

Interview by Lauren Ash.

Sarah Warren is one of the most beautiful souls I know. When I introduce her to my friends I often fear they will love her more than me and leave me altogether (kidding, but seriously). As my “big” cousin, I’ve always looked up to her as a source of inspiration—she's a published children's book author, she's an incredible holistically-minded food artist, and has an incredible sense of humor and wit.

We lived together for a brief time immediately after I graduated college and immediately after she went through a divorce. It was during that time of transition for both of us that I truly started to reflect on the importance of home: on having a safe space. A place for healing. A base for inspiration. Fast forward about four years and Sarah has a loving and supportive partner and they have recently celebrated homeownership together. When I was able to visit her beautiful home in the Nokomis neighborhood of Minneapolis I knew I had to follow-up on last month's H(om)e feature with Sarah's home. So, last month, I enjoyed tea and conversation with Sarah along with my friend Shahar who flew in for a surprise visit from Israel just hours before (thanks for joining in on this interview, Shahar). In our conversation Sarah illuminates what it means to surround yourself with reminders of the beautiful aspects of who you are and why you exist and how happiness can indeed come after heartbreak. I hope you enjoy.

LA: When did you move here and why?

SW: I moved here last January. It was the coldest January that I have experienced in some time. It was very snowy. Neil, who I wasn’t yet married to, and I had been looking for houses and we were planning to live in sin somewhere together. [Laughter] And we were looking at places on Grand Avenue which is this really hip spot and we wanted to be hip too but we couldn’t afford any places over there. We also both had been through divorces and owned homes and lost them and so we didn’t want to bite off more than we could chew. We also didn’t have a lot of stuff felt like we didn’t feel like we needed a big place. We both lost a lot of stuff previously. With that in mind we were looking around Longfellow, we were looking all over, but we hadn’t considered Nokomis. It just seemed so far away from everything. It seemed like a sprawling, strange place.

But then we came over here. First of all it was so cold [but when we arrived] we went into the heated garage. We walked into the house and it had a heated floor. The people who lived here before totally renovated it and they received MAC [Metropolitan Airports Commission] money so they got MAC updates and they just went nuts. The windows and everything. They just did everything with love. The dude who sold it had done most of the work. He’s this German dude who led Neil around and told him how to keep everything going well and was just so proud of everything he’d done. There’s a wine nook. The dishwasher has a wine glass holder in it. You know how you usually have a bunch of fake drawers that are the illusion of a drawer? They are all real! There are no illusions![Laughter] The realtor said we wouldn’t like it because it would be too small. It’s perfect for us. Neil has his little music space downstairs and we have the upstairs that wasn’t really a bedroom, but we turned into one.

LA: When you were visiting it, they weren’t using it as a bedroom at all?

SW: No. It works really well for what we need, want, and enjoy. It’s perfect for us.

LA: I notice you have a lot of plants. I assume most are because of you.

SW: Yes. But this is Neil’s plant. He calls it crazy plant. It was a gift from our friend when he was getting divorced and he had to move to this horrible apartment. He has a really antagonistic relationship with it.

And this is from his family. This is an easter lily he gave his Grandma. His Grandma suffered from pretty extreme dementia, but she would always know Neil. And he was not a very responsible young man, but he showed up once and stopped at the grocery store and grabbed this Easter Lily. She cherished it. She died recently so his Mom gave it to us.

And I like succulents because it’s easier to not kill them.

LA: This sounds simple, but why do you have plants everywhere?

SW: I like to be surrounded by little living things, you know? I’m not very good at taking care of them, but I think it kind of adds a certain amount of...it makes you feel as if your house is growing. There’s a healthfulness to it. I feel peaceful when I look at the plants. We exist together in this space. We benefit from each other’s presence.

It’s neat to watch sometimes how they react to the sun. When I was in the 8th grade, one of the most amazing science experiments in my life, I had the hypothesis that the reason plants grow more healthfully if you talk to them is because you’re blowing out CO2 directly to them. So, I got little beans from the co-op and I planted them. One I blew on, one I talked to, and one got nothing. I watered them all equally and everything. I went to Disneyland the week before the science fair and Mr. Kramer, my homeroom teacher, was supposed to water them for me and he didn’t, and they all died. So we’ll never know!

LA: Couldn’t you try the experiment in your backyard? [Laughs]

SW: I suppose that’s true. [Laughter]

LA: So share a little more about yourself as a writer.

