Children's Book Writer, Producer
Sara Hunter is a children's book writer, song writer, and a film documentary writer and producer. In 2006, she won the Arizona Governor's Award for her book, The Unbreakable Code. During the interview, she shared the amazing journey she had in writing the book; the underlying idea that permeates all of her work; the many blessings she's found as a result of turning to God in every endeavor, including a documentary she produced on adopting children from Korea; and insightful wisdom she's gained about creative work.
How did you get interested in writing?
I've always loved reading and creative writing. When I was a little kid, I wrote in my journals and diaries. I thought that writing children's books would be the most fun thing I could do because I loved reading them. I still remember when my grandmother took me to see the home of Louisa May Alcott. She had a writing desk looking out on Walden Pond, and I thought that would be fun. So, when I first got an office, I made sure it was overlooking the Charles River. When I do author visits (which I've been doing a lot this fall since the Arizona Governor wanted Julia Miner, the illustrator, and me to come out as she did the roll-out of 100,000 copies of The Unbreakable Code), I tell the children, "If you have a dream right now, cherish it, because you may end up doing it."
How did The Unbreakable Code come about?
As a creative person, I'm always aware of ideas and never have a hard time finding ideas to write about. I have a much harder time finding the time. The idea for the book came many years ago while I was an undergraduate student at Dartmouth. I tutored and became close friends with one of my students, a Native American from the Nez Perce Nation from Idaho. She told me the story of the Navajo Code Talkers who created an unbreakable code during WWII. More than 10 years later, when I embarked on the project, she became a real cheerleader for me as I did my own research, which in 1994, was difficult. There was hardly anything -- no kids' books, no movie, no PBS specials. It wasn't until 2 years later that President Ronald Reagan awarded the Congressional Medal to the Code Talkers. So, how could a woman from a Boston suburb connect with Navajo Code Talkers? I knew many of them were still living on the Reservation. They had been discriminated against and couldn't get jobs off of the Reservation when they came back, even though they had developed the code and served in the Pacific. They couldn't tell anyone what they had done, as the code wasn't declassified until 1969.
One day, as I was praying for divine direction, which is something I do every day, I suddenly had an idea: Who always knows a lot about hard-to-find history, resources, etc.? Elementary school teachers! They're always so interested. I looked on an Arizona map and saw that the biggest town on the Reservation was Chinle. I found the elementary school there and called it. I felt kind of silly trying to explain who I was to the person who answered the phone, but she immediately told me that their 3rd grade teacher's father was a Code Talker, and she was walking by the office right then. The Bible passage rang true: "And thine ears shall hear a word behind thee, saying, This is the way, walk ye in it, when ye turn to the right hand, and when ye turn to the left" (Isa. 30:21).
The illustrator, Julie, and I met there and talked to all the kids, saw pictures of their houses, and learned about their lives. Some were relatives of Code Talkers. We were also given the name of a family (to whom we became very close) who had done most of the work for Code Talkers reunions and gatherings -- Carl Gorman, his wife Mary, and their daughter, Zonnie. Carl had taught art at UC-Davis before returning to the Reservation and is the father of famous Native American artist, R.C. Gorman. They invited us to a Code Talker Association meeting that night. We had a nice, polite dinner with everyone, but I felt we needed an ice breaker. I had asked Julie to bring her illustrated picture book of the 23rd Psalm, called The Shepherd's Song (published by Dial, but out of print now). I knew that many of the Navajos had been shepherds in the '20s and '30s before being hauled off to government boarding schools at the age of five. So, at the end of dinner, we pulled out the 23rd Psalm book just to pass it around and give them an idea of Julie's illustrations. The whole mood changed; they melted. They all had raised sheep, and so they spent a lot of time looking at the pictures. Each of Julie's sheep has an individual character and personality. There's one that keeps wandering off the trail. Nina Begay looked at that sheep and said, "Oh, I had one just like that!" They knew that we were for real. The 23rd Psalm was the bridge that allowed us into their confidence. They really wanted us to share their story. They're very humble: you don't get a lot of eye contact, and they don't consider it polite to toot their own horn. So, they were very happy that there would be a book to share with their grandchildren and others. I had a sign-up sheet after.
For the next three days, we camped out at a restaurant and bought them meals as they shared their stories. Julie sketched and took pictures, and I interviewed and recorded. All but one person gave us permission to put their names in the books, and we used what he said anonymously. We took two trips to the Reservation. The more I got to know the people and how spiritual they were, the more I felt I needed to do them justice, so I made sure they approved and had them check my drafts as I wrote them. Everyone signed off on it, and the head of the Navajo Code Talker Association endorsed it. You wouldn't believe how many file cabinets of transcriptions and other information I have from my work with the Navajos. I could've written an adult book, but I wanted to write a children's book.
Why did you choose to write the Navajo's story in a children's book?
