Over the course of the last two years, I’ve been lucky enough to work with Choctaw storyteller Stella Long on the illustrations for her children’s book, Sarah’s Music.
At out last meeting, I struggled clumsily to explain to Stella why I thought Sarah’s Music was so special, and ended up saying something incredibly articulate, like “It’s just…I mean…it’s a great story.” She hadn’t asked me, but I desperately wanted to tell her why I had been so grateful for the opportunity to work on her story. “You know…” I began, “when I think of the books the girls I work with like to read, I mean, there’s nothing like this. There’s nothing…relatable. It’s all just… princesses.” (Slow clap) Well said, Jessica. Well said. Maybe you could have been less specific, but I doubt it. Not to be dissuaded, however, what follows is another more targeted stab at using my words.
Why Sarah’s Music is a “Great Story”: A Book Report by Jessica Pierson
Sarah’s story begins when she discovers that she is inspired by music, but seems to have no way to share her songs with others. With the help of her animal friends, Sarah goes on a journey all by herself and receives the gift of a musical instrument made especially for her by her. When she fails initially to make it sound, she becomes discouraged, but she doesn’t give up. Instead, she tries again, and practices, and learns at last to release the songs that have been locked in her heart.
Sarah’s Music is a moving glimpse at a worldview long forgotten by our dominant culture. In Sarah’s world, the creatures she encounters in the woods are not strange or frightening, but her closest friends. The natural world isn’t Sarah’s adversary. There is no “big bad wolf,” or “dark forest.” Rather, the natural world around her is generous, helpful, and inclusive. Sarah is a member of the forest community, not a stranger or an interloper. She isn’t superior to the plants and animals around her, but considers them her loved ones and her wise teachers. She lives comfortably among her relations in nature, learns from them humbly, and is ultimately only able to accomplish her goal because of the gifts she receives from her friends. Imagine the improved health of our planet if more children began to see themselves not as separate from the natural world, but as members of a community of living creatures.
In what is yet another departure from our established modern archetypes, Sarah is a child, a girl, and an empowered individual all at once! Her parents have shown her how to meet her needs, and allowed her the autonomy to make her own discoveries. It is no surprise, then, that she is brave enough to embark on a journey all by herself because she feels confident that she is prepared. Throughout the story, Sarah chooses for herself, and asks for help and guidance when she needs it. As a result, her learning process is unhurried and unstructured, the result of her own unique experiences. Her self-knowledge is completely uncontrived, and part of her accomplishment. Sarah isn’t a helpless object waiting for someone to save her, or take care of the hard parts. She is an active participant in making her dream a reality.
Perhaps the most subtly beautiful and surprising element is Sarah’s wish itself. Sarah’s greatest wish is not to gain anything for herself, but to share her music, which is already inside of her. She doesn’t dream of a husband, or a crown, or a treasure, or wish to be something she isn’t or to attend a ball. She wishes for an ability, not so she can gain something, but so she can use her own gifts for the enjoyment of those around her. What a delicate, wise wish for our world!
In addition to the opportunity to revisit a familiar and yet foreign traditional reality, there is one final facet of Sarah’s Music that I fell in love with as I worked to create the images. The final item that would make me want to read this book to my child every night at bedtime is that there is not one singular mention of Sarah’s physical appearance.
In our image conscious world, this might seem, at first, like a glaring omission. Our fairy tales are often about girls who are described as beautiful. “Once there lived a beautiful princess.” Stories about girls are almost always about their extraordinary beauty, as though these precious women/children had no other important or distinguishing qualities. If beauty doesn’t figure heavily into the story (Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast, etc.) it is almost guaranteed that as soon as the heroine is introduced, a physical description is provided. Sarah is not described as beautiful or in any other way, because it is utterly unimportant what she looks like. This is refreshing! She is a girl, acting to bring her goals about, and it doesn’t matter to anyone if she is beautiful. She has many praise-worthy qualities, and in the story, she learns new ones (patience, perseverance, etc.) It is lovely to find a story about a girl where literally everything else about her matters more than her appearance.
If you happen to be looking for a new bedtime story or a Christmas gift, consider sharing Sarah’s Music with your family. It is…healing. That’s the word I wanted to find for Stella, but somehow I suspect that she knows this already.
Sarah’s Music is currently available in print and as an ebook, thanks to Publishing by Rebecca J. Vickery.
Print copies can be purchased at the links below for under $10.00.
Ebook downloads are available at the links below for $3.99.
It isn’t possible to say an adequate “Thank You” Rebecca J. Vickery, Laura Shinn, and Cheryl Pierson for their hard work. Cheers, ladies.