Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Very Tiny Baby: A Story I Needed to Write


1989: My first baby, Flora, was born very premature and died shortly after birth. Very sad story. 

1992: My second baby, Sam, was born very premature, stayed 3 months at the hospital, came home, and is now a junior in college. Happy story.

Sam, November 1992
Sam, July 2013

Ideas are easy to come by! Developing them into interesting story lines, with engaging characters and a satisfying ending, that’s hard work.

From the day Sam came home as a very tiny baby, I wanted to write a story using the experience of her prematurity.

What would the story line be? Who would be the main character? What would be the problem to solve? I had no idea.

What followed was years of mothering whirlwind. Illustrating projects were done between diaper changes, school lunches, and play-dates. Very little thinking time was spent on the Idea. Still, the mind has its own way of working things out.

Both mothering AND illustrating allowed for endless enjoyment of children’s books. And two main points were emerging very strongly: 

1) I was enjoying stories told in the first person very much.
2) I was becoming enamored of children’s drawings and trying to incorporate that into my work. 

DING! The story of the premature baby? I would write it--in first person--through the eyes of an older sibling. Jacob!

DING! I would draw it in a child-like manner as if Jacob was recording his experience. 

DING! I would do it in a journal/scrap-book format.


2008: Sam was 10 and I could enjoy longer stretches of working time.

In keeping with the scrap-book notion, I surrounded myself with scraps of paper and filled them with all the thoughts that could come up in Jacob’s mind.

The thoughts then got organized and reorganized till they formed a coherent story-line fit for a 32 page book. Some had only a few words on them, some had doodles. Some seemed more important, some disposable.
Sample spread from the first draft
Something unusual happened to me while I worked. I felt very emotional. The work was pouring out of me. I would hardly take any breaks. It was as if I had pierced a hole in an emotion balloon inside my head.

And suddenly it all made sense:

1) I was not drawing on my experience as the mother of a premature child. I was drawing on my experience as the older sibling of a very premature baby brother.
2) I was writing for myself.

I have no actual memory of when I was that young, but the family story goes like this:

When I was 2 ½ my brother, Albert, was born very premature. He spent some time at the hospital where he failed to thrive. Then he was sent home “to die.” Because of the terror of germs, my mother closeted herself with my brother in an empty white room and nursed him to life. The story usually concentrates on what my mother went through--her fears, her exhaustion, her responsibility.

What about "little me"? That was not part of the story. I’m sure I was kept clean, fed, and safe. But what was I told? Was I told anything, even? How did my world change? How much was I asked to do by myself now that I was a “big girl"?

In those days, children were asked to be “nice." I was very, very “nice.” I still am. Was I trying to please in order to win back my parents’ love?
Me and my little brother, Albert.
What I now understand: through Jacob, I was talking to "little me." I cried and allowed myself to be “not nice," to have “mean thoughts.” It felt good. Cathartic.


2010: After many rejections, the book dummy found a publisher: Charlesbridge. Both my editor, Emily Mitchell, and my art director, Susan Sherman, understood what I was after and supported my vision, even when marketing expressed misgivings. They helped me reshuffle, simplify, refine, and rewrite what was then The Baby Who Came Too Soon and is now TheVery Tiny Baby.
Another stage of the same spread...

...and another!
And the final version!  
The book came out in 2014, 21 years after Sam's birth! Some seeds lay dormant for a long time.


Because of theme of prematurity, The Very Tiny Baby will be considered a “niche” book and will be shelved accordingly. I understand.

In my mind, however, the main subject of the book is Emotional Upheaval. And that is a universal subject--whether the expected baby is premature or not, whether there is an expected baby or not.

My wish for this book is for it to be read to or by many children and to help some of them deal with their personal emotions, to recognize them, to realize other children feel them too, and to accept them.


Although I described the style of The Very Tiny Baby as similar to that of a scrap-book or journal, it is a story told in sequential panels and is very much a graphic novel (0r comic). The world of comics is exploding in exciting ways. It includes an enormous variety of stories and styles. I am passionate about it and am so pleased to have my own contribution in the form of The Very Tiny Baby. 


I am now putting the finishing touches on Zig and the Magic Umbrella, a story for Dial Books for Young Readers, done in panel format and in collage paintings. (A little blue monster, a little yellow bird, adventure, trials, friendship.)

Detail from a page of Suzette Totvitz.
Combining my love of comics and my experience with difficult pregnancies, I am now posting a web comics--for adults. It is a work in progress. My goal is to create 3 to 5 new “pages” a week. You can follow Suzette Totovitz on my comics blog,, or on my tumblr

You can also follow me on facebook or check my children's book blog for news and book updates.

Posted by Sylvie Kantorovitz, author and illustrator of The Very Tiny Baby.


Jeanette W. Stickel said...

Inspiring! I can't wait to see "The Very Tiny Baby."

Jeanette W. Stickel said...

Inspiring! I can't wait to see "The Very Tiny Baby."

Becky turner said...

That appears to be excellent however i am still not too sure that I like it. At any rate will look far more into it and decide personally!
My first baby