Guest Post: Sara Greenwood on Writing from Real Life & My Brother Is Away

By Sara Greenwood

I’ve written a few of books over the years, but My Brother Is Away [illustrated by Luisa Uribe (Random House Studio, 2022)] is my first attempt to write from my own life story. When I was in first grade, my brother was arrested. He was released from prison when I was in eighth.

It was a lonely time for me, filled with many confusing emotions. While My Brother Is Away isn’t an exact representation of those early days after my brother’s arrest, it certainly reflects them.

Years of writing have taught me the specific is universal. That was how I found my way while drafting this personal story.

He used to carry me on his shoulders, the thump of his footsteps firm on the the road as moonlight brightened our path. The sky stretched above, a field where stars bloomed. “Silly Goose,” he’d say, when I tried to reach them, but he always held me steady.

In writing Brother, it became important for me to mine specific memories from my childhood, both before and after my brother was arrested. These memories grew to be the experiences of the little girl in my story. My Brother Is Away holds moments like my own nighttime shoulder ride and like the time a classmate announced, “I saw your brother on the news. He did something bad.”

Not all children with incarcerated loved ones will have the same experiences I did, but I hope the encounters I’ve included will feel familiar in some way. Grounding those moments in particular details like the moonlight and the thump of footsteps and the steady hand of an older brother make them personal and emotionally relatable.

Interior spread from My Brother is Away, by Sara Greenwood, illustrated by Luisa Uribe, used with permission.

It’s the specifics that make these moments real for future readers.

Another important consideration was knowing my primary audience. Not every book is for every reader, and that’s perfectly okay!

I hope Brother helps kids who’ve been spared the hardship of incarceration to better see the struggles their peers might be facing. I hope the adults who work with kids will see the book as a reminder that grownups don’t always know the whole story.

But my primary audience is the child like I was, the ones whose lives have been turned upside down, who carry shame and embarrassment, anger and sadness, loneliness and confusion, and mostly bear it all privately.

Like focusing on the specific, writing to a particular audience might feel like a narrow approach. But this, I found, this is what gives a piece of writing power and the kind of purpose that will best serve its key reader (and anyone else who comes to the book).

My Brother Is Away is also available in a Spanish edition, translated by Maria Correa.

One challenge in writing from personal experience is shaping events into a story. What should I keep? What should I omit? What do I need to change? How can I structurally create a story out of life’s disorder?

In Brother, I used memories of the times before the young girl’s brother was arrested and contrasted them with things that took place afterward. We as readers see, hear, and feel her various emotions, which build to the moment she and her brother are reunited (and this revelation): Everything is different. Everything is the same. My brother’s not home, but his love hasn’t changed.

Interior illustration from My Brother is Away, by Sara Greenwood, illustrated by Luisa Uribe, used with permission.

I looked for patterns, opportunities to compare and contrast, and places where I could build tension to help shape my life experiences into a narrative arc.

Above all else, the most important thing I needed to do was tell the emotional truth.

Why had I chosen to write this particular story? What is it I was trying to say? The two things I kept central while writing this book, that I wish I’d known as a child were this: You are not alone. What you’re feeling right now, it’s normal and okay.

That’s the heart of my story, the heart that I hope beats true throughout. My book is an offering to the children grappling with a burden they were never meant to carry. I pray it’s a comfort and friend.

Cynsations Notes

Sara Greenwood hopes her stories help children feel seen and heard. She wants them to know their emotions count and their experiences matter. Sara is a former teacher who lives with her family in New Mexico. My Brother is Away has received three starred reviews. The book was included on NPR’s Best Books of the Year list and is a NCTE Charlotte Huck Honor Award.