FOREST, Va. (AP) — Forest children’s book author and songwriter Sara Ernst has worked with children nearly her entire life in some way, shape or form since she was a child herself, beginning with babysitting when she was 9 or 10 years old and volunteering in the church nursery.
“Any way I could, I always worked with kids in some way, and then I as soon as I got out of college, I started my photography business, but kids have always been my passion,” she said. “So it has started out as a genuine love of working with kids.”
To Ernst, you either love working with children or you don’t, and it’s always come easily to her.
“It’s very black and white. You know that you do not enjoy it and have zero patience for it, it’s incredibly frustrating — or you’re a big kid yourself, you don’t mind goofing off, you enjoy that interaction with them,” she said. “And I think that’s just the foundation of it. I genuinely enjoy working with children. I love interacting with them. And I think that we share a mutual love of play and laughter and also learning.”
That has always been a part of who Ernst is, both as a child and now as a 42-year-old living in Forest.
“I love laughing, I love being a ham and a goofball with them. I love being playful with them and I love learning everything in nature,” she said.
As a child, art was her outlet and she would write short stories and add illustrations to go with it.
In 2017, she wrote a short poem/story called “Dragons Really Do Love Tea,” and it was just a little rhyme on her phone for a while.
She had always wanted to publish her own book when she was younger and didn’t want to look back and wonder why she never went through with it.
Initially she didn’t intend to even sell the book — she just wanted to write and illustrate it and put it all together for herself.
“I just want to have the option and if I ended up with a box of books in the attic that no one’s ever read then so be it,” she said. “But I know that I’ve kind of crossed this off my little dream bucket list from my childhood and that is how it started.”
Her books are sold on her website, Amazon and in Givens Books on Lakeside Drive.
From the book, her company Wild Pickle Press was born, which now includes three other books: “Tomboy,” “The Small Grey Goat” and most recently, “Shout No!” which she published in January 2021.
Her career took an unexpected turn while leading a small grassroots nature group with 3- to 7-year-olds in 2018.
Ernst said she is fascinated by bugs and snakes and has never been bothered by them, so she wanted to teach the children about venomous snakes through a song after she bought her first ukulele.
“I just picked one up because I really just wanted to learn it. That’s it. And even though I really wasn’t very good at it at all at the time, I couldn’t figure out how someone could possibly sing and strum at the same time and it felt impossible,” she said. “I thought this was such a fun little instrument and I couldn’t hardly put it down.”
She wanted to create a song to help them identify snakes and what to do if they saw a bear.
From those songs came another song, and another, and another — until she had enough to make an album with 20 songs, which she titled “Imagine, Feel, Wander.”
She now has four albums which can be found on major audio platforms and are played around the world.
“It all happened organically and unexpectedly but wonderfully in the same way,” Ernst said. “It’s been a very beautiful and unexpected journey.”
When she looks back at the last few years, she says it’s been surreal. One of her songs has been in the running for a nomination through the Independent Music Awards, she was invited to and played at the FloydFest music festival last year and most recently won a national songwriting contest with California Strawberries.
“Music is a powerful tool. If it’s catchy, they’ll learn from it,” she said. “I’ve enjoyed teaching through it and also trying to empower emotions and use my songs to talk about feelings, use my songs to build confidence to encourage a love of nature and inspire imagination.”
It was that thought that inspired her most recent book and song, “Shout No!” — a book teaching kids how to respond to a tricky or potentially scary situation with strangers or even friends and family members.
She had to be careful when she wrote it. She didn’t want to frighten children, but she wanted something they could memorize and not just better understand tricky situations but also how children could react if they recognize such situations.
The song is simple but for Ernst, if just one child is saved from a potentially dangerous situation, it’s worth it.
In an effort to make sure every child had access to it, the song is free to download on her website.
“I’m not the best singer in the world and I’m not the best ukulele player. I’ve never claimed to be those things, but I have an opportunity to make a positive and possibly valuable impact on a child or a family in some way, and not just in America but in different parts of the world,” she said. “And that’s a very rewarding opportunity to be given and I really just try not to take it for granted.”
Ernst hopes that whatever she shares in the community will bring value, smiles and education of some degree.
“I hope people see what I do as just positive and real and hopefully helpful and also fun,” she said.
Ernst reads her books and plays songs at area libraries including at the Campbell County Library System, where she has worked frequently with Events and Experiences Manager Katie Lane.
Lane met Ernst after she hosted a Dragons and Tea party for the children at one of the Campbell County libraries in 2017.
“The fact that she did everything on her own is very powerful for kids,” Lane said. “And knowing one of your neighbors in the community was able to get a book published and sell a book and share their amazing art — I want to share those stories of people that live here.”
Ernst donates some of her books to the library so children can read them right off the shelves, Lane said, which is helpful for families of lower income levels.
“I just think it’s very noble of her that she makes sure that no matter the situation, kids have access to her books, whether they pay for them or not,” she said. “And then her music, they’re just so much fun to play and sing along to.”
Lane described Ernst as an “extremely lovely human” who cares about nature and people.
“And whether that’s through the books or her photography, she wants to savor every moment, whether that’s protecting the earth or cherishing those family moments. She just a quality person in every way,” she said.