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‘Owls Can’t Sing’

By Melissa Arnold

Author Deborah L. Staunton

Just about every kid has trouble getting to sleep at some point. Whether they’re scared of the dark, worried about monsters under the bed or can’t turn off a chatty brain, restlessness is always unsettling. Through the lens of a curious, resilient protagonist named Josie, Deborah L. Staunton’s new children’s book, Owls Can’t Sing, helps kids face their nighttime fears and celebrates what makes them special. Gorgeously illustrated and fun to read, this book could be a big help — at bedtime or otherwise. 

Tell me about yourself. Did you always want to be a writer?

I grew up in Port Jefferson … I’ve always loved books and writing from as early as elementary school. I can remember my second grade teacher putting on my report card that she loved reading my stories, and I kept a journal beginning around 10 years old. Family, friends and teachers were always so encouraging of my writing.

What did you pursue as a career?

I went to college at the Clarion University of Pennsylvania [now PennWest University Clarion] for early childhood education, and while I was there I fell in love with the theater. So I was still majoring in education, but I was at the theater every free moment I had. Later, I went back to school for theater arts ­— I spent one year at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, and ultimately graduated from SUNY New Paltz. I developed a background in both children’s theater and adult theater, did a lot with stage management and lighting, and worked on the tech side of those things for many years.

So you’re trained in education and theater — where does writing fit in?

Writing plays such a huge part in my life. In so many ways, it’s what saved me. I’ve been through a lot, and writing is my coping mechanism. It’s the way I sort through things. I’ve had many pieces published in literary journals and magazines, and I also had a book come out last summer called Untethered, which is a memoir in poetry and short prose. It’s about my growing up with a mentally ill father, raising a mentally ill daughter, and experiencing four miscarriages along the way.

Is Owls Can’t Sing your first foray into children’s literature?

Not really — but it is my first work for children that was published. I always thought children’s literature would be my path toward publishing. I started sending out different manuscripts as far back as 1990, but the market is so inundated and I never got anywhere. I continued to write and attend writing conferences, publishing short pieces here and there until Untethered took shape, but I never gave up on kids’ books.

How did you finally publish Owls Can’t Sing?

I belong to the Author’s Guild [a national, professional organization for published writers], and a woman from there posted that her sister was starting a new publishing company called Two Sisters Press. They were seeking submissions, so I sent in my memoir and the children’s manuscript. Ultimately, they loved both, so I went from nothing to having two books published in less than a year! It’s been wonderful. 

Did you ever think about self-publishing? Why did you go the traditional route?

I pursued traditional publishing because, truthfully, I wanted validation that I really was talented and had something to offer. It was a dream of mine, and I was willing to do the hard work, taking rejections and feedback and eventually having someone choose me. It wasn’t without its disappointments or frustrations, but it was absolutely worth it.

How did you connect with the illustrator, Akikuzzaman Utshoo?

My publisher had a few illustrators I could choose from, but their styles weren’t what I had in mind, So I took on the financial responsibility of finding someone on my own. I went on the website Fiverr and saw an example cover illustration which was very similar to what is now the cover of Owls Can’t Sing. I just loved it. It was a painstaking process of working on one illustration at a time while navigating language barriers between us. Pictures are such a big part of children’s books, and I’m so glad it came out the way I envisioned.

What was the writing process like? Was this the original concept from years ago?

No, I had written a different children’s book back in the 1990s. In 2013, I met a woman at a writers’  conference who had many children’s books published. I asked if she was willing to work with me privately, and we talked weekly on the phone for eight weeks. When I gave her the manuscript, we started formulating a totally new idea. She asked me what my daughter was studying in school, and at the time it was owls. By the end of eight weeks, we had a new manuscript that didn’t resemble the original at all.

Is the main character, Josie, based on someone in your life?

My daughter is 18 and my son is 14. The character of Josie is inspired by my daughter, who has struggled with a lot in her life, including sleep. I want people to know that we don’t all fit into the same box. We don’t all have to be neurotypical, or exactly the same as everyone else, to be “normal.” We are who we are, and that’s fine.

Is there a recommended age for this book?

It’s good for all ages, but would be the best fit for ages 3 to 8. 

What’s next for you?

I’m working on a collection of poetry in memory of two friends that I’ve lost, and hopefully another children’s project, including one with my dad.

What advice would you give to people who are thinking about writing a book?

Never stop writing, and don’t be afraid to share your story because we all have a story to tell! Find the right people who are willing to give you good feedback along the way and help you to become a stronger writer. It doesn’t have to be a fancy program. But don’t go through the writing process alone.


Owls Can’t Sing is available at your favorite online booksellers. Partial proceeds from the book will go to the International Owl Center (www.internationalowlcenter.org). Meet Deborah L. Staunton at Rocky Point Day at Rocky Point High School, 82 Rocky Point Yaphank Road, Rocky Point on May 19 where she will be selling and signing copies of her books from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.. Follow her online at www.DeborahLStaunton.com and on social media @DeborahLStaunton.