Interview: Jenni Holm, Triple Newbery Honor Author
You may think there are two authors named Jenni Holm: The winner of three Newbery Honors for her exuberant historical kid lit books Our Only May Amelia, Penny From Heaven, and, just recently, Turtle in Paradise; and the writer of two world-dominating graphic novels series: Babymouse, and the new Squish the Amoeba (all illustrated by her brother, Matt Holm). But no, there is only one talented, prolific Jenni, whose writing and spunky characters are adored by my entire family and probably yours, too. It was a particular pleasure to talk with her about bringing history alive for young readers, creating graphic novels, and becoming a writer -- not to mention staying a writer after becoming a parent.
I'm always impressed by your gift for evoking different time periods in your writing, like kids' day-to-day life in Key West during the Great Depression.
That was important for me, with Turtle in Paradise. I mean, obviously the Depression was horrible for a lot of people, especially things like the Dust Bowl -- that was always my image, and those were hard times. But then I went to Key West to interview all these people in their 80s about what it was like to live there during the Depression, and they all said, "It was awesome!" The entire town was on relief, so there was no money, and they were all dirt-poor, but nobody starved. There was food hanging from the trees and swimming in the ocean, and it was an island and it was warm -- they didn't need shoes -- and they were all in the same boat. It was really an idyllic place to grow up.
Have you always been a history lover?
I became a history lover probably because of my dad. He was an older father, he grew up during the Depression, and he was full of what he called "nickel knowledge," little things about what it was like during his childhood. For instance, one night he and all the other kids were brought to the school at night for a "sleepover" -- but what they actually did was knock all the kids out and remove their tonsils! The whole grade of kids! They did surgery on the gym floor! That was what it was like to live in a rural Washington town during that time.
My mom's mom was a nurse during the polio epidemic, up through the 1950s. Polio was on everyone's mind, and they didn't yet know what caused it. My grandmother was working in a hospital and saw the very worst cases, and was psychotic with my mother -- she wouldn't let her go to any movie theaters, or swimming pools, or places that were air-conditioned, like restaurants -- just like Penny in Penny From Heaven.
I love all these little stories. I'm not as into the big sweeping epic stories of the Civil War, or World War II.
With all your great historical content, do teachers find your books helpful? Do your books have teacher's guides or curriculum tie-ins?
Yes, they do [Jenni's website has a Teacher Talk page with links to teacher guides and resources]. And the Florida teachers were so happy about Turtle in Paradise, that someone had finally written a book that takes place in Florida! So many teachers wrote and thanked me, because for some reason it's not a popular place to write about. And in Washington, Our Only May Amelia is on the state-approved reading list. So my advice is to write about a place that people don't write about very often. Write about North Dakota, don't write about New York City!
You've done such a great job getting kids interested in history, is that what you're trying to do for science with Squish the Amoeba?
It's weird, with our graphic novels Squish, and Babymouse, it almost feels like I'm two separate people. But that's the idea, a big science angle. [My brother and I] were around a lot of science growing up, with a doctor in the house, and a nurse.
I grew up with four brothers -- I'm the only girl, and there were always comics around. My father was a huge fan, I grew up with bound volumes of Prince Valiant in the house. We were always reading those, but I was never very impressed with the girl characters in any of those books. There was Wonder Woman, whom I never liked because she was always running around in her underwear. I wasn't a Betty and Veronica fan, because I had a mean girl in my own life. And my brother Matt was an amateur cartoonist.
Flash forward years later, Matt and I are both living in New York City. We had tried to work together on something, and that worked a little bit, and then we had the idea for BabyMouse, and started working on that -- and several years later we finally sold it. But Babymouse is a pink comic.
Matt has been a really good egg -- he's my youngest brother, so I get to boss him around -- but he's basically drawn fourteen books based on his sister's childhood. In pink, which we call "lightish red." So when we had the opportunity to do a new series, he said, well, maybe it should be about me this time." Squish is inspired by a picture of him as a kid, with a baseball cap, and his wacky friends.
Even your most protected characters, like Penny in Penny from Heaven, have a lot of independence compared to today's kids. And the Diaper Gang from Turtle in Paradise, they not only get to roam Key West all day long, but they mind other peoples' babies -- these nine-year-old kids! Are you hoping to conjure up a different time period, inspire parents and kids to want more freedom and less supervision, or both?
Maybe a little bit of both. Definitely evoking a different time period. I grew up during the seventies; we all went out in the morning, ran around all day, and came back for dinner. We didn't have organized playdates, and we all turned out okay. But that's not how I'm raising my kids, because no one else is, either. When you look back, you see kids had both so much more freedom yet so much more responsibility. I'm definitely interested in how kids used to have these parallel lives that their parents knew very little about. I think there's less of that now.
