Interview: Children’s-YA Author Jackie French Koller

Jackie French Koller writes contemporary and historical picture books, chapter books, and novels. Her picture books include ONE MONKEY TOO MANY, illustrated by Lynn Munsinger (Harcourt, 1999), NICKOMMOH!: A THANKSGIVING CELEBRATION, illustrated by Marcia Sewall (Atheneum, 1999), and BOUNCING ON THE BED, illustrated by Anna Grossnickle Hines (Orchard, 1999).

She is also the author of THE DRAGONLING SERIES and the MOLE AND SHREW SERIES, and many novels, including: THE PROMISE, illustrated by Jacqueline Rogers (Yearling, 2001); THE FALCON (Atheneum, 1998), A PLACE TO CALL HOME (Simon Pulse, 1997), NOTHING TO FEAR (Gulliver Books, 1993)(reprint edition), and THE PRIMROSE WAY (Gulliver Books, 1995).

This interview was conducted by email in August-September 2000.

Jackie French KollerYou wrote your first novel as a sixth grader. What advice do you have for young writers?

Read as much as you can, the best books you can find. Think about what you like and don’t like about the books you read. This will help you improve your own writing.

Write as much as you can, every day if possible. Writing is like anything else – the more you practice it, the better you become.

Seek out other young people who are also interested in writing. Your community or school librarian can help you with this. Join or start a critique group where you meet regularly with these other young writers to offer each other criticism and support.

What books did you particularly love as a child?

I’m dating myself now, but I loved the classics like BLACK BEAUTY, LITTLE WOMEN, TOM SAWYER, HEIDI, THE YEARLING, Jack London’s CALL OF THE WILD and WHITE FANG…

We didn’t have the selection of books back in the “olden days” that young people have today. There were picture books for young children, but novels written specifically for children were almost non-existent. These that I have mentioned were mostly written for adults, but because they had children in lead roles, they also served as reading material for children.

I’m jealous of the wealth of literature that young people have available to them today. I’m making up for lost time by reading as much of it as I can get my hands on. My husband teasingly asks me if I’m ever going to read an adult novel again. I tell him maybe, someday, but I hate to lower my standards. 🙂

How would you describe your path to publication?

Like climbing Everest. It took me sixteen years from the time I wrote my first children’s story until my first book was accepted. In the beginning, though, I’ll admit that I had no idea what I was doing and I wasted a lot of time going around and around the base of the mountain – writing drivel and making the same mistakes over and over.

Once I took some courses, learned the ropes, and actually started climbing, it took six years, but the last few hundred feet to the summit were the worst. I’d get so close – the peak would be in sight. Editors were corresponding with me, encouraging me, asking for revisions… and then the rejection slip would come. Each time it was like falling off the mountain and having to start all over again.

By the next morning, though, I’d wake up and realize I hadn’t really fallen that far. I had my safety ropes — my critique group, the knowledge I had gained, and the reputation I was building as a writer that editors took seriously.

So I’d start back up again. And eventually the day came that I actually got to the top. Once I got there, of course, I realized there were mountains stretching all the way to the horizon, but regardless, nothing will ever compare to the exhilaration of conquering that first peak!

What advice do you have for writers just entering the professional children’s market?

(1) If you want to write children’s books, you have to read children’s books. Many writers try writing for children without really having a grasp of what children are reading today. It’s a huge, complex market and you have to familiarize yourself with it if you hope to write for it.

(2) Write for children because you want to write for children, not because you think it will open doors to the adult market. It won’t. It’s a very different genre with a very different set of rules and not many people write for both the children’s and the adult market successfully.

(3) Get back in touch with the child within. Leaf through old photo albums, listen to old recordings, watch old movies, talk with childhood friends, read old journals if you’re lucky enough to have kept them. Try as much as possible to re-immerse yourself in the sights, sounds, scents, tastes, and feelings of childhood.

(4) Join the SCBWI, if you haven’t already, and start attending meetings and conferences, and networking. There are many wonderful sites and groups on-line, too —like Cynthia’s—where you can learn about the craft.

(5) Be in it for the long haul. Don’t expect instant success. Look at rejection as part of the learning process. Be persistent. Keep things out in the mail. Don’t send out one story and sit around waiting for the response. Get to work right away on something new. And be professional in your submissions. This is a business like any other. Make sure your manuscripts are flawlessly presented. Make your cover letters short, businesslike and to the point.

From the fanciful picture book ONE MONKEY TOO MANY to the psychologically intense young adult novel THE FALCON, your writing shows tremendous range. How have you seen your writing change over the years, and what new directions might you want to explore?

This is a tough one to answer. I write SO many different types of books that it’s hard to look back at earlier books and say whether I’ve improved or not.

I hope I have, but I’m always trying new things, new voices, new genres, new styles, so it’s very hard to compare. I can say that there aren’t any books I’m embarrassed about when I look back.

My very first novel was NOTHING TO FEAR, which won many awards and continues a strong seller, still used in many school systems across the country in teaching The Great Depression. I think I put my best into every book I write.

As to new directions that I might want to explore, I’m willing to try almost anything.

