FOREST, Va. — Local children’s book author and songwriter Sarah Ernst has worked with children most of her life in one form or another, starting as a babysitter when she was 9 or 10 and volunteering at a church nursery.
“As much as I could, I was always working with kids in one way or another, and then once I got out of college I got into photography, but kids were always my passion,” she said. “So it started as a real love of working with kids.”
For Ernst, you either like working with children or you don’t, and that always came easily to her.
“It’s very black and white. You know you don’t like it and you can’t wait for it, it’s incredibly frustrating — or you’re a big kid yourself, you don’t mind playing, you like the interaction with them,” she said. “And I think that’s just the foundation of it. I really like working with children. I enjoy interacting with them. And I think we share a mutual love of playing and laughing and learning.”
It’s always been a part of who Ernst is, both as a child and now, at 42, living in Forrest
“I like to laugh, I like to be rude and silly with them. I like to play with them and I like to learn everything in nature,” she said.
As a child, art was her outlet, and she wrote stories and added illustrations to them.
In 2017 she wrote a short poem/story called “Dragons Really Love Tea” and it was just a rhyme on her phone for a while.
She always wanted to publish her own book when she was young and didn’t want to look back and wonder why she never went through with it.
Initially, she was not even going to sell the book – she just wanted to write it, illustrate it and collect everything for herself.
“I just want to be able to, and if I end up with a box of books in the attic that no one has ever read, so be it,” she said. “But I know I kind of crossed it off the list of my little childhood dreams and that’s how it all started.”
Her books are sold on her website, Amazon and at Givens Books on Lakeside Drive.
From that book was born her company, Wild Pickle Press, which now includes three more books: Tomboy, The Small Gray Goat, and the most recent Shout No! which she published in January 2021.
Her career took an unexpected turn in 2018, when she led a small grassroots conservation group with children between the ages of 3 and 7.
Ernst said she was fascinated by bugs and snakes and had never bothered them, so she wanted to teach children about poisonous snakes through song after she bought her first guitar.
“I just took one because I just wanted to study it. That’s all. And although I really wasn’t very good at it at the time, I couldn’t understand how someone could sing and strum at the same time, and it seemed impossible,” she said. “I thought it was such a fun little tool and I couldn’t pass it up.”
She wanted to create a song that would help them recognize snakes and what to do if they see a bear.
From those songs came another, and another, and another, until she had enough to make a 20-song album, which she called “Imagine, Feel, Wander.”
She currently has four albums that can be found on major audio platforms and played around the world.
“Everything happened organically and unexpectedly, but wonderfully in the same way,” Ernst said. “It was a very beautiful and unexpected journey.”
When she looks back on the past few years, she says it’s been surreal. One of her songs is up for nomination at the Independent Music Awards, she was invited and performed at last year’s FloydFest music festival, and most recently won a national songwriting competition with the California Strawberries.
“Music is a powerful tool. If it’s catchy, they learn from it,” she said. “I loved teaching through it and trying to expand the emotions and use my songs to talk about feelings, use my songs to build confidence, to encourage a love of nature and to inspire imagination.”
It was this thought that inspired her latest book and song, Shout No! is a book that teaches children how to respond to difficult or potentially frightening situations with strangers or even friends and family members.
She should have been careful when she wrote that. She didn’t want to scare the children, but she wanted something they could remember and not only better understand difficult situations, but also how children could react if they recognized such situations.
The song is simple, but to Ernst, if even 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 available for free download on her website.
“I’m not the best singer in the world and I’m not the best guitar player. I’ve never claimed myself, but I have the opportunity to somehow make a positive and perhaps valuable impact on a child or a family, and not just in America, but in different parts of the world,” she said. “And it’s a very rewarding opportunity, and I really try not to take it for granted.”
Ernst hopes that whatever she shares in the community will bring value, smiles and education to some degree.
“I hope people take what I’m doing as positive and authentic and hopefully useful as well as fun,” she said.
Ernst reads her books and performs songs at area libraries, including the Campbell County Library System, where she often worked with events and experiences manager Kathy Lane.
Lane met Ernst after she hosted a Dragons and Tea party for children at a Campbell County library in 2017.
“The fact that she did everything on her own is very powerful for the kids,” Lane said. “And knowing that one of your neighbors in the community was able to publish a book, sell a book and share his amazing art — I want to share the stories of the people who live here.”
Ernst donates some of his books to the library so kids can read them right off the shelves, Lane said, which benefits low-income families.
“I just think it’s very noble of her to make sure that, in any situation, children have access to her books, whether they pay for them or not,” she said. “And then her music, she’s so much fun to play with and sing along to.”
Lane described Ernst as an “extremely sweet person” who cares about nature and people.
“And whether it’s through books or her photos, she wants to enjoy every moment, whether it’s protecting the earth or preserving family moments. She is just a quality person in every way,” she said.
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