Inspired by her travels and adventures, Sherry Shahan has authored nearly 30 children's books. Her interests are wide ranging, and she’s an avid world traveler. As a photojournalist, Ms. Shahan has ridden horseback in Africa's Masailand, hiked a leech-infested rain forest in Australia, and ridden in a dogsled for the first part of the famed Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Alaska. A serious dance student, she has traveled to Cuba multiple times to study Latin-African rhythm and movement.
When not traveling on an exciting assignment, Ms. Shahan enjoys visiting schools and libraries around the country to read and speak to students. It was evident in our interview that Sherry strives to encourage them to dream big and get out of their comfort zone.
The Latin American culture provides the inspiration for the LittleFolk picture books she has authored with August House. All three books celebrate the Latin American culture and language: Spicy Hot Colors, Cool Cats Counting, and, Fiesta!
Nikki: How did you begin your career writing children’s books?
Sherry: When my two daughters were young, they loved Judy Blume books like Superfudge and Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. I’d read along with them, and one day I thought writing for kids would be fun. Up to that point I’d been selling short stories to magazines.
Around that time, I attended a writer’s conference and approached the woman leading the workshop on children’s literature. She agreed to read a sample of my work and liked it so much that she offered to send it to her editor. They eventually published my first six middle-grade novels.
N: How does travel influence your work with children’s book?
Sherry: I’ve been a travel journalist and photographer for decades. On a press trip to cover the famed 1,049-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, I heard about a similar race for teens, which inspired me to write and photo-illustrate Dashing Through the Snow: The Story of the Jr. Iditarod. On another trip, while spending time on a remote island in the Bering Sea, I was inspired to write middle-grade adventure Ice Island.
N: Why is it so important to travel?
Sherry: People fascinate me, all types of people. Sometimes I eavesdrop on conversations in restaurants or even when I’m in line at the grocery store. I suppose it’s a type of research. When I travel, I try to talk to everyone, even if we don’t speak the same language. I’m terrific at using charades to communicate.
How can we understand the world if we don’t get to know people as individuals? I love this quote by Mark Twain, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.”
N: Is there a specific destination that you often miss? Why?
Sherry: Definitely Cuba. I fell in love with the Cuban people, when I visited to study Afro-Cuban rhythms and dance at the National Institute of the Arts in Havana. It might sound like a cliché but music and dance truly are universal languages.
In Cuba, I’d stroll backstreets with my camera, passing out pencils to children. I remember meeting an elderly gentleman on the street near a book fair. He proudly showed me his twenty-five cent purchase, a used nonfiction book with grainy photos. It was a prized possession, yet he insisted that I have it. I found that sort of selflessness all the time in Cuba.
N: What is your process like when first starting a new piece of work?
Sherry: I’ve published nearly 40 children’s books, fiction and nonfiction, pre-school through Young Adult. Yet, each time I begin a new project I’m riddled with self-doubt. For some reason, I can’t seem to remember how I overcame the anxiety from my last writing project.
Early drafts are agony for me. It’s like crawling through a field of cacti. I hit the computer first thing in the morning and force myself to put in five or six hours at the keyboard, constantly reminding my rational brain-self to cut my artist-self some slack.
N: Self-doubt seems to be pretty common among most writers. Do you have any tips for young writers in order to combat self-doubt?
Sherry: For one thing, I never let anyone else read my early drafts. Not even those in my trusted critique group. Sometimes, I might confide in a friend with a positive outlook who will validate my dreams. Often I’ll take a break from a project to write something in another genre. It changes my focus and then I return with renewed vigor and a fresh perspective. It’s also important to maintain a sense of humor about your work and not take it too seriously.
N: What do you do when you’re not traveling or writing?
Sherry: I’ve had the same ballet teacher for 28 years, and I dabble in jazz, lyrical, and tap dancing. I’m also a competitive West Coast Swing dancer and travel to dance conventions around the country. I’ll be in the U.S. Open Swing Dance Championships again this year, competing in Jack and Jill. That means I won’t know who I’ll be dancing with ahead of time, and I won’t know the music until the DJ hits play. So it’s both fun and challenging.
N: Do you have any insights or recommendations about how to use your books in schools?
Sherry: My visual presentation features two of my Alaskan-based books: Dashing Through the Snow and Frozen Stiff, so kids learn about researching and writing in different genres as well as Alaska’s geography and lively past.
When I visit primary classrooms, I ask for volunteers to help me read Spicy Hot Colors and Cool Cats Counting. I don’t speak Spanish, and my accent is laughable, but kids love being an author’s assistant and it gets the class actively engaged.
N: What are the most rewarding aspects of school visits?
Sherry: Teachers have mentioned how important it is for kids to see a woman who travels the world, snorkeling with penguins in the Galapagos and climbing the highest peak in the contiguous U.S. I want to inspire kids to follow their dreams.
N: You wrote three books with August House (Cool Cats Counting, Fiesta!, and Spicy Hot Colors) that have a heavy Latin American influence. What attracts you to Hispanic/Latin American themes and culture?
Sherry: Although I grew up in Los Angeles, my neighborhood and schools were monochromatic. I remember my family’s first visit to historic Olvera Street to celebrate Cinco de Mayo, or maybe it was Mexican Independence Day. Either way, that’s when I began to develop an appreciation for the Mexican American culture, their traditions and superstitions. For example, if you drop a tortilla, then you’ll get a lot of unexpected company.
I traveled around Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and Paraguay as a travel journalist, and of course Mexico. So many households were multi-generational. I loved the close connections that kids had with their grandparents and wished I could’ve spent more time with my grandparents when I was growing up.
N: What was it like working with Paula Barrágan to illustrate those books?
Sherry: I’ve actually had very little contact with my illustrators. Paula and I emailed a few times, but it was mostly getting to know each other as people. When I saw the final art for our first book, Spicy Hot Colors, it was exactly how I’d imagined it, especially the Day of the Dead spread with its dancing skeletons. I wish I’d been able to meet her when I was in Ecuador to get to know her and see her studio firsthand.
N: What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Sherry: I’ve taught a beginning writing course at UCLA for 10 years. Here’s what I’ve gleaned: New writers too often equate ‘short’ with ‘easy.’ That couldn’t be further from the truth. Accomplished writers might spend years working on a picture book manuscript that’s only two typed pages. So the length of a story or a book doesn’t have anything to do with the amount of time and effort that a writer spends on it.
I recommend that writers read voraciously in their chosen genre. Study the craft of writing. Join the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Find a serious critique group who will be supportive and candid. Develop a thick skin, you’re going to need it. And finally, don’t forget to have fun!