April 24, 2019

Birth Stories for Books, DIVA DELORES AND THE OPERA HOUSE MOUSE, by Laura Sassi

Diva Delores by Laura Sassi & Rebecca Gerlings
Today I have the pleasure of sharing with you the birth story for Laura Sassi’s picture book, DIVA DELORES AND THE OPERA HOUSE MOUSE (illustrated by Rebecca Gerlings, Sterling Children's Books, 2018).

Laura may not know this, but I cannot see her name without thinking of sunflowers. I first discovered Laura’s work when I read an interview with her on the Writer’s Rumpus. The lead photo used for that post was a picture of Laura in a patch of sunflowers. I adore sunflowers (in fact, “Sunflower” is the camp name I’ve used when I’ve volunteered at girl scout and/or outdoor school types of camps over the years). I remember seeing that picture and thinking, “I hope I get to know this author some day.” That day has come. Please join me in welcoming Laura and Diva Delores to the blog!

Birth of a DIVA!
by Laura Sassi

I was participating in Tara Lazar’s Picture Book Idea Month (now Storytstorm) several years ago and one morning I was short on ideas so I took out one of my writer’s notebooks and started paging through.  That’s where I found him - a little mouse.  This mouse had previously inspired me to write a rhyming rebus called “Mouse House” (Highlights for Children, May 2013) where I imagined what it might be like for a mouse to fall asleep in a house in the woods. This  time, I imagined where else a mouse might live - and that imagining led me to the opera house and the new story idea that eventually became DIVA DELORES AND THE OPERA HOUSE MOUSE (Sterling Children's Books, 2018)!

I knew from the start that I wanted the story to have a rich rhyming rhythm because that felt very “opera” to me, but finding just the right structure took many rounds of revision. At first I went with a simple quatrain that went like this:

It was opening week 
At the Opera House
When Diva Delores
a mouse!

With a tip of his cap,
He said, “How do you do?
I’ve been sent to assist
With your opera debut.”

But I didn’t care for this because, in my estimation, it lacked the richness of an opera house - think plush velvet curtains and ornate woodwork.

So, I started over with longer, more elegant sounding lines, so that it read like this:

Mouse adored chocolate, and cheese on dry toast,
And popcorn and gumdrops, but what he liked most
Was feasting on Mozart, Puccini and Strauss
And lending a paw at the Olde Opera House.

Diva Delores loved glamour and glitz.
She liked to be pampered. She liked to be spritzed.
But lights made her nervous. How would she succeed?
“I’ll help her!” chirped Mouse. “She’s a Diva in need!”

But as I kept revising, I decided that this versification with its long lines felt cumbersome and almost too velvety - like those curtains were smothering. I also decided that if Delores had a name then so should her sidekick - FERNANDO! So…

I rewrote it again, splicing the lines so they looked shorter on the page, but still retained a richer feel. To achieve this, I had to really streamline the story so that I could retain a manageable word count, but I succeeded.  And I liked it!   Here it is, getting closer to the final (though still a little clunky in spots):

Fernando loved chocolate
and cheese on dry toast,
and popcorn and gumdrops,
but what he liked most…

was feasting on Mozart,
Puccini and Strauss,
and lending a paw
at the Old Opera House.

Diva Delores loved
glamour and glitz.
She liked to be pampered.
She liked to be spritzed.

She wanted attention
and spotlights and praise.
She longed to be showered
With fragrant bouquets.

However, something was still missing. Delores, my agent noted, was having a rocky debut, and was there some way, she wondered, that I could infuse a little of Delores’ awkwardness into the text?

I trusted that there must be a way, but I was stumped so I set the story aside for almost a year.  But that year was important because when I returned to the manuscript, I was looking at with truly new eyes.  And with relative ease, I smoothed out some of the lines that had perplexed me before and most amazingly (to me) I came up with a way to infuse Delores’ off-kilter voice into the story. That’s how the little sing-along lines such as “Me - me- me- me!” that appear on some spreads in special font were born. The minute I added those I knew I’d solved the problem and the manuscript was singing on a whole new level.

Text © 2018 by Laura Sassi. Illustrations © 2018 by Rebecca Gerlings
Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Sterling Children’s Books

My agent agreed and submitted the story to a small group of publishers. Meredith Mundy, then at Sterling Children’s Books, acquired it!  From that point, it took approximately two more years until the book came out. Each step of that process was exciting, involving first the selection of an illustrator - the fabulous Rebecca Gerlings - followed her sketches and dummy and finally final art.  I found that stage fascinating and was grateful to be included in review of each step. The most interesting development during this process was the transformation of Delores from hippo in the earliest sketches to an opera-singing seal! Here are some before and after sketches to give you a sense of the charm and delight and excitement of watching Delores emerge:

Sketch by Rebecca Gerlings

Sketch by Rebecca Gerlings

Then, just a little over a year ago - in March 2018 - DIVA DELORES AND THE OPERA HOUSE was finally born!  It took a long time, but not a moment was wasted.  Each step was important in creating the final product. And I’m so pleased with the way it turned out. Perseverance and patience win the day!

Thank you, Laura! This is such a fun behind-the-scenes peek at a super fun book! I have to admit, I enjoyed ALL of the different versions of your text ... I would have signed on earlier than others! Readers, if you would like to get a closer peek at DIVA DELORES AND THE OPERA HOUSE MOUSE, you can view the book trailer here. 

Laura Sassi has a passion for telling stories in prose and rhyme. She is the author of four picture books: GOODNIGHT, ARK (Zonderkidz, 2014), GOODNIGHT, MANGER (Zonderkidz, 2015), DIVA DELORES AND THE OPERA HOUSE MOUSE (Sterling, 2018) which was featured on BBC’s Cbeebies Bedtime Stories and won First Honors in the 2019 Best in Rhyme Award, and her newest release is LOVE IS KIND (Zonderkidz, 2018).

Find Laura on the web:

Facebook, Twitter, Instragram, and Laura's Blog.

Birth Stories for Books is an occasional feature of Dawn Babb Prochovnic's blog. Dawn is the author of multiple picture books including Where Does a Cowgirl Go Potty?, Where Does a Pirate Go Potty? (forthcoming, 2019), and 16 books in the Story Time With Signs & Rhymes series. Dawn is a contributing author to Oregon Reads Aloud and a frequent presenter at schools, libraries, and educational conferences. Contact Dawn using the form at the left, or learn more at www.dawnprochovnic.com.


  1. How I love this delightful book!
    {Also, nice to see Laura^ on the other side of the Hudson, being taken with Diva Delores to the big metropolis}

  2. Wonderful interview! I loved hearing how Laura put the manuscript aside for almost a year, and almost miraculously, when she revisited it her fresh eyes knew exactly what the story needed. That's a fantastic approach--thanks for the great advice!

  3. I couldn't agree more! I learned so much from Laura's experience. Sometimes the best writing work is having the self-discipline to set something aside until it's ready to be worked on again.

  4. Wow, great story! I appreciate reading about the many false starts, re-writes, and slow-downs. It's inspiring. Thanks for sharing and happy book birthday!

  5. So wonderful to step back and appreciate the process and details in bringing a story to the stage...er..shelf! Delores is SO delightful. And that one-year-in-the-drawer stage is absolutely essential to my process when I am super stuck on story development. Great post Dawn and Laura!