12 Winters Blog

Interview with Megan Sullivan: Clarissa’s Disappointment

Posted in February 2017, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on February 12, 2017

My wife Melissa and I launched Shining Hall, an imprint of Twelve Winters Press, in 2015 in large part because we know how important children’s literature can be in helping children achieve sound emotional health. Many children struggle with issues of depression and anxiety that impact their developing self-esteem. As a society we’re aware of the angst of teenagers, but we rarely pay much attention to younger children and the emotional struggles they may be facing every day. In an effort to expand Shining Hall’s list, we established the Larry D. Underwood Prize for Children’s Literature (named for Melissa’s father who was an educator and a prolific author).

We received several terrific entries, but one stood out above the rest: Clarissa’s Disappointment, with Resources for Families, Teachers and Counselors of Children of Incarcerated Parents, by Megan Sullivan. Melissa, the contest judge, loved the book. She said, “Clarissa’s Disappointment is exactly the kind of writing I want Shining Hall to publish. It perfectly captures an issue that affects so many children and families, yet largely remains unaddressed in our educational system. Incarceration does nothing to help individuals and contributes to the destruction of families. I chose this wonderful book hoping that it will be read and used by adults and children to begin the healing process at some level. My father, Larry Underwood, dedicated his life to children and would have loved to meet Meg, read her book, and share in the transformation that is Shining Hall.”

When Melissa shared the manuscript with me, I especially loved the fact it was in essence two books in one: a unique children’s story and a resource for adults who are trying to help children deal with having a parent in prison. Twelve Winters has specialized in hard-to-pigeonhole books that draw from multiple genres — a characteristic which may make them unacceptable to other publishers, especially commercial publishers.

In the spring of 2016 we sent Meg the good news that her book had been chosen for the Prize and we would be publishing it in print and digital formats. The only obstacle was that the book needed illustrations. Luckily, Meg thought she knew of someone who would be perfect for the job: Daniel Jay. Dan was interested, and throughout the summer he worked on illustrations for the book. Then in the fall and winter, Meg and I collaborated on editing and producing Clarissa’s Disappointment.

I’m pleased to announce that Clarissa’s Disappointment was published February 6, 2017, and will be available everywhere. It’s become something of a tradition that when the Press releases a new book, I interview the author via email and publish it here on my 12 Winters blog. Thus I sent Meg some questions, and what follows are her unedited responses.

CGS Prof. Megan Sullivan

What was your motivation for writing Clarissa’s Disappointment?

My motivation for writing Clarissa’s Disappointment was at least threefold. First, I believe such a book would have helped me when my father was incarcerated. I recall that when I was a middle-schooler, I read a book where the main protagonist, a boy, had a father in prison. I nearly gobbled that book up, because it felt to me that someone understood my predicament. I wrote Clarissa’s Disappointment in part because I wanted to offer that solace to others. I also wrote it because there are not many children’s books that focus on incarceration and none that I know that features what is called the “reentry period,” or that period of time when a formerly incarcerated person returns home to his community and family. It bothered me that the 2.7 million minor children who currently have parents in prison or jail as well as the untold number whose parents have been incarcerated in the United States might not be seeing their lives in print. Finally, I wrote the book because I could not get the voice of Clarissa out of my head.

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You’ve mainly done academic writing. How easy or difficult was it to transition into writing children’s literature?

It didn’t feel like much of a transition for me. Perhaps this is because around the same time I began conducting research on children with incarcerated parents, I also started writing what would become Clarissa’s Disappointment. It could also be that it didn’t feel like much of a transition because I see the primary purpose of all writing as about being the best writer one can be. I tend to think less about genres and more about doing the best I can for the kind of writing I’m doing.

Up to the very last, you were tinkering with the text to get Clarissa’s narrative voice just right. Tell us about that process, of creating the voice of this little girl.

Yes, I so wanted to get Clarissa’s voice right. The tricky thing was that because the book is both a fictional story and a resource for others, it was sometimes hard to separate the voice of the child from the voice of the adult. When I was writing I literally had Clarissa’s voice in my head. I imagined what she looked like and how she spoke. I imagined how she moved and thought and wrote, and I tried to convey all of this. Because Clarissa’s story is informed by my own, I was also conscious not to conflate Clarissa’s voice with my voice.

In addition to Clarissa’s story, you’ve included resources for families, teachers and counselors of children of incarcerated parents. Where did you draw from for these resources? Why did you think it was important to create a book that is essentially two books in one?

A huge shout out to Twelve Winters Press! Who else would have taken on this challenge of two books in one? I couldn’t be more pleased. I also feel incredibly honored and humbled that Melissa Morrissey chose the book for the Underwood Prize. This award is special to me in part because Melissa is a teacher; that she “gets it” is a huge vote of confidence.

