Learning how stories are told
I’m Emily Jenkins and I’m the author of a number of picture books and chapter books, including the Toys Go Out series and Lemonade in Winter and Upside-Down Magic.
My father is a playwright. His name is Len Jenkin without the S, and I grew up going to rehearsals with him and sitting in the back of the theater and watching actors rehearse his work. And this was a very influential experience for me because I could see how a shift in staging changed the way the story was told.
I could see how when you added lights or costumes, the story changed. I could see how an actor being substituted for an old actor changed the way the story was told. It was like watching editing kind of in action. So, I think that was the most influential part of my life in terms of my relationship to literature.
Horror comics and Pippi Longstocking
But yeah, my parents did read to me. And my dad’s house in particular had — my parents were divorced when I was very young, and I would go and visit my dad and he did not have any children’s books. What he had was Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and the complete EC horror comics, and these were horror comics from the 1950s that he had grown up with.
So, this was the literature of his childhood, and they are disgusting, like vile, terrifying stories of like evil people and monsters and there’s like a crypt keeper and a vault keeper who are like these really creepy scary-looking dudes who introduce all the stories. They’re like the hosts. And I read these over and over and over. I do not think they were necessarily appropriate reading, but they are, you know, jam-packed action storytelling and they were vivid and thrilling.
The reason I remember the horror comics is that they were so different from my regular reading, and being exposed to something radically different and then revisiting it over and over, right. I would go to visit my dad and those horror comics would still be there lurking in their disgusting way on the shelf. And it was like a doorway into another world, but the world that I was usually in was the world of children’s literature very much. I was Montessori educated, which meant that I had a huge amount of freedom in choosing my own reading and reading at my own pace.
And I wrote extensive stories in imitation of two of my favorite writers in third and fourth grade. I wrote an imitation of Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren and another imitation of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken. And those books really wormed their way into my spirit as I tried to imitate what those storytellers had done.
Adding to the history of stories
All stories are part of a history of stories, and I do think that’s important for kids and for emerging writers to know. My Toys Go Out series, which is a series about toys who have a secret life is, you know, in a continuum with, in a conversation with Winnie the Pooh and the Raggedy Ann stories that I grew up with and with work by later writers like The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo or the Toy Story movies.
So, toy stories are always going to be in conversation with one another and magic school stories like Upside-Down Magic are in conversation with the Magic School stories that have come before and those have a long history too. So, I think that when kids start to write, it is very natural for them to write in conversation with the books that they love, and that is a great skill-building exercise, right.
You love stories with knights and dragons let’s imagine. So, you’ve read a bunch of them so of course you want to write one. And all right, what are you bringing to the conversation, right? How is your knight like you? How is your dragon like you, right? How are their feelings like your feelings? What are you borrowing from this writer? What are you borrowing from that writer, right? This I think is very empowering to kids. It was certainly empowering to me as a way of thinking about my own writing.
When I go into classrooms and schools, I sometimes see kids who are being encouraged only to write about their own everyday experiences, memoir essentially. And they aren’t yet understanding that you can take your own emotional life and put it into a dragon, your own emotional life and use that as a way of having a conversation with the stories that you love or with that history of stories that have come before your story.
Reading with your writer’s hat on
When I teach adults to write, which I do, one thing we talk a lot about is reading as a writer, which is different than reading to analyze, and it’s also different than reading for pleasure. So, when you read with your writer’s hat on, you might stop and notice the techniques that a writer is using to make you interested in the story or to create investment in a character.
Why do you care about this character or how does that writer make you curious to find out what will happen next or how does that writer deal with handling like oh, the backstory, the stuff that happened before, right, the stuff you need to explain? How did they get here right, who are they? There are a lot of different techniques for that, and you might read through a book and say oh, I see, this writer’s doing that.
And in this other similar story this writer did this other thing. What am I going to do? So, I very often assign my students to read books that are similar to what they want to write. They don’t always like this, but I do think it’s very useful. So, for me to go and read other people’s toy stories might be very useful because I can get ideas not for the story, the heart of the story I want to tell so much as, you know, how do they handle the — do toys eat? I don’t know.
