While my consulting work doesn't directly influence the specific stories I choose to tell, I think it does help inform my writing. A big part of my job involves spending a lot of time talking to children about what’s important to them. There's no better way to key in on authentic kid needs, wants, and dialogue than to surround yourself with them!
Although you write for the YA audience, what writing skills, tips, or techniques did you carry over from your years doing research for Sesame Street?
I think the biggest thing I carry with me from my years at Sesame Street is a true respect for children of all ages. There is never a reason to dumb things down for them, whether they be preschoolers or teens.
Explain how you drew upon your experiences with your Hungarian grandmother while writing your novel Impossibly Perfect.
My Hungarian grandmother--my Omama--was a huge influence on my childhood and even though she passed away fifteen years ago, she remains a regular topic of family conversation as we all strive to live up to her standards.
She accomplished so much in her life. As a Jewish girl growing up in Hungary in the 1930’s, there were very few educational opportunities. Still, she managed to enter, and eventually be named valedictorian of, an all boys’ Catholic high school. She moved to Prague for medical school and graduated a year early so she could leave before the Nazis closed in. In America, she worked as a successful OB-GYN for over 50 years.
But moving beyond her accomplishments, it was her larger than life personality that inspired me to write about her. She was strikingly beautiful and always dressed like a queen, delivering babies in high heels, full makeup, and jewels. A Hungarian word we often associate with her is “csinos” (pronounced CHI-noshe). It’s the standard of beauty and all-around excellence that she lived by, and expected us to as well.
Here is a passage from my manuscript IMPOSSIBLY PERFECT, explaining what "csinos" means:
The hairs on the back of my neck stood up straight at that [retracted] word. Csinos. I’d looked it up once in a Hungarian-English dictionary and couldn’t believe it when it said the definition was “pretty.” Pretty! As if that even began to cover it.
You see, in our family, csinos was the ultimate goal, the impossibly perfect standard. If you looked csinos, it meant that you looked the best you could ever possibly look in your entire life. It meant that you looked beautiful, tall, thin, young, or old (depending on if you were young trying to look old or old trying to look young).
It also meant no torn jeans, no underwear showing, no black because I’m too young to wear black, nothing too tight, nothing too baggy, nothing too old, nothing too trendy, nothing wrinkled, nothing that would embarrass Mom or Omama.
Omama was always csinos.
Mom was usually csinos.
I wanted nothing to do with csinos.
How does living in New York City influence your writing?
New York City is a great place for writers, there is so much inspiration everywhere! Just walking down the street you can overhear something that sparks an idea. There are also so many other writers who live here and it’s great to be a part of that community.
How did being nominated for the SCBWI's Sue Alexander Award in 2013 encourage you to keep on writing for young adults?
First of all, I can’t say enough good things about SCBWI. I highly recommend that anyone who writes for kids join and go to events and conferences! I’ve been going to conferences for about six years now and I can honestly say my life is better for it. I have been inspired, my writing has improved, and I’ve made lifelong friends.
Being nominated for the 2013 Sue Alexander Award was pretty mind-blowing. It validated that even though I’m not published yet (or rather, that I’m pre-published, as they say in SCBWI), I’m on the right track, doing what I’m meant to do. I am so thankful for the boost of confidence that the nomination has given me!
Jen Shulman grew up in Syracuse, New York where she read, and then re-read, everything she could get her hands on. She went on to earn a BA in Communications and English from the University of Pennsylvania and an MA in Communications and Education from Columbia University, Teacher’s College. When she's not writing YA contemporary novels, she work as a consultant for children's television shows and toy companies. Jen started out her career in 1995 at Sesame Street and now consults for many different companies, including Nickelodeon, Disney, and LEGO. She can be found online at jennifershulman.com and Tweeting @jenshulman.
So many possibilities! Listening to characters—they tell me where the story needs to go. Listening to children—they know so much more than the world gives them credit for. (The best advice I ever received as a parent was never to ask a child a question I already knew the answer to.) Listening to feedback from critique partners and of course from professional critiquers like Carrie Howland, my agent—an essential reality check about how the words on the page compare with the story in my head. Listening in general—because it’s so easy to fall into the habit of describing things only visually, when sounds, smells, tastes, and textures/temperatures can make a scene so much more alive. And listening in coffee shops—because a really nice perk of being a writer is that eavesdropping counts as professional development.
