The Importance of Not
An Interview with Ellen
By Diana Bocco
Roger and Ellen
Jackson with Abby,
The author of more than fifty
books and a multiple award-winner, children's writer Ellen Jackson is not
afraid to explore different formats -- she has penned picture books, science
trade hardbacks, and a 12-volume series called It Happens in the Month of...
writing for children "the best job in the world. I get to go
to work in my pajamas, write for a few hours, then spend time with my dog
and husband, who also works at home (the husband, not the dog)."
Jackson has been shortlisted
on the John Burroughs List of Outstanding Nature Books for Young Readers,
the Read America! Collection Choice, and
Instructor Magazine's 71 Top
Books of the Century (nonfiction). Her books have been featured on PBS,
CSPAN2, and the
Today show. Cinder Edna, Jackson's hilarious take on the
Cinderella story, is now part of the recommended reading list for Mentoring
For up to date information about her
publications, visit Ellen Jackson's web site at
Tell us something about
your upcoming book, Earth Mother. What inspired it?
Ellen Jackson, Author
Illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon
Cover copyright C. 2005
I was working on another
picture book manuscript about animal behavior. In doing the research, I
learned that sea otters often sleep in a kelp forest, anchoring
themselves to the seaweed to keep from drifting away. An image of an
otter being rocked on a bed of seaweed by an Earth goddess kept popping
into my head. So I did what I often do when I have a fragment of an idea
-- I began asking questions. Who is this goddess? Is she a caretaker of
some kind? Who else does she protect? And gradually the story began to
take shape in my mind.
Iím very excited about
this book. Itís received three starred reviews and was illustrated by
Leo and Diane Dillon, two of my favorite artists. Iíve admired the
Dillons for years but never dreamed Iíd have a chance to work with them.
How did you begin writing
books for kids?
It Happens in the Month of
Illustrated by Pat and Robin DeWitt
Cover copyright 2002
I loved to write when I
was a child, but my mother discouraged me from becoming a writer. She
wanted me to train for something practical -- 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 (sorry Mom!) Iíd just make my living as a writer. I wrote a
picture book that I thought was a work of genius (it wasnít). I worked
and worked on the manuscript and probably rewrote it fifty times. While
working on book number one, another idea occurred to me. 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.
Did you have an agent in
the beginning or did you send the manuscript out yourself?
Over the years, Iíve
worked with two agents. But Iíve also sold books on my own. I donít have
an agent right now. Itís my belief that childrenís writers who study the
market and learn about publishing donít really need an agent. I prefer
to work without one these days.
How do you come up with
ideas for your books?
It's Back To School We Go!
Illustrated by Jan Davey Ellis
Covercopyright c. 2003
My ideas are by-products
of my life, my childhood, the books Iíve read, my hopes and fantasies --
everything thatís gone into making me who I am. Iíve noticed that ideas
come more readily to people who pay attention. After I published my
first book, I was afraid Iíd 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 seem 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
I always picture a parent
walking into a bookstore and looking for the perfect book. I want to
come up with something so compelling that any parent would be willing to
pay $18.00 (the price of an average picture book) for the book that I
Have your personal
background and experiences played a significant role in what you write?
I think that childrenís
writers need to remember what it is like to be a child Ė- the smells,
the tastes, as well as the fears and the misunderstandings that kids
have about the adult world. Some of my best ideas come from my memories
of how children think. For example, I recently sold a manuscript based
on my childhood take of geographical names. As a child, I thought that
Death Valley was full of skeletons and that Orange County was inhabited
by lots of orange people. I took the core of this idea and expanded it
into a picture book.
What do you consider your
biggest writing success?
My books have won many
awards, but the most satisfying part of being a writer is to get a
heartfelt letter from a child. Sometimes I get letters that were
"assigned" by a teacher, and these are not the letters I most enjoy --
although I try to answer every letter I get. But when I get a letter
from a child who honestly enjoyed one of my books -- thereís no better
feeling. To me thatís success, and itís worth more than all the awards
and recognition from adults. I have to add, though, itís also been
personally satisfying that Iíve managed to make a living as a writer.
Illustrated by Kevin O'Malley
Cover copyright c. 1994
But my guess is thatís
not what you mean by "success." Financially speaking, several of my
books have been quite successful. Cinder Edna is probably my most
popular book. It continues to do well year after year. Itís been made
into a video and optioned for television. Next year it will be performed
as a musical by Stages Theatre in Minnesota.
You write in a variety of
genres. Is this an individual choice or do you think children's writers in
general tend to explore more than one genre?
