Allison's Book Bag

A Non-Traditional Childhood

Posted on: July 28, 2014

Sheila O’Connor grew up with a non-traditional childhood. In interviews, O’Connor has expressed the hope that all of her writing mirrors that life in some way—in part because O’Connor wishes that she’d seen her own childhood reflected in literature when she was young. The stories she tells all aim tell the truth of the diversity of children’s lives. Tomorrow I’ll post an interview with O’Connor and then on Wednesday I’ll post my review of Sparrow Road. Save the dates: July 29-30!


A native of Minnesota, O’Connor was born in the same hospital where her dad was born, and the same hospital where she held a job during college. She doesn’t live far from there now.

When she was young, her grandparents managed a bar and restaurant in downtown Minneapolis. In her bio, O’Connor remembers listening to the customers’ stories. She also used to pick songs out on the jukebox, dance with her sisters, and feast on late night dinners of barbecue ribs and kiddie cocktails.

During her childhood, O’Connor’s family moved a lot, and by the time she reached fourth grade she had gone to four different schools. In her bio, O’Connor views the constant moving as a positive experience, which taught her to keep a close eye on the world, to listen, and to pay attention to the ways every new place worked. It also taught her that the world was full of odd and interesting people, and that everywhere she went a new, exciting story was waiting to be lived.

When O’Connor’s mother got remarried, the family settled in a house in Minneapolis, a place which she loves to this day. In Minneapolis, buses could took her everywhere, especially downtown where she would hang out in the Central Library or lose hours watching strangers on the streets and imagining their stories. She also discovered the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

Mostly, during her childhood, O’Connor loved to read, write, and run free with friends. She tells Cynthia Leitich Smith that her preference was realism, because it featured stories of ordinary people, people who could be her. By elementary school, she especially liked stories in which the characters faced challenges with friends, family, school, culture. This type of literature taught her about life; She was happy to let the characters make mistakes that would save her from making them. In her bio, O’Connnor also notes that in fourth grade, she also kept a diary which described her likes and hates, in which she tried to capture everything that was happening in her life.


Despite her early start in writing, starting at age sixteen when she worked at a hardware store to finance a trip across the United States with a friend, O’Connor bounced for a time from job to job. Her bio lists other notable jobs including working at a hobby shop, flagging for highway construction, and assembling cheerleader pom-poms at a factory. Eventually, O’Connor headed to college and later graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Through her classes, O’Connor shares with Mother Daughter Club, she gained encouragement to write and began to put that belief into practice. O’Connor became a teacher and a writer. O’Connor enjoys encouraging writers young and old to put their words on paper. She believe everyone has a story to tell—and that stories help us see each other’s hearts.

SheilaConnor_KidsThe best part of her life has been her husband, her children, and their pets. Her bio describes her happiest years at home with her young children playing make-believe, performing plays and puppet shows, reading books, throwing tea parties for Pooh, and sitting on the floor with stuffed animals and toys.

After her children grew up, Sheila returned to her work as a teacher and a writer. It’s a balance she still maintains. As a full-time professor teaching Master of Fine Arts students or fellow fiction writers, O’Connor explains to Cynthia Leitich Smith that she finds great company and solidarity in working side by side with others who struggle with issues of story and craft. O’Connor has also worked with students from various other ages from kindergartners to the elderly and from all backgrounds of life including those in detention centers. She finds joy in watching them discover the power of language, of claiming their personal voice and story on the page.


According to her bio, O’Connor’s favorite writing ritual is to walk across the snow or grass with a thermos in her hand and step into the perfect quiet of her cottage, where her next page is waiting to be written. There she starts to put some words on paper, typing blindly, with no idea what will happen next. After a long of dreaming, writing, and rewriting, she finally has a book.

In Literary Rambles, O’Connor indicates that Sparrow Road grew out of her work teaching writing to young people. One afternoon after spending a month at an artist colony, O’Connor looked out her window and wondered: What if a child came to live at a place like this? A few years later, she sat down to write a story about that idea—and Sparrow Road was born.

O’Connor emphasizes to Mother Daughter Club that Sparrow Road is fictional. Although she has spent time at several artists colonies, as well as a working retreat farm run by some wonderful nuns, Sparrow Road is its own enchanted world.

She goes on to note that each of these places allowed plenty of time for quiet, which always led to a kind of fear at the start of each residency: What would she do alone, with no phone or friends or family? Ultimately, the silence allowed O’Connor time to daydream, to imagine a story into life, and to work the long uninterrupted hours she needed to write a book.

For me, Sparrow Road is a testament to the power of imagination and the many ways in which the creative process empowers and heals. I hope readers of all ages see themselves as creators—whether they’re daydreamers, or quilters, or musicians, or painters. It’s also a book about hope and generosity—how deep our goodness runs.

–Sheila O’Connor, Literary Rambles

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