I have read a fair number of interactive children’s books, but former Thunder Bay, ON, resident and now Tennesse children’s book author, mother and art teacher Jessica Young has created two new ones that will get you playing instruments and petting animals.
Q. I was just checking out your website and you have penned lots of books for young readers. How do you come up with unique ideas for kids?
A. I’m inspired by so many things, including: my own kids and the kids I teach; memories from my childhood; music; art; books; names and places; and the meanings and sounds of words. I often have a lot of ideas, but not always the ones I’m looking for. I think of my ideas as kind of like wild animals. They come around when they want to, and usually that’s when I least expect it. So I always try to keep a pen and paper around just in case.
Q. How do you know your idea will make a good book?
A. For each of my published books, there are many unpublished manuscripts at various stages of completion. Sometimes I think I might have a good idea, but after pushing and pulling it and playing with it, I realize it’s not working – at least not in its current format. One thing I do to get some objectivity is try to leave a story I’m working on for a while (usually days, but sometimes weeks or years) then come back to it. This helps me get some distance, and I can see things more clearly. I also have some wonderful critique partners and an amazing agent I rely on for feedback.
Q. What is your process – from idea to sending a book off to a publisher?
A. It varies a bit with each piece, but I usually start writing an idea down and expand it as far as I can in whatever direction seems to work. It might start as a concept or a character or lines of dialogue or just words that seem to want to play together. Sometimes I try out different formats, points of view, or voices. I brainstorm, writing down everything I can think of that relates to the idea – words and phrases, character names, setting details, etc.
Then after expanding the idea to make a story, I usually have to smooth it out into a cohesive whole. Once I’ve taken it as far as I can as a first draft, I let it sit then go back to it, typically numerous times. I ask my critique partners for feedback. I revise some more, then either let it sit again or send it to my fantastic agent who is very editorial. If and when it’s ready to send to a publisher, we do. (And often there are more revisions once it finds a home.)
Q. What do you like about writing for young kids? Is there anything you don’t like? What?
A. I love pretty much everything about it: working creatively with concepts, words, and characters; connecting with kids through stories and school visits; hanging out with my childhood self when I’m writing; working with a team to bring something unique to young readers; getting to know other children’s book creators; and learning new things all the time.
Q. When you come up with your ideas, do you have an age group in mind? How do you know the proper age group fit? Have you ever written a book for one age group and your publisher/agent suggests it should be changed to another? What is the process for that?
A. When I start writing, I usually just focus on the concept and bringing it to life in the best form I can. I think about the format of the book – picture book or chapter book – as it takes shape.
If I think it will be an early chapter book or take a graphic novel format, that affects my writing in terms of word choice, sentence structure and length, etc. But mostly I try to just focus on getting the story out and playing with words in the first draft. As I revise, I pay more attention to the audience. At my agent’s prompting, I morphed one picture book manuscript into an early chapter book manuscript, and it grew into my Haggis and Tank Unleashed early chapter book series, which was really fun to work on.
Q. I have read a lot of interactive children’s books and Pet This Book and Play This Book are really unique. I love the idea that you are learning about pet ownership and the sounds of instruments as you are reading. How did you come up with the idea for these books?
A. When I started writing Play This Book, I’d been experimenting with interactive books – the kind that ask readers to engage with them in different ways as they read. My wonderful agent knew I was interested in these types of books. She told me that when she read a certain classic picture book, she always hit the small drum on the illustration with her thumb. I started thinking about ways that other instruments in a book could be “played” by a reader.
I wanted the book to have rhythm and rhyme – like a lot of music – so I really paid attention to that as I wrote the words. I also watched a lot of videos of people playing different musical instruments and studied the instruments’ sounds so I could include those in the book. When I’d finished writing the words, I made a book dummy – a rough draft of the book including sketches – then I had my kids make a video of my daughter reading it so people could see what it would look like being read.
Pet This Book developed in a similar way. I experimented with how readers could manipulate the book to take care of animals, and I incorporated a lot of animal sounds into the text. (I didn’t make a book dummy for that one, though.)