SW: I did some writing in college, mostly poetry and short fiction.  

LA: I want to read them all.

SW: I have them all, they’re so embarrassing! [Laughter] I really didn’t know what to do with myself as a writer after I graduated school and generally didn’t know what to do with myself. Finally, I started working with at-risk kids in downtown Minneapolis at the YWCA. I didn’t do a lot of reading during college; I read what was expected of me. And I did read a lot of poetry when I graduated. When I was working with preschoolers, I was reading picture books constantly. There was such a crossover between poetry and children’s literature, because brevity is the most important thing. You need to get to your point quickly. Your word choice is so important. Being able to be spare and vibrant and engaging are all very, very important things when you’re writing for children or reading for children. I tapped into that.

I remember very clearly the moment I realized I was gonna be a writer for life, for my life’s work. I started this thing in my classroom called “Hero of the Week.” We were doing an alphabet curriculum. And I would think of a diverse hero or leader of color or a woman – people I didn’t think were being represented, especially in biographies back then. There was a lot about George Washington and just three books on Martin Luther King Jr. books. And that was it. And they weren’t meant for young children. And young children are the perfect audience to talk with about heroes. They love super heroes because all of those virtues of a super hero are things they want to be, so badly. They feel it in visceral ways. They feel and experience justice so clearly – what’s fair and what’s not fair. So a lot of my kids didn’t get to experience people that looked like them in the books that were being read to them.

So that’s when I just started writing stories to go with the heroes I picked out – so, Amelia Earhart for A, Bessie Coleman for B, Eleanor Roosevelt and then Dolores Huerta who eventually became the book that I sold. I had this dramatic come to Jesus moment and then I just started to realize that I could do that for a living, maybe not to make any money, but it could be my life’s work! So then, I started taking classes at the loft. And I apprenticed with other women’s book writers. I earned my Master’s Degree around multiculturalism and early childhood writing for children. I thought it was really cool because it was this low-residency with funky women. All women. They were like “I wanna build a school” – they had these incredible dreams that weren’t necessarily very realistic, but they believed in them so strongly and wanted the affirmation of going to school and having to be something that could make sense and had a philosophy behind it.

Yes, so I started writing a lot of kids – mostly picture books, and all of the poetry stuff I did. It’s been really fun. The weird part about it, and the good part, is watching the diversity movement shift in the children’s literature world. Back when I was starting, there was the tolerance movement – we knew multiculturalism was important but nobody knew how to do it in a way that wouldn’t offend anybody or make anybody uncomfortable. Sometimes you’ll have teachers, in a small town in Minnesota for example, who are like, “I don’t have anybody who looks like that, so why should I have these books in my classroom?” What they would do [in children’s books during the tolerance movement], they would not make anybody who looked ethnically or racially anything look beige. And they’d be like “we can all relate to that person, maybe!” You’d see a lot of cartoon people. There’d be animals, cause can all relate to that crazy raccoon!

[Laughter]

So there weren’t a lot of realistic portrayals of people who looked like all sorts of people, which is really important because if you’ve got a seemingly homogenous child audience, you need to show lots of different types of people! And have that be normalized and celebrated!

So, I was really excited about sharing the stories of people who were specific human beings who existed in history and Dolores [Huerta], you know, exists right now and is doing this extraordinary work. The challenging aspect of that is when somebody exists in the world now and you’re writing about them, they’re still doing things and having opinions on things and there’s usually a political aspect to the people that I write about because they’re activists.

So, for example, when I first wrote Dolores’ story, unions were still considered a pretty good thing by lots of people. Since then Scott Walker has made them the devil. I didn’t have an opinion about unions. I thought unions were a good thing. I thought what Dolores did was good.

SE:  How old were you when you had that realization of what you wanted to do for your life’s work?

SW: I think I was 24, 25 maybe. The thing about it was I just got a sense of purpose. That’s all I got. Before that I didn’t really know what I was meant to do. I didn’t have a game plan. I didn’t have something that I could focus on and make the best of it work towards this thing. I didn’t have any vision. I was doing good work. I loved working with kids. I had recently gotten married. There was a lot happening in my life that was good, but I didn’t have a sense of purpose. And I remember being like “there are people who don’t have this and never get this.” To be able to know what is meaningful to you in life and to always been working towards it even if it doesn’t make you a success or a celebrity – that’s your thing [and] to have 'a thing' is so important.