Some toys eat. Other toys don’t eat. What’s the logic of the magic in toy stories that I admire and how is it laid out, right? Is it explained upfront at some point? Is it not explained upfront? Do we just figure it out? Is it maybe even inconsistent and is that okay, right? So, I can read with that eye. I might do that after my first draft. I might try getting out my first draft, and I encourage my students to write that first draft without worrying too much about techniques, too much about what other people have written, but then I think it’s very useful to go and read as a writer.
Shaping the reading experience with words and pictures
When I go into schools and I’m talking to students about creativity, one thing I like to emphasize is the connection between what writers do and what artists do because I write picture books and I have art to show to the students, and I very often hold up a slide of this spread from my book What Happens on Wednesdays, which is illustrated by Lauren Castillo.
And I point out that artists always have control over what their viewers will notice, what their viewers will think is important, and that every time anybody makes a picture, that person is controlling how other people are going to see the world. This is my Brooklyn neighborhood, and Castillo went to the neighborhood and made the pictures while looking at the neighborhood.
You see the father and daughter one, two, three times in this picture. They are the brightest thing in the picture and they happen three times. So you can tell that it’s them and their walk that is important. Everything else is kind of washed out. And if you walked around this neighborhood in Brooklyn, there would be cars on the street blocking the people on the sidewalk.
The street is actually a lot wider and there are cars on both sides. Castillo put cars in, but they’re just black and white so — and they don’t go all the way around the street at all. So, she decided to leave the cars out so that you could focus on the people and to wash the colors out and make the people bright so that you can follow them.
They are red. They have a lot of red in them. They’re going to this red bagel store. So, it’s easy to show and to see what Castillo was doing and how much control she had over what she left out and what she highlighted. And then I talk about the way that writers do the same thing. We leave things out and we brighten things up so that we are controlling the reading experience for our readers.
The emotional life of children
Most of the time I am trying to write while thinking about the emotional life of a child. So, in Toys Go Out those toys have a lot of the same feelings that kids do. They are not grownup toys; they are kid toys. And they want to play with their friends and be the boss of the game. They want to be beloved by their little girl who, you know, they belong to, and they worry when she leaves them alone and they worry when she takes them out. And they are jealous of one another sometimes and they quarrel and have to make up and they’re very curious.
So, I’m always writing thinking about them as coming from my own emotional life as I remember it as a child. And I think that’s true even in my animal stories like Skunkdog. The protagonist of Skunkdog is a dog, and she has no dog friends because she can’t smell and you know how dogs like to sniff around each other.
Well, she can’t sniff around because she can’t smell and so she doesn’t really know how to talk to other dogs and she’s lonely and she ends up befriending a skunk when her family moves to the country. And she is so excited to have an animal to be friends with, but the skunk keeps spraying her when it gets cranky and she becomes this very, very disgustingly smelly dog. So, a lot of it — there’s a lot of gross-out humor. It’s my smelliest book and, you know, there’s a lot of doggy antics in it.
But at the heart of that story is a story about navigating a new friendship, about feeling lonely among people that you’re supposed to be friends with and looking for somebody a little different to be friends with and, you know, how do you work out how to be together, you know, or about disappointing your family. The family is really not happy about this dog—skunk friendship, right. What do you do?
You know, if your family wants you to stop being friends with somebody, do you obey or do you not obey? How can you tell when you should be obedient and when you should not be obedient? This is a dog problem, but it’s also a young person problem.
Wearing your “noticing goggles”
Something I talk about with students when I go into schools is noticing. And we all stop for a minute and we notice the classroom or the library that we’re in. We notice how it smells, which always makes people laugh. We listen to the sounds and we also notice our own feelings like I’ll say, “My shoes are too high. I wish I hadn’t worn these high heels,” or “I’m kind of hungry. Is it lunchtime yet?”
You know, I say look at your feelings in your body and then look at your emotions. As well as noticing what’s outside of you, notice what’s inside of you. And then I talk about Water in the Park, which is a book that came to be because I live next-door to a park and one summer it was 98 degrees almost every day. So, I would go out to the park with my baby daughter at six in the morning because that was the only time that it was cool at all to be out there.
And it was still hot, but, you know, you could still go down the slide at six in the morning. And we would wait for two things. One was for the dogs to arrive because dogs would come for their early‑morning walks and they would go swimming in this little pond by the park. And the other was for the sprinklers to be turned on, which happened around 7:00 but really whenever the park keeper felt like it.
