Like most parents, Kelly Paniagua and her partner, Australian actor Julian McMahon, discovered "bedtime" isn't exactly straightforward when young children are involved.
In the hour before bed each night, Julian's daughter Madison would experience a sudden – and rather inconveniently timed – burst of energy.
“As soon as we said it was bed time, it was almost like she was just starting her day,” recalls Kelly. "She would bounce around and in her excitement she would trip or fall, and it wouldn’t matter if we told her to be careful. She'd still end in some kind of stumble and then she’d be sad."
In these moments, Julian would take a moment to comfort her and coax her to sleep.
This simple father-daughter ritual inspired Kelly to sit down and write her first book, Bedtime for Sarah Sullivan. The first in a series of ten, the book explores the power of a child’s dreams and imagination, and the importance of their state of mind leading up to bedtime.
Julian and Maddy
“There have been a lot of studies lately which show the 30 minutes before you go to sleep, for adults and kids, can significantly impact your mind for the following day,” Kelly says. "So I had an idea that if you were to put happy thoughts into your child’s mind before they went to sleep, that it would carry over to the next day."
The story’s secondary message is slightly more personal. Having observed Julian’s patient, caring interactions with Madison, Kelly wanted to include a nurturing father figure in Sarah Sullivan’s world.
“I always read books where the mum is fantastic. But I wanted to share the message that there are good dads out there too. Even when you have a loving supportive family like Madi does, the presence of a loving father is so valuable, and I thought it would be beneficial for children to see that.”
It seems these messages have resonated with parents and children alike. Earlier this year Bedtime for Sarah Sullivan won awards in four categories in the National Royal Dragonfly Awards, which rewards excellence in literature – not bad for a first-time author.
Kelly, who was a kindergarten teacher before she embarked on a career in modelling, says writing for children was exercise in opening her mind and her imagination.
“When I write, I try to think as silly as possible. I really thought, ‘now, this is what I expect to think – what would I not expect to think?’ Kids haven’t closed those doors off yet in their mind, everything’s possible. If you give children the landscape they can paint the pictures.”
To enhance the imaginative side of the book, a Sarah Sullivan activities app has also been developed, which will allow children to read the book and then draw where they want to go in their dreams. Upcoming instalments in the Sarah Sullivan series will explore other everyday childhood experiences – from dinner time to a visit from the tooth fairy.
Maddy signing books on behalf of Sarah Sullivan
Kelly says Madison, who is now "12 going on 25", remains a source of inspiration for the character of Sarah Sullivan and her literary adventures.
"She’s just an amazing little girl. I love the modern day girl – I love that you can be girlish but you can also play sports and you can be smart and you can be fashionable or you can be funky – it’s not so much in the stereotypes as it used to be," she explains.
"[Sarah Sullivan]'s got this cape and has a superhero element but she’s also really silly and funny and a little mix of everything. But more than anything, she’s always herself."
For Kelly, the greatest satisfaction of writing and publishing the series has been seeing other children connect with her book's characters and message.
"When I do a reading at a school or a library or a book store, even if one child comes up to me – one little girl came up and told me “I love this with my whole heart” – that’s why I’m doing this. It’s to reach just one little kid in that way and let them imagine and explore – that’s really of service to me," Kelly says.