From the funny BABYMOUSE graphic novels to the engaging thriller THE CREEK to historical fiction such as OUR ONLY MAY AMELIA and the BOSTON JANE series, Jennifer L. Holm has more than proved her ability to tackle various genres and write for different audiences. The two-time Newbery Honor winner, most recently awarded for PENNY FROM HEAVEN, honored me with her time this week. Keep reading to discover more about this writer's childhood, her collaborations with her brother, her sassy cat, and her taste in cupcakes, among other things.
You've always been a reader. For a time, you were a broadcast producer. Describe your journey to writing and to publication.
I had a very roundabout, meandering path to publication. After graduating from college (Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA), I moved to the Big Apple much to my parents' dismay. I worked at an animation company, and then went on to become a broadcast producer, first of music videos, promos, and short tv shows, and then of commercials (remember the dancing Huggies Baby Wipe? yeah, that was me.) But being a producer is actually not a particularly creative role. The directors, copywriters, and art directors have all the fun.
So I guess I was frustrated. I had always wanted to write, but I hadn't majored in English, didn't have an MFA, and was very intimidated by the idea of trying to be a writer. But since I had nothing to lose, I just sort of sat down and started writing for fun. This book eventually became OUR ONLY MAY AMELIA. It took me two to three years to write it. After it was written, I had a solid year of nice rejections from many, many agents before I found a lovely, wonderful agent who took me on. The rest is history.
Your childhood and your family have inspired many of your stories. PENNY FROM HEAVEN and THE CREEK each feature a character named Penny. Tell readers more about the real Penny, and the other family members who snuck their way into OUR ONLY MAY AMELIA and PENNY FROM HEAVEN.
I know, I know -- two Pennies in two books! What was I thinking? Well, I wrote THE CREEK first, and PENNY FROM HEAVEN years later.
The Penny in PENNY FROM HEAVEN was inspired by my mom who lost her dad before she was born. In spite of this, she seemed to have a great childhood, with a very loving family who doted on her. Mr. Mulligan in the book was inspired by her real-life stepfather (my grandfather) who married her mom when she was a kid. He's Irish-American and funny. He sold insurance, not milk. Scarlett O'Hara the dog was based on my grandmother's real poodle -- she could yip "Happy Birthday!"
The characters in OUR ONLY MAY AMELIA were more fictional, mostly because it was based so far in the past (late 1800s), although I used many family names, [such as] Wilbert, Ivan, May, Matti, and Aunt Alice. The one character that was based on a real person was Grandmother Patience, although I didn't know her, I just heard the stories. There was a real woman in the family named Patience who was notorious for whacking the children with a wooden cane. She was a terror. Sometimes you can't make this stuff up!
What inspired THE CREEK?
THE CREEK is probably the book that is the closest to my own childhood experiences. I was one of those girls who grew up on a block with a ton of boys, and spent my summers running wild in the woods. We literally would spend an entire day playing in the creek that ran behind our development, and our parents had no idea what was going on. Of course, it was a different time (late 1970s/early 1980s--whoa, I feel old!). Things were much "freer" then. I was also always fascinated by the politics of the neighborhood, especially when it came to how people dealt with the "bad boys" on the block -- you know, the boys who drink [and] knock over mailboxes. I wanted to write a book that captured that summer experience but also touched on the dark edges of that world.
Do you consciously plan to write a story for a certain age group, or do you simply write and see where the tale takes you? Do you ever leave the placement solely to your editor or publisher?
I just write where it takes me, although I prefer writing main characters in the 10-14 age group because I feel like that is the time of my childhood that I remember the most clearly. I'm trying to stick with writing middle-grade historical fiction and graphic novels these days. The placement tends to be mostly with the editors, although, of course, they consult with me.
BABYMOUSE has captured the hearts of kids and adults alike. There are five volumes so far, with two more due out this year. How many books are planned in this series?
We're doing one every four months now, although we plan to taper it down to two a year starting next year. The next one due out in May is CAMP BABYMOUSE. Babymouse goes to summer camp! There is a scene in it where Babymouse falls off her bunk, and rolls out of the "A-frame" tent where she is staying right onto the cold ground in the middle night. And, yes, that happened to me when I was a kid!
What is it like working with your brother, Matthew Holm, who provides the illustrations?
It's easy. Mostly because we don't live anywhere near each other, so we don't get on each other's nerves. Also, Matt's very professional, and more importantly, very mellow. Our deal is that if one person feel strongly about something, they get their way. It works out fine.
I now ask the burning question that is on the mind of many of your fans: What is your favorite kind of cupcake?
Ha! Angel food cupcake with white sugar icing. Yum!
Babymouse is bullied by a bad kitty named Felicia Furrypaws. You've written a feline hero as well: THE STINK FILES stars James Edward Bristlefur, a special agent cat from London who moves to New Jersey. You also own a kitty named Princess Leia Organa. What is her purrsonality?
Love this question. Leia the cat was my husband's cat. She pretty much hated me on sight when we met, but now she loves me. She's more like a dog than a cat because she needs constant attention. She's also part Siamese, so she's really chatty. All in all, she's a good cat, but she has terrible hygiene. She likes to roll in litter. Gross!
At your website, you share your neighbor's memory of you as a child, raking the lawn with one hand while reading a book with the other! Do you still multi-task as you read or write?
Now more than ever! I have a three-year-old son who is constantly coming into my office. I am always ferrying him somewhere or doing something for him.
Prepare yourself, because I'm going to ask another heavy question: What does the L. stand for?
You are very funny. Prepare to be disappointed: Louise. (My dad called me "Jenni Lou" when I was a kid.)
What are your ten favorite books of all time?
It's a mish-mash of comics, books for kids, and books for adults:
1) I AM A BUNNY by Ole Risom and Richard Scarry
2) THE BLACK CAULDRON by Lloyd Alexander
3) THE BOXCAR CHILDREN series by Gertrude Warner
4) The CALVIN & HOBBES books by Bill Watterson
5) The collected original PRINCE VALIANT strips by Hal Foster
6) A BIG TREE KNOCKED IT OVER by Laurie Colwin
7) THE RECTOR's WIFE by Joanna Trollope
8) WE-3 by Grant Morrison (a graphic novel)
9) THE INN AT LAKE DEVINE by Elinor Lipman
10) THE NORTHWEST COAST by James Swann
There you have it! Thank you so much, Jenni.
No, thank YOU! :-) GREAT questions! You really made me think!
Drop by jenniferholm.com and see what Jenni Lou is up to.
Review of The Creek by Jennifer L. Holm
Review of Middle School is Worse Than Meatloaf by Jennifer L. Holm and Elicia Castaldi
Review of Eighth Grade is Making Me Sick by Jennifer L. Holm and Elicia Castaldi
Teen Mystery and Horror Booklist (The Creek)
Best Books of 2006 (Penny From Heaven)
Newbery Winners and Honors