Sheri Bancroft, the co-author of a new children's book, Wake Up, Abby, about the adventures of one very sleepy girl, may currently be Memphis' most celebrated writer nobody's ever heard of. In 2000, she won the Tennessee Arts Commission's Literary Scholarship, the highest award the state of Tennessee can bestow on a fiction writer. Needless to say, this high honor lifted her out of obscurity and brought her great critical acclaim, movie deals, and unimaginable personal wealth.
"No, it didn't," Bancroft says. "It didn't change anything. It's funny because when I won the award I contacted other people who had won the award and asked, 'Did this change anything for you?' and they would say, 'No, it didn't change anything, but it made me believe in myself and keep going.'"
After a moment's reflection, Bancroft changes her story and admits that she has received some attention. "I did get a call to write a children's play about antibiotics. I guess it was supposed to be about how antibiotics work, in case the children ever need to take them. I don't know. I had to turn that one down."
Of course, Bancroft is no stranger to writing plays with unusual, vaguely medical subject matter. Her absurd play Unloaded, about the cult of pop psychology, was produced by Our Own Voice Theatre Troupe in the 1990s. She's also seen the production of My Life in the Red Cape, a sordid little play that pitted various fairy-tale characters against one another. On a more serious note, in 2003, she won the Tennessee Writer's Award for nonfiction, for an autobiographical piece about a child watching her mother's struggle with cancer.
Bancroft got the idea for Wake Up, Abby while working as a babysitter.
"I was the babysitter for a girl named Abby Stein from the time she was really little up until the first grade," she says. "One day when she was maybe 4 years old, I took her to run some errands with me, and she would fall asleep everywhere we went."
The story was also loosely based on a friend who is, according to Bancroft, "nocturnal." So nocturnal, in fact, it sometimes affected her friend's ability to work a normal daytime job.
"That's just how my friend is," Bancroft says. "So [Wake Up, Abby] is also sort of about how it's okay to be different."
Wake Up, Abby wasn't supposed to be a book. It was one of three children's stories that Bancroft, a onetime dance instructor at the U of M, and her writing partner Kristen Fontichiaro wanted to develop as a dance.
"The university wrote a grant to [the Memphis Arts Council's] Center for Arts Education to turn the stories into dances and to create a touring production. Well, we got the grant, and using University of Memphis dance students Moira Logan, Holly Lau, and myself, we each choreographed one of the stories. There were two different casts for it, and it toured Memphis and Shelby County and it toured parts of Arkansas for two years."
After the show took its final bow, Bancroft set her sights on developing Wake Up, Abby as a book. Inspired by her experiences as a teaching artist, she decided that the best way to go about doing this was to work with a group of students: getting their impressions of the story and allowing them to create the illustrations. She immediately thought of Abby Stein, who was then in Ann Harms' second-grade class at Grahamwood Elementary. Knowing that Harms had conducted a similar project, a collection of children's letters to Martin Luther King Jr., Bancroft decided she had found the perfect environment for bringing her sleepy girl to life.
"Sheri came to me and asked me if I would like to do this project," Harms says, "and I jumped on it. It was such a great idea. She was so interesting."
Bancroft began the process by reading the story to the class and gathering feedback. The kids were all taken with the idea of a little girl who loves to sleep so much it creates problems for her family, and they tried to figure out why it was that little Abby was so very sleepy.
"Maybe she's just nocturnal," one of the students suggested. Another thought that the daytime was just too noisy and hectic for Abby, and that's why she preferred the peace and quiet of nighttime. Yet another student suggested that Abby was just terribly, terribly bored with her life and preferred to live in her dreams. Of course, all of the answers were correct and useful in determining how to illustrate the book.
"The whole class helped illustrate the book," says the book's inspiration, 10-year-old Abby Stein, who is now about to enter the fifth grade. But Stein and her friend Hannah Burton had a special job. They designed the fictional Abby's bright-yellow overalls with big red polka dots because they wanted to make sure the character would be easy to spot on every page. They also supervised their fellow students.
"I don't know if I want to be an illustrator or not," says Burton of her experience working on the book. "I think I want to be a writer. I'd sort of thought about being a writer before. I kinda knew I kinda liked it, but I didn't really think about it as something I really wanted to do."
Wake Up, Abby is available only at Davis-Kidd Booksellers.