Any friend of Jane Kurtz’ is a friend of mine and, as you’ll find out from today’s guest Jennifer Richard Jacobson, Jane is not only her friend, but partner in crime. I am in awe of the writing commitment they made to one another, which you’ll read about below. This commitment, along with Jennifer’s willingness to change with times and to let a picture book idea develop at its own pace, has resulted in the wonderful This is MY room! (No Tigers Allowed), evocatively and engagingly illustrated by Alexandria Neonakis (Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers).
My first picture book was published in 1998, my second the following year. My third picture book This is MY Room! (No Tigers Allowed) came out in 2019 – twenty years later! The hiatus wasn’t for lack of trying.
In the convening years I published a beginning reader series and many novels for both middle grade and young adult readers. But I have always loved the picture book form and no matter what I was working on, I’d find my way back to trying writing and trying to sell another one
Picture book trends changed remarkably during those years; I needed to wrap my head around new demands and desires. Nevertheless, I believe it’s the changes I made to my own approach that finally allowed me to sell this book at auction. Here are some of the ways I’ve changed my process.
I used to look for the clever idea – the interesting conceit for a picture book. Or as a former teacher, I’d think about formats that would make great mentor texts. Both of these cerebral approaches resulted in picture book manuscripts, but not ones that sold.
In recent years, I’ve learned to trust what Pam Houston calls “glimmers.” I try to capture images or snippets of language that seem to be “alive” (as Lynda Berry would say). These gems buzz with meaning –even if I have no idea what that meaning might be. I roll them around in my imagination while I walk, kayak, or going about my daily business just to see where they might lead.
This is MY Room! (No Tigers Allowed) began with an image of a tiger hiding on the shelf in a closet. I have no recollection of when or how this image arrived. But there it was, a tiger hiding on a shelf. So, after a time, I wrote a picture book about a girl who knows her room is full of tigers despite her parents’ persistent disbelief. I shared the picture book with my agent who was lukewarm at best.
Fortunately, I was also learning to be less possessive and precious with my ideas. Instead of working and reworking the manuscript alone, I invite critique partners to play with me: to brainstorm, to turn the writing upside down and inside out. I try to let go of my feelings of knowing or ownership. (Sometimes easier said than done.) I explore before discarding.
While on retreat together, writing buddy Jane Kurtz was more than willing to have a go at “what-iffing” this story with me. And while we bounced possibilities around, I had an epiphany. Now there’s not only a tiger hiding in JoJo’s room (and a lion and a bear!) but it’s a picture book that celebrates the power of reading, writing – and connecting.
Recall the story (from Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland) about the ceramics teacher who divided his class in two groups. One group would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, the others on the quality. Those in the latter group who attempted to create the “perfect pot” did not do nearly as well as those who were creating with abandon. Potters going for quantity not only practiced more, but they were risk-takers — they weren’t afraid to follow their intuition.
Embracing this idea (and in the spirit of Storystorm or NaPiBoWriWee), the aforementioned Jane and I made a pact to write and share a picture book a month for a year. That and meeting with two critique groups gave me plenty of deadlines. Many of those attempts are in the “potential drawer,” but several are out on submission.
In This is MY Room! (No Tigers Allowed), JoJo turns her problem-solving approach upside down. I’m glad I did as well.
Jennifer is the author of many award-winning children’s books including Small as an Elephant (IRA Young Adult’s Choice, Parents’ Choice Gold Award), Paper Things (ILA Social Justice Award, NTCE Charlotte Huck Honorable Mention) and The Dollar Kids illustrated by Ryan Andrews (ABA IndieNext List and Bank Street Best Book of the Year). This is My Room; No Tigers Allowed, a picture book that celebrates reading is her newest launch.