I just really wanted to write it for children. I wanted them to know the story. When you're writing picture books, it really is like writing poetry; you have to communicate a lot of information in a short amount of space and in vivid images. To me, my work is all about communication, which is why it's been hard for me to narrow my work down to one medium. I go back and forth between children's book writing, film writing and producing, and song writing. At the same time I was writing children's books, I was hired to do documentaries on endangered species for a cable network. So I produced the turtle documentary and the Right whale documentary.
When you write or produce, what are you trying to communicate? Is there a common thread to your work?
Yes. It's the idea of spreading good, spreading the Christ, and shining the light on creative ideas. My work is about the Christ spirit of joy and light. Every project I do has to have that element, whether I'm writing a song, book, or movie. It doesn't have to be religious; it could just be humor, as it is with the Warner Bros. story I wrote of "Beauty and the Beast" where Bugs Bunny is "Belle" and the Tasmanian Devil is "Beast." Humor breaks through with joy and light. I think of these qualities so much at this time of year (Christmas) and see the beauty of the Christmas story. The shepherds, the three kings, everybody was in the dark of the night: "And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men" (Luke 2:13,14). The light was breaking through. That's what makes a project satisfying to me, no matter how silly or mundane the story is. There has to be that light of joy and the truth that is the Christ spirit shed on whatever the subject is. I feel that's so important. It's integral to how I live my life, reading the Bible every morning, trying to understand what life is all about.
What have you valued most from your projects and experiences?
Out of every single project I've gone into since I was a junior in college (when I won a grant and was commissioned to write 10 scripts based on history for a PBS station over the summer, which I consider to be the beginning of my professional career), the only lasting, real, most important aspect has been the relationships I've forged with the people I've interviewed. Connectivity -- that's the only satisfying thing. That's the reason you do it -- to connect with people and to bless others. My friendship with the Navajo people is priceless. It's the same with the adoption documentary I did. My husband and I are best friends with the couple whose adoption journey we followed and documented in the film, Born Journey. That's the Christ bringing people together and allowing them to share in a joyous idea and then to spread it to others.
Can you share any specific projects where turning to God made all the difference?
All of them. Every single creative project I've done represents tons of prayer -- to do the research, to find the right people, to place a book with a publisher, to get equipment working for a film. When I was in Korea for Born Journey, we had 24 hours to film the baby who was going to be adopted. But the camera broke. I was in a foreign country; I had put all my resources into this; and this was the most important part of the film. I completely had to turn to God. The answers always come from God as an idea, and that idea is substance. The idea God gave me was to go to the headquarters of a big network, which happened to be ABC. I told them my predicament, and they were very interested in the story and supportive. They fixed the camera in half an hour. The power of an idea that we get from Bible study and God are not to be belittled, as I've learned over and over.
What motivated you to do a documentary on adoption?
One of the reasons why I write children's books and songs and produce films is that there's this perception by the media and entertainment companies that if you don't have conflict or crisis in your story, it's not going to be interesting and no one's going to watch it. This philosophy results in a lot of the sensational shows you see or books you read. I disagree with this completely. A good, true, authentic story doesn't have to be disaster-driven. I felt adoption was a really important topic. I knew what our family had experienced with adoption, which was wonderful. But there was nothing on TV that had anything to do with that. The media didn't have an accurate picture or image. I wanted to portray it as it really was. So, I produced the film in a search for truth and accuracy. I felt it was best conveyed through film because if you could see the children's faces, hear the children's chorus singing, "'Tis the gift to be simple…," and see the parents getting a child in their arms, that would tell the story. I just had to film it.
What was it like to produce this documentary?
It was one of the most moving experiences of my life, second to adopting our two kids. We were the first American crew ever to be let into Korea because I was an adoptive mom. We had adopted our son from Korea 10 years earlier. I guess there's a temptation when you're in America to think, "Why do I have to sit here and wait until the American embassy and Koreans pass the papers? Why can't I just go over and pick up my baby? Nobody will be able to give our child as good care as we can." Well, in Seoul, there are more than 700 families who care for children while their papers are being passed. To be able to trail one of these foster families who was taking care of this little boy and to see the love they poured on him was just incredible. I felt so humbled, realizing the care my own son had received. As the director, I arrived the first day with the script and the film crew with every minute planned -- who we would interview, which shots of the baby and family I wanted to get, etc. But the first thing the adoption agency said was, "We have your son's foster family here." My plans flew totally out the window. I told the film crew, "You're on your own." Suddenly, I knew why I had come. I had brought with me a dozen photo albums of our son growing up as an icebreaker to share with the agency personnel and families. Instead, I spent hours with the family who had loved our son for the first 3½ months of his life. They wanted to know who everyone was in the pictures. They brought out for me pictures of him from the first 3 months of his life. And I realized what it meant to this family 10 years later; they couldn't wait to hear what had become of Kee Min Koh -- now John Richard Hunter. His foster sister had been 9 when my son was in her household, and she was still giggling and telling stories about him at 19. It was really amazing. The documentary was basically a vehicle for bringing many families together: me with my son's foster family, my family with the family we filmed, and the many families who have seen the film and been inspired to adopt. Several members of the film crew adopted children afterwards. We don't know what blessings are in store for us. It's so touching, really -- the sense of what family is. The verse from the Bible, "Have we not all one father? hath not one God created us?" (Mal. 2:10), truly explains it. I have never felt that so powerfully as on that trip.
