Sandra Bradley's Cocoa Magic (Pajama Press, illustrated by Gabrielle Grimard) is coming out at just the right time: combining a story of kindness and generosity with a fragrant chocolate shop as its homey backdrop makes it hard to picture a more perfect holiday read.
Set in the 1920s, Cocoa Magic follows Daniel, an eight-year old who helps his Great Uncle in the family chocolate shop every morning before school. When a new girl arrives in his class, Daniel hits upon the idea of sneaking her chocolates to help dispel her nerves and loneliness. It works so well that he begins to see how everyone else around him could use cheering up with a chocolate treat, until his anonymous mission to deliver sweet treats includes essentially everyone at school – even his teacher. But a question arises when Daniel himself needs some cheering up, one that will feel familiar to many caregivers: who helps when the helper is in need?
Atmospheric and nostalgic in its landscape of crisp winter mornings and the cozy chocolate shop, Cocoa Magic is also grounded in authentic, clear-eyed empathy, using everyone's favourite indulgence to muse intelligently on how we can witness, help, and support one another – a conversation that makes sense and is enhanced by Bradley's background as a clinic social worker.
Sandra joins us today to talk about the book and how it came to be, telling us about what she hopes the book can share with readers about acts of kindness, why she—like Daniel—likes to get work done in the early morning, and about the vibrant and supportive community she's found in the Canadian kids’ book world.
Is there a message you hope kids might take away from reading your book?
I hope that kids can take away the amazing truth that kindness really is magic. An act of kindness towards another person, however small it may seem, can work wonders. Not only can it cheer the person up, but it can remind them that they are important and worthy of love. Plus, when you are kind to another person, they in turn will find it a little bit easier to be kind to someone else. If you picture a pebble thrown into a pond, ripples form around it – one and then another and another. A simple act of kindness is like that pebble, often beginning a ripple effect that can change people, schools, and even whole communities. Voila... magic!
Did the book look the same in the end as your originally envisioned it when you started working, or did it change through the writing process?
It certainly did change! Originally, this was the story of a young boy whose great uncle owned a bakery in Montreal! Instead of making chocolates, his passion was baking delicious treats, which he ended up sharing with his classmates. Over time and in working with editors, it became clear that a chocolate shop might work better for this story. There are already many wonderful picture books about young bakers (Bagels from Benny by Aubrey Davis springs to mind!) but not so many about budding chocolatiers. I think that the end result is as it should be, and that Gabrielle Grimard’s stunning illustrations (complete with chocolate box endpapers) really offer something delicious and unique.
How do you cope with setbacks or tough points during the writing process? Do you have any strategies that are your go-to responses to difficult points in the process?
Great question! For writers, at least for me, setbacks happen often! I am blocked for new ideas, my writing isn’t flowing, my plot feels predictable or stilted, or I struggle to edit, especially when faced with requested word count limitations. A trick I learned early on was never to force anything. For most of these issues, a break from the writing process often does the trick. I find that stepping away completely and taking time out to concentrate on other areas of my life usually offers some perspective. When I return to my work, I see things with a fresh eye. It is such a relief when things start to flow again.
Another valuable lesson I’ve learned is to take advantage of the early morning hours. There are a few magical moments when you first wake in the morning, before you open your eyes, that can be the greatest time to find inspiration. If you take a few moments to breath and let your mind drift, you may find that germinal idea you have been waiting for!
What defines a great book for young readers, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great kids books, whether you read them as a child or an adult.
Oh my goodness, I could go on and on about this! I love kids’ books and have spent untold hours between their pages. I was comforted and delighted by picture books when I was a child, and once I mastered reading myself, I devoured the stories of Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl (I couldn’t say how many times I’ve read an all-time favourite, Danny the Champion of the World), and Carolyn Keene.
In my opinion, a great kids’ book starts with a unique, likeable, and perhaps most importantly, relatable character. I think the very best stories are the ones that bring a smile to your face and perhaps a tear to your eye.
Do I have to choose only one or two favourites? There are so many wonderful Canadian stories of recent years, but again and again, I gravitate towards the classics. I love Curious George, Ferdinand, and Winnie the Pooh. I think I would have to say that my favourite picture books of all time are the delightful Paddington stories. I find that lovable bear such a perfect character with his humorous charm. Who wouldn’t want to share a marmalade sandwich with him? And who wouldn’t quake in the face of one of his “Hard Stares”?
How would you describe the writing community in Canada in terms of authors writing for young people? What strengths and weaknesses do you observe within the community?
Working with a Canadian publisher (Pajama Press) and getting to know the Canadian kids’ book community has been a new and wonderful experience for me. I have been particularly struck by the truly supportive and caring authors, editors, book sellers and librarians who make up this dynamic and engaged group of people. I am perhaps most moved by the way that children’s book authors and illustrators lift one another up, cheer one another on, and shine a light on one another’s work. I have repeatedly told my husband how honoured and privileged I feel to be part of such a special community. I don’t think you could find a happier place than this.
What's your favourite part of the life cycle of a book? The inspiration, writing the first draft, revision, the editorial relationship, promotion and discussing the book, or something else altogether? What's the toughest part?
I love every part of the process, but I would have to say that my favourite part is working with editors and making revisions. It is quite inspiring to receive feedback from creative people who can see the manuscript through a new lens. So often, editorial suggestions are unexpected and at times even challenging. An editor will suggest a change or revision that at first, I feel unsure of. In my experience, when I open myself up to other’s creative input, I end up being so happy with the unexpected result. I have learned to fully trust the editorial process, to completely commit myself to it, and to appreciate the final result. There is not a time I can think of when the final story has not been made stronger by this process. I have been incredibly lucky, I must say, to work with lovely and talented editors, such as Erin Alladin at Pajama Press.
The toughest part of the process for me would be promoting and discussing the book. I love doing school visits and so long as I am reading to, and speaking with children, I’m in my happy place. However, like many people, I don’t relish being the centre of attention in any situation and I don’t love talking about my stories for the purpose of promotion. I think this is a learned skill though and gets easier with practice.
Sandra Bradley is a chocolate lover, a clinical social worker and therapist, and a children’s book author. Her first picture book, Henry Holton Takes the Ice, was a finalist for the OLA Forest of Reading Blue Spruce Award and the Maine Chickadee Reader’s Choice Award. Born in Toronto, Sandra earned her Bachelor of Arts (Honours) and her Master of Arts at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, then earned her Master of Education (Counselling) from the University of Auckland in New Zealand. Today Sandra is back in the Kingston area where she lives on the beautiful Rideau Canal with her New Zealander husband, Grant, and their three teenage kids. Sandra has yet to temper chocolate successfully, but she’s finally nailed chocolate brownie pie.