In what way would you say writing is therapeutic?
Oh, I don’t know: “therapeutic” suggests fixing a problem, but for me writing is more often a reminder to accept, even embrace, imperfection. My eighth-grade self is still very much with me most days—which can be challenging at a staff meeting or social event, but writing validates that she’s an essential, and sometimes not totally unlikeable, part of who I am.
I will say that most days at lunchtime, when the weather allows, I bring my laptop outside to Franklin Square, on K Street in DC—and the Vitamin D from the sunshine is definitely therapeutic. I would imagine this would be much harder for someone who works in a different art form, like a harpist or a sculptor.
Why do you think community should play an important part in your characters' journey?
Well, it’s played a huge part in my journey as a writer: undergraduate writing workshops; the 12 x 12 online community where I became brave enough to cross over into picture books; the Children's Book Guild of Washington DC, an invaluable source of friends and mentors; my beloved writing group that evolved to become "family" somewhere in our second decade together . . . and of course SCBWI!
In terms of my characters’ journeys—I’ve always felt that their journeys are theirs to experience, and my job is to convey them as accurately as possible. So while community definitely is part of many of those journeys—Tillmon County Fire is told from multiple characters’ points of view, as the community itself is maybe a character in the novel—but I find that anytime I try telling my characters what “should” be part of their journey, they remind me that they have plans of their own and that my role is to sit down and type.
Why do you think it is important for writers to include a diverse lineup of characters in their books?
Earlier this year, I read Robert Putnam’s book Our Kids—and it’s alarming how, even in the course of a generation, kids are more and more often spending their entire childhoods (neighborhood, school, summer, activities) with kids who, by any demographic measure, are exactly like themselves. Authors and illustrators have a big role to play, because sometimes we may be a kid’s best hope at meeting someone different. What a responsibility, to remember that the books being written today will shape the worldviews of people who will be leading countries and movements 50 years from now. My (Jewish) 10-year-old feels this need as well: she is currently organizing an effort to convince the American Girl company of the need for a Muslim American Girl book and doll.
So—while I don’t think we can dictate our characters’ journeys, I do think we have a big responsibility to ensure that the stories being written reflect the many, many lives of children today. And we need to keep reminding publishers, booksellers, and the book-buying public that their help is needed to launch these stories out into the world.
PJ Library has been such a wonderful partner to work with in the arena of Jewish children’s books—I so wish that another nonprofit would jump on this idea and begin mailing out free books with other multicultural emphases. What a great way to get publishers to take a chance on titles that might not be obvious bestsellers…I wonder if your blog audience might include any diversity-minded philanthropists who are searching for a next project!
What does "writing with your feet" mean?
When I was a sophomore in college, I skipped a class (felt so rebellious!) to attend a presentation by one of my favorite authors, Bobbie Ann Mason. I arrived early and sat in the front row—then found myself unable to focus on what she was saying, because I kept noticing her shoes: plain canvas sneakers similar to ones that I and almost everyone else I knew wore all the time. I kept imagining her standing in line at a big box store, having her purchase rung up, and paying for her shoes—without the cashier having the slightest idea that this was a super-great and amazing author buying sneakers in his check-out line!!! To that imaginary cashier, Bobbie Ann Mason was just a regular person. And if authors could be regular people—that was my first glimpse that regular people could sometimes maybe be authors. Maybe even—dare I hope for it?—me.
In a row of feet, no one can tell which ones belong to a writer. For me, writing with our feet means embracing the most ordinary parts of ourselves and our experiences—and trusting our voices to convey their humor, interest, and value.
Pamela Ehrenberg is the author of Ethan, Suspended & Tillmon County Fire, both published by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers; and Planting Parsley, forthcoming from PJ Books. She lives in Washington, DC, with her two favorite young readers and can be found at pamelaehrenberg.com and Tweeting @PamelaEhrenberg.