Interview with Ann Jacobus



If author Ann Jacobus wasn’t such a nice person, it would be really easy to dislike her. Talented and beautiful, Ann is not only an award-winning writer, she is also at the helm of one of the most popular and successful children’s book blogs, Readerkidz. Recently I caught up with Ann and we got to chat about her influences and inspiration.

Where did you grow-up and where do you live now?

I was born in Midland, Texas and spent my formative childhood years in Little Rock, Arkansas. My mother’s family all lived in Texas, so it has been a constant throughout my peripatetic life. I live now in San Francisco with my family but spent many years overseas. A friend has a theory that a significant percentage of writers moved around a lot as kids or young adults. It makes you flexible and observational. You have to relearn how people think and operate in each new place to fit in. That’s excellent practice for a writer.

What is a normal “writing” workday like for you?

I’ll speak to ideal. As soon as I get family members off to school or work, I’m at my desk as early as 7:30 am, i.e. a comfy chair and a big old-fashioned atlas, on top of which rests my laptop. My best working hours are in the morning for producing awful first drafts of—or revising—manuscripts, blog posts, essays, proposals, etc. By early afternoon I read books, or the manuscripts I review for a fiction journal, my writing group, publishers or contests. I’ll do email and social media until grocery shopping and soccer games call.

You’ve written for all types of audiences. How does your writing process differ as your audience changes?

It’s true that in writing a middle grade novel aimed at eight- and nine-year-old boys, I can use more potty humor than in writing an adult essay. And fiction aimed at fifteen-year-olds again requires a different mindset and voice. I think it comes down to the same shift you use between talking to an eight-year-old (successfully), or a sixteen-year-old or a forty-five-year-old. So I’m aware of my audience as I compose. Right now I’m picturing you and a bunch of your readers.

Who are your favorite writers and why?

It’s hard to pick, but In Children’s literature I greatly admire: 

Dav Pilkey-his Captain Underpants series is responsible for turning all three of my sons into readers. He’s subversive and so hysterical (if you are a seven year-old boy) they thought they were getting away with something highly illicit by opening his books. I pretended I was outraged, and that really got them hooked.

Richard Peck (A Year Down Yonder, Secrets at Sea): He’s a prolific, classic children’s author whose books never disappoint and always contain something essential and amusing about the world between their covers.

Rita Williams Garcia (Jumped, One Crazy Summer, P.S. Be Eleven) always gets to the heart of things and usually with humor. Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan and Holly Goldberg Sloan’s Counting by 7s are two recent excellent additions to the middle grade canon.

Nancy Farmer, (The House of Scorpions, The Sea of Trolls) are two personal favorites, because of the brilliant storytelling, and in the latter, the humor. Olaf OneBrow makes me laugh whenever I think of him.

YA authors Laurie Halse Anderson (Speak, Chains, Winter Girls) and Walter Dean Meyers (Monster, Lockdown) are masters. They keep it real in the way YA readers demand, and do it so well.  Martine Leavitt’s books (Keturah and Lord Death, My Book of Life by Angel) are intense, beautiful, and brilliantly written.  

Some adult writers: I love Thorton Wilder’s ability to probe the ineffable universal through the particular and personal (The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Our Town). Ursula LeGuin writes so beautifully in her compelling fantasy stories. Never a word wasted. Annie Dillard does the same with nonfiction. I’m a Larry McMurtry and Cormac McCarthy fan. J.R.R.Tolkien, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jane Austen—

I’ll stop but I could go on and on.

Where did you get the idea/inspiration for your blog www.readerkidz.com?

Readerkidz was started by a group of us who graduated together from the Vermont College of Fine Arts Writing for Children and Young Adult graduate program. My co-bloggers have decades of experience with education and psychology for younger children (kindergarten through fifth grade) and they determined a need for more online reading and book recommendation information for this group. They kindly asked me to join them.

Who is the intended audience?

The blog is aimed at parents, teachers and librarians of K-5 kids, and provides book reviews and recommendations, as well as teacher’s guides, author interviews, and other ideas for promoting a love of reading in the classroom and at home.

What has been your favorite thing about the blog so far?

I love working with my co-bloggers. I get to read more delightful children’s literature than I might otherwise be doing, since my own kids can mostly drive, and/or drink. I’m introduced to outstanding authors and illustrators and can ask them personal questions. I edit the “Librarian’s Corner” and get to see dedicated children’s librarians in action. 


You can learn more about Ann Jacobus and her work at www.annjacobus.com or follow her blog at www.readerkidz.com.





