Interview with New York Times Bestselling Author Jean Reagan
Get to know Jean…
Jean Reagan is the author of the New York Times Bestselling and Indie Bestselling picture books, HOW TO BABYSIT A GRANDPA and HOW TO BABYSIT A GRANDMA. Jean’s first picture book, ALWAYS MY BROTHER (Tilbury House, 2009), was a finalist for the Colorado Book Award. GRANDPA received the Crystal Kite Award and the Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Platinum Book Award and was a finalist for the Beehive Book Award. In 2013, Jean won the Highlights Magazine Fiction Contest.
Jean is thrilled a Braille version of GRANDPA is available in each state’s Library for the Blind. It’s formatted so blind and sighted people can read the book together.
Two more books in the HOW-TO series are in production. HOW TO SURPRISE A DAD will be published spring, 2015. One yet-to-be-revealed title will be published fall, 2015.
Jean was born in Alabama, raised in Japan, and now lives in Salt Lake City, UT. Each summer she and her husband serve as a wilderness volunteers in Grand Teton National Park in WY, living without running water or electricity. To learn more about Jean, her books, GRANDPA in Braille, or her summer “gig”, visit her website.
What do you never leave home without?
Bear spray. Of course, that’s only in the summer when I’m a wilderness volunteer in a National Park. I even take bear spray with me to the outhouse! When I take a nightly dip in the lake, I leave the spray at the water’s edge, just in case. Fortunately I’ve never had to use my spray, even though I see bears all the time. Once my husband sprayed a bear, but that’s another story.
The rest of the year I never leave home without my cellphone. Not so exciting, eh?
If every activity in life were an Olympic sport, what would you win the gold in?
Worrying. I’m an Olympic-caliber worrywart. As I’ve gotten older I’ve become less of a worrier, so I really should say I would have taken gold in the Junior Olympics. Tapping into my childhood worries helps when I write for kids, I hope.
If you could pass along a piece of wisdom to future generations, what would it be?
Unplug. Go for a walk or lie in the grass. Connect with nature, at nature’s pace. These days so often connecting with nature means accumulating bragging rights: swim with dolphins, pet a sting ray, bag a peak, etc. Slow down and discover everyday miracles in nature.
If you were looking at an abstract piece of art, what would your general reaction be?
WTF? By the way, the “F” stands for “Freak.” What word were you thinking?
What concept or product has surprisingly never been invented?
Baby wigs. I love bald-headed babies (and toddlers), but some folks seem embarrassed about their bald-headed babies. Think of the possibilities! When you visit a wealthy aunt with red curly hair, your baby could sport a red, curly-haired wig.
What is the weirdest thing about your relatives?
Weird?! My relatives aren’t weird. But they do read all my interviews. Heh, heh. (Email me privately if you want to hear more.)
What one thing have you kept over the years for no good reason?
Glasses with old prescriptions. I would have to wear two pairs together to add up to my current prescription. That would be attractive, wouldn’t it?
When do you know someone is exceptionally smart?
When someone thinks outside the box and is simultaneously insightful, open-hearted, and humorous. I cherish these qualities, particularly when they come from the most unexpected corners of our humanity.
What one thing is unfortunately true?
Our son, John, died in 2005. My first book, ALWAYS MY BROTHER, is told from the perspective of the surviving sister. The book doesn’t exactly mirror our own family’s story, but it does tap into the emotions and experiences of our loss. I make sure every book I write (even my happy, silly books) has a bit of John in them. It’s a gift to me and my family. And it celebrates his life for others to enjoy.
What obstacles have you had to deal with in your career?
Over three hundred rejections! Even my New York Times bestselling HOW TO BABYSIT A GRANDPA had twenty-nine rejections. It’s the nature of this career. With each rejection I try to improve something in the manuscript. Of course, sometimes all I manage to do is whine and complain and eat chocolate.
How did you pick your writing genre?
When my kids were little, I found myself fussing at them more than I care to admit. But when we sat down on the couch with a stack of picture books, we entered a magical world together. All the “shoulds” melted away, and “time” became suspended. That is when I first considered writing picture books. To think an author (and illustrator) could create such magical, connecting moments for families seemed like such a joyous, noble calling. Wow! Of course, I learned picture books are much more difficult to write than I initially thought. But at least they’re less bulky than longer genres.
How do you know when a book is finished?
Truth be told, I keep tweaking my books even after they’re published. When I do read-alouds, I still find myself changing or adding words. If I’m reading with someone who’s just learning to read I stick to the actual words! I struggled to learn how to read as a kid, so I’m super empathetic towards early readers.
When did you know for certain that you wanted to pursue a career in writing? Have you ever questioned that decision?
About ten years ago, early in my dream of becoming published, I ranted while opening one form rejection after another, all starting with, “Dear Author.” When I finally paused, my son said, “But Mom, they’re calling you ‘author.’” After he died, his words echoed in my heart. How could I stop writing?
And then after I’d suffered many, many rejections for ALWAYS MY BROTHER, a story about sibling loss, I sought feedback from a young woman who’d lost her only sister at age nine. She read my manuscript and said, “This was me.” I knew then that I’d created an authentic story, that as a book, could be a helpful, healing resource. I was determined to persevere until it was published.
What traits, if any, do you think that creative people have compared to people who are not creative?
This may sound trite, but I think all people are creative. Some folks may not be artists of any sort because of their inclination or the options available in their lives. But every person navigates through their world creatively.
Do you do anything special to get your creative juices flowing?
When I’m flummoxed by a writing problem, I either go for a walk alone or I take a bath. Then, often the muse offers up a solution. It’s so exhilarating when a phrase or scene pops into my head, seemingly out of nowhere.
I’m a very social person, so when I’m stuck I also seek ideas from others. Sometimes I “steal” those ideas directly, or more often they trigger new ideas of my own.
What are your words of wisdom for someone starting out in the field of writing?
Join and actively participate in the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.
Join or start a critique group. There is ABSOLUTELY no way I would have become a published author without my critique group. In fact, my critique buddies should be listed as co-authors on all my books. That’s the truth!
Enter writing contests and sign up for manuscript critiques at conferences. This way you’ll receive invaluable feedback on your writing before you land your first contract.
Celebrate every little step you take towards fulfilling your goal. I mean every little baby step. Also help others around you celebrate their baby steps.
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