I LOVE this book — every child should have it. It’s heartwarming, empowering, and if you want children to have some understanding of other cultures, grab JOSIAS, HOLD THE BOOK! A former print journalist, Jennifer Elvgren’s children’s fiction has appeared in Highlights for Children, Ladybug, and Spider magazines. Her picture book, Josias, Hold the Book, is on numerous state reading lists, is a Bank Street College Best Books of 2007 selection, a recipient of the Growing Good Kids Excellence in Children’s Literature Award and a recipient of the 2007 Américas Award for Children’s and Young Adult Literature. Gatherin’ Up the Mountain will be published in the April 2010 issue of Spider.
Kathy: Why did you write JOSIAS, HOLD THE BOOK?
Jenn: My husband and I have been sponsoring children in Haiti through The Baptist Haiti Mission since we have been married. One day, I received a newsletter from the mission, which talked about a day in the life of a Haitian school child. The letter used the phase, “Hold the Book,” which means go to school. I was intrigued. I began wondering, Who’s not holding the book? Why? How can that person hold the book? A story was born. All the characters in the book – Josias, Chrislove, Marc, Nataline, and Philienne – are all named for children we have sponsored or were sponsoring at the time. I’m pleased to announce that the real Nataline graduated from elementary school last year. She reads, writes and has excellent math skills. She plans to continue her education.
Kathy: Yay, Nataline!! And as an author, you’ve got to love the phrase, “Hold the book.” Can you tell us how you came to be published?
Jenn: I have always loved children’s books. I have lugged my own childhood books with me every time I have moved. Because of this passion, during graduate school, I took a children’s writing class as an elective. I wrote several things at the time, but filed them away in the desk. After graduate school, I spent many years writing business stories and features stories for newspapers and magazines. After my first child was born, I was inspired to focus more on children’s writing. I had no connections in the children’s writing world. So I joined a critique group and the Society of Children’s Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), I took another children’s writing class at the University of Virginia, I attended every children’s writing conference that I possibly could, and I read hundreds of picture books from the library (and still do). More importantly, I wrote and wrote and wrote. Then I revised and revised and revised. I endured many rejections, (and still do) but I persevered and kept sending manuscripts until I sold my first story to Highlights for Children.
Kathy: Yup, perseverance is key. When do you write?
Jenn: I write from 4:30 a.m.ish until 6:30 a.m.ish
Kathy: OK, THAT is perseverance! What helps you write?
Jenn: A quiet house and TONS of Diet Coke. Not Diet Pepsi. Well, only in an absolute emergency.
Kathy: :o) Where do you write?
Jenn: I write in a downstairs office. My computer faces a window that overlooks our barn and the neighbor’s pond. It’s very serene and quiets my mind. However, it’s pretty dark in the morning at this time of year.
Kathy: LOTS of Diet Coke on these mornings! How do your ideas come to you?
Jenn: Coming from an aforementioned journalism background, I get sparked from newspaper and magazine stories. My husband and I are also HUGE history geeks. I’m talking we were among the first to rush down to Colonial Williamsburg to see the reconfigured entrance hall in the Governor’s Palace after the last renovation. So I also get sparked from all the reading and touring that we do. One aspect of children’s writing is giving your characters universal problems with which your readers will identify. I volunteer weekly in my children’s elementary school. The children spark me with their conversations.
Kathy: Speaking of conversation sparkers, do you have a favorite quote or bumper sticker?
Jenn: I have had a fascination with Helen Keller since first grade. My grandmother fed my interest and bought me every book about her that was out at the time. Helen Keller’s story is such an inspiration to me. I love this quote from her, “The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched – they must be felt with the heart.”
Kathy: Oh, I love that, too! Now from the sublime to the . . . embarrassing. What’s an embarrassing story about yourself that you don’t mind telling?
Jenn: Let’s just say, I’m not the most technically minded. A few nights ago, I pulled the car into the garage, and noticed an odd blinking red light reflecting on the car’s window. I couldn’t tell where the light was coming from and called to my husband, “There’s something wrong with the car! There’s something wrong with car!” After close inspection, he pulled my cell phone out of the cup holder and said, “Here’s your blinking red light problem.”
Kathy: And that’s why we’re writers. We can put those experiences to good use! What are you working on now?
Jenn: I always have several manuscripts in various stages going, from humorous to historical from picture book to narrative nonfiction. Recently, I’ve been reading about Ellis Island. My great-grandmother America LoBouno Coccaro arrived there on March 10, 1904, aboard the Konigin Luise from Naples. She was six-years-old. I have some ideas swirling in my mind. I’m waiting for them to firm up before I start a draft. Although America died before I was born, I feel connected to her through cooking. I make her red sauce. I don’t grow and can my own tomatoes like she did, but I can get it pretty close. The sauce takes eight hours to cook, but it is sooooooooo worth the wait!
Kathy: Mmm, sounds yummy–both the sauce and the book! Why should kids read books when there are so many other things to do?
Jenn: I think that kids should read because it opens up new worlds for them. These worlds can inspire them to dream new dreams about their own lives as well as help them to empathize with others who may be facing hardships that are unfamiliar to them.
Kathy: And thank you for giving us that in JOSIAS, HOLD THE BOOK. Thanks for the interview, too, Jenn,and I’ll look for your story in this April’s Spider, not to mention the many more books that will be coming from you!