Interview with Janine Burgan



Janine Burgan is a teacher and author that finds words delicious and the act of creating a story better than a meal in a Michelin starred restaurant. Recently Janine had a moment to answer some questions about creating art, both from a teacher’s and author’s perspective.


Where did you grow-up and where do you live now?


I grew up in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. After making my home in Indiana, the Pennsylvania Poconos, and Okinawa, Japan, I am right back where I started and am loving it.


How has where you live and have lived influenced your writing?


I write fiction, but I draw quite a bit of inspiration from the places I have lived or visited. I often find myself memorializing these places through setting. More importantly, though, they affect the ethos of my writing. Many of the themes found in my writing are inspired by my own experiences in these places. A love for adventure; the importance of family; grief and loss–these are an example of ideas have turned up in my writing. In this way, my writing is very connected to my experiences and the places I have called home. I may write fiction, but in an emotional sense, my stories are my memoir.


What is a normal “writing and teaching” workday like for you?


Right now, I am working to find a new pattern. After the arrival of my first child eight months ago, what was normal is now obsolete. I have gone from teaching composition at the university 2-3 days a week and filling the other days with grading papers, answering emails and fitting in my own writing, to snuggling with a little boy all day long. It was an abrupt and utter life-style shift. It’s wonderful, but at times I feel that my creative life and mind are lost to me. Recently, the answer to this has been to find a baby-sitter. I get a four-hour block to write each week, then I try to fill in a few more hours during naps or on the weekend. It’s refreshing to have this time devoted to writing again.


How has your career as a writing teacher shaped your career as a writer? 


As a writing teacher, I want my students to get to know their own idiosyncratic writing processes and to learn to use their process to their advantage. We talk about the act of writing–how writing begets more writing–and we free-write a lot. Over the years, I have realized that I need to take my own advice. Through my classes, I have learned to honor my own process. To let go of writing it right the first time. To just get words on the page–lots of words. To allow time for good ideas to grow and mature. I am my biggest critic and teaching writing has taught me that I need to turn that off. 


Who are your favorite writers and why?


Oh, wow. This list is certainly not exhaustive. I’ll name two contemporary and two no longer living.


JRR Tolkien–for his poetry; his rich characters; his world-building; his ability to spin a captivating plot while also addressing big moral questions; for, well, everything.

Lucy Maud Montgomery–for her charming characters and skilled world-building. So fanciful.

Grace Lin–Her books are full of charm. They are fun, funny, sweet and poignant all at once.

Maggie Stiefvater–Always exciting. Great balance of commercial and literary appeal. Rich characters and lots of tension.



What advice would you give aspiring writers?


Show up and be brave. By show up, I mean do the work. Sit at your desk or wherever you write, stop censoring yourself, and get something on the page. It probably won’t be glorious–a first draft rarely is–but it will give you something to work with. To do this, you have to be brave. A creative life is a vulnerable life. A writer must accept that criticism and rejection are part of the deal; otherwise, you will probably never write anything.


What are you working on now?


I have a few open projects right now, but most of my time is focused on a middle grade fantasy set in a world inspired by ancient Japan.



You can discover more about Janine Burgan by checking out her blog at http://www.firstnovelsclub.com.  



Interview with Kate Banks



Summer is over and everyone is home from their travels. But not Kate Banks, prolific and award-winning author for children and young adults. An expat for most of her adult life, Ms. Banks now lives near the Italian border in southern France. A few weeks ago, Ms. Banks and I had the opportunity to chat about her writing life and how her environment, be it Menton, France or Maine, USA, influences and impacts her writing. 


Where did you grow up and where do you live now?


I grew up in Maine and graduated from Wellesley College and Columbia University.  I worked in the children’s book department of Alfred A. Knopf, and at the National Geographic Society before moving to Rome in 1988 where I lived for 9 years.  Home is now in Menton, a small city close to the Italian border in southern France.



How has where you live and have lived influenced your writing?


As a child I was a keen observer of nature and wildlife, and growing up in Maine I had plenty of opportunity to spend time in the woods, at the seashore, in the mountains.  This dialogue with nature has accompanied me through adulthood and it’s an important theme running through many of my books.  THAT’S PAPA’S WAY, THE GREAT BLUE HOUSE, A GIFT FROM THE SEA all hearken back to experiences I had as a child.  I think that getting children to explore and engage in their natural habitat can help them to understand their place in the world, not only as residents, but as part of a big beautiful whole.


