Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Chatting with Diane O'Neill, author of Saturday Night at the Food Pantry

I'm excited to have Diane O'Neill author of this charming picture book with me today. This charming picture book has a big message. But I'll let Diane tell us more. So without further ado, I'll dive right into the interview.

What inspired you to write this book?

I grew up on food stamps, and I remember my surprise and hurt when I learned that my classmates looked down on "food stamp people," that their moms would look in our carts and complain if they saw anything as frivolous as a sweet roll. One classmate said, "I guess I just think they should be more humble." 

In December 2019, I read a letter to the editor that complained about people on SNAP buying energy drinks. All my adult life, I've been able to work and not need benefits, thank God, but I still felt that childhood pain. 

I wrote a letter to the editor in response, and it was published. I expanded it into an op-ed, which was also published. I shared my good news on the Illinois Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) listserv, and Andrea Hall, Albert Whitman and Co. editor, reached out: Did I have any ideas for picture books about food insecurity?

No, none at all--until I did. I remember my mother feeding us chili for weeks, I remembered us going to the Wonder Bakery thrift store, as old baked goods were filling and cheap. I remembered a visit to a food pantry, running to the dessert shelves and my mother's embarrassed "No!" She said "they" would want us to take sensible food. 

So I wrote SATURDAY AT THE FOOD PANTRY, whose main message is that everybody needs help sometimes, and that that's perfectly OK. And that everybody deserves a treat now and then, too.

What book stayed with you long after you finished reading it.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith, has been my favorite book since I was fourteen. It had a profound impact on me--it was the first book I'd read that featured an imperfect family with problems--the dad deals with alcoholism, and they are poor. I love the book's messages: Every "tree" is important and beautiful, no matter how poor. If you climb out of poverty, remember where you came from. The characters don’t feel like fictional creations to me, but like friends I’ve known all my life. 


Tell us something about you.

I grew up as an only child but met five half siblings in adulthood. I'm so happy that we're part of each other's lives and that I can be an aunt to nieces and nephews! I have a wonderful son who's a school social worker--he's my first reader for most of my stories, and I dedicated SATURDAY AT THE FOOD PANTRY to him. I love when he and his fiancé visit and we enjoy Harry Potter movies together!


Author: Diane O'Neill; Illustrator: Brizida Magro
Genre: Picture book

Blurb: Molly has never been to a food pantry before. It's different than a grocery store: Molly and her mom have to wait in line, check in, and there are signs posted everywhere. Then Molly sees her classmate Caitlin. But Caitlin isn't happy to see Molly--she doesn't want anyone to know she gets food from the pantry. Molly begins to wonder if there's something wrong with accepting help.


"Help me put food in the cart." Mom sighed.

Just like Caitlin, Mom looked like she wanted to be invisible.

But none of them were doing anything wrong!

"Everybody needs help sometimes," Molly whispered to her mom. "Remember?"

Mom smiled. "You're right."

About the author: Diane O'Neill is a Chicago writer who fell in love with books at age eight, and like Molly, she went to a food pantry as a child. She holds an MFA from National University, and her works have appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times, LADYBUG Magazine, the South Side Weekly, the Journal of Modern Poetry, Solstice Literary Magazine’s blog, The Chicago Tribune, and It All Changed in an Instant: More Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous & Obscure.

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