Jean Reidy is the author of picture books Too Purpley!, Too Pickley!, and Too Princessy!, the Colorado Book Award winner Light up the Night, and Time Out for Monsters!
Her latest picture book, All Through My Town, publishes this week. Kirkus Reviews says “Richard Scarry has some competition” and School Library Journal says “This spirited picture book is as much fun to browse through as it is to read.” All Through My Town has also been included on the Kids Indie Next List.
My workspace is a sunny, small room–sometimes a veritable green house — which sits above the entryway in my house. That sunlight comes from a wall of huge windows that open to my front yard and street, so I can see the comings and goings of my cul-de-sac.
Then through the double doors and more windows on the opposite side, I have a direct shot of my backyard. Lovely–especially in winter.
The space was once a bonus room where we kept a desktop computer, reference books and supplies–my kids took it over as their homework area. But two years ago, when my youngest left for college, I de-cluttered it, bought some inexpensive, durable shelving, an extra filing cabinet and created a space– albeit small–that was all mine.
The rest of my house is a flurry of color, pattern and family pictures–which I love too. But for my office I wanted a clean, composed, calm space. It’s my attempt at keeping my mind uncluttered. And sometimes it works.
Describe a typical workday.
Make coffee. Check e-mail. Pray. Take care of business–school visits, promotion, family stuff, finances, etc. Write. Workout. Check e-mail. Write some more.
Do you see an interesting order here? Writing has slipped to fifth place on the list which, after all the “business,” often feels like tenth or eleventh or twentieth. But I’m beginning to change that up a bit.
When my kids were young, before social media or even e-mail were big, I used to write first thing in the morning. I’ve been trying, lately, to put writing before everything else in my day–well, except for the coffee. When I do, the muse sings a little louder. She’s not crowded out with my inbox and other competing distractions. The only other thing I’d consider putting first is praying. Both praying and writing seem to start the day in a better and more fruitful way.
List three of your most favorite things in your workspace and why they are meaningful.
1. My windows. I’m not good at being holed up. I need a connection to the rest of the world. When I was young I always did my homework at the kitchen table and not at a bedroom desk. I needed to be tapped into the people and life around me. Now, when my husband is home, I’ll still work at the kitchen table to enjoy that connection. During the rest of the week, when I’m alone again, the windows provide that. Plus, I have some of the best artwork right there behind the glass.
2. My shelves and shelves of kids books. I gathered up many of my favorite children’s books from around the house and tried to squeeze them into my office. Then I tossed some cozy blankets on the floor, complete with a few friends, for young visitors who might stop in.
I’d love to add more bookshelves for the rest of my kids’ books, but I’m running out of space. I have one remaining, narrow wall space that could hold either more shelves or more filing cabinets. Tough decision. The filing cabinets might win. Because while I’d love to corral every kids’ book into my cozy little space, I also love knowing that they have a grand and visible presence in most rooms of my house. My hope is that in just about any room, a children’s book might have a chance of catching a reader.
3. My Roget’s Thesaurus. NERD ALERT!I received it when I was young, pre-middle school, as a Christmas gift. My oldest sister mentioned a thesaurus once when she was doing a crossword puzzle and I thought “What is this amazing, magical word book of which she speaks?” And I asked for one for Christmas. I actually asked for a Thesaurus. I warned you–nerd! And Santa (I always knew he was a literary type at heart) brought me the wonderful hardback that sits on my desk.
Surprisingly, it’s still my go-to reference. I have other synonym books, but none can compare to my Roget’s.
Do you have any rituals in your work habits? If so, describe them.
Calling my kids and having them make me laugh. I’m attracted to weird humor. And my kids can really dish it out. My timing isn’t always the best, though. For example, I’ll call and say, “Tim, what was that thing you said last week that made me laugh?” And he’ll be like, “Mom, I’m at work. Can I call you later?” And I’ll be like, “Come on. Come on. I think it was something about cottage cheese.” Anyway, you get the picture. I love laughing until I cry. And I need doses daily. Then I attempt to translate that feeling into picture books. It’s my business way of justifying those silly calls.
What do you listen to while you work?
Nothing. I like quiet. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a music freak. But when I’m working, even instrumental music bugs me. When I’m not working, I have fairly eclectic tastes, but the tunes that rise to the top are those that I can sing VERY, VERY LOUD when I cook and do other things. I’m a huge Beatles fan–mostly the oldest stuff, reminiscent of the vinyl 45 with “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and “I Saw Her Standing There” on the flip side. Music, for me is like a little reward at the end of the day, when I’m folding laundry or cooking–not writing.
What is your drink and/or snack of choice while you’re working?
Yogurt, coffee, tea, carrots, and hummus–pretty boring, right? I used to be addicted to Wheat Thins. But then I regressed to Nilla Wafers. Must be something about the whole writing for children thing. Wheat Thins were feeling way too sophisticated.
What keeps you focused while you’re working?
Actually, getting away from the computer is the ticket. And that’s a bit of a problem because my computer is my tool of choice, most of the time . . . which I guess leads to our next question.
Do you write longhand, on a computer, or another way?
I like to switch it up. When I write longhand it’s usually on scrap paper. I relate to that whole psychology of not wanting to get too precious, too early with my writing. So scrap paper and pencil it is.
How do you develop your story ideas? Do you use an outline, let the muse lead you, or another technique?
For picture books, it’s not so much an outline as a list, or in some cases a table. Tables are great for rhyming picture books because they allow me to brainstorm words under categories, play around with order and view text options side-by-side. I also use tables to predict page turns and payoffs–those fundamental scene change-ups that pull readers through a story. But even before that, the bare bones of my picture book ideas are these growing lists of phrases, words, images, and dialog that flesh out the original idea.
For novels, I start with a list–scene ideas, character ideas, bits of dialogue. Then I move into an outline. Then a more detailed outline. Then a draft. Then some free writing in character. Then probably another draft. It’s an evolving process. I’ll let you know if it works.
If you were forced to share your workspace but could share it with anyone of your choosing, who would it be?
My agent and editors. Then I could simply toss ideas their way and say “What about this?” But most of all, because they are wonderful and wonderfully fun people. I wish we all lived closer.
What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve heard or received?
I’ve benefitted from so much great advice over the years. And I’m forever indebted to the people who’ve shared it. But there is one thing I like to keep in front of me, kind of my go-to quote, where I try to land with all my kidlit writing. It is this simple phrase from editor Allyn Johnston “. . . the true goal of all this work we do together: a child, a story, and a deep and long-lasting connection between them.” That, in my mind, says it all.