The only thing I don’t really imagine I’ll ever write is horror. It scares me too much, but then again, you never know what tomorrow will bring…

Do you think that any particular themes run through your work?

Yes, I just realized this a year or so ago, but I seem to write a lot about “home.” In THE LAST VOYAGE OF THE MISTY DAY, A PLACE TO CALL HOME, and NOTHING TO FEAR, my characters are all struggling to find a home or to hold their families together. My forthcoming novel, SOMEDAY, is about a character who is about to lose her home.

Why is this theme close to your heart?

A Place To Call Home by Jackie French KollerI think, perhaps, because I’ve moved an awful lot, both in my childhood and my adult life. I’ve never had roots, or a place that really felt like “home.”

The closest thing to a “home” that I’ve ever had is our little summer cottage on the Cape. We’ve owned that for thirteen years, but before that we rented it for a week or two every summer, and before that, when I was a child, my parents rented it as well. It’s only a home for three months a year, though.

Every fall its little surrounding community dissolves and our friends and neighbors head back to their real “homes.”

The rootlessness never really bothered me until my mother-in-law passed away. She had lived in one town all of her life, and when I saw how the community gathered around her family and supported them through her illness, and death, I realized that my husband and I had lost something valuable in our choice to be upwardly “mobile.”

Our society as a whole has become quite mobile, with few people staying in one place all of their lives anymore. There are good things about that, and bad things, too. I think many of us miss having roots more than we know.

In your work for teens, you take on some tough themes like racism and disability. How does writing these books affect you, and what about your background or perspective has made these themes of special interest?

My parents lived in the South in their early years of marriage and they were appalled by segregation. The fought against it in their own private ways, and often found themselves in trouble because of the stands they would take. Long before the sixties my dad used to sit in the back of the bus with the “coloreds,” and my mom, who worked in a restaurant, would share her lunch with the black kitchen help. The restaurant owner gave my mother her pick of the menu, you see, but the “coloreds” were only allowed to eat the scraps that the customers left on their plates.

Listening to these stories as I grew up, and witnessing my parents’ outrage as they told them, sparked my interest, not only in racism, but in injustices of all kinds.

I wrote about disability because we have experienced it firsthand in our family. My son lost the sight in his left eye when he was fourteen.

“Why?” I kept asking myself, but there was, of course, no answer. Unanswerable questions often drive writers to their desks, and this one eventually drove me to mine. I wrote to help myself sort out what had happened and how it had impacted my son and our family. I didn’t find the answer to “why?”, but the writing was a healing experience and it did help me discover “how” to move on.

Many authors say bits of their own personalities can be found sprinkled through their characters. Which of your fictional children do you think most reflect you? Which ones required you to most stretch your imagination?

I think Ana, in A PLACE TO CALL HOME was most like me as a teen — awkward, shy, deeply insecure. But Ana is strong, too — a survivor, and I think I am as well.

For you, what are the advantages of animal versus human characters?

Animal characters give you a freedom that human characters don’t. In my book, ONE MONKEY TOO MANY, for instance, the monkeys can do all kinds of laugh-out-loud silly things that would be dangerous or unlikely for child characters to do.

Likewise, in my MOLE AND SHREW series, Mole gets into loads of funny situations because he gets confused and mixes up words. If I used a child in that book it might seem like I was making fun of the child, or portraying him as stupid. Animal characters enable you to explore fanciful worlds, too, like the little village of Hidden Hollow where Mole and Shrew and their neighbors live. I think children like to imagine hidden worlds where animals live and dress and act “human.” I know I did when I was young.

Come to think of it, I still do!

You’ve written the DRAGONLING series and are writing a series with MOLE AND SHREW. How is writing a series different than writing a single title? What are the advantages and disadvantages?

I’ve already written three books in the MOLE AND SHREW series (the first two come out this fall) and I’m working on a fourth. The DRAGONLING and the MOLE AND SHREW series are very different, though.

The DRAGONLING series is a saga — a story that starts in the first book and continues on through subsequent books. The MOLE AND SHREW series is a group of individual stories about the same characters. In the DRAGONLING series, as in the HARRY POTTER books, you really need to read the books in order to best understand the story. With the MOLE AND SHREW books, you can read them in any order, because the stories are complete in and of themselves.

The Dragonling by Jackie French KollerI found the DRAGONLING series quite a challenge because it was my first series, and because I didn’t envision it as, or sell it as, a series to begin with. I simply wrote and sold the first book, and then the publisher asked me to write a sequel. Then Archway bought the paperback rights and asked me to write four more. I wasn’t sure I could do it at first because I thought the story was complete. The more I thought about it, though, the more I could see it continuing.

I was ultimately able to develop the story into a saga that my young fans seem to find very compelling — so much so that when the publisher recently decided to let the books go out of print, my fans launched a letter and e-mail writing campaign. As a result, the whole series is being reissued in a two volume collector’s series this fall. The Mole and Shrew series is easier to write because the stories don’t have to build on one another, and I’m so familiar with the characters now that I know how they’ll react in certain situations and how they relate to one another, etc. They’re really fun little characters to work with.

Writing a series is a big commitment, but one advantage to series is that when readers read one, they’re usually anxious to read another, so you build a fan base and you have an eager audience waiting for each new book.