Allison's Book Bag

Interview with Sheila Kelly Welch

Posted on: October 5, 2012

In March, as part of the Making Connections book tour, I first made the acquaintance of Sheila Kelly Welch. At the time, I featured a guest post by Sheila Kelly Welch on adoption books. I also said to expect more reviews of both Welch’s books and of books on adoption. As the final post for my adoption round-up, I’m including an interview with author Sheila Kelly Welch.

Allison: As a child you decided that when you grew up you wanted to write and illustrate books. What inspired that dream?

Sheila: I was an extremely active little kid. I spent hours outside running, climbing trees, playing in the creek, riding my siblings’ horses, and trying to train my pet goat. Then, shortly after I turned seven and was in second grade, I became very ill with rheumatic fever and spent six months convalescing. I didn’t have a TV or video games, so I discovered books, both their text and illustrations. Books took me on amazing journeys way beyond the confines of my small room. As I grew older, I thought it’d be fun to combine my love of books with my interest in writing and drawing, so making children’s books seemed the perfect job for me.

Allison: You grew up drawing horses. How did you get your interest in horses? Have you ever owned one? What is your favorite experience with them?

Sheila: My parents were both from Philadelphia, but before I was born, they’d bought a farmhouse  with a barn and thirty-five acres of rolling hills in Pennsylvania. They knew nothing about farming or farm animals. When my sister was nine, she was given a horse named Tony.  A year later, my brother, who was fourteen, got a horse, too. I started riding when I was three or four but didn’t have my own horse until I was married. While my husband and I were raising our seven children, we had a bunch of horses for them. Our last horse, Max, passed away at age thirty last summer.

One unforgettable experience occurred when we were trying to buy an old horse, named Stubbs, at an auction. Our thirteen-year-old daughter was volunteering at the city horse stables and had fallen in love with this horse who was being “retired.” When the auctioneer began his chant, we realized we were bidding against the meat buyer, so we were all quite tense. Fortunately, we did make the highest bid, and Stubbs became our daughter’s horse.

Allison: You owned a farm as an adult. What is it like running a farm?

Sheila: We had been married for one year when we bought a 200 acre farm in Minnesota. My husband thought he wanted to be a dairy farmer, but building a herd takes time and a lot of money. I got a teaching job, and Eric worked at the local hospital. We started buying calves and a few horses, but we realized that it was going to be impossible to make it work.

So we were only on our own place for two years, then we sold it and  moved twice to farms where Eric was a herdsman, milking about 80 cows, morning and night. By that time, we had two of our children, and we knew that I was going to need heart surgery within a few years. We had inadequate health insurance. Eric decided to go to graduate school to become a librarian, and we moved to Madison, Wisconsin. He always says that those years of farming taught him what real work is all about. Although I milked goats as a child, I wasn’t nearly as involved in the farm work as my husband was during our farming years. My main contribution was being good at pointing out when a calf was getting sick.

Allison: Both stories and novels of yours have been published. What are the unique struggles to each format?

Sheila: I have always loved reading short stories and enjoy writing them, too. Most magazines have strict word count limits, and although it can be a struggle, I like the discipline of saying what I want to say within the restrictions. With a novel, there is more freedom, but I have to create my own structure and limits, which can be difficult.

Allison: You taught special education students. How did you pick that career? How has that impacted your writing?

Sheila: My mother was a wonderful elementary school teacher. She managed to succeed with children who were having trouble learning to read way before educators understood dyslexia. So I was inspired by her, and after I’d finished my undergraduate work, I enrolled in an intern program for special education that combined working in an inner city school and getting a master’s degree.

The two years that I spent teaching in Philadelphia were very difficult, but I learned a lot about the effects of poverty and discrimination on children. I also learned a lot about myself and the sort of life I hoped to lead. I doubt that we would have adopted older children with various problems if I had not been a special education  teacher. My writing is influenced by my life, and those years as a teacher in both city and later rural schools were filled with experiences that have contributed ideas for many of my books and stories.

Allison: What is your favorite part about being an illustrator for your own books? What’s the worst part?

Sheila: The good side is feeling that I’ll be able to create artwork that will enhance and extend the story I’ve written. The worst part is when the illustrations don’t match what I’ve “seen” in my mind.

Allison: You have adopted six children. What experiences as a parent have entered into your stories? How do you make them apply to children’s books?

Sheila: Most of the stories and books I create are products of my imagination, but I certainly incorporate the general problems and emotional responses that I’ve encountered as a mother. Once in a while, a true incident or a slightly modified true event will become part of a book. The character of Aunt Laura in DON’T CALL ME MARDA was based very closely on my mother-in-law. So, in this novel, whenever Marsha was talking to her aunt on the phone, I could almost hear and transcribe what Eloise would have said if we had adopted a child like Wendy.

