Sunday, February 19, 2017

Emily Jenkins & the Fun of Playing with Words

Author Emily Jenkins loves to play with words, so it's not surprising that she's long been a fan of the picture books written by Ruth Krauss. Among Jenkins' favorites are Krauss' A Very Special House and I Want to Paint My Bathroom Blue (both illustrated by Maurice Sendak). One favorite verse, from I Want to Paint My Bathroom Blue, goes like this:

 "I'll make a big white door
with a little pink doorknob --
and a song about the doorknob goes
a doorknob a doorknob
a dear little doorknob
a dearknob a dearknob
a door little dearknob...."

In fact, it was that "dearknob" verse that Jenkins was chanting with her two daughters one day when they were taking a walk. "And then at one point, we saw a greyhound, and I started playing with the rhythm using the word 'greyhound,'" Jenkins told a crowd gathered at my library recently after reading her newest picture book, A Greyhound, A Groundhog. "The book really came from that rhythm and those sounds before it came from any characters."

In A Greyhound, A Groundhog, Jenkins uses just a few words, but plays with them to create a story that is both whimsical and action-packed, and is totally fun to read aloud. Here's an example: “A round hound, a grey dog, a round little hound dog. / A greyhog, a ground dog, a hog little hound dog”. The lively watercolor illustrations by Chris Appelhans perfectly match Jenkins' text, making A Greyhound, A Groundhog "a feast for the eyes and ears," Kirkus put it. The book already has won great critical praise, include five starred reviews.

Jenkins came to my library, as part of our partnership with Politics & Prose Bookstore, to promote A Greyhound, A Groundhog. During the program, Jenkins also read and talked about two other recent picture books she's written: Toys Meet Snow, published in 2015 and illustrated by Caldecott Medalist Paul O. Zelinsky, and another just-published book, Princessland, which features artwork by Yoko Tanaka.

Toys Meet Snow is the first picture book that connects with the popular Toys Go Out chapter book trilogy written by Jenkins and also illustrated by Zelinsky. The books highlight the adventures of an unlikely trio of toys -- StingRay and Lumphy the buffalo, both plush toys, plus Plastic, a red rubber ball. Jenkins said at the library program that that there likely will be another Toys picture book in the next couple of years, although there are no plans for any further chapter books.

Meanwhile, in Princessland, Jenkins said that she was trying to both recognize the princess craze that many young kids, especially girls, go through while also pushing the boundaries a bit. "I like a good princess as much as the next person," Jenkins said with a grin. "...they're just fun! However, when my daughters were in their intense princess phase, I was always looking for what I would call 'feminist' princess books."

So, in Princessland, the main character, a girl named Romy, complains one day of being bored and wanting to be in "Princessland." Romy heads outside, accompanied by her talking cat, who asks her what Princessland is actually like. As Romy explains that, for example, the princesses can look out of their tall castles and see for miles, the cat leads her up a tree where -- yes -- she can see for miles. And so it goes, as Romy comes to understand that all of the things that she likes best about Princessland are actually in her own world, if she chooses to see them. Jenkins' story makes a point, but is never heavy-handed, while Tanako's colorful illustrations have plenty of glitzy details to satisfy young princess fans.

While Jenkins was focused on picture books in the recent program, she is a multi-talented writer who also writes chapter books for kids ages 7-10. In addition, using the nom de plume E. Lockhart, she's the author of several young adult novels. As a child, Jenkins always wanted to be a writer, but that changed in high school and college, when she became enamored of theater. Still, Jenkins ended up majoring in English, and then earned a master's and finally a doctorate in English literature.

It was while she was finishing her doctorate that Jenkins realized that what she really wanted to do was write. Over the years, she has published 44 books, which she characterized to the library audience this way: "Four books are for babies, 19 are picture books, 10 are young middle grade, nine are young adult, and two are for grown-ups. I wrote those two a long time ago, before I realized that I'd much rather write for kids."

For chapter book readers, Jenkins writes the Invisible Inkling series, and is one of three authors of the Upside-Down Magic series. (The other two authors are Sarah Mlynowski and Lauren Myracle. ) And, as young adult author E. Lockhart, Jenkins has won acclaim for such books as We Were Liars and The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, which was a National Book Award finalist. Asked at the program if she likes to write for young adults, Jenkins replied that "writing for teenagers is being in an angst place -- a place of humiliation, a place of longing, a place of fury, a place of rejection of your family of origin.

"Even in comedies, it's still a fraught place to be. So I don't want to be there all the time. I don't want to spend all my life in that head-space. Sometimes I just want to be in the Upside-Down Magic headspace!"

END NOTES: Thanks to Emily Jenkins for a wonderful library program. Thanks to Kathy Dunn and the other Penguin Random House folks for sending her to my library. Thanks to Politics & Prose for our great partnership. And thanks to Bruce Guthrie for taking great photos of the event!