20 Questions is a Q&A interview series with musicians, authors, and everyone in between, celebrating experiences both shared and individual in the messy game of being human.
“Through my research I am learning that comparison can be great, provided we’re comparing ourselves to people whose abilities are within reach and inspire us to be better versions of ourselves.” Sasha Graham is the founder of Tiny Ninja Books and the author of the children’s books Milo Does Not Like Mornings and Whitney Wins Everything. A former executive at Walt Disney Studios, her writing has appeared in magazines, newspapers, and on television. She grew up on a farm in Oregon with her three siblings, a horse named Jim, and a barn cat named Peanut Butter. She attended the University of San Francisco and following graduation, she worked in San Francisco as a television writer/producer and as a publicist. She lives in Arizona with her husband Alan and their three kids, where they always encourage each other to listen to their Tiny Ninjas.
I got to know Sasha for this week’s edition of 20 Questions, where she told me all about her new book Whitney Wins Everything as well as the universal importance of storytelling, why screenwriters have inspired her the most, what she’s been reading lately, and more.
Where is your favorite place in the world to be?
My office. You know when you were a kid and you made a fort out of a cubby that was just big enough for you, a pile of pillows, and a little lamp to read by? That’s how my office feels to me now. Cozy, quiet, and comfortable. My kids, husband, cats and dog all come and visit me from time to time and it’s right next to the kitchen so it’s convenient when I need a snack.
Favorite book of all-time?
Is there any crueler question for an avid reader?! Just go ahead and ask me which of my children is my favorite next! Books that had a massive impact at different times in my life though? Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic both by Shel Silverstein, The Chosen by Chaim Potok, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran, American Gods by Neil Gaiman, all of the Gerald and Piggy books by Mo Willems, and recently I really loved Anxious People by Fredrik Backman.
What is your earliest memory of wanting to be a writer? Did you always want to write children’s books?
I don’t have any memories of wanting to be a writer but I have tons and tons of memories of being a writer. When I was really young my parents gave away our television and I became the type of kid who would read anything I could get my hands on and writing wasn’t far behind. By the time my parents finally relented and bought a TV during my junior year of high school, I was so busy with sports and school that the only thing I ever remember watching on it were NBA games and Saturday Night Live. The great irony was that after growing up without a TV I went on to study broadcast communications and became a television segment writer and producer and then a publicist at a major movie studio.
Are you an introvert or an extrovert?
An introvert. I love people! …in small numbers, a little at a time, with big gaps in between!
Biggest pet peeve?
When people write ‘your’ when they mean ‘you’re’ or vice versa. My husband and I went to a Moth Radio Hour show in Portland once and a former flight attendant said that she amused herself when collecting empty cups and bags of peanuts from obnoxious travelers by swapping out her usual, “Your trash, sir?” with “You’re trash, sir.” Now, when someone uses ‘your’ when they mean ‘you’re,’ it takes a little bit of the sting out of it for me when I remember this story.
I love the magic of the winter holiday season, but I also really love to celebrate milestones. I recently hired Card My Yard to decorate a neighbor’s yard with an enormous birthday sign for his 86th birthday and his reaction was priceless. He and his wife sat outside in the sunshine near the sign all afternoon and dozens of neighbors stopped by to wish him a happy birthday. It was pretty great.
The last series you binge-watched?
My 10-year-old daughter, Odessa, and I recently binged Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness. She loves to discuss as we go so there was lots of pausing the show to talk about what we were learning. When I met my husband I was so impressed by his security in what he knew and didn’t know and how comfortable he was asking questions. It’s something I’ve been getting better at and something we’ve tried to encourage in our kids, so a show like Getting Curious is a gold mine!
How would you characterize your new book Whitney Wins Everything?
I would characterize Whitney Wins Everything as awesome. I know we’re supposed to be more humble about our own work, but I really love this book. Angelina Valieva, who did the illustrations, is just a marvel and her work on this book has so much emotion and depth that she brought my characters to life in a way I never would have imagined possible.
Most expensive thing you’ve ever shamelessly splurged on?
A couple of years ago I asked my kids what they might like for Christmas and as they were brainstorming I asked what their favorite gifts had been the year before. Crickets. They couldn’t remember anything they had gotten the year before. Not a single gift. After that I made a conscious decision to spend money on experiences, not stuff. So, with that in mind, last summer we splurged on a weeklong beach house rental right on the sand in California. It was magnificent and worth every penny.
The last book you finished?
I almost always have at least two books going at once, one hardcopy and one audiobook. The two I just finished are The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett and The Last Thing He Told Me by Laura Dave. Coincidentally, they have similar themes of mothers and daughters, identity and hiding in plain sight.
Which authors would you say have influenced you the most?
I love to read but the writers who have actually influenced me the most when it comes to my own writing are screenwriters, not authors. During my time with Walt Disney Studios I worked closely with the filmmakers of Finding Nemo, Monsters, Inc., The Incredibles, and Spirited Away. Having a seat in the room when creative giants like Andrew Stanton, Lee Unkrich, Pete Docter, and Hayao Miyazaki talked about story and process was massively inspiring.
How would you describe the importance of storytelling, especially in an age of isolation?
Obviously, stories and storytelling are always incredibly valuable but over these past couple of years when we’ve needed entertainment and connection in ways we never have before, their importance skyrocketed. I particularly loved the social bonds that formed over wonderful shows like Schitt’s Creek and Ted Lasso where the writing was so original and the characters so distinct and lovable.
Best book you’ve read in the last year?
Playing the Cards You’re Dealt by Varian Johnson.
One movie that will always make you cry?
Remember the Titans, I can’t even make it through the trailer without tearing up! I worked for Disney during the heyday of the spectacle premiere and we held the premiere for Remember the Titans at the 90,000 seat Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena. We bussed in thousands of high school students to watch the movie from the stands on four enormous screens on the football field, the Blue Angels did a flyover, and I walked Ryan Gosling down his very first red carpet!
Favorite quote of all-time?
Wayne Gretzky: “You miss every shot you don’t take.”
Favorite song to get your blood moving?
“Eye of the Tiger.” I grew up in a small Oregon town and for a few years there the girl’s basketball team was the center of the universe. We sold out every home game and when we would run into the gym with that song blasting over the speakers, the crowd would lose its mind cheering.
You’re stuck on a long flight. Which world-famous celebrity would you want sitting next to you and why?
Tom Hanks. He’s funny, interesting, approachable, and I feel like if I got chilly he would offer me his cardigan.
As a writer and artist, what would you say is the best way to rest or decompress?
My husband and I have played on a sand volleyball team for years called The Marmots (in fact, Whitney Wins Everything is dedicated to our team). We play every Tuesday night and it is the perfect blend of exercise, friendship, and competition.
One thing that’s been keeping you sane throughout the COVID-19 pandemic?
The stress of the pandemic really affected my ability to focus. Audiobooks and podcasts have been an absolute lifesaver. I put in my AirPods, leash up my dog, and just walk for miles and miles while listening to great stuff.
What can we expect to see next from you?
I have another Tiny Ninja Book in the works with the tentative title of Cam & Clara Can’t Compare. It’s been a really fun project because I started with the idea that “comparison is the thief of joy,” but through my research I am learning that comparison can be great, provided we’re comparing ourselves to people whose abilities are within reach and inspire us to be better versions of ourselves.