Jarod Liebenberg and The Train to Sleepy Hollow

November 22, 2022
Jarod Liebenberg

Did you ever think that an assignment you completed for a third-year class could be on an Amazon bestseller list years later? When Jarod Liebenberg wrote a children’s story for Dr. Nicky Didicher’s ENGL 387 Studies in Children’s Literature course, that thought didn’t cross his mind either, but that’s exactly what happened.

After taking various English classes at SFU, Liebenberg took a chance and signed up for a children’s literature course.

“I hadn’t read anything like it before,” he says. “I thought it would be a really cool opportunity to access these texts and access a part of my life that I’d forgotten.”

Some of the stories that Liebenberg enjoyed the most came from German folklore because they highlighted just how dark a child’s reality can be. However, at the same time, the stories emphasized that a child could break through the darkness if given the proper tools to do so.

Inspired by these stories and his own personal experiences, Liebenberg knew what approach he wanted to take to the ENGL 387 assignment.

“The creative project was to create a work of children’s fiction and write an essay,” he says. “I settled on a dark fantasy, kind of a horror, because I had never tried creative writing at that level before.”

After the course ended, Liebenberg refined the story further, eventually creating a storybook with five short stories and his own illustrations called, The Train to Sleepy Hollow.

Illustration from "The Train to Sleepy Hollow" by Jarod Liebenberg

Liebenberg’s stories focus on how trauma is communicated through dreams. Each story deals with a different kind of trauma in a different setting.

“The first one is [about] bullying and suicide,” he says. “The next one [deals with] abuse, abandonment, and death. Each story is very personal to me, so I wanted to portray some of these struggles, not as direct threats to the reader, but more as what I might have perceived them as when I was younger.”

As a child, Liebenberg had difficulty processing experiences like these, as he mainly encountered the very upbeat media message, “everything’s going to be okay”. Rather than reinforcing such a message in his book, he wrote the kind of stories he would have liked to have read as a child—narratives that describe how to overcome hardships.

Liebenberg says that the stories are appropriate for children aged 8 and up. Before self-publishing The Train to Sleepy Hollow, he showed his stories to his young cousins and they enjoyed them, even though they had not experienced all the struggles described in every tale. The stories have also received a positive reaction online.

“I published independently, and I got number 1 on the bestseller list for children’s horror for two weeks, which was really special for me, even though I don’t know how Amazon’s algorithm works,” says Liebenberg.

In approximately two months, he plans to publish what he calls the “spiritual successor” to The Train to Sleepy Hollow. This yet-to-be-titled book is intended for children aged 11 and up.

“Instead of dealing with external factors like forces that would act upon you—that would cause you trauma—it’s more about the struggles you would face internally,” he says. “And I wanted to try and show more adult themes while still being accessible to younger readers.”

Liebenberg would love to write full-time, but he also would like to pursue a career in law. Since graduating from SFU, he has worked as a copywriter and editor. He advises aspiring writers to put the ideas they are most passionate about where others can see them.

“If you have a good idea, you should try and produce it because there’s always going to be someone that that idea touches,” he says. “And as long as people can see that they’re not alone with whatever feeling they’re having, that’s always a very important thing.”