Sandy Brehl always enjoyed writing little name poems for the children in her classes and encouraging them to craft their own stories. Brehl, a School of Education alumna with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in special education, taught for 40 years – 20 in Milwaukee Public Schools and 20 in the Whitnall School District.
Those experiences planted a seed for her writing that finally developed after she retired.
“I’ve always been a reader, always been a storyteller, but I never viewed myself as a writer in large part because when I went through school creative writing was not a thing. It was all about the mechanics, the structure and the diagramming of sentences.”
That changed in her years of teaching. “When I started teaching children the craft and the excitement of writing, I discovered I was a writer,” says Brehl, who now lives in Muskego.
“Mari’s Hope,” the final book in her series about a young girl growing up in Norway during the Nazi occupation, was just published.
Brehl’s inspiration for the books came from a trip to Norway with a friend who was Norwegian and wanted to re-establish contact with her father’s family. Brehl, whose own family was German American on her father’s side, had read and taught about World War II, but wasn’t aware that Norway had been occupied during the war.
As she listened to family stories, she says, “I sat there with my writer’s brain and storyteller’s heart, hearing every one of my friend’s relatives – this was decades after the war – and they still kept circling back to the five-year occupation of Norway. I came home knowing I had to write those stories.”
It took her a couple decades and a few false starts before she found the focus for how she wanted to tell the story. She thought of doing picture books with traditional costumes and mountain scenes, or doing an adult book. But her own experiences teaching young people led her to the idea of writing for a middle school audience.
Then, through her research, she found a collection of primary sources that had been gathered by a scholar that included journal entries from Norwegian teens during the occupation. “They were extremely dangerous to keep, but they kept them anyway because they felt their stories needed to be told.”
At that point, says Brehl, everything seemed to fall into place. “The young character who travels through all of these books stepped into my mind and said: ‘If you get out of my way, I can help you do this.’”
That first book – “Odin’s Promise” — was all she planned. When she got it published, she says, “I had accomplished what I wanted to.” The book, published in 2014, won the Midwest Book Award for Children’s fiction that year.
But her readers had other ideas. “Odin’s Promise” only covers the first year of the occupation and “readers told me they knew there was a sequel coming,” she says. So “Bjorn’s Gift” and now “Mari’s Hope” followed, tracing the wartime life of a young girl and her family and friends who found the courage to resist.
Both her teaching career and her years at UWM laid a foundation for her writing, she says. Her degree was in special education, but she taught in both regular and special education classrooms and worked with children from first through sixth grade.
“I can see that any child at any given age is on a continuum moving through their life. I like meeting them where they are.”
At UWM, she had numerous opportunities to research and write, even though the focus was not on fiction. “I had the freedom to try courses that helped and independent study work that required a great deal of writing. That helped me hone in on what I was trying to say and learn how to say it effectively.”
She also recalls the notes she received from professors at UWM that encouraged her and became a gift she shared with her students.
“ I can’t stress enough for any teacher or parent or anyone who plays a significant role in anyone else’s life, if you can give honest encouragement to someone about the strengths you see in what they’ve done, it will stay with them and be the encouragement they need when they’re having a difficult time.”
Brehl, who is an active member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators, has a number of works in progress and characters demanding their stories be told. Several picture books have been submitted through her agent, and she is working on a book that focuses on a Norwegian Jewish family who escapes deportation. And, then there’s the fifth grade boy in contemporary America who is demanding her attention for his book. “I’ve been working with him on his problems in fifth grade and he’s been annoyed that I’m not getting back to him.”
While there are no guarantees that any of them will be published, she is hopeful, says Brehl.
“The ‘Odin’s Trilogy’ books are the first books I’ve had published and hopefully not the last.”
Readers can reach Sandy Brehl through her website at SandyBrehl.com