It was a long time in the making, but the fruition has been sweet for South Minneapolis native Timi Bliss, who published her first book in April of 2017. What began years ago as a bedtime tale created for mother-daughter bonding moments has blossomed into In Search of the Sandman, a children’s story about a little girl named Charlie, who like most kids at bedtime, would rather play than sleep.
In the story, the mother promises Charlie that she’ll get to meet the Sandman, the mythical figure from children’s folklore, if she closes her eyes and ponders the images and sounds of night — hooting owls, chirping crickets and whirling wind dancing through swaying trees.
Of course, while reflecting on nighttime wonders, young Charlie drifts fast into dreamland and misses the Sandman’s arrival, or was it the Sandman’s magical sand that lulled her to sleep? Either way, the mother’s mission is accomplished.
The story was a semi-finalist in Half Priced Books’ annual “Say Goodnight to Illiteracy” bedtime story contest in 1995. Bliss said she entered the contest on a whim. “I walked into Half Priced Books and saw that they were having this contest and thought ‘Hmm…I’ll just write down the bedtime story that I always tell [daughter] Landis.’
“I kinda set it to rhyme and added a little bit more to the wording, because you needed a minimum 300 word count. And it was a semi-finalist in this national contest. I kinda went ‘Well, that’s great.’”
So what finally pushed her to get the story published so many years later in 2017? Bliss explained that at the time it was just a story she made up and would recite to get her daughter to go to sleep; she wasn’t trying to become an author. But just as the story was initially inspired by her daughter, the desire to turn it into a book came at the arrival of granddaughter Charlie, who the lead character in the book is named after.
“I became a grandma,” said Bliss. “Charlie is a year and a half, and that really was the motivation for me to get this book done. The ultimate goal of publishing it was to just hold it in my hands — to hold a book in my hands of a story I told my daughter. That was it. I couldn’t care less if I sold one book or if my family bought a dozen. I just wanted to hold this book!”
Bliss has been pleased with the response she’s received from the book thus far, having sold around 400 copies since its April release. She noted that people from various ethnicities have been buying the book, as parents of any color can relate to the universal dilemma of trying to get a wound-up child to go to sleep at bedtime.
When asked about the importance of representation in children’s books for Black children, Bliss said that making her characters Black was simply second nature. “I’m Black and my characters are going to be Black. You draw from what you know,” she said. “The subject matter crosses genres — it’s a bedtime story about the Sandman. Black people have universal experiences, too.”
In addition to writing the story, Bliss did her own illustration, utilizing her innate creativity and some of the layout and design classes she’d taken over the years. “But the lion’s share of it is getting in there and figuring it out myself…getting the look that I wanted,” said Bliss.
Bliss cites Ezra Jack Keats as an early influence. Keats broke color barriers as a Polish illustrator who featured an African American lead in such classics as The Snowy Day, Peter’s Chair and Whistle for Willie. “I grew up with those books,” said Bliss. “He uses a technique called gouache… I can draw a little bit, but you know, that look of his is like collage. And I really wanted my book to look like that.”
It was after an illustrator bailed on her in September of 2016 that Bliss took matters into her own hands. She recalled, “I did find an illustrator who had the exact look that I wanted. I found her through an online marketplace where you go and hire different artists to do different things.
“She did a sketch of the mother and daughter characters — full color. It was so perfect. I was so excited. And then we were getting ready to make the arrangements to get started and I hadn’t heard from her in a couple weeks. So I emailed her and…she honestly told me that her life was too messy at this time and so couldn’t take the project on. I cried. I cried real tears!”
The false start with the illustrator proved to be the line in the sand, so-to-speak. From that point on, she was determined to do it all herself; the writing, illustration and self-publishing process took six months to complete. “I dug deep. I dug really deep because I wanted this project to cross the finish line,” said Bliss.
After dabbling here and there, she ultimately learned a valuable lesson of letting go and letting things evolve. “That was hard for me because I am a grant writer. I like detail. I like order and I like process. But with writing books, you have to trust that the story is going to take you where it needs to take you. I may not know how the ending is going to be.
“I had it in my head that this page [with a tree] is going to look like this…but then I sit and I’m watching cartoons with my grandbaby and I pause the TV because there’s this shot of this tree. And I loved the angle of the tree. It was so different than where my head was. So I let the creativity just happen. I let the world in to influence me and stopped trying to control everything.”
This is a revelation that she encouraged other writers or artists stuck in a creative rut to take hold of. “Focus on the thing that you really want to see come to fruition and trust that it’s gonna happen. I would tell people to let it go. Just trust the process and that it’s going to come together the way it’s supposed to come together.”
With the creative fuse lit, Bliss is looking ahead to more children’s books. She confided that Sandman is the first of a series, and she’s already hard at work on her next book entitled In Search of the Boogie Man, a story she describes as “scary fun.”
Ultimately, Bliss said she hopes her book offers readers cherished moments and memories of “bonding between Mom and child together snuggled up with a book,” like she experienced as a child, as a mother, and now a grandmother.
Timi Bliss will be signing books July 20 from 4-7 pm at Diamond Lake Community Business Alliance’s Ice Cream Social & Expo on 56th and Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis. Visit www.timibliss.com or Facebook/Timi Bliss for more information.
In Search of the Sandman can be found at Creative Kidstuff in Edina. You can also purchase a copy on Amazon.com.
Paige Elliott welcomes readers’ responses to email@example.com.
Paige Elliott is the digital editor at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.