Gaye Sanders is one of the local talents from our SCBWI OK group whose debut picture book, THE SURVIVOR TREE, is coming out this week. I’m delighted she’s stopped by to talk with us about it.
Gaye has been teaching elementary children for over 30 years and is currently a fourth-grade teacher in Mustang, Oklahoma, a suburb of Oklahoma City.
She is an active member of the Oklahoma Region of SCBWI and will assume the monumental role of Assistant Regional Advisor this coming December. We’re excited to have you on board!
Gaye was in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, when the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was bombed, killing 168 people, 19 of whom were children under the age of six. Every year she makes sure to share the historic story of the Oklahoma City bombing with her students.
Before the interview, let’s take a closer look at Gaye’s book:
THE SURVIVOR TREE by Gaye Sanders illustrated by Pamela Behrend
Release Date: November 1, 2017
Publisher: Roadrunner Press
BOOK SOON AVAILABLE:
A family plants an American elm on the Oklahoma prairie just as the city is taking root—and the little tree grows as Oklahoma City grows until 9:02 a.m. on April 19, 1995, the day America fell silent at the hands of one of its own.
As rubble from the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, is cleared, the charred tree—its branches tattered and filled with evidence—faces calls that it be cut down. The only obstacle: a few people who marvel that, like them, it is still there at all.
The next spring when the first new leaf appears proving the tree is alive, word spreads like a prairie wildfire through the city and the world. And the tree, now a beacon of hope and strength, is given a new name: The Survivor Tree. (Plot summary from author’s website.)
Valerie Lawson: What was the inspiration for this book?
Gaye Sanders: When you are a writer, you rotate between writing, editing, and revising. But you are also, at all times, thinking about what your next story will be.
Many times, we choose the story we are writing. We may get a spark of an idea, and work to develop it into a full story. But sometimes, in those rare moments, a story finds us.
Almost four years ago, on a visit to New York City, my sister and I got to experience the 9-11 Memorial. During our visit to the gift shop, I discovered a book about the 9-11 Survivor Tree. Until that moment, I had not realized they had a survivor tree.
Their tree has a much different story than ours. It was recovered from some of the rubble and replanted, nursed back to health and transplanted to the grounds when the memorial was finished.
I decided to buy that book, and then find the book about our Survivor Tree. I came home and began to look for one, and that was when I discovered there wasn’t one.
There needed to be. That idea sat on my heart for a couple of years. The seed of the idea planted itself there, and wouldn’t go away. And, I knew that a story had found me. A story that needed to be told.
VL: How fascinating! From one survivor tree to another. Love it!
This is a very emotional story still for many Oklahomans, did you find this a difficult thing to translate into a picture book format?
GS: I think that turning it into a picture book softened the subject matter. There were a lot of hard details that have been omitted, because they simply aren’t appropriate for the age group. But through the entire story of the tree, the bombing, and the healing afterwards, the theme is love conquers hate and hope can bring you through even the darkest times. Along with the promise that we will never forget.
VL: You tell this story from the perspective of the Survivor Tree at the Oklahoma City National Memorial, located on the site of the Murrah Federal Building bombing, what were the benefits/challenges to using a tree as your main character?
GS: Writing a book about this subject for children presented its own set of challenges. The story needs to be told, but in a more delicate manner, so as not to scare them about our world. I wrote my first version in third person, but it didn’t have the heart I wanted it to.
As writers, we often gain inspiration for our works from other books or pieces of literature. I reread The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. And even though that book is set in third person, that’s when it hit me. The tree needed to tell this story.
When I changed the point of view, I knew it was the right thing to do.
VL: Ah! THE GIVING TREE! Another tree giving your story inspiration. Let’s hear it for the trees!
You were able to visit the Memorial archives for your research, what was that experience like?
GS: The Oklahoma City National Memorial was more than helpful in allowing my research. I was honored to spend an entire day in the archives, going through photos, evidence lists, FBI notes, and more. It was a crucial part of the research. But, you can’t research something like this without feeling it from the very depths of your soul.
