Actor and singer, and the first actor using a wheelchair to win a Tony Award, Ali Stroker presents her second work for young readers, Ali and the Sea Stars, a picture book illustrated by Gillian Reid, with a message of chasing dreams. It follows the release of her debut novel The Chance to Fly, a middle grade contemporary story co-written with Stacy Davidowitz. Stroker spoke with PW about the impetus behind her new project and how writing the two books differed.
What inspired you to start writing for children?
I think I was drawn to writing and creating books because, when I was a little kid growing up in a wheelchair, I didn’t have much representation, especially in books or on TV. There was a real drive for me to create that for this next generation of young kids with disabilities. As a kid, you’re not really sure where you’re going to fit in the world. I think that books and stories have such an impact on young people. So this felt like something that I was really drawn to, that I wanted to create.
How did you find the creative process for writing different from your other pursuits?
I think what’s really fun about writing and collaborating on a children’s book is that your creativity as a child comes out. It’s sort of like working as a kid again. What I love about children’s books is that there are so many possibilities, and kids have such brilliant and vivid imaginations. You can create any story! Working in theater and on TV is, of course, one of my favorite things in the world, but there are, in some ways, different kinds of boundaries and limitations due to the form. With books, you can create any sort of reality. Your audience is just so willing to say yes.
What was the collaborative process like with Gillian?
First, after reading the text, Gillian starts off with sketches, I give notes and she adds more. Like, “I was sort of imagining Ali with this kind of hair” or “maybe we could make this adjustment to Ali’s wheelchair,” and then she’ll send them back, slowly adding color and more detail, then background color. Next, where’s the text going to go? It’s just step by step by step. I really, really loved the way that these characters in the illustrations became so real and so alive.
What are some of your influences both as an author and an actor?
Growing up, I was introduced to musical theater when I was seven by my next-door neighbors on the Jersey shore. That’s actually one of the major influences of the book, Ali and the Sea Stars—the setting and the theme are tied together. Then I began to see Broadway shows as a little kid and through my teenage years, and I knew I wanted to study musical theater and pursue it professionally. I loved Annie; that was my first show. That brought me the most joy and made me feel like I could really become my most powerful self. Of course, I looked up to Kristin Chenoweth, Sutton Foster, and Idina Menzel. I thought, and think still to this day, they are such brilliant performers and artists. As far as books go, when this project came my way, I was so excited because I never really felt like I was a good reader. To create something for young kids, to create representation, felt so clear and important to me.
Did you find any of the lessons from your youth in theater coming with you into adulthood?
Of course! Everything from collaborating with people, problem solving, using creativity, and what it meant to work really hard leading up to a deadline or the opening of a show, how exciting it was to get towards the end and be in dress rehearsal or be in tech and things are sort of not still together, but then when opening night happens, everything’s just pulled together, and it works out. There are the highs and even the lows, sometimes, of working on a show or not getting cast or things not going the way you thought they would. All of those lessons have been so essential in my growth as a person, as an artist, everything.
What would you like for your readers and your fans to take away from your writing?
I want young people, or anyone who reads my books, to know that creativity does not have to be something that someone else gives you. You can put on a show. You can create a Broadway revue. You can create a one-act show all on your own. I think it’s so fun to know as a child, or when you’re growing up, there are no limits, and there’s no wrong answer when it comes to creativity. That was something I found so much joy in. It’s like creating theater with my friends, or maybe it’s comedy, or a puppet show. That creativity should be nurtured and celebrated. Maybe you’re not an artist yourself, but you love to go see theater. I want people to take away that we can celebrate our creativity no matter where it happens and that we find so much freedom in it as well. I know as a kid growing up in a wheelchair, I felt stuck in certain parts of my life and frustrated or limited. But when I was working on a show and when I was on stage, I felt like I could do anything. That feeling was so important for me; it was my outlet and my way to express myself.
What’s next for you?
I’m going to be working on Shakespeare in the Park this summer. We’re doing Richard III and I’m playing Lady Anne, which I’m really excited about.
Ali and the Sea Stars by Ali Stroker, illus. by Gillian Reid. HarperCollins, $18.99 May 17 ISBN 978-0-063-01571-5