Often those who are tasked with or have the potential to talk to children whose parents are incarcerated know too little about the topic to be helpful. A school counselor might be sympathetic to the plight of a child whose parents are no longer living together, but will he/she know how to respond to questions about visiting a prison? Families might know how they feel about a loved one who is in prison or jail, but do they know the best way to discuss this with children? Teachers and school librarians want to help children find that “just right” book, but maybe they too would like to know more about how to choose a book with the needs of children whose parents are incarcerated in mind. Furthermore, there is professional literature out there for counselors, teachers and others, and there are some books about incarceration for children, but I felt that combining the two would bring children and adults together in a way that could be especially powerful.

How did you find the illustrator, Daniel Jay? Describe that collaborative process.

daniel-jayI have long been enamored of Dan Jay’s work, especially his urban street and market scenes. I also appreciate that Dan is a scientist by training (he runs a lab at Tufts University), and has spent much of his career teaching others about the connections between art and science. He understands deeply the relationships between art and science, writing and life, teaching and reading. Dan and I are also friends, and even though some might caution against working with a friend, we didn’t have any problems.

 

Creating the illustrations forced you (all of us) to commit to Clarissa’s ethnicity, and you hesitated somewhat (if I recall) to make Clarissa African-American but ultimately decided to. Tell us about that thought process and why you decided to make the Pettigrews a black family.

I have always imagined Clarissa as an African-American or bi-racial child. I also know African-American children are disproportionately affected by parental incarceration. For these and other reasons I couldn’t imagine yet another book that failed to showcase children of color as the center of their universe. And yet as a white woman I did not want to appropriate another person’s experience; nor did I want to perpetuate a stereotype about children of color (i.e. that their parents are the only people in prison or jail). Ultimately I think I did the right thing, because Clarissa is the character I imagined, and I feel like I remained true to her. Yet I think I was correct to at least consider the tension, and it helped me to talk about this with you, Ted. I think writers are correct to acknowledge the tension.

You seem to have great respect for reading and writing (perhaps, especially, reading and writing poetry) for their therapeutic value. Is that true, and if so, where does that respect stem from?

I do respect the potential therapeutic benefits of reading and writing. I’m sure that partly this is because both are therapeutic for me and always have been, though I’ve never been much of a diary-keeper. I think the written word endures because it has something to tell us as readers, and I know writing helps us think about what we believe and how we feel. Maybe this is particularly true in the case of children’s books. I can remember being both transported and grounded by books as a child, and I think it would be wonderful if we could offer others the same opportunity.

What are your hopes for Clarissa’s Disappointment and its resources? How do you hope it will be used? How important will networking be in getting it into the hands of both children who may enjoy it and benefit from reading it, and also the adult professional audience that you’re targeting?

My dream is that Clarissa’s Disappointment will be in as many school and classroom libraries as possible. I also hope families and counselors and organizations that work with children will buy the book to have on hand. I think I will have to be a huge networker to make this happen, and luckily I’m up for the challenge. I feel like I’ve got this thing that I believe in without reservation and that I feel nearly as zealous about as one might a religion! I’m hoping to visit schools and do readings and talk about the book to anyone who will listen, and maybe even those who don’t want to listen!

My wife and I recently watched the documentary 13th. It wasn’t, of course, totally new information, but the scope of the problem is astonishing, depressing, rage-provoking. I presume you’re familiar with the film. What is your reaction to it, especially in terms of what it means about the number of children who are dealing with having one or both parents in prison?

13th is rage-provoking, and you are correct that it brings to mind the sheer number of children who are affected. We know that currently there are 2.7 million minor children who have an incarcerated parent in the United States, and we know that millions more have experienced parental incarceration. And yet I think what 13th should also make us ponder is that all our children have been impacted by incarceration. What today we call mass incarceration has hurt all our families and communities.

What are some other projects you have in the works? Other children’s stories? Academic projects?

My next book will be about the Irish writer Maeve Brennan. In 1934 Brennan’s father was the first Irish minister to the United States. When the family returned to Ireland, Maeve stayed and made her career as a journalist and fiction writer. She wrote for The New Yorker from the 1950s through about 1980. The New Yorker published many of her short stories, and two collections of her writing were published while she was alive; more of her work was published after her death. Brennan is often remembered for how she died (i.e. penniless and mentally ill), but her prose is among the finest of twentieth-century women writers, and I want to celebrate that.



Megan Sullivan
is co-editor of Parental Incarceration: Personal Accounts and Developmental Impact, as well as many essays and articles. She was awarded the Anthony Award in Prose from Between the Lines Literary Review for her essay “My Father’s Prison.” She is an associate dean and associate professor at Boston University. Megan was ten years old when her father was incarcerated. (Author photo copyright © 2009 Boston University Photo Services)

Daniel Jay is an adjunct professor at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and is a professor at Tufts University School of Medicine. He is a nationally recognized artist whose mission is to inspire where art and science meet. He has had a number of solo shows, including the Boston Convention Centre and the French Cultural Center. (Illustrator photo copyright © 2014 Kelvin Ma)

 

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