The last time I wrote about author, actress and playwright Sybil Rosen, she was visiting Roanoke from her home in rural Georgia.
The Patrick Henry High grad (Class of ‘68) was here to perform a one-character play, “The Belle of Amherst,” at Center in the Square. It's an adaptation of script originally penned by William Luce, about the famed American poet, Emily Dickinson.
Writing is Rosen’s avocation and passion. Early in her career she penned scripts for the daytime soap opera, “Guiding Light,” and won an Emmy.
Later, she wrote a memoir about her first husband, the late country-folk singer-songwriter Blaze Foley. Hollywood actor-director Ethan Hawke turned “Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze Foley,” into an independent biopic, “Blaze.”
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Rosen, now 72, co-wrote the script and played a cameo as her own mother. Ben Dickey stars as the title character and Kris Kristofferson’s has a role, too. (You can still find it on streaming video.)
In 2014, Rosen published “Riding the Dog,” a book of short stories that stem from real-life experiences traveling America by Greyhound bus. It’s as good as any American short-story collection I’ve read, including J.D. Salinger’s “Nine Stories” and Kurt Vonnegut’s “Welcome to the Monkey House.”
The purpose of this column is to inform you about Rosen’s latest literary triumph. That’s titled “Carpenter’s Helper.” It’s a 900-word illustrated children’s book published in 2021 by Schwartz & Wade, an imprint of Random House-Penguin.
Rosen learned the publishing behemoth had agreed to release “Carpenter’s Helper” a couple of years ago, while she visited Roanoke to promote a showing of “Blaze” at The Grandin Theatre.
Rosen received the exciting news in an email from the publisher that she read as her brother drove her down Franklin Road. Immediately they stopped at the Dunkin Donuts near south Roanoke to celebrate.
Even more recently, Random House inked a huge deal for “Carpenter’s Helper” with the Dolly Parton Imagination Library. An arm of the Dolly Parton Foundation, the library is a nearly three-decade-old literacy-promoting program that gives away children’s books.
As you may have read recently in Cardinal News, the Dolly Parton Imagination Library is expanding in Virginia bigtime. Last year, the Virginia General Assembly approved $481,000 in taxpayer funding to help the library put its books in the hands of Virginia children. Lawmakers have added another $1.15 million for the program in next year’s budget.
Over the years, parents of more than 2.25 million children have registered their offspring with the Dolly Parton Imagination Library, which in turn has distributed nearly 200 million children’s books.
The foundation recently ordered 80,000 copies of “Carpenter’s Helper,” which will be mailed, no charge, to children (in Virginia and elsewhere) whose parents have signed them up for the Dolly Parton Imagination Library.
That single sale is almost double the volume of Rosen’s next highest-selling book, “Speed of Light,” which she wrote to help kids better understand the Holocaust. It sold something like 45,000 copies. And the two books have a nexus beyond the author.
The Random House executive who chose to publish “Carpenter’s Helper” was Anne Schwartz, a longtime acquaintance of Rosen’s in New York City. Schwartz had also overseen publication of “Speed of Light,” some two decades ago.
They hadn’t seen each other in 20 or so years when Schwartz and her husband by chance attended the 2018 premiere of “Blaze” in Manhattan. At the time, Schwartz had no idea her old friend had co-written and acted in the movie.
The premiere of “Blaze” brought them back together. At a subsequent lunch, Schwartz said, “Why don’t you write me a kids’ book?” Rosen recalled.
She soon got going on “Carpenter’s Helper.” It’s a story about a young girl working with her dad to renovate their bathroom. Here’s a slightly boiled-down version of how Amazon.com summarizes the plot:
“Renata and her Papi are hard at work at renovating their bathroom. … [when] one morning, she finds dried leaves and pine needles heaped on a shelf in the corner. She soon realizes that a bird has built a nest on the shelf, and inside it are four rosy eggs! Weeks pass, and Renata watches as the wrens come and go, building a home in her bathroom ... until, one day, with a little help from Renata, the birds are ready to fly.”
The idea of wrens building a nest in a bathroom that’s being renovated “happened to some friends of mind — some adults — 25 years ago,” Rosen told me in a phone interview this week. The story had been tucked in the back of Rosen’s mind ever since. She dusted it off and retooled it as a toddler-oriented tale about nurturing. The first draft was 1,200 words.
Mindful of Schwartz’s advice to “keep it spare,” Rosen culled that to 600 words before submitting it. Then she and Schwartz worked on it for three more months, growing the word count up to 900. When they were done, Schwartz hired the illustrator, Camille Garoche, who’s French.
“Carpenter’s Helper” was released in March 2021. Unfortunately, that came in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, when many Americans were more focused on getting their first dose of vaccine. You could say Rosen’s triumph was obscured by the coronavirus.
Something similar had happened two months earlier, when Kirkus Reviews gave a coveted “starred” review to “Carpenter’s Helper.”
That usually anoints a book as extraordinary in the literary world. But the review appeared Jan. 6, 2021, and got lost in the scrum insurrectionists attacking the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.
But you’ve probably heard the old saying that you can’t keep a good author down, right? Dolly Parton later came through for Sybil Rosen, who can now add “best-selling author” to her resume.
“My degrees of separation are closing in,” Rosen told me on the phone this week. “I guess in many ways I’ve lived a charmed life.”
She added: “I always thought Dolly was an angel. I didn’t know she’d be my angel.”
Contact metro columnist Dan Casey at 981-3423 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dancaseysblog