It’s my pleasure to share an interview today with Kitty O’Meara, author of the lovely picture book And The People Stayed Home.
Just published, the book And The People Stayed Home began as a heartfelt poem posted on social media, which was shared over one million times, and earned Kitty the title “poet laureate of the pandemic.” It’s a testament to the resilience of people during uncertain times, as it paints a picture of life in lockdown and hope for a brighter tomorrow. Let’s hear more from Kitty!
Congratulations on the recent release of your picture book And the People Stayed Home! Please tell us what inspired you to write this special book and about its journey to publication.
KO: Thank you; that’s very kind of you!
For most of my life, writing and other creative arts have been my way to explore and process the experiences and emotions of life, so I wrote these words at the beginning of our lockdown last March, and shared them with my Facebook friends. One friend asked to share the post, and it quite quickly went viral.
I re-posted the poem to my blog and, among the thousands of comments, calls, messages, and texts I received, was one from the Managing Editor of Tra Publishing, who asked, at the kind request of Tra’s founder, if I would be interested in developing a children’s picture book based on the poem. I was overjoyed, and we began the work of co-creating this amazing book in early April. It has been a complete blessing and joy to work with these talented artists, and I’m very proud of the finished creation.
In what ways do you hope your book will touch readers, especially those most affected by the pandemic?
KO: I hope it will offer comfort, peace, and delight as a work of art, and I hope it will inspire readers to discover ways their own artistic and emotional gifts can help them cope and heal through this time of sacrifice and hardship. We’re all in this together, everyone on the planet, and I think we need to encourage each other, express gratitude to our essential workers, keep ourselves and others safe, and look for ways this experience can help us listen more deeply to our hearts and to those we love, looking for ways we can make the world a better place for all of our gifts to unfold.
I imagine teachers and parents sharing And the People Stayed Home with children, exploring their feelings and their responses to this time, naming their gifts, making art…it’s a sensitive and touching book, but also one that encourages and evokes joy.
And the People Stayed Home is beautifully illustrated. How excited were you when you finally held the finished product in your hands?
KO: I cried! A lot! I agree; it’s beautiful. I kept holding it, setting it down, reading and rereading it, marveling at the artwork…And I have such lovely memories of our video meetings, notes, and calls, sharing ideas, changing our minds, adjusting, evolving and growing this book, and ourselves, together. I named myself as a writer when I was 6, and of course worked as one in advertising and all through my career, but to be holding this gorgeous book in my hands…well, it’s been a pure blessing.
Were you expecting the poem that is the essence of your book to become so popular?
KO: Well no, not at all. I don’t think I’ve ever posted on Facebook with expectations of any kind except to share with my close friends how I’m feeling. This was a complete mystery-fluke-surprise-blessing, that’s for sure.
You are also a chaplain and spiritual director. How do those vocations affect or inform your writing? And what writing projects are you working on now?
KO: Well, I started with Theater and English degrees, and I worked in advertising, then went back for a teaching degree and taught middle school literature and language arts for many years before leaving to write full time. That was quickly curtailed by the need to care for our parents, who seemed to all experience health failures and end-of-life crises at the same time.
And after those years of journeying with death, loss, and grief, I went back to school again and trained for chaplaincy and spiritual direction, so I’ve had many careers and experiences in offering my gifts to the world, and they’ve all been enlarging and rewarding. I’ve been writing since I was very young, and I guess, have always explored themes revealed by love and loss, nature, family, joy, memory, and, increasingly, the understanding that we’re all gifted differently, and need to honor and develop those gifts to serve one another and the Earth…traveling with my parents’ friends’ and in-laws’ end-of-life journeys led me to the deep exploration of healing…not just physical diseases, but the emotional and psychic wounds that hinder the development and sharing of gift. I worked with my patients and those who have come for spiritual direction to meet those wounds and heal them, and have seen how we can heal all the way through our last breath…Because of chaplaincy and spiritual direction, the mystery, and gift, and hard work of healing (always connected to our capacity to love ourselves and others) have all become integral to my writing and my understanding of our gifts.
I think these ideas will always influence my work, including the children’s stories I’m working on now. And I think that’s because picture books take us so beautifully to symbol, silence, and mystery: they touch us deeply and trigger responses that are both very simple and very profound. And, in my case, they require co-creation, because I do not have the gift of creating visual art through illustration, and I love that, since I think healing itself, like loving, is an ongoing co-creation. Life is all about relationship.
How do you feel about being called the “poet laureate of the pandemic”, and where did the name originate?
KO: I think it was a very kind compliment, but there are many poets gifting us, always, and certainly through this time, uniquely and profoundly and in a variety of voices and styles that are absolutely necessary. We need art more than laureates, and I’m not in need of being recognized beyond the fact that my voice matters, too, and this poem touched people deeply when it had to in ways far beyond imagining.
I’ve always taken my education seriously and worked diligently to use and deepen my gifts. Writing has been a constant practice, as I said, for integration and reflection, and as a creative outlet; so, the fact that something I wrote affected others is not at all a new experience; I’ve shared my writing and received positive feedback all my life. That it affected others in such numbers is both mystery, timing, and a function of social media, a good reminder of the internet’s power. Elena Nicolaou, a wonderful writer in her own right, used the term “poet laureate of the pandemic” in her article for the Oprah Magazine Online, as a reference to the poem’s having gone viral, more than as a recognition of my lifetime achievement. 🙂
Can you tell us about the upcoming animated film based on And the People Stayed Home?
KO: I think you’re referring to the Vooks.com animation of the picture book? That has been produced and is available now on the Vooks.com site. They are a wonderful company! I love how they honor the original artwork, tweak and extend it with amazing animation, provide a narrated voiceover, and enhance everything about the original book in doing so. And the People Stayed Home was beautifully narrated for Vooks by Kate Winslet, and yikes, what an honor that is! I wish Vooks had been around when I was a child, and when I was a teacher; it’s a marvelous wonder for parents to investigate and consider joining, too. I love the creativity and myriad ways it invites children’s interaction with story; it really compliments books so magically.
Where can fans go to connect and learn more about you and your book?
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
KO: Thank you for your interest and wonderful questions! I hope that your readers will love this book as much as I do; it’s such a finely-crafted treasure, and one that I think could be a lifelong favorite, reminding children and their parents of a time that was both challenging and deeply precious.
And I hope you, and your readers, will be safe and well in the days to come. Keep reading; keep creating. 🙂 Gentle peace.
Kitty O’Meara lives near Madison, Wisconsin, with her husband, Phillip Hagedorn, their five rescue dogs, three cats, gardens, and books. A former teacher of middle school writing and literature and a hospital and hospice chaplain and currently a spiritual director, O’Meara has been a lifelong writer and artist. And the People Stayed Home is her first print book.