There were mean kids back then, too. You mentioned that you had a mean girl experience?
Yes, there was a mean girl in my childhood who I never could quite shake (or was smart enough to shake). She (who will forever be unnamed) was the inspiration for Babymouse's Felicia Furrypaws.
What was your path to becoming a writer, as an adult?
It was very random. I was a huge reader as a kid, but I was very intimidated by the idea of formal writer's programs in college, or going to graduate school for writing -- I did International Studies. And I come from this sciencey family, so it didn't seem like a practical career at all.
Then, also impractically, I moved to New York City after graduating from college and got a job in a publicity firm, for the guys that make the salt they use on the streets in the winter (I hated that job). But I met someone who told me about a production company called Broadcast Arts, and they were this famous animation company -- they did Pee Wee's Playhouse -- and I fell into television production. Then I started working as a broadcast producer at Ogilvy & Mather in NYC. It was not a creative role -- I has to worry about the money and hire everybody and make sure they showed up, so I was a bit frustrated by that.
And around that same time my dad started getting sick, so I started going home and spending time with him. And I had a switch turn on in my head where I started to listen to my parents, and their hard luck stories didn't just go over my head. I was 23, and one day, I realized he had all these great stories about growing up on a farm in Naselle, a small town in southwest Washington, and I started writing them down. He grew up in a Scandinavian farm community where everyone spoke Finnish -- it was this odd little enclave of Finns and Swedes. Over the course of three years, I sort of imagined what it would be like to grow up in that town around the turn of the century. And that became Our Only May Amelia, my first book.
It wasn't this story of me sitting down and knocking out the book -- it was three years to write it, and then a year of rejections until I got an agent -- many, many rejections. And then we sold it when I was 26, and then it wasn't published until I was 29 or 30. So it was a very slow process. And then I still didn't quit my day job for years after that, because nobody can quit and become a writer in New York City. I'd be on shoots during the day and then go home and write about 1850s Washington. It was a very odd existence.
Do you have any advice for writers, about how you stay both inspired and productive?
Definitely don't quit your day job. Writing is something that should be done out of love and affection for a story. I was never an artist in a garret studio sending off my stories to magazines; I always had a day job. But I found that very liberating, because I was less worried about paying the bills, so I had complete freedom when I was writing. That's my best advice: don't have a backup plan, have a front plan!
You seem to get so much writing done. Does it feel that way to you?
It's actually slowed down a bit lately, and I have a partner on the graphic novels. It's so awesome to have a collaborator -- if I get stuck, I can say, "This isn't funny. Matt, write something funny." And he can stick in his dry little sense of humor.
Turtle actually took five years, because that's when I had the two kids, and my dad got sick and died, and it was one thing after the other. I had a lot of writer's block on that book.
Really? I was impressed by how rich with detail Turtle is, especially since it's not as long as your other books.
My earlier books were much longer. I'm trying to make them a little slimmer, and age them down just a little bit, because of having kids myself, and being in the schools a lot, and wanting the fourth graders to be able to get through a book. If they're good readers, they're already reading Harry Potter and you don't have to worry about them. I want to reach the readers who are having a hard time.
How ever do you manage to stay so productive, with two small children and a husband who works long hours?
Things have really changed. There's definitely a pre-kids and a post-kids. Pre-kids, I was a late afternoon writer starting around three and going through dinner -- and now I'm done by then because it's time to pick up kids and make dinner. I've definitely become more productive with the time I have -- I think I used to waste a lot of time. And the work week is no longer Monday through Friday, it's every day. And I appreciate a good babysitter!
And it's hard to not just throw in a load of laundry or do the dishes, which becomes a kind of procrastination.
What about social media?
I actually think social media like Facebook is great for writers, I think we're on it a lot, because being a writer can be very isolating. I miss being in an office, I miss those adult interactions -- now I only have them during school pickups, or if I make a real effort to go out with somebody. So I do think that that's been a boon for creatives. You're working at home, and you can just talk about things, where you wouldn't normally. And it's good for socializing after the fact, like when you meet someone at a conference and want to catch up with them afterward.
But social media does become an endless time suck. I'm medium-good about it -- it's another form of procrastination!
And finally: your characters have such great names, how do you come up with them?
The names come from all over the place. Squish seemed intuitive because amoebas are blobby and look like they got squished by someone's shoe. I do use a lot of family names in my historical fiction, like in Penny from Heaven (my mom's nickname is "Penny"). The origin of Babymouse's name is top-secret!
Bloggers on Jenni's Books:
- KidLitBlog: Turtles, Scorpions, Pirate Treasure, and Diaper Rash
- Anita Silvey's Children's Book-A-Day Almanac: Babymouse.
- Ms. Martin Teaches Media: Squish: Super Amoeba