I lived here when this awful travesty occurred, I knew people who lost family members, and I knew others who survived. So, needless to say, I have shed more than my share of tears through this journey.
VL: Tell us about your writing journey. How did you begin to write books for children?
GS: I began thinking about writing for children over ten years ago. Having been around children’s literature basically my entire life, I thought I knew all I needed to know to write my own books.
I knew absolutely nothing about what I was doing, or how the publishing industry works.
It wasn’t until I joined SCBWI that I learned enough to really begin writing. It has been such a great journey, and I would not be where I am today without this amazing organization. And tribe. I have made lifelong friends, and I feel like the luckiest girl in the world.
VL: Woohoo! Yay, SCBWI! Best thing I ever did for my writing, too.
Tell us something about your childhood. As a young kid, what was the worst trouble you ever got into?
GS: I was one of those kids who really didn’t get in trouble much. Probably the biggest trouble was staying out too long on my bicycle.
Until I was a Senior in High School. I got my first “licks” with two months of high school left to go, because two of my friends and I told our bookkeeping teacher we were going to the library, when all along we were planning to go get cinnamon rolls in the cafeteria.
Yep. Got caught and got paddled.
VL: Oh, no! First time out and caught!
What was the scariest thing that you ever experienced as a kid?
GS: I grew up in a small, sheltered town. Probably the scariest thing was when my older sister, a friend of mine, and I were all at home alone one night, and heard a tap on the window. It was a peeping Tom! In Fritch, America!
The scariest moment in my childhood was probably the assassination of President Kennedy. I’ll never forget the moment they broke in on “As the World Turns” (I wasn’t in school yet) and Walter Cronkite announced that the President had been shot. The world stopped. And even though I was only five, I knew that our world had changed overnight.
VL: Wow. That was life-changing. Even at five.
What has been your favorite book to read/book you’ve been most excited about over the past year?
GS: That’s such a hard question, and there’s no way I can narrow it down to one. So, here are my top three of the year:
Dreamland Burning, by Jennifer Latham
The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
And, believe it or not, I had never read The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton before this year.
Every one of these touched me deeply, and were un-put-downable.
VL: Absolutely loved THE CROSSOVER. So, so good! Of course, I blazed through THE OUTSIDERS when I read it a long time ago. Wouldn’t mind reading it again. The 50th anniversary edition just came out! I’m just now starting to read Jen Latham’s book. I’ve been so looking forward to it!
What’s next for you? What are you currently working on?
GS: I am currently in the trenches of Pitch Wars. For those of you who don’t know what that is, go to www.pitchwars.org. It’s a fabulous process, where you submit to be matched with a mentor. You work with them for two months to get your manuscript ready for the agent round. My current WIP is called HURRICANE HARPER. It’s a contemporary fiction, middle grade set in coastal Mississippi.
In the editing lulls for Pitch Wars, I’ve started outlining my next one. It has a title right now of “1972”. It’s historical fiction with an alternate set of events, set in Washington D.C. Let’s just say it has something to do with a certain wiretapping activity that occurred that year.
And, I have a couple of ideas for picture books to follow up The Survivor Tree. They both have a connection to things that are tied to the Oklahoma City National Memorial.
VL: That all sounds fascinating! And good luck with Pitch Wars, Gaye! We’ll be routing for you!
Thanks so much for joining us. It’s been a pleasure talking with you.
For those who are interested and who live within traveling distance, Gaye is having a book launch for THE SURVIVOR TREE on Saturday, November 4th, from 1-3pm at the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum. The event will be held under the Survivor Tree, weather permitting. The book launch will move inside the foyer of the museum store in the event of inclement weather.
Learn more about Gaye Sanders here.
Follow Gaye on Twitter here.
Follow Gaye on Facebook here.
Follow Gaye on Instagram here.