Today’s guest blogger is author and illustrator Lisa Jahn-Clough.
I write and illustrate picture books for very young readers and write young adult novels for teens. My first book, Alicia Has a Bad Day was published in 1994. My sixteenth book, Nothing But Blue is out this month. I’ve been writing and drawing ever since I can remember, making my first little “storybook” when I was five.
My work and my life are intertwined, In fact it’s odd for me to think of my writing and illustrating as “work” when, really it is just my life.
As a toddler my mother, a painter, gave me all sorts of materials to make art. Mostly I was obsessed with making images of little girls. Occasionally I threw in another person or maybe two. Eventually I moved on to the rest of my family—mother, father, older brother, dog, numerous cats, some chickens and a couple of goats. I learned from my older brother. He was the one who threatened— I mean encouraged—me to draw other thing like monsters and aliens. But, it was my father who actually got me to write my stories into little books with stapled pages with words on one side and pictures on the other. My first book ever was about a little girl who had no friends. In the end she finds a friend. Low and behold, I titled this, “The Little Girl.”
I couldn’t wait to start school where I could write more. For the first few years I took full advantage of using that horizontal, wide-ruled, yellow paper to the best of my ability, writing stories and drawing pictures to go with them. Teachers loved me. As I got older, the art got smaller and the words got longer, until eventually the art disappeared altogether. I started to feel odd in school. I had several friends, I did activities, but I had so much I wanted to say and so much I wanted to understand. No one seemed to be thinking as deeply as I was. (Although they probably were). So I expressed it all ad nausea in journals. I thought I was going to grow up to write super sophisticated, dark and depressing literary short stories. My first attempt at publication was at age eleven. I wrote a story about a woman in a mental institution fantasizing about turning into a wolf and devouring the hospital staff. (Maybe this will become a YA novel someday). I just couldn’t understand why kids’ magazines like “Highlights” and “Cricket” rejected it, saying it wasn’t right for them.
All the while I secretly continued to make art, but was too embarrassed to admit I it. I did not want to define myself as an artist, since that’s what my mother was. I doodled here and there throughout high school and college, but mainly I pursed my dream of writing sophisticated stories. There was no creative writing in high school, just English papers. Not surprisingly this was a time when I went through great self-doubt. The only thing that saved me was writing in my journal and taking art classes for “fun.”
I continued this in college, although added a creative writing class to my learning. In workshops most comments were how my stories all sounded like they were for children. It wasn’t said as a compliment, either.
It wasn’t until after college, that I evolved my art and my writing into tiny books that I gave away to friends and occasionally sold on consignment in book and gift shops. The books were about a little girl who was generally happy, but not always. And I had them copied at the copy center and bound with a plastic binding. They were like glorified cards with a story and black and white doodles. But still I wanted to be a “real” writer, not a self-publisher of gift-books, and not a writer for children, even though I loved so many books as a child. So I went to graduate school, where I thought I would stop all the silliness and focus on what mattered.
But, as fate would have it, I ended up going to a school where Jack Gantos taught. Jack Gantos is a writer of picture books (Rotten Ralph) and numerous middle-grade and young adult novels (Joey Pigza series, Hole in My Life, etc…) Last year he won the Newbery Award for his novel, Dead End in Norvelt. Although back when I was in grad school he was doing his picture books and working on his first novel. Jack encouraged me, he thought what I was doing was intriguing and most of all, he saw that I was passionate about it even before I did. And he said I could do both—I could write and illustrate and write short stories, write novels, for any age! Basically he reassured me I could write what I wanted, as long as it came from my best abilities.
Since I liked my character from those gift books—a kooky bespectacled little girl—
I made more stories about her. I made several storyboards combining words and pictures. I made a “dummy” book. I sent it to publishers and got rejected. This is all rather boring but par for the course of getting published. Finally, I met with an editor saw potential and was will to string me along on a tiny thread of hope. A year later, this became my first picture book, Alicia Has a Bad Day.
Meanwhile I wrote a novel for my graduate thesis and graduated. I shelved the novel so I could go on, at my editor’s encouragement to do more picture books. This was the mid-90’s and picture books were still selling. Young Adult was most definitely not.
Flash forward ten years and nine picture books later, I’d been teaching part-time, doing books, had just moved to Maine, and I pulled out that dusty thesis novel, rewrote it and showed my editor. “It’s not bad,” he said. And this became my first novel, Country Girl, City Girl. Again, I am making it sound like it happened over-night, but it really didn’t. In some ways you could say that all my books began at the age of five and have taken this long to finally get right. Country Girl, City Girl is semi-autobiographical in that the main character is a bit of a dreamy loner who lives on a farm, but the rest is a conglomeration of things true and imagined.
Writing the novel wore me out, as novels tend to do. I missed the freedom of slathering paint on paper and minimizing word count. I needed to write a picture book again. This next one, Little Dog was based on my own mutt who was a stray in Puerto Rico, and the book is told from the dog’s perspective as he struggles to find love and a home.