And, to go back to my house. I think it is great to have little sacred reminders. Having those picture books on the wall – first of all I think they’re art, so I want them on the wall. I like art best when you can futz with and have a relationship with it. I think you need to be reminded about what you’re all about as much as possible because it is easy to distract yourself or to lose track or to lose hope. Or to love other people doing what you’re doing. I was very competitive when I started writing and was like “all these other biographies are bullshit!” and these people can’t write. And some of that was true. But also, I had to learn from everybody. But if I read something that was good, it would hurt me. It made me feel really bad about myself. And now being able to appreciate other people, other artists is so important. I think continuing to support other children’s book authors and also bringing it into my house and making it part of my life and…

LA: Looking at it as inspiration.

SW: Yes and looking at it as a community. It’s important to me. It’s funny because Neil is also an artist, and he does his music thing. He has a really good relationship with his music.

SE: [Pointing to a piece of art] This is one of my favorite artists. He has postcards and they’re really just plain, very emotional...

SW: He was the first child-like-y artist that I noticed. He makes art with cool little sayings that were kind of simple but very stirring. And that art is from Haiti.

LA: [Pointing to a painted, wooden sun] I’ve always loved that sun. I remember that sun from the old Powderhorn apartment we lived in. [Referring to Sarah’s book room] I have a question – what’s your favorite book in here? Is that too hard?

SW: No, it changes all the time. So I can tell you what it is right now. I actually don’t have it yet. It’s called We are Stardust and I need to order it. It talks about how we are all made of stardust and it’s a way to explain science to young children.

LA: And it sounds spiritual!

SW: Yeah, kind of in the way that Neil deGrasse Tyson talks about science and spiritualism without having God involved. I really like that a lot. Wait, you’re right this is a hard question! This one is very sweet. I can’t tell you.

LA: That’s okay, that’s an answer too.

SW: It’s like picking a child! This one is amazing because it’s cut paper. It’s about a little boy whose mom is died and he’s just very scared. His dad is comforting him.

LA: Is this your creation room? Is this where you write?

SW: Yup, this is my little writing space. I get antsy when I have to spit in one spot, and it helps to have the books here, I can just turn around and stare for a while. I think a lot of the books that are my favorite I wouldn’t want to read to a child. Some of the sillier books are books I would read to kids but they’re not as pretty, you know?

LA: It depends kind of on the audience.

SW: Yes, whether it’s for me or for the children. I’ve got some books here that are more informative for me, for me to get into the mindset I need to be in to write the way I want to. Having the art here, like this Smokey the Bear poster, helps me tap into the innocence, life – it reminds me of what I’m doing here. All the little things that kind of help me to feel.

LA: Sarah, this conversation will be featured in our Death and Transition issue. It fits, everything you’ve said. This is a newer space for you, after the transition of you getting married and moving into this place and finally feeling at home.

SW: So much of this started with the divorce. It started with losing. You know, you plan a life for yourself, and then losing it is such a hard painful thing. And people do that in lots of different ways, so it’s not like I’m special but I remember thinking “I will never live in a house again.” I never wanted to be tied down like I am. I felt so trapped, because we were trying to sell this house. When I lived in the house with you, it felt really fun but it didn’t feel like home cause I felt kind of frantic, and not myself. Getting married again and also getting a home with someone feels really good. We went through a really hard time – like four months ago. But it felt different, because I had a partner who was supporting to me. It was heartbreaking, it was a lot. But I knew him better, I knew how he was in a crisis situation. It made us better partners –

LA: You grew together from it – I’m sure in a very strange way, but –

SW: It made the home more of a home. When you’re grieving in a place, it feels lived in. Even though we haven’t been here that long, things have happened here and we’ve gone through things together. It’s been our sanctuary. I’m really happy.

Sarah is Black Girl In Om's Book Club Curator! Learn more about her and read her thoughts on Citizen by Claudia Rankine here.

PHOTO: NANCY MUSINGUZI

PHOTO: NANCY MUSINGUZI

Nancy Musinguzi is a documentary photographer, activist, and writer based out of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Recently a graduate from Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, she uses her skills in photography to engage young people in conversations about social justice, community engagement and the power of visual art in media. Nancy previously worked as a freelance photographer and writer in New York City to tell stories about subculture and art communities she lived in and traveled to. Currently, she works as an artist-in-residence at the non-profit organization, Youthprise, where she has had the opportunity to install her work in two solo exhibits.