Ellen is a former child and current member of the fellowship of flawed persons. She has worked as an elementary school teacher and curriculum specialist in L.A. public schools. She’s a freelance writer and author of more than 60 award-winning books for children.
For what age audience do you write?
I write picture books, both fiction and nonfiction, and sometimes books for older children. I’ve written about astronomy, the solstices, animals, tools, earthquakes, law-related education, the U.S. presidents, and described how children lived 1000 years ago. Six of my books are retold folk tales and five are rhyming picture books.
Henry: Impressive! I love rhyming picture books, but they are HARD to write well. I first learned of Ellen via her book BEASTLY BABIES.
Tell us about your latest book.
My latest book, BEASTLY BABIES, was tremendously fun to write. It’s a tongue-in-cheek look at the zany chaos created by babies–animal babies, that is.
Henry: It’s hard to think of a more cute and kid-friendly topic than baby animals.
What do you hope readers will get from reading that book?
I mostly hope they laugh and have a good time–and that they enjoy the illustrations. If there’s a message, it’s probably this: When parents are dealing with a nest or pond or den full of babies, hilarity ensues.
Henry: This is particularly true if the parent is a bear and the babies are goslings (MOTHER BRUCE). Or if the parents are birds and the baby is an alligator (FLAP YOUR WINGS).
What aspect of writing do you find most challenging?
It’s different for every book. In nonfiction, it’s taking a difficult concept or complex event and explaining it in simple words. For fiction, it’s devising the right ending. I’m pretty good at beginnings and middles, but endings are hard. You have to tie up all the loose ends in a satisfying, but original, way.
Henry: I find the beginning, middle, and end difficult to write. Other than that, it’s smooth sailing for me.
What is a powerful lesson you’ve learned from being a writer?
I’ve learned to pay attention to my intuition and try to be as authentic a person as I can be. There’s an inner resonance I’m looking for in my writing. I try to write the book that only I can write.
What has been a memorable experience that you never would have had if you had not been a writer?
1. I had an opportunity to visit the top of the Arecibo Radio Telescope in Puerto Rico and see the sun come up—a truly awe-inspiring sight. I was there to research my book LOOKING FOR LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE (about SETI).
2. I got to see a professional musical production of CINDER EDNA, one of my picture books, and watched the cast receive a standing ovation.
3. Most importantly, I’ve received many, many letters and emails from children telling me how much they enjoyed one of my books. That touches my heart more than anything.
Henry: Fun! Of course, we can find extraterrestrials in many picture books.
What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
This is a very discouraging business. You have to persist through good times and bad (and there will be plenty of those).
Here’s some advice for people who want to write specifically for children:
Try to remember what it was like to be a child. 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.
Henry: Fun. Here’s a sequel idea: Skeletons vs. Orange People. You’re welcome.
Do you have any favorite quotes?
Yes, quite a few. Most are posted on my website:
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” –Philo of Alexandria
“First you jump off the cliff, then you sprout wings.” –Libba Bray
“You don’t have to acquiesce to the commodification of art.” –Lucy Grealy
Do you have any strange rituals that you observe when you write?
You mean like balancing a banana on my nose and reciting the Gettysburg Address backward? No.
Maybe one. I sometimes use my dog as a footrest while I’m writing. She doesn’t seem to mind.
Henry: I am definitely on Team Dog.
If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
I’d like to be a time traveler because I’m really curious about what’s going to happen to this torn, deluded, and confused world.
Henry: Fascinating choice. So, you’re a tear open the edge of the gift wrapping on the night before Christmas kind of person? I’m not sure I’d look ahead, but I’d definitely look behind. Just don’t change anything if you travel back in time!
If you could have three authors over for dinner, who would it be?
Julia Child to do the cooking. Then I’d sit and talk to Will Shakespeare and Virginia Woolf. I’d want to know how they got through the bad times. And how they were able to write such beautiful and insightful works. And I’d want to ask Shakespeare: “Who are you? Really?!”
Henry: No one has ever thought to invite a good cook before. Bravo! They often forget to invite a translator for non-English speaking authors. It would be quite scandalous if Shakespeare said, “You have the wrong man. You should have invited Francis Bacon.”
What is your favorite creature that exists only in literature?
Omigosh, too many to choose from. But the image that stuck in my head tonight was that of a genie. What does a genie do in that bottle, year after year? Borrring! And what kind of wishes work out for people, and which ones don’t.
Henry: If you’re a genie, then even a bottle can be the ultimate man-cave, since it can contain anything you want. It’s a fun game to ask yourself, if you could have three wishes, what would you choose (knowing that a genie will try to thwart you if your wording isn’t perfect)?
What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
I read, play music, and listen to the silence that frames the notes. Tidepool, look for sharks’ egg cases and little octopusses. Sit quietly on the banks of a stream, reading about plants and animals, stars and galaxies. Hike in the redwoods and canoodle with my schnoodle. Oh, and I still climb trees—when nobody’s looking.
Henry: OK, that’s a picture book idea right there: Canoodle With Your Schnoodle. Hug Your Pug? Jolly Collie on a Somali Trolley? See! Rhyming IS fun.
What would you like it to say on your tombstone?
Don’t look for me here. I’ve been cremated!
Henry: Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. I’m not here. So, don’t be nonplussed.
Where can readers find your work?
In bookstores and libraries, I would hope. My web page is at http://www.ellenjackson.net
This interview is also posted on the San Diego Children’s Books Examiner.