Is there anything working in creative fields that you've learned that would help others?
- I think with any creative endeavor, it's really important to look at it as a whole, complete idea already. Just like a rose that hasn't bloomed yet, everything's there. You are not creating, inventing, or forcing the buds to open.
- It's also important to keep your confidence at every phase of the process. If you have a good idea, cherish it and protect it. Don't blast it out to the world before you've thought it through for yourself.
- If you have an idea that seems right, you need to go with it.
- When problems come up on a project, don't give up. Remember and see that there's a complete idea that deserves to be brought to light. Some of my best projects have been the hardest ones to get published or produced, but they're always worth it.
- After a project's done, you need not to be afraid to cherish it enough to bring it to the marketplace. You need to be able to listen for and follow through on ideas regarding who needs to hear about your project. If you're humble enough; if your motives are unselfish; if it's a good idea; and if it can help people; then ideas will come to you about how to share it, and marketing yourself won't feel egotistical. Also, you won't be tempted to bail out on an idea, using the excuse that you're a writer and not a marketing person.
- If you're praying everyday, you'll get direction from God. It's really important to listen to that direction, even if it doesn't seem to make sense to you at the time.
It sounds like you've had times when you've followed God's direction even though it didn't make sense.
With I I had other jobs when I decided to fly out to Arizona without any assurance it would ever get published. People second-guessed why I would give up prestigious assignments to do something on Navajos that might never see the light of day. Yet, that's been the most successful project I've done in 20 years, even to the point of 10 years later suddenly winning the Governor's Award and having 100,000 copies of the book going into the household of every 10 year old in Arizona. If we're willing to be obedient to divine guidance, we'll be blessed: "… and prove me now herewith, saith the Lord of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it" (Mal. 3:10). That's how I felt. You have no idea where the blessing will come from and what will be the ripple effect of any good idea you have. I have proof of this. I couldn't figure out how we had won this award, but I found out. We met this lovely librarian in Phoenix, Arizona, who was the head of the selection committee. Growing up, she was part of the only Chinese family in Flagstaff. She felt very sidelined and out of it, but her parents kept saying that if she studied and did well, everything would be okay. She ended up being a preeminent children's librarian. When she read The Unbreakable Code 10 years ago, the story moved her, so much so, that when the governor came to her and told her she needed a book for all the 4th graders, the librarian told her she needed The Unbreakable Code.
Any last ideas you'd like to share?
There's an idea that I've been thinking a lot about recently that I heard from a woman named Elizabeth Alexander, a poet and Yale professor, who spoke at the annual Phi Beta Kappa meeting at Harvard Commencement 2006. Her father, Clifford, was one of the early African American graduates of Harvard in 1955 and was the first African American Secretary of the Army. She put into a poem, called "Poem of a Thousand Stories," words that her father told her when she was growing up:
He tells me,
may not make you feel good
may not right a wrong may not get you what you want
but you never know who is listening
and someone is always listening.
I have thought about that in terms of the creative process. The biggest discouragement is thinking there is no outlet or purpose for your expression, that no one cares. Christ Jesus is the best example to me of someone who faced down that belief. Healing and teaching and preaching to people, he so wanted people to understand what he and his mission were all about. There was often the temptation to be discouraged and to feel that no one was getting it, or that no one was listening. Yet, look at the ripple effects of his life! I turn often to his statement: "And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me" (John 12:32). The idea in Elizabeth Alexander's poem also really helps me. Sure enough, there was one school librarian who was listening and who told the governor about the book. "Someone is always listening."
About Sara Hoagland Hunter
During college, I was always active in the theatre and film department, writing and producing plays and videos. But when it came to choosing a major, I was influenced by world-renowned Romance Languages professor, John Rassias. Trained as a professional actor in France, he developed an intensive language instruction program that is still used all over the globe, including in the Peace Corps. I began assistant teaching French to undergraduates in his program and ended up double majoring in Italian. Communication is a theme that has run throughout my career, and learning to teach and communicate in other languages meant connection with more people and cultures. I ended up doing a documentary on the Rassias language program out of college. I got a job with The Christian Science Monitor writing feature stories and then producing and writing for Monitor Radio. Later, when my husband and I moved to a rural community, I earned my education degree while writing a children's column for the local paper. I taught high school English and got a Masters in Education (Ed.M) at Harvard. Then, we adopted our children. For a while, I kept teaching drama classes and public speaking as well as in the gifted and talented programs. But I really missed writing and wanted to be at home with the kids. That's when the writing kicked it. My cousin, who is a children's book author, helped in the transition. At that time, I started working part-time, writing scripts for a documentary film production company. Then, in '95, I published my first book. I was able to devote real time to writing when our youngest was in school for a full day. It just fit.