And that got me started in thinking about all the ways that water was used in the park. So I tell the students that I went out to the park, you know, all through that summer and I just kind of kept my noticing goggles on so that I was looking around for water and what people were doing with it, but I also invite the students to be noticers in looking at the art in the book.
This is my favorite spread to show for that. It’s early in the morning when the dogs come to go swimming, and I start by asking them to look at Mr. Fluffynut and his person and I say, “What do you notice?” And they notice a lot. They can tell how she feels. They can tell how he feels. They can tell what words she is saying most likely.
Then we look over here and right away they can see that little Nonny is missing a leg and then they can think about what emotions his people are having — her people. She’s a girl, little Nonny. And I ask them what else they notice, and they’ll notice the cat running away from the dogs and they’ll notice the squirrel also running away from the dogs. This is like dog happy time and maybe not happy time for all the animals.
The turtles are slipping off their rocks. So they notice all of this and then we turn the page — it’s actually in a projection — and we can see Mr. Fluffynut and his person going home and we talk about all the things we notice in this picture. And by the time we’re done noticing everything, they are noticers and then I make the connection between them being noticers and them being writers because that is the starting point. You notice and you write down what you notice and maybe you have a poem or maybe you have the start of a story or maybe you have a science question.
The emotional life of cats (and toys)
I talked earlier about trying to write while thinking about the emotional life of children. And I definitely do that, but sometimes I also think about the emotional life of cats. I have a kitten now. He’s just turned one. And for many years I had two cats named Pongo and Mercy. And when Pongo and Mercy were young — so, really back in the olden days — they had fleas and worms and all kinds of gross kitty ailments because they were rescue cats.
And they were still pretty shy of people and I would have to take them to the vet for these ailments. So, what I would do — because I had a cat carrier. You know, you have to take a cat in a box to the vet. You can’t just carry them freestyle.
And then they would start to cry and they would just — they were terrified in that box and they would be like [meows] and my heart would sink because I love them and I had just betrayed them by wrapping them in a towel and shoving them in a dark box and now I was just going to take them outside to the terrifying veterinarian.
So, I started to think that maybe there was a story about cats in a cat carrier and how frightened they were and all the things that were going on in their minds while they were in this box. And pretty quickly that turned into three toys who had been shoved into a backpack and the backpack is dark and it smells like a wet bathing suit and they had been packed in the night while they were asleep so they wake up in this backpack and they begin to freak out about where they’re going.
Are they going to the terrifying zoo or to be dropped off and abandoned? Are they going to the garbage dump to be left there with the soggy old milk cartons and dirty green beans and things? Are they being taken to the vet? And they don’t even know what the vet is. They just know it’s bad news over there. And I wrote this story, and that was the beginning of the Toys Go Out series. So it came from thinking about my cats and how they felt.
Toys Meet Snow
Well, I wrote three Toys books, which were all chapter books. And for the third book the illustrator, Paul Zelinsky, and I went on tour. And I hadn’t been on tour for the second book for various personal reasons so this was the first time I had really been out on the road, you know, since the series had been out for such a long time. And one thing that we noticed was that there were quite a lot of kids who came to the bookstore events who were three and four years old.
And we had thought about this is a book for second, third, fourth-graders, and when we went to schools, that was totally true, but at these bookstores there were little kids holding stuffed buffalos and stuffed stingrays and we realized that the book was a read‑aloud for bedtime a lot of times for pretty young kids, and that is where we got the idea to make a picture book for those guys that might be just more visual, more age-appropriate for really little guys and then they might be interested in the Toys chapter books, you know, after having met these characters.
So, the challenge was to write a picture book not for people who already knew the toys, but for people who would be meeting them for the first time, the youngest readers. And but I’d already written three long books about these guys so I knew them really well and it was hard to figure out what parts of their personalities to bring out in the short space of a picture book.
And Stingray, for example, is a big know-it-all, and she often tells long untrue stories about stuff that she knows all about because she is insecure and she really wants to be important. In Toys Meet Snow Stingray does say outrageous things about the world, but there wasn’t enough room to explain all of the complicated things that go on with Stingray’s personality.