Looking for Life in the Universe
Illustrated by Nic Bishop
Cover copyright c. 2002
Iím not sure I can speak
for other writers, but I enjoy working in different genres. Houghton
Mifflin has a marvelous series, SCIENTISTS IN THE FIELD. Writers for
this series get to travel to exotic places to observe scientists working
"in the field." Iíve been lucky enough to have written two books in the
series Ė- Looking for Life in the Universe, a book that features
Jill Tarter and her work with SETI (a group of astronomers that use
radio telescopes to search for signals coming from extraterrestrial
civilizations), and, more recently, The Space Scientists: Supernovas,
Black Holes, and Dark Energy. This book (to be published in 2007)
will feature the work of Alex Filippenko, an astronomer who searches for
supernovas using the Keck telescope in Hawaii. For that project, Nic
Bishop (the photographer) and I went to Hawaii and watched Dr.
Filippenko work. I know, I know -- itís a tough assignment, but someone
had to do it.
You have an incredible
number of books published. Tell us a little bit about them and how you
manage to be so productive.
Iím basically a
generalist. I have a wide range of interests, but not enough of an
interest in any one topic to devote my entire life to it. So I like to
write short books -- picture books and nonfiction for young children.
The nonfiction allows me to read about a subject Iím interested in for a
few months, write the book, and then move on to something else. I also
love stories, and thatís why I write fiction. I think people get hung up
on the word "book." Most of my books are shorter than an average
magazine article, and that allows me to be productive. My track record
is good, but not extraordinary. Jane Yolen, for example, has published
more than 200 childrenís books.
Do you have a set schedule
for writing? What is your average day like?
The Winter Solstice
Illustrated by Jan Davey Ellis
Cover copyright c. 1994
There are no average
days. All the books Iíve already published or written need managing, so
my writing day is pretty chaotic -- broken up by phone calls from
editors, emails, requests for rewrites, trips to the library, trips to
the post office, correspondence from other writers, the need to check
royalty statements, mass mailings to promote a new book, etc. etc. I try
to squeeze in writing time whenever I can.
Do you work on more than
one project at a time? If yes, how do you manage?
Yes. I like working on
more than one project at a time. If I get stuck on one, I can always
move to another. Right now, I have a book deadline and thatís a little
different. I have to give that one project my full attention. Iíve never
missed a deadline and I donít want to start now.
Are there common mistakes
you see new writers making? What suggestions would you give them?
Illustrated by Matt Faulkner
Cover copyright c. 2001
Yes. First, many people
donít bother to learn the basics before they start submitting
manuscripts. Writing for children is a profession and thereís a lot to
learn. People need to get the current yearís Childrenís Writerís &
Illustratorís Market and study it. They should also read a couple of
good books about the childrenís publishing industry, such as The
Complete Guide to Publishing Childrenís Books by Harold Underdown
and Lynn Rominger. Also, they need to read lots of books in the
genre they hope to write for. Itís important to see whatís already been
done, so they donít submit a manuscript based on an idea thatís been
done a thousand times before.
Second, some new writers
get so hung up on their story that they forget to polish their language.
How someone tells a story is as important as what story it is that
theyíre telling. Writers should make sure that the language they use is
fresh, entertaining, and compelling.
What other books are
Aside from The Space
Scientists, which Iíve already described, I also have a book entitled
The Worlds Around Us coming out (I believe) in 2006. That book uses
the most recent research on the planets and moons of the solar system to
describe a boyís fictitious journey to each of them. The illustrations
will be really unique. For the background, Ron Miller (the illustrator)
is using his incredible paintings of each planet and moon and the
foreground figure of the boy and his spaceship will be drawn in.
Cinnamon Brown and the Seven Dwarfs, a fractured fairy tale, will
also be released in 06. That one will be illustrated by Elbrite Brown,
who won the Coretta Scott King and John Steptoe awards in 2004. Iím
really excited about that one too.
What new projects are you
Iím working on a
historical biography and a couple of science books. I have some stories
that need to be rewritten. One is a retelling of a myth and one is an
Anything else you'd like to
tell Vision's readers?
Yes: donít underestimate
the power of persistence. The people who make it as writers are the ones
who donít give up, the ones who donít let rejection get them down -- not
the most talented or gifted.
Be sure to visit Ellen Jackson's wonderful
website, where you'll find more information on her books and helpful
information for writers!
Books mentioned in the
LOOKING FOR LIFE IN THE
ISBN: 0618548866 - Publisher:
Houghton Mifflin, 2002
ISBN 0802789927 - Publisher:
Walker and Co
ISBN: 0688162959 - Publisher:
Lothrop, Lee, and Shepard
THE WORLDS AROUND US -
Millbrook Press, Fall, 2006
BROWN AND THE SEVEN DWARFS
Viking Books, Fall, 2006
THE SPACE SCIENTISTS: SUPERNOVAS, BLACK HOLES, AND DARK ENERGY
Houghton Mifflin, 2007