Thursday, November 7, 2013


Many of us have talked several times about how to get the younger generation of readers interested in historical and western stories. It's not an easy feat, but I wanted to introduce you today to my favorite illustrator (who happens to be my daughter) and her thoughts on illustrating a book that was recently released through Publishing by Rebecca J. Vickery.

This book is called "SARAH'S MUSIC" and the story belongs to one of my former writing students, Stella Long, who is a very well-known and sought after storyteller for the Choctaw Nation here in Oklahoma. I can't begin to describe what an interesting life Stella has led, from being sent to an Indian orphanage at the age of about 9, along with her younger brother, and from there, going to a tuberculosis hospital for Indians at about age 17. This book is one that will appeal to 6-10 year olds, but there is something beneath the surface of this simple story that appeals to all ages. Now, I'll let you see this project from Jessica's eyes, and why she was so honored and thrilled to be a part of this beautiful story.


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 Review 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 and ebook copies can be purchased at the link below for under $10.00. The book is also available at B&N.

It isn’t possible to say an adequate “Thank You” Rebecca J. Vickery, Laura Shinn, and Cheryl Pierson for their hard work. Cheers, ladies.

To follow Jessica's personal blog, CAUTION TO THE WINDS, go here:


  1. "Sarah's Music" sounds like such a unique story.Thanks for such a comprehensive review. Since the words flowed so nicely, I'm wondering if there's a mother-daughter novel in the future. . .

  2. Your daughter is right - Disney princesses, ugh. This story sounds wonderful, and I can bet the illustrations match it.

  3. Hey y'all, I'm hoping Jessica will be able to pop over later on today and read the comments and respond some--maybe after work.

    Tom, it is a very unique story, and Stella has many more where that came from for both children and adults. I would love to work with Jessica on a novel together! She definitely has the gift of word painting as well as her gift of being artistic. (My mom was a wonderful artist, but it skipped a generation.)

    Meg, I agree. One thing that struck me about Jessica's review of this book was something I'd never given much thought to--the "beauty factor" of the central character. And she's right--Sarah's description is not mentioned because it is not important to the story--and in our society, too much is made over that when girls are young.

    Troy, thanks on Jessica's behalf. This is a great book, just beautiful in the illustrations and the words. It's in the top 100 Hot New Releases for Children from Kindle in the Native American category!


  4. What a great story and I am happy that young people now have a chance to visit other cultures and see that we all are not so different. Congratulations to both the writer and illustrator. Doris

  5. Sounds and looks impressive!

    Great promotion.

    Charlie S.

  6. What a delightful story. I love that it centers on Native American culture. I've seen Jessica's work and I know the illustrations have to be fabulous.

  7. Thanks so much to everyone who has commented here! It is truly wonderful to read these.

    Tom - What a kind thing to say and a wonderful idea! I would LOVE to work with mom on a story, but I'm afraid I would have a hard time keeping up :)

  8. Meg - Thanks so much for the vote of confidence! And I do agree...Disney princesses, ugh! Haha. I would never suggest that these princess stories don't have their own value, but our longstanding tradition of steering girls exclusively to these limited archetypes seems to be, at best, a missed opportunity.

    After spending some quality time with Sarah's Music and other traditional stories, the omission of more full, dynamic, and relatable female characters in the popular children's stories of dominant culture seemed glaring. I couldn't believe I hadn't noticed it before.

  9. Thank you, Troy! That's so encouraging :) The cover probably took more time than almost anything else, so I'm truly glad to hear that you like it.

  10. Sounds to be a truly beautiful tale, albeit not in the Disney sense. I am intrigued.



  11. Thank you, Doris! I agree, exposing children to unfamiliar stories from new cultures can bring about wonderful discoveries :)

  12. Thank you, Charlie! It is wonderful to hear these kinds of responses. I appreciate your encouraging comment :)

  13. Miss Sarah McNeal, you are just too kind! I can't thank you enough for all of your wonderful support.

    Yes, I love that it comes from a Native American tradition as well. One of the beautiful things about my home in Oklahoma is that this familiar cultural understanding is always present. Many of us knew what it was before we knew what to call it. There are times when it starts to feel endangered in our busy, fast-paced world, and there is tension, but in the end, there is always this deeply truthful anchor to return to. I guess that is why being asked to participate in Sarah's Music felt so special to me. It sort of felt like home :)

  14. Thank you, Keith! It was wonderful to read your comment. I am excited that you are intrigued!