Author Interview: Jenn Bailey on Writing Early Readers & Henry, Like Always

By Rebecca Kirshenbaum

Today I talk with Jenn Bailey, the Schneider Award-winning writer of one of my very favorite picture books A Friend for Henry (Chronicle, 2019), illustrated by the wonderful Mika Song.

I’m so excited to see that Henry’s journey continues in Henry, Like Always (Chronicle, 2023). And it’s already gotten starred reviews from Horn Book and Kirkus Reviews! Jenn, why did you decide to continue telling Henry’s story?

Thank you for your kind words about Henry and thank you so much for the invitation to come to this space and talk about his new adventure. I had a couple of reasons for continuing to tell his story, but the most practical one is because Chronicle, and my wonderful editor Daria Harper, let me. I’d written a second picture book, but it was Daria’s idea to age Henry up a grade and bring him into this kind of story.

The second reason I wanted to do more with this character is equally simple but a bit more involved. I wanted to keep telling Henry’s story because I felt Henry had more to learn and definitely had more to say and share. There are situations and emotions Henry still needs to experience and work through in his unique way. And although Henry is a neurodiverse character, I feel his challenges and desires are relatable to readers both on and off the spectrum. I’m just excited to provide Henry with more opportunities where he can show us how he navigates his relationships and world.

Can you talk a bit about the differences in writing early readers versus picture books? Did you need to be concerned with the specifics of phonics and other early literacy skills as you wrote? Did you have a particular age/reading level in mind? What was that process like for you?

What a great question. There were a lot of things for me to consider. I’d written all types and genres of books and poetry, but until this, I hadn’t tried my hand at an early reader. The first thing I knew I had to do was read, read, and read a lot of this kind of work. Dori Hillestad Butler’s King & Kayla books, illustrated by Nancy Meyers (Peachtree, 2017 – 2022) quickly became favorites and of course the classic Frog and Toad books by Arnold Lobel (Harper & Row, 1970 – 1979). It was when I read Laurel Snyder’s Charlie and Mouse series, illustrated by Emily Hughes (Chronicle, 2017), that I got a sense of how I wanted to craft my Henry stories.

I developed a story guide for myself. I wanted the books to have a similar pace and feel so I sort of codified the number of chapters each book would have, each chapter’s word count, my word choices, etc. I made a rule about not using contractions – this wasn’t just for readability but also for tone. I also wanted to make each chapter a small story of its own. I felt that would help my young readers get a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction when they get to the end of each one.

And I should be clear. This story guide I developed was just that, a guide. It wasn’t there as a constraint. On the contrary, it helped me feel very supported and kept my work focused. These early readers have to do a lot of work in a small word count, so it’s been good for me to have some guardrails. I’ve loved the experience and I’m grateful that I will be repeating it with more Henry stories.

Jenn Bailey with young readers at the Eric Carle Museum.

What are you working on now? What are you most excited about in your writing life?

Well, there is another Henry coming out in 2024 and Chronicle and I are chatting about what could come next. I really hope I have the chance to keep the Henry story arc going – there are more situations to explore.

Mika Song (illustrator of the Henry books) and I will be speaking at the Texas Library Association Conference this April 19-22! I’m not just excited to attend this really cool event, I am excited to finally meet Mika in person! She is such a huge part of what makes Henry Henry!

In addition, I’d always wanted to do a Christmas book and The Twelve Hours Of Christmas is coming out this year (2023) with Little Brown.

I also have a project with Arthur Levine for Levine Querido, which should appear in 2024. It is such a special book – one that really let me conceptualize and play with visual storytelling – and I can’t wait to see what will happen with it.

There are other picture books on submission, through my brilliant agent Erica Rand Silverman with Stimola Literary! Hoping some of those find homes soon.

But what is occupying a lot of my writing hours and has me waking up at 3:00 a.m. with Aha! moments is a YA novel I’m finally going back to after too long away. While I was in school at Vermont College of Fine Arts I started a project that I titled Once. It’s a satirical twisted fairytale-type story that won a humor award and I’m thrilled to be returning to that strange and funny world. After picture book land it feels like it is taking me forever to finish but I am having a splendid time stretching those writing muscles.

You’ve talked before about how Henry is inspired by one of your sons. Why is it important for you to bring neurodivergent voices to the page? I’m also curious as to whether your representations of autism and neurodiversity have changed as you have watched your son grow up. I know my own representation of neurodiversity has changed with every stage my kids have gone through. Can you talk a little about that? Do you see Henry as a character evolving or will he remain in room ten?

When I first started writing A Friend For Henry I had some critique partners, and even an agent and editor tell me I should be sharing this story from a friend’s or a sibling’s point of view. They felt that was the way I could show agency and relatability. But that went directly against why I wanted to tell this story in the first place.

I didn’t want a book where readers had one character’s motivations interpreted for them by another character. I wanted a book where the main character had a voice and laid their own motivations and actions bare on the page. I wanted to show that what may look like the character’s quiet disengagement or quick irritation wasn’t that at all. Like the adage of the duck serenely floating on the pond, I wanted readers to see all the paddling that was going on under the surface. All the effort and intention that a child who interprets the world a bit differently might be revealing as they try to find a way to connect.

I think all stories are ultimately about finding connection and relatability. When we can engage with someone’s story, experience their reality, we grow empathy and can find understanding. It was hugely important for me to craft a story where readers didn’t find a character with a diagnosis but found a character with a story to tell, a point of view to share, and motivations that were noticeably relatable and empathetic.

Regarding the second part of your question, my answer is yes! I see Henry learning and evolving. He is doing his best to interpret a world that is sometimes a dichotomy, and sometimes uninterpretable. It can be frustrating, for anyone, but I think Henry is definitely finding his way. There may be a bit more nuance in Henry’s upcoming stories. He is still trying to decipher things, but he has more skills now and has some confidence so he can maintain his unique perspective.

Anything else you want to add?

I’m so grateful to all the folks who are on the front lines of making sure our children have access to books and a chance to find themselves in story. I grew up in a family of avid readers. There were books everywhere and they were frequently passed around and discussed. When I was a teenager, my father handed me Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (Houghton Mifflin, 1985) because he wanted my take on it. I just can’t fathom why anyone would try to ban stories. How else are we supposed to understand each other and find empathy?

So, thank you, to all of you fighting what I consider that good and important fight. I remember hearing someone say it’s a battle we may not win but one we cannot abandon. Lives, sometimes literally, depend on it.

Cynsations Notes

Jenn Bailey has her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has received the Candlewick Picture Book Scholarship and the Beyond Words award, among others. Jenn is a frequent guest lecturer and workshop leader for SCBWI, Heartland Writers for Kids and Teens, and the One Year Adventure Novel workshops. Jenn is published by Chronicle Books and is represented by Erica Rand Silverman at Stimola Literary.

​​Rebecca Kirshenbaum has an MFA in WCYA from VCFA, an MA in children’s literature from Simmons University, and an MA in English literature from Columbia. She really, really likes being a student. She grew up in Cleveland and roots for all Cleveland sports teams even though she now lives in Boston.

She lives with her husband Mark, her teenage sons, Caleb and Eli, plus a lot of animals – guinea pigs Frisky and Sprinkles, a bunch of fish, and her family’s therapy dog (aka best dog in the world), Quimby. (All you kidlit people should get the Ramona reference!). When not reading and writing, she teaches fourth and fifth grade literacy and organizes her bookshelves in rainbow order.