So I just chose that aspect of Stingray that gives an answer that is kind of a little bit magical and fantastical. So, when Lumphy says, “What is snow?” she says, “It’s tiny ballerinas,” and she becomes the poet in this book. And the more know-it-all liar parts of her personality are not really in evidence.
And Plastic is the reader and has always been the reader in the book — in the books. But in the chapter book she’s also the optimist and the bringer together of people. She’s also sometimes an avoider of difficult conversations. In this book I focus on her being the reader. So she’s the person who has read about snow. So she says it’s tiny frozen water, not tiny ballerinas. And I had to choose elements of their personalities only for this short book.
In Toys Meet Snow Stingray, Lumphy, and Plastic decide to go out into the snow for the first time. “Let’s go out,” says Lumphy. “I’m curious.” “Yes,” says Stingray. “It’s beautiful.” “Snow, snow, snow,” says Plastic, bouncing. “I’ve read about it, but I’ve never touched it.”
“I need a hat,” says Lumphy. He is often cold. “I need a plastic baggie,” says Stingray. She is dry‑clean only. “Poke me some air holes.” “I don’t need anything,” shouts Plastic. S”he just goes natural. And so with no small amount of effort, the toys go out into the snow.”
They have all kinds of adventures in the snow involving sledding, snow angels, icicles, and a lot of philosophical arguments about the nature of snow and what it symbolizes and what it is scientifically.
Picture books for all children
I believe very strongly that we need stories about all kinds of people written by writers of all different kinds. And I have often written characters who are a little different from me and also share some of my heart. I have not always done this wonderfully and sometimes I’ve done it well.
But I keep trying because one of the great things about being a writer is empathetic — empathetically connecting to the rest of the world.
And what it means in my own practice as a writer today is that I am excited especially to work with illustrators who can represent the Brooklyn world that I live in, which is very mixed or represent my story in the world that they, the illustrators, live in.
I often ask for illustrators of different backgrounds than my own, people whose work I have long admired because that allows me to get in a conversation with creators who have a different perspective than my own, and it allows me to have my stories reach kids who might not have been reached otherwise by my particular perspective.
So, to me the most important thing is to have dialogues with other picture book creators who have different ideas and to ask each other how we can make books for as many kids as possible and to touch kids from all different backgrounds and families too, but it’s an ongoing process that I’m learning from.
Well, one thing about being a picture book writer is that someone else is going to go and make the pictures and you might have some say about the pictures or you might have very little say. So, it is inherently a process of letting go and letting someone else make something beautiful and understanding that it is not 100 percent my book; it is a shared creation.
I think that experience has served me very well as a collaborator because in co-writing Upside-Down Magic with Sarah Mlynowski and Lauren Myracle, I just felt so happy to see what they were doing. They are so funny and they think of things that I would never think of in a million years. And my experience as a picture book writer meant that I was just excited to see what they did. I didn’t feel like I needed to control it, you know.
I was so excited that it had gone off in new and hilarious directions. They are two of my best friends and it’s also a wonderful change from the fairly lonely work of writing on your own, to be sending a manuscript back and forth, sometimes daily emails, sometimes, “Oh, I just rewrote this scene. Do you want to have a look?”
Sometimes the whole manuscript comes back with new things and you have never thought of them and there they are and now they’re part of the fabric of the book and they seem great mostly. So, it’s very energized, right, because there’s so much sharing. We’re trying to make each other laugh, and it’s a great way to balance the lonelier work that I do most of the time.
A multiplicity of possible meanings
When I go into schools, one question I get a lot is what message are you trying to give to children who read your books or maybe it’s a question about a specific book. My answer is always the same. If I could write a message, I would put it on a billboard or a bumper sticker. I wrote a story because what I have to say is much more complicated than a message. I don’t think fiction provides messages for the children who read the books.
I think fiction allows for a complicated exploration of something. So, I would encourage teachers and students and librarians to think about fiction as multilayered and as having a multiplicity of possible meanings, that if you are essentializing it as a single message, you are missing what is beautiful and amazing about fiction. So allow for contradictory interpretations, allow for conversations and different points of view, unpack the possible meanings of something and allow them to coexist.