I’ve spent most of my adult life in Europe and meeting new people and seeing new things has been both challenging and inspiring.  The challenges have helped me grow as a person and that, in turn, has nurtured and instructed my writing.  Most of the settings for my stories come from places where I’ve lived or visited.  DILLON DILLON was my summer house in Camden Maine and FRIENDS OF THE HEART takes place in and outside of Rome.  THE CAT THAT WALKED ACROSS FRANCE details the journey of a cat from the Riviera north to Normandy.  And CITY CAT which is due out in November chronicles the journey of another cat—a stray– who follows a family on a European holiday. 



What is a normal writing workday like for you?


I have a loose routine in that I write for a few hours every morning.  Afternoons are devoted to my work as a therapist and healer.  I am a nomad and move from room to room in my house.  Sometimes I’ll go out and work at a coffee bar.  I always have notebooks in my bag and am ready to take down an idea or a thought wherever I am.  Oftentimes this happens at night and I’ll wake up and flick on the light just long enough to take a few notes.  My husband has long grown accustomed to this.  I write wherever I go—in airports, while on holiday.  New places and movement seem to keep the flow going. I usually have several projects in the works at any one time. I like to wake up and know that I don’t have to return to the same thing I was doing the day or days before.  I tend to get bored laboring over a single story week after week, month after month.  So I jump around a lot.  That enables me to distance myself from each project and go back to it again and again with a fresh eye.  And if I’m stuck on one project I put it aside and move on to something else.  If nothing works, then I play the piano, or try a new recipe.  I’m always planning future books and I have many ideas in the cupboard.  Some I put aside for months, even years.  Some may never be realized but that’s okay.  It’s all part of what I do.



As a successful writer of picture books, what do you think of the increasingly shorter word counts in picture books?


I remember about ten years back there was a push for longer picture books.  It didn’t last long.  I expect it will be the same with this trend.  I’ve written picture books with few words and with many words and I wouldn’t generalize about suitable length.  A story can be told in a few words or in many, but in a picture book there needs to be the right balance among illustrations, words, and the reader’s imagination.  I personally pay no attention to word count until a story is written.  And my experience is that a story usually finds its own length.  I also pay no attention to word count when I buy a book. 



Who are your favorite writers and why?


I grew up with Robert McCloskey’s books.  TIME OF WONDER took place near my summer house in Maine where we had blueberry fields just like Sal (BLUEBERRIES FOR SAL).  I loved Margaret Wise Brown’s THE RUNAWAY BUNNY and GOODNIGHT MOON.  Virginia Burton’ THE LITTLE HOUSE was a favorite as was MIKE MULLIGAN’S STEAM SHOVEL.  When I was able to read by myself I devoured the Mother West Wind Stories and THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS.  I love Thoreau and Wordsworth and Tolstoy and Chekov.   And I read a lot of science and medical literature for my work as a therapist.  

There are too many favorites to mention them all.  But what I respond to are books that demonstrate a sensibility to place and character and manage to convey a quiet wisdom.  Often beneath their words are the greater truths of our being—much bigger ideas than appear on the surface.  I find it almost magical when a book is able to speak to me beyond its boundaries of page and length. 


What advice would you give aspiring writers?


Aspiring writers should be readers.  Reading nurtures a sensibility to the tools of the trade—words and language–in the same way that a painter needs to be familiar with his palette and brushes.  Writers should also be familiar with their audience and have something to say to them.   Workshops and formal instruction can convey and refine technique. That said, the most important advice I can give to a writer is to find your own voice.  And that is more likely to be present in your inner world than anywhere outside of you.  For me, this required taking the time to sit quietly in a state of listening and receptivity—shutting out advice and chatter, and seeing what emerged from my own self.  I am struck by how these days we don’t seem to be able to do anything without coaching—from breathing and eating, to relationships and work.  There are so many people out there telling us how to live our lives, to be successful, happy, and on it goes. I, for one, think there’s something to be said about discovery and experience–allowing life to unfold on its own.  And I would apply this same philosophy to writing.  Be proactive, but don’t forget to take the time to sit back and just see what happens.  Because that’s the space of true inspiration and surprise.


What are you working on now?


I am currently working on a YA novel which originated from my work as a regression therapist.  I also have a few picture books ideas in the works in various stages. 


Where can your fans find you?


I am rarely in the States but when that happens I am available for book signings and school visits.  I also visit classrooms worldwide on SKYPE.  This fall I hope to be in New York and Boston in October.   My new picture book CITY CAT is out in November, and I urge you all to take a look at the trailer: 






You can find all of Kate’s books online or at your favorite local bookstore.