SAPeople sits down its co-founder Amanda Stergianos, a “mumpreneur” (digital entrepreneur and mum to three daughters), who has just launched her first children’s book – a true story about her family in early childhood, navigating life-threatening food allergies. The purpose of the book is to help other young children in a similar situation. Here, Amanda answers questions about the hurdles, process and learning of giving birth to a new concept outside her core competence, and more about the story itself…
You published your first children’s story when you were 48; tell us the back story, why and how was this idea born?
When my first daughter was born, I nearly lost her to a severe food allergy where at six months old she went into full anaphylactic shock. She turned blue and stopped breathing. By divine intervention, just three days prior, I had done a resuscitation course for infant babies, and I was able to keep her alive until an ambulance came. It was a terrifying ordeal watching my baby turn blue, her face swelled up and she stopped breathing. That is truly a sobering, life-changing moment when you experience such fragility.
Once at the hospital, a team of paediatricians brought her back to life with adrenalin and a cocktail of IV drugs; and when she was stable, they ran more tests. We learned that she had egg, nut, fish, kiwi and dairy allergies. As she started school, being that little girl with all these allergies, was not an easy journey for her as she felt so different from others. Even when on play dates, and at nursery school, others were nervous to take care of her in case something went wrong. We all had to be vigilant and teach her the tools to stay safe, and also carry an allergy kit which included an EpiPen (adrenalin injection) everywhere we went.
Finding a story for her that helped normalise her allergies, but also made her feel brave, special and empowered was an impossible task. All the books I could find were lacking insight or otherwise they had textbook style allergy information which was boring (and scary for little kids).
I wanted to create a story range that was emotionally educating, funny, and engaging for little children with serious allergies. I aim to tap into their emotions and who better do that than a family that had actually walked this path.
My first story is now published. It is based on my daughter as Tilly, the lead character and for comic relief, it includes her (real-life) nutty Daschund:
How did you develop the concept with no previous experience in writing children’s stories?
I had a lot of learning to do, but to my pleasant surprise, my career in developing digital brands from scratch informed my next steps which just goes to show that the university of life plays such a big role even when branching out into something new.
As the co-founder of www.SAReunited.com, www.SAPeople.com and www.vintage-etc.com, I knew I had to understand my brand, purpose and values before developing the first story, so that it could expand beyond one concept in the future.
Once I had all these answers buttoned-down, I developed the style guide, which included designing the lead characters, the colours and the fonts. Only then, did I write my story!
Tell us about the process of getting the story from an idea onto paper?
Firstly, I got a photograph of my daughter and sent it to about four illustrators to turn into an illustrated character. There were strict instructions for the illustrations, for example oversize blue eyes, the clip in the hair and the high-top trainers and style of clothes were specified. I also developed the story in a way that all food on the pages, is photographic. This is important for little children to recognise foods they can and can’t eat.
I gave them a full description of not only her looks, but also her character, preferences and quirks. Only one illustrator “got it” and that is who I engaged to turn my black and white storyboard, into full-colour illustrations
That entire process from beginning to end took at least eight months and plenty of desk hours. Here is a little insight as to how that unfolded.
Was it difficult to get it published?
There are so many Tik Toks and YouTube videos on how to publish a children’s story, it always seemed relatively straightforward, yet once I was doing it myself, I felt cheated of information! It was a lot harder and more time-consuming than I imagined and given I have 30 years of digital experience, I imagine it was easier for me than for others!
The main challenges were :
- Getting a complete stranger to get what was in my head onto paper – because I was developing a range of stories, not just one. I had to get the foundations right.
- Getting this illustrator to be consistent (they kept forgetting what I had already told them, I had to be very patient and uphold my own standards rather than just let it go)
- Getting the errors fixed on 49 pages of copy, capitalizations, fonts and punctuation. Again, I was building a brand, not a story and in fact this was harder than the illustrations, to communicate the right tone of voice.
- Formatting to Amazon’s standards. I had to employ a professional formatter and he took a month to get it published and lots of rejections from Amazon. Do not attempt to do this unless you have proper technical training.
Now that its published, what are your readers saying ?
Now this is truly the most rewarding part and makes it all worth my while. Readers have taken the time to give me the most fantastic feedback which we have published under our reviews here. What is really reassuring are the reviews from teachers and educators who are saying “this book provides beautiful teaching moments for social and emotional learning in the classroom”
The consistent feedback from kids is that they love the humour and the quirky Sausage dog called Peanut and all Tilly’s secret thoughts . Many readers say they keep coming back to the same story to find new elements they never noticed before. Read more here.
What do your three daughters think of featuring in your stories?
Well, they could see the stories were based on their characters and initially it was “Oh, it’s just mom doing her thing again”, but when they saw me grafting so hard for month after month and hand-drawing 49 pages (which I had never done!) I believe they started to see the grit and determination.
It is good for our kids to watch something unfold from an idea to a finished product and understand one really does not pull it out our socks! Once we received our first hard copy, they were very excited for me. They also chose their own story names (Tati was Tilly, Bella is Max, and Nina is Bean) and had input into the design of their own characters.
That’s how the brand came to be called www.tillymaxandbean.com, and what it stands for is emotional education for little heroes.
Here is the moment we received our first printed copy of our own story via Amazon.
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What lessons are worth sharing with others about this process, even with no experience?
Think about your next project and make sure it aligns with your objectives. For example, these were my three criteria :
- Creative Objectives: When I am being creative and true to myself, I am in complete flow and it does not feel like “work”. In fact illustrating with colour pencils on the storyboard felt like I was being playful and that was fun! A new part of my brain lights up.
- Emotionally Objectives: I am also thrilled it is helping others out there, if young children feel empowered and understood through emotional education in the form of happy, funny stories, it brings me true contentment and joy.
- Business Objectives: an income-producing digital asset is a worthy investment (e.g. an e-book or digital course for example). It is a once-off creation effort and if it takes off, it creates ongoing annuity income while you sleep in multiple countries.
Lastly, my advice is to take time out from your busy life to think and pursue new creative outlets for yourself. To make this book happen, I took time off from work, housework and the constant flow and ebb that is my life as a single parent.
I booked myself into an Airbnb on a farm, with a room over the water to bring me peace and inspiration. I got up early for a long hike and spent the rest of the day immersing in creation. I am not sure I would ever have started if I did not commit to this process!
What’s next for Tilly Max and Bean?
Now that we have the brand, look, feel and proof of concept, I would like to develop more stories to bring about a deeper, age-appropriate understanding of “difficult” topics for children aged 3-9 years of age and to encourage questions and dialogue. The situations in this range of stories always include a difficulty of sorts, but ultimately about bravery to be true to yourself, about love, acceptance and kindness to others.
Most stories I am writing, are related to our own experiences. The lead character is a child that experiences some challenges like scary allergies, a tricky divorce, a gentle intro to gender-related matters, having a grandpa with dementia, or normalising a-typical family structures.
Every story has a fun Q & A at the end to encourage a deeper thought process, compassion and great conversations with the reader and children alike.
Ideally, I would end up with international publishers and develop animated stories.
Where can we read more, connect or order these stories?