The scene near the end of WAITING TO FORGET was based on a real-life event. When one of our daughters was three years old, a pharmacist made a mistake filling a prescription.  We gave our sick child the medication, and she went into a coma. Fortunately, we discovered what had happened, but for many hours we didn’t know if she’d ever wake up. When she did, my husband reacted just as Angela’s dad did in the story.

Allison: Have you drawn on any real experiences of your adopted children for writing your books? If so, how do they feel about it?

Sheila: Yes, but I’ve modified these experiences to fit the story. WAITING TO FORGET  was inspired by– and is loosely based on– the early lives of our two youngest children although the things that happen to the characters are not nearly as bad as the true story. One of the children, now a grown man, has read the book and told me, “It’s a real, true story, Mom.” Although he understands that it’s fiction, he wanted me to know that I’d gotten it right. His comment is my most treasured “review.”

Allison: What advice would you offer an adopted child? How about the parents of an adopted child?

Sheila: This is a hard question. I’m going to answer it with the advice that two of our boys would probably give if asked. Our oldest child, adopted as a baby, knows nothing about his biological background and has never wanted to search for his other parents. He would tell an adopted child, “This makes you interesting.” He  likes the idea that he could be related to Bill Cosby or Michael Jordan or Muhammad Ali. Another son was adopted at age nine. He is quoted in ADOPTED: THE ULTIMATE TEEN GUIDE, saying, “Give your new parents a chance. They aren’t perfect. Remember that you are dealing with a whole different deck of cards. Give it time. Give yourself time.”

My advice for parents is pretty basic. Adopting a baby is a lot like raising a biological or birth child, but you won’t be able to take credit for junior’s innate talent for whistling or whatever. When you adopt an older child, keep in mind that this child has lost just about everything. So try to be flexible, supportive, and strong. From the moment the child moves in, you are the parent and protector. Don’t expect love to solve all problems, but do expect a lot of challenges. I would also suggest that you keep the child’s given name. Often his name is all a child has left to call his own.

Allison: You had surgery to have a heart valve replaced and later you were also diagnosed with Parkinsons. How has this changed your outlook on life?

Sheila: When I was only 35 years old, a cardiologist told me that I wouldn’t live another year with my leaky mitral valve. So heart surgery saved my life. Afterwards I could actually hear the artificial valve ticking like an internal clock that kept reminding me that time was passing. Suddenly, I knew that I needed to get busy. Within two years, I’d had my first children’s short story published and we’d adopted two more children.

Having Parkinson’s disease has created a whole new set of challenges. Most of the activities that used to be fairly easy (walking, typing, drawing, talking, eating) now take much more effort. It’s like trying to run up a down escalator. Parkinson’s makes you feel old and as if you are getting older very fast. My outlook on life hasn’t changed, but I am trying to adjust and to appreciate even more each day. My friends and family, made up of people and pets, bring joy and love to my life.

Allison: What are some activities you enjoy outside of writing?

Sheila: I love being outdoors walking with my husband and our  three dogs or puttering in my flower garden. I’m thankful that we still live on ten acres surrounded by fields of corn or soybeans. Although most of my artwork is illustration, I do enjoy drawing and painting pictures not intended for books. I also make a few elaborate gingerbread cookies each Christmas, and in the spring, I decorate several new eggs to put on our egg tree.

Of course, I like to read and now that I have a Nook, my supply of books is endless. Spending time with my husband of nearly 45 years and with our children and grandkids is high on my list of favorite activities. Although we don’t have any horses, I am enrolled in a therapeutic riding class.  In addition, I have a great time volunteering with my dog, Raven, who is a certified International Therapy Dog. Together we visit nursing homes and the public library where children read stories to Raven and she listens attentively . . .  even while she’s napping.

Allison: What’s next?

Sheila: I’m working on illustrations for a story of mine that will be a simple app for beginning readers. After that project, I plan to finish revisions on a novel that I’ve been working on for many years. I also have two picture book manuscripts that I hope to illustrate and get published.

Thanks very much, Allison, for reviewing my books and for asking such great questions.

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4 Responses to "Interview with Sheila Kelly Welch"

Hi!

Thanks for interviewing me, Allison. Your questions required some thought and were fun to answer.

Thanks also to Mirka and Anne for your nice comments. Mirka, your book looks intriguing; I’ve put it on my “to read” list. And Anne, so good to hear from you. I expect you’ll soon have exciting news of a book acceptance.

Best wishes to all,
Sheila

Thorough and very good interview of this gifted writer. Thank you for this, Allison and Sheila.

Allison, thanks so much for the interview; it was great finding out more about Sheila’s background. I met her, and two of her children, last year on a writer retreat and now I feel I know her even better.

You’re welcome! I loved learning more about Sheila through this interview. If you haven’t already, check out her guest post too: Adoption Books for Young Children

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