This month I had the pleasure of interviewing Ellen Jackson, author of over 60 children’s books.
Thank you for your time, Ellen. Please tell us a bit about your writing background.
When I was a kid, I loved to write. But my mother wanted me to train for something that had an actual salary–so I became a teacher. I read books to my class every day, and I kept thinking, “I could do that.” Eventually I moved to a town where jobs were scarce. No problem. I decided I’d just make my living as a writer. I wrote a picture book that I thought was a work of genius (it wasn’t). I worked and worked on the manuscript and probably rewrote it fifty times.
While working on book number one, I thought of a second idea. I wrote book number two in about fifteen minutes, and sent the first draft off to five different publishers. I also submitted it to a writing class, where the teacher tore it apart in front of everyone. I totally lost interest after that, but one of the publishers actually bought it. That manuscript, THE GRUMPUS UNDER THE RUG, is still in print and has done very well. There’s more to this story. You can read about it here:
Dealing with Rejection
That’s very encouraging. Tell us about your latest publication.
I write nonfiction as well as fiction. One fun project has been the SCIENTISTS IN THE FIELD books. For this series, the author follows a scientist around while he does his work in “the field,” which can be on top of a volcano, or in some strange and lonely spot on land. I was lucky enough to hook up with Alex Filippenko, an astronomer who’s studying supernovae. I went with him to the top of Mauna Kea in Hawaii and watched him do his work. Then I wrote about it for my newest book THE MYSTERIOUS UNIVERSE.
You might think that kids wouldn’t like a book about astronomy. But all children love to ask questions such as: “Where did the universe come from?” “How big is it?” Children’s eyes light up when they’re told about supernovae, huge explosions bigger than thousands of nuclear bombs, and black holes, places where time and space no longer exist. Science is the greatest of all adventure stories. If you keep that spirit of adventure alive in your nonfiction books or articles for kids, you can’t go wrong.
But I also love fiction and imaginative stories. My latest fiction picture book is called EARTH MOTHER and it tells a deceptively simple story about the cycle of nature.
Where do you get the inspiration for your stories and characters?
My ideas are a by-product of my life, my childhood, the books I’ve read, my hopes and fantasies–everything that’s gone into making me who I am. Ideas come more often to people who pay attention. After I published my first book, I was afraid I’d never have another idea again. But I kept writing, and the ideas kept coming.
I keep an idea file, and when I get an idea I write it down on a card. I always check Amazon or BOOKS IN PRINT to see if anyone else has published something similar–and if so, how long ago that was and in what format. If my idea has already been done in the same way and in the same format, I usually pass.
That sounds like a system that works for you. Thank you for sharing it. Do you work on more than one story at a time? How do you manage it?
Yes, I have to work on several books, or I’d go crazy! Sometimes I get “stuck” on one project, so I work on something else to give my brain a rest. I keep a folder on each book with notes and ideas and even poetic ways of expressing a thought. For THE MYSTERIOUS UNIVERSE, I interviewed Alex over a period of days and taped his answers so I could quote him in the book.
If you’re really, really lucky, the idea for a book might come to you all in one piece. That’s what happened with EARTH MOTHER. I had a vision of a beautiful woman diving with otters, and I asked myself, “Who is she?” The story came to me late at night.
I love it when that happens. What advice would you give a newcomer to writing?
I have a lot of advice, but I’ll keep it short here. First of all, believe in yourself. Lots of people, even your friends, will say discouraging things. You have to be strong enough to persist, no matter what. Also try to learn how the business works. If you understand that, you’ll be able to write things that editors want to buy. It’s not enough simply to listen to the voices in your head. Those voices have to actually communicate to someone.
Children’s writers need to remember what it was like to be a child–the smells, the tastes, as well as the fears and wrong ideas that kids have about the adult world. Some of my best stories come from my memories of how children think. For example, I recently sold a manuscript based on my childhood ideas about place names. When I was seven or eight, I thought that Death Valley was full of skeletons and that Orange County was filled with orange people. As an adult, I took the core of this idea and expanded it into a picture book.
I feel inspired by what you’re saying and will, no doubt, run off and write some ideas down after this interview. Who is the person behind the writer? What do you do when you’re not writing?
I’m lucky to have a supportive husband and a demanding dog who needs lots of exercise. So whether I like it or not, I get out of the house a lot. I live in Santa Barbara, California, which is a beautiful town for walking and thinking. I guess you’d say I’m an introvert who loves to read, listen to music, and to explore the natural world. I have two or three really good friends and we laugh a lot when we get together. I play tenor recorder with a Bach group and I do volunteer work in the community. For ten years I worked at our local library helping kids find books and doing other librarianish things. And I also used to cook at our local homeless shelter. Actually, my life is (usually) quiet, which is perfect for a writer.
Which isn’t to say that I don’t have problems, I most certainly do. Like everyone else, my writing life gets interrupted with car problems, financial problems, health problems, dog problems, family problems, and environmental disasters (wildfires in this area). One of the hardest things about being a writer is just finding blocks of alone time to get your work done!
Do you have anything else you’d like to mention?
Writing for children is a profession and there’s a lot to learn. If you’d like to write for kids, read a couple of good books about the children’s publishing industry, such as The Complete Guide to Publishing Children’s Books by Harold Underdown and Lynn Rominger. Also read lots of books in the genre you hope to write for. It’s important to see what’s already been done, so you don’t submit a manuscript based on an idea that’s been done a thousand times before.
Second, don’t get so hung up on your story that you forget to polish your language. How someone tells a story is as important as what story it is that they’re telling. You should make sure your language is fresh, entertaining, and compelling.
Thank you, Ellen, for an informative interview. I’m sure my readers will get a lot out of what you’ve said.
If you would like to find out more about Ellen and her book, please visit her website Ellen Jackson