The Mixed Up Files is thrilled to welcome Jennifer Jacobson to the blog today!
Jennifer Richard Jacobson is a writer, teacher, educational consultant, and speaker. She writes in many genres, from children’s fiction to adult nonfiction. Among her books for younger readers are the Andy Shane early chapter books, illustrated by Abby Carter, the middle grade novels Small as an Elephant and Paper Things, and the young adult novels Stained and The Complete History of Why I Hate Her. Her book: No More “I’m Done!”: Fostering Independence in the Primary Grades has proved to be a writer’s workshop resource for teachers of all grades.
And now for our interview. Great to have you, Jennifer!
Mixed Up Files: Addressing homelessness, especially homelessness of young people, is a pretty tough subject. When did you first realize you wanted to write a story like Paper Things?
Jennifer Jacobson: Thank you so much for this opportunity to reflect on my work! When beginning a book, I never begin with an issue or even a theme. Instead, I begin with characters. I first imagined a girl who creates families from catalog cutouts (just as I did as a girl). As I was imagining her life, I was hearing a lot about kids who age out of foster care without the support they need to make it in the adult world. I decided to give Ari an older brother — one who comes of age, decides to leave this guardian’s home, and takes his little sister with him.
MUF: Paper Things isn’t your first book dealing with difficult subjects, and you write for older readers, too. Do you approach the writing of your work for Middle Grade readers differently, especially when dealing with sensitive subject matter?
J. J.: Both my middle grades, Small as an Elephant and Paper Things, are written in first person. This means, of course, that the stories are told from the perspective of a preteen. Jack doesn’t attach a label to his mom. He describes his mom’s mental illness as her “spinning times.” Although Ari has been couch surfing for weeks, it isn’t until the end of her experience that she realizes she’s counted amongst the homeless. It’s not only a gentler approach, but also a more authentic approach.
MUF: Your work is so broad-ranging, from easy chapters to Middle Grade and Young Adult fiction to resources for classroom teachers. Do you have a favorite age group to write for?
J. J.: I do believe middle grade is my sweet spot, but I hate the thought of limiting myself to one genre. I’m deep in the process of writing a new middle grade and yet I recently woke in the middle of the night with a picture book idea.
MUF: Our school library has some books from the Andy Shane series in it. While this is an early chapters series, the characters grow and change just the same. What are the differences between writing a series where you revisit characters in each book, and writing a single story in which the characters must be fully realized by the end?
J. J.: In the Andy Shane series, Andy and Dolores do grow in that they accept each other’s differences (one is reticent the other overbearing), but it’s a lesson that’s learned over and over again. In a middle grade novel, the protagonist faces a challenge that changes his or her worldview. In Small as an Elephant, Jack learns that he’s not alone, that he’s part of a community. In Paper Things, Ari comes to take the reins, to make her own choices for her future.
MUF: In doing the research for this interview, it was great finding out something about your road to writing, and how it was your students who helped you become a better writer. What’s your advice for others of any age who want to make writing a part of their lives?
J. J.: I do believe that learning to write is a process similar to learning to play a sport or a musical instrument. All require frequent practice, immediate feedback, models to learn from, a willingness to take risks . . . and yes, acceptance of occasional failure.
MUF: Before we go, can you recommend any of your own favorite reads for our Middle Grade readers?
J. J.: My current favorites: The Meaning of Maggie by Megan Jean Sovern, Anna was Here by Jane Kurtz and Revolution by Deborah Wiles.
Again, thank you for these wonderful questions! I’m honored to be interviewed for The Mixed Up Files!
MUF: Thanks to you, Jennifer, for taking the time to share your insight with our readers.