Author Jen Bryant recently visited the Free Library of Philadelphia and spoke to nearly 400 students about her career as an author and the nuances of her writing process. While visiting the library, Jen sat down with us in the Children's Literature Research Collection and spoke about the field of Children's Literature.
Let's begin with something easy—How did you begin your career as a author?
Very slowly and gradually! I was a French & German major in college (Gettysburg College), so when I graduated, I taught high school for several years in Virginia. When we moved back to Pennsylvania, I did some teaching but I also began to do some freelance writing for magazines and gift book companies. I loved doing the research and after my daughter was born, I put together a proposal for a series of non-fiction books about Working Moms. It was rejected by a dozen publishers, but it was accepted by one—Twenty First Century Books, a small family-run publisher in Frederick, MD in the early 1990’s—and I ended up publishing my first eight books with them.
That's fantastic to hear because it's encouraging for new authors and illustrators. Be persistent! When you were a child, did you have a favorite book or author?
Well, I always LOVED to read nonfiction, especially anything about animals (bears, wolves, penguins, etc.). I started horseback riding lessons in 4th grade and from then on, I read voraciously about that topic (horse care, feeding, showing, training, history, etc.). Not surprisingly, my favorite fiction series was Walter Farley’s The Black Stallion, which was about a boy who is shipwrecked on an island with a wild horse and the many adventures thy have together.
That is a fantastic book! It was one of my favorites growing up as well. Speaking of favorites, do you have a favorite book that you’ve published?
I’m asked that often! It’s an impossible one to answer... I always love the one I’m working on best, but I love all of my books in different ways, I suppose. For example, The Trial is special because my own grandmother was part of my research (she was a school girl when that famous trial happened in our town); Pieces of Georgia is special for its setting: The Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, PA; Georgia’s Bones was my first picture book; A River of Words, A Splash of Red, and The Right Word are special because I became friends with illustrator Melissa Sweet and those books were widely recognized by ALA [Note: the American Library Association's Association of Library Service to Children honored The Right Word with the 2015 Caldecott Honor and the 2015 Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Medal. View Jen's full list of awards and honors]; and with Six Dots, I used my French language background, worked with Boris Kulikov, and won a Schneider Family Book Award. [Note: This was Bryant's second Schneider award, having won her first in 2014 for A Splash of Red.]
Georgia's Bones is one of my personal favorites too! It was the first book of yours I remember buying—at the Free Library's Book Festival, no less. Do you have a favorite book that you didn’t publish?
Not one book... but I have a few favorite authors: Eileen Spinelli & Jerry Spinelli, Kate DiCamillo, Joyce Sidman, Nikki Grimes, Karen Hesse, Laurie Halse Anderson, Kathi Appelt.
That's an impressive list! I'm equally impressed that you don't have an unpublished regret. What do you do when the dreaded "Writer’s Block" strikes?
I don’t believe in "Writer’s Block", at least not in the way most people mean it. True, there are some days when the writing is harder than other days... but that’s all work, all jobs. I think if you are having trouble, then you’re expecting perfection, and that’s not a good idea no matter what you’re trying to do. I’ve always been very messy, very experimental in my drafts, so I think that’s why I feel this way—the bar is quite low from the very beginning!
I bet your definition of a bar set low is still higher than most people's. Is there a topic you’ve always wanted to write about?
I love to be around people who have a sense of humor, so perhaps someday I’ll try to write a funny book. So far, that’s not been my tendency, but I do LOVE to read funny books!
When you do, I can't wait to read it! Thank you Jen for your insightful answers.
Each class in attendance to Jen's talk received a copy of her book, The Trial, courtesy of the Margaret S. Halloran Family Programming Series. Thank you Jen for the great conversation and good advice! Many thanks to the Halloran Family Programming Series for providing us with these fantastic literacy opportunities!