Q. Will there be other books in this series?
A. We’ll have to wait and see. I do have some ideas!
Q. Both books were illustrated by Daniel Wiseman. Did you have a choice for your illustrator? What do you like about how Daniel brought your ideas to the page?
A. I was able to offer some input, and when I saw Daniel’s work, I knew he would be perfect.
Seeing his illustrations for the first time was like getting the best gift ever – the art brought my ideas and words to life in ways I could have never imagined and added so much more. I love Daniel’s bold colours and lively lines. And it’s brilliant how he created the sweet, fun, inclusive characters on each page to model how to play each instrument. At the end of the book, the characters all clap for the reader.
Q. You have a book coming out in 2020. Can you tell us about that?
A. Wish is a Seed is about the journey of a wish, from seed to flower to friend. I’m really excited about Maria Cristina Pritelli’s illustrations. They’re beautiful, and they bring a whole new layer of meaning to the text.
Q. You grew up in Ontario. How did you end up in Tennessee? What do you love about living in Tennessee?
A. I grew up in Thunder Bay, ON, and found my way to Tennessee after going to grad school in Boston. I love the landscape and vegetation here – the rolling fields and huge, deciduous trees – and the people, too. But I also miss the landscape and people I grew up with, and when we travel north to visit my parents in the summer, it still feels like home. Last summer we also visited my sister and her family in Vancouver, and this year we’re planning to visit my cousins and uncle in southern Ontario. I went to Guelph for my undergraduate studies, so it also feels like home to me. I miss Canada a lot, so we try to visit as often as we can.
Q. What do you do when you are not writing?
A. I love spending time with my kids – going to their sports games, listening to them play music, throwing a ball in the yard, and cooking with them. And I love playing piano, dancing, going to hear music, visiting art galleries and gardens, exploring the city, and reading.
Q. How does your job help in your writing? Do you get ideas from your job?
A. In addition to writing and doing author school visits, I teach art two days a week to pre-school students in a sweet, light-filled studio at the wonderful pre-school where my kids went when they were young.
The students’ enthusiasm is infectious. It’s a thrill to see them marvel at mixing colours for the first time, or build a big sculpture, or make observations about a tree as they paint what they see. They energize and inspire me. When I write and work from home, I sometimes get stuck in my head. Teaching really helps me connect with kids and access the playfulness and wonder of the child inside of me.
Q. When do you write? How often do you write? Where do you write?
A. I’ve come to accept not having a strict daily schedule, and I try to be flexible with my time. Sometimes I work on a manuscript before anyone else in the house is awake, but I usually only have about a half hour at most in the mornings before the family routine is underway.
I often take time to answer emails as soon as the kids are off to school. Then I get in as much writing as I can. If I’m teaching or doing an author visit, I try to write as soon as I get home. Often, I wind up writing at night when everyone else is in bed. I find it peaceful, and I can really focus on what I’m doing.
We recently finished a room in our house that I use as an office, and I love working in there. Before that, I mostly wrote in bed or at the dining room table. Once in a while, I’ll go to a coffee shop, museum, or library just to get out. Having movement and background noise around me can help me zoom in on my work in a different way than when everything is quiet and still.
Q. In your bio you say the same things that make you happy as a child, still make you happy today – dancing, painting, music, reading and writing. What do you like to read?
A. Mostly, I read a lot of picture books and chapter books. Sometimes I go to our local indie bookstore, Parnassus Books, and work my way through the shelves. I love to see what’s current and ask for recommendations.
Q. What are you reading now?
A. I recently read and loved Maybe Tomorrow? by Charlotte Agell and Ana Ramírez González. It’s a picture book that addresses grief in a tender – and sometimes funny – way. I don’t read many books for adults, but I just finished another insightful, funny book, I Miss You When I Blink by Mary Laura Philpott.
Read a review of Jessica’s latest book, A Wish is a Seed here.