After a year Little Dog was done, and I longed to write something long, to delve into subplots, flashbacks and descriptive passages. I tried my hand at a second novel. This one was based on all those pining, whining journals I wrote through my high school years. Each chapter is really more like a snippet. I wrote little snippets of this girl’s life until I had one hundred or so. Then I organized those snippets into a story with an arc. Again, the girl was loosely based on me, a teenager with an eccentric mother, longing to finish high school and find her own way in the world. The book became, Me, Penelope.
Then, big sigh here. It was 2008, the economy, including publishing went zooey—no one knew what was going to happen. My long-time editor decided, at 80 years-old,
I should also mention that up until this point in my life all my books were basically about one thing—a lonely character finding companionship through love or friendship, which is how I saw myself all through my childhood, teens, twenties and into my thirties. Marriage and children was never something I really wanted, but love, sure, who doesn’t want that? So I met someone (also a writer and an artist) and we did get married. Suddenly the lonely character no longer motivated me. I thought there was nothing else to write about. I missed my editor. I thought my writing career was done.
It took me a while—three years almost, but finally it came back to me and I realized there were still things to say, life was still complicated, it was just slightly different. But this is why the next picture book, Felicity and Cordelia: A Tale of Two Bunnies, follows two characters already together in the beginning. The story is not about finding a companion, but how to maintain individuality and still come back together. Loneliness and longing is a human condition—it ebbs and flows but it is experienced by everyone, whether together or not. I found an editor to publish this book, and now it was time for another to another novel.
Thus I began Nothing But Blue. This book is a departure for me, in that there is nothing remotely connected to my own life, except for Blue’s later connection to the dog, Shadow (but even that is unlike me, since initially Blue is afraid of dogs, and I have always loved dogs). I wanted to write about the symbiotic, almost magical bond between a human and a dog—how they can help each other.
Many years ago, an acquaintance of mine had the horrible experience of losing her house in a sudden gas explosion. She, luckily, was away when it happened but came back to a house that was demolished. She lost everything, literally everything, that is kept in one’s home. I started thinking how one would start over with nothing. Then (as writers do) I raised the stakes and thought what would happen if this were a teenager who had lost everything? What if her parents had been in the house, and she lost them, too? How would she survive with absolutely nothing? And what if she were a particularly shy and fearful girl, who had few friends or even relatives she could count on.
Another component for Nothing But Blue, is my curiosity and appreciation for alternative, “off-the grid” lifestyles. (Although traditional in many ways, my family has always had tendencies to live somewhat off the beaten track. We lived in Lapland for a year in a hut with no running water while my father studied lemmings. I spent childhood summers on an island in Maine with no cars, no electricity, and only one public telephone at the general store. My father was an avid hiker and camper and my brother goes on wilderness hikes where he doesn’t see another person for weeks.) I am interested in people who don’t live the “normal” way, whether as hermits or within a community.
Then, a few years ago, I met a young adult who had spent a good chunk of his teenage years traveling all across the country by hopping trains. I did more research and discovered there are numerous trainhopping individuals and communities in this country, and that even though it is extremely dangerous and illegal people do still hop trains.
One last related interest I have is the Buddhist philosophy of living in the complete present. Humans are so often consumed by burdens of fear, anger, hurt, and sorrow, dwelling on experiences from the past or projections of the future that it can make living in the present almost impossible. In my book I wanted a character who could only live in the present, as though she had no other option. I read spiritual philosophers such as Krishnamurti and Eckhart Tolle on the human condition and the power of now. In the case of Blue her resolution to only live in the moment helps her to carry on, along with learning how to accept help. Although ultimately, she comes to remember the past and she will have to deal with her future, but the novel is about the present.
So all of these interests—the dog-human bond, the horror and intrigue of my acquaintance whose home was demolished, my affinity with alternative life-styles, especially trainhoppers, my curiosity of life that has been stripped of all superficial possessions (esp. money and technology), and my curiosity of basic survival and living in the moment, all evolved into Blue’s journey. Nothing But Blue is really only a step of this journey, at the end she is about to begin another journey. But the important thing is that she has survived this part of her trip and comes to a moment of awareness.
Now that this novel is about to be released I have already begun the next book that will take me in a new direction.
All of my books, beginning with the tiny little book I wrote at five-years old, to my first publication and every picture book and novel since, takes me on a journey and teaches me something new. I have a deep and profound connection with my work and with life. The two will remain intertwined.
Lisa Jahn-Clough was born in the United States on a farm in Rhode Island and grew up on the coast of Maine with her zoologist father and artist mother, her brother and all sorts of animals, including dogs, cats, goats, chicken, sheep and a monkey. She turned a childhood passion for writing and drawing into a life-long career. Her first picture book came out in 1994 and is still in print. Since then she has published sixteen book for children and young adults. Her latest YA novel is Nothing But Blue (Houghton, 2013).
Lisa has an MFA in creative writing from Emerson College and has taught at a variety of colleges and universities. Currently she is Assistant Professor at Rowan Univ. in Glassboro, NJ. Lisa lives with her husband (the author/illustrator, Ed Briant) and their two dogs in Portland, Maine in the summer and southern NJ in the winter.
Trailer for Nothing But Blue: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IG6ZO-Qw2o8
Trailer for Felicity and Cordelia: A Tale of Two Bunnies: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZchiqWZxjOo