Mindfulness, Montessori, and the Making of a Picture Book: A Conversation with Author Deborah Sosin
Updated: Mar 19, 2019
Deborah Sosin, author of the 2015 picture book Charlotte and the Quiet Place, is a jack of all trades —and a master of several, too. With a background in social work and therapy, a stretch as a teacher in a Montessori school, and extensive experience writing and editing, it seems as though Charlotte must have been percolating all along in this cocktail of emotional awareness and wellness.
Charlotte and the Quiet Place is Deborah’s first book. Charlotte, a child who finds the bustling world around her to be loud and overwhelming, learns she can find a quiet place — externally, but also within — and listen to her breath to find calm. Published by Parallax Press in 2015 and illustrated by Sara Woolley, it was an instant winner: a 2015 INDIEFAB Book of the Year Gold Award, a silver medal from the 2016 Independent Publisher Book Awards, a bronze award from the 2015 National Parenting Publications. It couldn’t be more clear that Charlotte’s struggle is a common one.
Deborah and I both received our MFA in Creative Writing at Lesley University, nearly at the same time, but our paths didn’t cross then despite the intimacy of the program. We connected over the Cosmic Bookshelf launch announcement, and when Deborah said she was local, we knew she’d be a perfect first interview.
We met at Belmont Books in Belmont, Massachusetts, about a mile from where I live. I got there early and poked around their upstairs children's and young adult section before realizing I should probably stake out a table in their small cafe.
When Deborah came in, we immediately dove into our shared experience: the Lesley MFA (we both were the weirdos who loved writing the “dreaded” craft annotations), our Montessori experiences and shared connections. I asked her, as I always ask Montessorians, how she found Montessori.
Deborah Sosin: I had done child therapy, so I had some experience hanging out with kids and loving to be with kids. I did a lot of reading and [the lead teacher] Karen trained me up on the Montessori principles, which felt completely synchronous with who I am and what I feel is so important for kids: letting them explore, as long as it’s within a safe range. I loved the approach. I have the class pictures from all those years, and these kids are like thirty years old now, right? Some of them have kids of their own.
GB: Did your experience with Montessori have an impact on how you came to write Charlotte?
DS: For me, there is a beautiful synchronicity between the principles of mindfulness and the Montessori philosophy of honoring a child’s individual pace, temperament, and creative impulses. I believe all children have a quiet place inside, a deeply calm and restorative part of themselves. I love how the Montessori approach echoes and respects that. Children naturally embrace the present moment! Let’s give them the time and space for more “being” and less “doing.”
Writing has always been a pedal point for me. I’ve spun off, but the writing has always called to me.
GB: What about your background in therapy? Is there a through-line from your time at Smith [studying social work]? I’m interested to know how you got from your clinical work with children to picture books.
DS: I think I’ve always been a juggler. I don’t like to think of it as being a dilettante , but it kind of is. I’ve always been interested in interpersonal relationships; In eighth grade, everybody came to me to solve their relationship problems. They called me the school psychologist, so I guess it was somewhat destined to be. There’s been that track of just being curious and interested in psychology, but there’s also been writing, and editing other people’s writing. So those three tracks -- the psychology, the writing, and editing -- I did professionally for a long time. My own writing has mostly been expository writing, so I don’t know if there’s a theme to any of that. I now understand, having been through the Lesley program, that I was "top-down" writing. Like something would happen and I would think, oh, that would be interesting to write about. I wouldn’t just sit down and generate from my unconscious. So I had some good luck getting some essays published with that approach.
I went to the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop one summer. It was a week-long, intensive bootcamp. I was like, oh my God. This is the greatest thing ever. I had no idea how much I didn’t know about writing and I wanted to learn and grow! I applied to Lesley the following summer. I really couldn’t afford to go back to school but I was going to be turning sixty and thought, If I don’t do this now I’ll never do it. I’ve been on so many detours, but writing, that was the throughline. In fact, now that you’re saying that, my application essay to Lesley talked about… are you musical at all?
GB: A little bit.
DS: Well there’s a thing called a pedal point, and I think the easiest way to understand is the organ music in a Bach fugue – underneath the melody, the organist has their foot on the pedal, intoning one long note, the whole time. There are other notes above it, but that low note that’s held, that remains the same. So you know, that was my metaphor for my Lesley application essay. Writing has always been the pedal point for me. I’ve spun off, but the writing has always called to me. I didn’t necessarily peg myself as an essayist, but I sort of fell into it.
I got to Lesley and, first semester, had to choose a project for the Interdisciplinary Studies requirement. There were two I thought would be interesting: one was flash fiction, the other was picture books. I sent a letter to the instructors, and Beth [Raisner Glass] answered first. I said, OK, that’ll be fun.
She said, What do you want to write about? The first thing I thought of was about a child having a place where they can just breathe and be calm. I’ve been a meditator most of my life and I wanted to write a story about how that feels inside. It was a little bit concrete at first, about finding an actual breathing room, but then I wanted the character to notice her breathing so she could find a quiet place inside, too, where she could go to all the time.
I didn’t know much about the craft of picture book writing, but I’ve read a lot of picture books, so I got into it and was so excited to learn! There was just something that fell into place, that made sense to me.
GB: About the structure, you mean?
DS: Yeah. I see the first draft and Charlotte and it was really mostly there. When I do school visits, I talk about the evolution of the book. I tell them about the writing and revising process, which is fun but takes a lot of time and patience
I’m super detail-oriented, which was a good match for Montessori, too: wanting things to be precise, wanting things to be thoughtful and purposeful and with nothing extraneous. Early in the semester, Beth said, I think this is a winner. I think you should submit this. I just thought, okay. I was naive about the world of picture book publishing.
Through a connection, I sent a version to the former marketing director at Parallax Press, and she wrote back, I love this, and I’m going to send it on to the publisher, Rachel Neumann. I didn’t hear back for a few months. Then Rachel called and said -- I’m trying to remember the words. It’s one of those calls you don’t forget, but now I’ve forgotten! It was something about, “I think we can find a happy home for Charlotte here.” It was astounding! I hadn’t suffered, I hadn’t been rejected. This was the first picture book I’d ever written. So I was like, oh, okay.
GB: You filled a niche. You found something that the world needed and wanted, and it was right. And you’d initially written it from your own perspective, of yourself as a child?
DS: That was the version that I submitted. But Rachel liked it, and she said she wanted it to be in an urban setting, so I said okay. That gave me many more wonderful options for noises.
GB: I’m interested to know more about how you saw the book in your mind and how the reality of the book is different. Can you tell me more about that?
DS: I imagined Charlotte as a little version of me—growing up in suburbia in the 1950s. Then Rachel suggested an urban environment, and to have Charlotte be African-American. I wasn’t sure about it in the beginning because I’d have to give up my original vision, and I worried about cultural appropriation and such [as a white author], but it ended up being a good thing. I learned pretty quickly that this was important; even though I’m a white author, that there is a huge need for books with “casual minority protagonists,” that is, kids of color whose stories don’t relate to a racial or cultural subject, such as slavery or civil rights, or oppression—the topic is just universal.
GB: Since children of color are so underrepresented in picture books, have you had any connection with children who see themselves reflected in your book, and in books like it? Is there any acknowledgement of that from parents or educators?
DS: I love that question, because I expected it to come up a lot! But I’ve never been asked ever by kids, like, you’re white, why is she Black? One kid said, “Is Charlotte supposed to be you, because you both have curly hair?” I said “No, but thank you so much!” It’s happened at least a couple times where they wonder if Charlotte is me! So, go figure.
The older kids had prepared these elaborate collages of their quiet place. It was all I could do not to just break down and cry.
GB: There was some hint to me, with her extreme sensitivity to noise, that Charlotte wasn’t neurotypical. Was that intentional?
DS: Not consciously at all. I don’t want to say it’s not about decreasing the volume of noise in our lives; it really is about tuning in and finding this quiet place inside. The world is noisy. I’m sensitive to noise, too, but I’m not on the [Autism] spectrum. I do realize that, though, and I have heard from parents, “my child has sensory processing disorder and she loves the book.”
GB: What’s been your favorite reaction to the book from children?
DS: [A librarian friend] invited me down to present at this book festival in Florida last March and she arranged for me to do a school visit at a school in Jacksonville. The older kids had prepared elaborate collages that included a photo of them, a drawing, and a written description of their quiet place. It was Florida so it was like, “on the dock,” or “at the beach.” It was all I could do not to just break down and cry. But I love how children really get the idea of inner peace. Whatever they get from [the book] is fine with me. I don’t care if they get the inner peace thing from it or not, but that they know they can create quiet.
GB: It’s difficult to write a book about this that doesn’t sound… preachy, or is interesting and child-focused enough that it doesn’t come off as a parable.
DS: Yes! There’s so much in this category that’s just… so didactic. Sometimes it’ll just hit you over the head with the lesson and it’s like…
GB: Story has to be paramount.
DS: Absolutely, it should be. I just feel you have to respect where the child is and not project anything onto the child. I love that about Montessori: creating an environment where the child can learn. I just can’t stand when adults hammer into that space; it hurts to watch.
GB: What are you working on next? Are you planning another picture book?
DS: I wrote a manuscript that means a lot to me right after I saw the Mister Rogers movie, [Won’t You Be My Neighbor?]. I cried through the whole thing. For so many reasons, just like everybody else. But something came out of me when I went home that day and I think it could be a picture book manuscript. Maybe a little spinoff from Charlotte… something about loving ourselves as we are. I think that’s what Mister Rogers tapped into -- Montessori, too -- is this idea that a child is whole. Innately whole. And innately has a self.
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