Interview with Author Terry Lee Caruthers

Watch the trailer for “The Big Day” by Terry Lee Caruthers, illustrated by Robert Casilla.

Purchase the book here:

Thanks for joining me Terry for my very first author interview! Happy Book Birthday – I understand THE BIG DAY just celebrated its first birthday on October 30th! Here’s your chance to brag about your book. Please give us a summary!

When Tansy’s grandmother hurries her through breakfast and a bath and dresses in her Sunday finest, the little girl wonders what’s so special about this day. As they ride the trolley, she not only learns that Big Mama is voting for the first time but why this is important. Robert Casilla’s gorgeous watercolor illustrations provide the visuals for my book The Big Day, that celebrates Agnes Sadler, the first Black woman to cast a ballot in Knoxville, Tennessee.  

How did you get the idea for your story, and how long did it take you to write?

I discovered a collection of articles about the women in Knoxville preparing for an upcoming mayoral election, after the state of Tennessee passed Woman’s Suffrage in July of 1919. Included among them were the names of the first woman to register to vote in every precinct as well as the first woman to cast a ballot in each ward on that historic day.  

When I saw Agnes Sadler’s name with no honorific title and the letters ‘col’ after her name, I realized I had discovered a lost piece of history—the name of the first Black woman to vote in Knoxville, Tennessee. As I drove home, I thought about what a ‘big day’ that had to have been for a woman descended from slaves. Being able to walk into a precinct that day and cast a ballot. Getting to finally ‘have a say.’ That evening, the idea of a little girl accompanying her grandmother to vote on such a historic occasion began to swirl.  

Knowing the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th amendment was only four years out, I thought publishers would be receptive to the topic. Especially since there were no books that approached voting from the simplistic view of a child—and certainly not a child of color.  

It took about three months to write. Then I vetted it with Robert Booker, a prominent Black leader in the community, Civil Rights activist, author, and local historian; as well as with Renee Kesler, Director of the Beck Cultural Exchange Center—Knoxville’s museum of Black history. With their blessing on its content and portrayals, I then began sending the manuscript out to publishers.  

Tell us about the day you found out your story was going to be published!

I was home, reflecting on the first anniversary of my husband’s death, when I opened my email and found an inquiry from Star Bright Books. It seemed ironic that the worst day of my life, January 30, 2017, had possibly become one of the best days in my life a year later. Because of the timing and since my husband had always championed my writing, I could not help but think he had a hand in this. 

How did you feel the first time you saw the illustrations by Robert Casilla bring your story to life?

I wept. When I wrote The Big Day, I had no preconceived notions regarding Tansy and her grandmother’s appearance. I just wrote the events of that day. It wasn’t until March of 2020 that I got my first glimpse of my characters. Star Bright Books had sent me some sketches to verify the background details. That was the first time I saw Tansy and Big Mama, and the tears flowed. 

Where is your favorite place to write?

If the temperature is ‘just right,’ I enjoy sitting in the swing outside on the screen porch. 

Tell us about your journey to publication!  How long did it take to land your book deal?

I’ve been writing for a long while and had some near misses along the way. In the 1990s, there was a small press interested in one of my picture book manuscripts; but because of a change in circumstance, they closed and returned it with apologies. I was always encouraged by the fact that many of my rejections included handwritten compliments—along with the hope I could find a publisher for the work. That’s always the puzzle. An editor or agent who likes what he or she has read enough to take the time to write a note but not enough to publish and market it. 

In 2014, I signed my first contract. It was with Schoolwide, Inc. They licensed my children’s history book, Sergeant Stubby, Soldier Dog, for their digital subscription library. While I was delighted to finally have a book under contract, it was frustrating that there would not be a physical copy of it and that the book would be limited to only those who subscribed to their program. As a career librarian, I want all the tactile experiences a book brings to the reader. It’s what I’m ‘programmed’ for. 

What was it like holding your book for the first time? 

It was magical. A visual feast. Seeing Big Mama and Tansy in their home, attending to their lives and preparing for the big day. Robert Casilla’s watercolors are breathtaking.  

What advice would you give to aspiring kidlit authors?

Never give up. The rejections are going to come. Don’t let them defeat you. See each of them as a stepping stone toward being published.  

Immerse yourself in reading. The more you read, the better writer you will be. 

And above all—and I can’t stress this enough, join an in-person writing critique group. This group setting, rather than individual beta readers, is vital. It allows for a give-and-take discussion. When a comment is raised, others chime in—agreeing and disagreeing. You are exposed to the pros and cons. Why do you need this? No matter how well you believe you write, I can tell you, you don’t. You need those outside the realm of yourself, your friends, co-workers and family to give real insight to your work. I know. I’ve been there. I was one of those who reveled in my own words, my turn of phrase, etc. And I remember the anger and the hurt from some of those first critiques, only to later realize I was wrong, and the commenters were right. The important thing to remember about critique groups is, you don’t necessarily have to make the recommended changes; but you need to think long and hard about what’s being said—particularly if it’s being mentioned by more than one person. That’s a red flag, indicating there’s a glaring problem with your work. 

In 2010, I joined my critique group; and every year, I’ve grown exponentially as a writer. How do I know? It took three years to critique my YA novel with the group. Prior to submitting it to a publisher, I sat down to review it one more time. As I read the chapters I had written three years prior, I immediately knew I had to rewrite the first half of the book before I was comfortable submitting it to a publisher. I did, and the result was a contract.

Final Question: What picture book were you obsessed with as a child?

One? You’re limiting me to one? That’s challenging. I guess I’ll have to go with a book that I still have in my possession and that is falling apart from much love over the last 61 years. The Kitten Twins by Helen Wing, illustrations by Elizabeth Webbe, and published by Rand McNally in 1960. Told in verse, it’s the story of Twinkle and Boo’s mischievous antics. 

Photo of Terry with her book, courtesy of @tlcaruthers

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