I am so honored to call Dana Sullivan a friend. His irrepressible humor and good-naturedness not only make him a great guy to be around, they make him a great writer and illustrator. He shares his talents with our Western Washington SCBWI, chairing the twice-yearly Inside Story event, teaches illustration classes and, of course, creates charming and lively picture books. I know you’ll enjoy the story behind the story of his latest book, My Red Velvet Cape (Sleeping Bear Press).
The idea for My Red Velvet Cape (Sleeping Bear Press) began with a cooking show on my car radio one day. I thought I heard they were going to be making red velvet capes, so I turned the volume up. I wanted to make a red velvet cape! Who wouldn’t? When the hosts came back they started discussing red velvet cakes. WHAT?! I love cake, but I was so disappointed I turned the radio off and started thinking about what little boy me would have done with that cape. As soon as I got home, I started doodling a little boy doing all kinds of cape-ish things: rescuing a cat from a tree by making a slide tied to the branch, becoming invisible to his pesky sister and her friend by simply draping the cape over his head (if I can’t see you, you can’t see me), accidentally bursting through a wall when he hears a cry for help and having to apologize to his mom for the mess. Then the superpower of the cape took a subtle turn: being able to take his beloved dog for a walk by himself in the morning; getting to the bathroom in time every time; making friends easily; and walking to the bus without holding big sister’s hand.
I realized that the cape represented empowerment and growth to me, something I so longed for when I was little. I think I still do. Children are so fragile and powerless and at the mercy of the world of bigger things and people around them. I remember that kids develop a sense of justice at a pretty early age and wish that life were more fair. If only I could reach that shelf, walk to the bus by myself, that I had to courage to speak up, to make friends, and protect myself and other little kids from bullies. What kid doesn’t want these things? What adult doesn’t?
When two writer friends asked me what the new book in progress was about, I replied that I couldn’t tell them. I didn’t want to appear rude or secretive, so I had to admit that I didn’t want to cry in front of them. And this book makes me cry.
I know one of the cardinal rules of kid lit is that the hero must solve his or her own problem. But in my favorite books the hero has a supportive community – maybe only one or two – watching their back. Someone they can turn to, give them courage, make sure they’re going to be all right. My big sister was one of those people, but she was just a kid, too. We both could have used a cape.
As an adult, I look back and see that we did have a few red velvet capes in our lives: teachers, adult family friends, librarians who welcomed us into their safe and nurturing fortresses of solitude and, maybe most super, Grandma. She lived far, far away, but we knew she loved us and was there when we needed her.
My agent, Anna Olswanger, once told me that sometimes the best way a maker of kid’s books can help a kid is to give them a little break from their life. A time to laugh and have a good time. I hope my book can be the break that sends them soaring into the great big world, unafraid and smiling, enveloped in their own red velvet cape.
Dana Sullivan lives in Newcastle, Washington, with his lovely wife Vicki and their barky dog Bennie. His favorite vegetable is peanut butter and his favorite animal is dog. He is the author and illustrator of more books, which you can see at his website.