Sensitive: An Interview with Author Sara Levine

Renowned for her acclaimed books on animals and the natural world, Sara Levine joins us to reveal the inspiration and journey behind her latest title, Sensitive. A touching tale of a young girl constantly criticized for her heightened emotions, this story serves as a beacon for those who’ve been chided for being “too sensitive.”

Read on to get a behind the scenes look at this heartwarming tale and join Sara Levine in a broader conversation about celebrating and understanding our diverse emotional landscapes.

You’re known for your books about animals and the natural world, but in Sensitive, you’ve written a beautiful story about a girl who has to deal with being criticized by others for how she feels. Was the process of writing this story similar to or different from how you approached your earlier books?

The process was similar in that I mulled it over and planned it out in my head while walking and biking before writing it down, as I do with most of my books. But otherwise, the process was very different. My books about animals and the natural world come from topics I’ve taught for many years to college students. I love the challenge of finding creative, funny, and interactive ways to share science information.

The process for this book was very different because the topic was personal, and I’d never tried to teach anyone about it before. As a child, I was told many of the same things as the girl in this book—that I was too sensitive, that I’d need to grow a thicker skin to survive, and so on. I wanted to write a book that would help sensitive kids learn how to navigate similar situations . Children are at risk of letting others’ words define them, and they need tools and conversation to help counter this. 

But before I could write such a book, I had to do a lot of thinking about what the solution would be. I’d survived my childhood with a healthy sense of self, but what helped me? In a way I had to teach myself, through self-reflection, before I could teach others.  I knew that writing and speaking up was a major factor. So the idea came to me: what if the “thin skin” were not a metaphor? What if the harsh words that were spoken to the girl actually slipped through her skin and made it into her body? And what if she then rearranged the words and “wrote them out” of herself as an affirmation?  My idea for the book grew from these seeds.

This book contains both a story and a sort of word puzzle. Can you talk a little about how you went about creating the puzzle element?

I wanted the letters of the words that went into the girl to be the same as those in the words that she would use to make her self-affirming statement. 

To do this, I first made a list of phrases that were said to me as a child (and sometimes as an adult) about being “too sensitive.”  Then I interviewed children to ask them what things people said to them about being sensitive. Many of the things people said to me as a child are still said to kids today. I used these phrases as the “input” words. I then tried to use the words and their letters to write the “output,” an affirming statement that the girl might write. There were some key ideas I wanted this statement to cover. I wanted to be sure to acknowledge that being sensitive isn’t easy, and I wanted to be sure to say that sensitivity can also be a source of strength. I worked back and forth, editing the “input” phrases and the “output” phrases over and over to try to come out with something authentic on both sides, with the fewest “leftover” letters possible. There was tension between what I wanted to say and what constraints the puzzle created. The process took a very, very long time. I worked on this book on and off for years until I got it to a point that it felt publishable to me.

Illustrating this book posed an unusual challenge for Mehrdokht Amini, who had to find ways to incorporate text within the main character. Do you have a favorite spread?

Yes, I imagine that the book was difficult to illustrate. The book is a metaphor, a visual collage. But it’s also the story of a girl and how she is transformed. Mehrdokht had to work out the balance between showing the words physically going inside the girl’s body and showing the psychic damage these words did. At the same time, she needed to create a setting and other characters for a story that includes no descriptions of either.

I’m thrilled with the illustrations. The artwork is just gorgeous. I love how Mehrdokht used a combination of collage, drawing, and painting to convey the emotions. There’s so much meaning in the illustration. For example, the letters of the words change color as they enter into the girl’s body. My favorite spread? It’s hard to choose. I think I’d have to say the opening spread. There is something about seeing the line “’You are too SENSITIVE,’ said everyone.” on the backdrop of the brick wall with the backs of all of the children lined up that makes me tear up. I love the letters in collage, the varied colors and textures of the children’s clothing, the drawing of the upside-down flower. But the words also just move me. I guess it’s a “mirror and windows” thing, to reference Rudine Sims Bishop. Just seeing my experience reflected, which I’ve never seen in a book before, even though I wrote it, make me feel seen. 

What do you hope readers take away from this book?

I hope some readers will see themselves reflected in the girl’s experience, and that this will help them feel less alone or less the outsider. I also hope that they’ll start to see that the parts of ourselves that are often considered weaknesses are, in fact, the source of our greatest strengths. And more broadly, I hope that the book will contribute to the larger cultural conversation about understanding and embracing diversity.

Praise for Sensitive

“This story highlights the importance of taking control of a narrative as well as the healing power of artistic pursuits . . . A healing, positive assertion.” —Kirkus Reviews

Free Educator Resource

Download this free seek-and-find activity to rearrange the letters in the negative comments and turn them into positive affirmations!

Connect with Sara

Sara Levine is an award-winning writer of picture books for kids, a veterinarian and a science educator. Her books, which include Bone by Bone, Tooth by Tooth, Flower Talk, and The Animals Would Not Sleep! have received the AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize, Bank Street College Best Book of the Year, Beehive Book Award, Cook Prize and the Mathical Book Prize.

Sara Levine was often accused of being “too sensitive” as a child and needing to grow a “thicker skin.” She has failed to change her skin much, but has learned to direct some of her sensitivity into skills useful for creating books and working with animals and caring for children.

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