I grew up in the Boston area in the 1970s. My mother was a preschool teacher and my father a playwright. I remember visiting my mother’s classroom and reading to the children there; even more vividly, I remember sitting in the back row of theater after theater, watching rehearsals—seeing stories come to life. My mother read me countless picture books, but at my father’s house there wasn’t much of that nature. He read me what was at hand: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Sherlock Holmes stories. He also made up stories for me and recounted the plots of Shakespeare’s plays.
I was a raw child. In fact, I am a raw adult. This is a hard quality to live with sometimes, but it is a useful quality if you want to be a writer. It is easy to hurt my feelings, and I am unable to watch the news or read about painful subjects without weeping. I was often called oversensitive when I was young, but I’ve learned to appreciate this quality in myself, and to use it in my writing.
Growing up, I spent large parts of my life in imaginary worlds: Neverland, Oz, and Narnia, in particular. I read in the bath, at meals, in the car, you name it. Around the age of eight, I began working on my own writing. My early enterprises began with a seminal picture book featuring a heroic orange sleeping bag, followed by novel-length imitations of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren.
I have never kept journals or notebooks for my own sake. I am a writer who writes always with the idea of an audience in mind—and at nine I was determined to share my Pippi story with the world. I got my father to type it up in a book format and photocopy it fifty times. Then he took me to an artist friend’s studio, where we silkscreened fifty copies of a drawing I’d made for the cover. I gave it to everyone I knew. That was my first book.
I have always been interested in picture books as a form, which stems (I suppose) from my background in theater. I am fascinated by the intersection of words and images— the way the meanings of words can be altered by changing their presentation. An actor varies her intonation or an illustrator changes a line—and the story is new. In college, I studied illustrated books from an academic standpoint. I went to Vassar, where children’s book writer Nancy Willard was on the faculty. She introduced me to illustrator Barry Moser, and the interview he gave me was the centerpiece of my senior thesis. While I was there, I spent three years as a student assistant in Vassar’s lab pre-school, and after graduation found work as an assistant teacher in a Montessori school, teaching six- to nine-year-olds. That year, I began to write a novel with my father—through the mail. I was in Chicago and he was in New York. We thought it would be a fun way to keep in touch. I wrote a chapter—then he wrote a chapter. We rewrote each other’s chapters. And rewrote them again. It took a long time, but eventually that story was published as The Secret Life of Billie’s Uncle Myron.
Now I write full time (except when parenting) in a tiny little office in Brooklyn, accompanied by two plump and ancient cats. The walls are raspberry-colored and lined with pictures by the artists I’ve worked with.
Emily Jenkins writes books for both adults and children. She has a doctorate in English literature from Columbia and reviews children’s books for The New York Times. At New York University, she teaches a course in writing for children.