Conversations about Creativity
An Interview with Children’s Writer
Ideas & Choices
February 9, 2017
Juanita Havill has been writing children’s books for over thirty years. Among her forty-three books are picture books, early readers, middle grade novels, poetry, and a novel in verse. Her first book Jamaica’s Find won the Ezra Keats New Writer Award and was featured in Reading Rainbow. Havill has written six other books featuring the main character Jamaica. Two books of her poetry have been published: I Heard it from Alice Zucchini, Poems about the Garden and her verse novel Grow which won the Carol D. Reiser Children’s Book Award in 2009 and the Santa Monica Public Library Green Prize for Sustainable Literature Youth Fiction Award. Juanita’s poems have been published in many anthologies and she has written numerous articles for children and adults. A recurring theme in her picture books and novels is the challenge of making choices and the struggle to do the right thing. She believes that awareness, understanding, and knowledge will lead us to make better decisions about how we treat others as well as the natural world around us.
Ellen: How do you identify from the many ideas you have, the one – or ones – you want to prioritize and explore?
Juanita: Children’s book author and writing instructor Jane Resh Thomas used to say, “Write what haunts you” – advice that I tend to follow. I don’t write down an idea the moment it pops into my mind. I wait. The nature of haunting is that the “haunt” will return. Haunting doesn’t have to be terrifying. The important characteristic for me is that it is persistent. It takes up residence in my mind, this ghost of an idea, with occasional fleeting appearances, each one allowing me to gather more information which I begin to write down in a notebook. By the time the ghost makes a direct appearance and shows no sign of vanishing, I am ready to go deeper and write the story.
The ghost may be called up by something I’ve read or seen, by a conversation, an argument, an accident, a dream, etc. When I first met the five-year-old daughter of a friend, a middle child, the girl told me about accidentally falling into Lake Michigan. She added, “I’m the accident-prone one.” Somewhere in that encounter, in her words was a story. Whatever haunted me in my childhood – I was an accident-prone, middle child – informed the novel that I wrote for children, Leona in the Middle in the Water.
Ellen: Do you ever experience conflict in making the choice?
Juanita: Good question. Although I tend to be conflicted by, and overthink, choices in other aspects of my life, I don’t have much difficulty in choosing what to write. Being flexible helps as does permitting the project itself to choose me. A different kind of conflict arises when I am enthusiastic about an idea, begin developing it, and then discover that a book on the same subject has just been released. I see no reason why two books on the same subject cannot be released by different publishers, but the situation does give publishers pause. And creates conflict within me as I have to decide whether and how to continue.
Ellen: Have there been times when you do work on many potential books simultaneously, giving almost equal attention to the development of each, or do you find that one specific story becomes foremost in your mind, and therefore, you devote the majority of your time to thinking about it and developing it?
Juanita: I tend to focus on one project at a time. After the first draft, I set it aside and work on something else and then return to it later to revise with undivided attention. Sometimes while working on a longer project, I am bombarded by other story ideas. This usually happens when I’m about to reach an impasse or a challenging point, and suddenly I feel a great urge to write a poem or jot down the beginning of an entirely different story before returning to the initial project.
I usually write fiction and poetry but am currently researching a nonfiction project and have taken a different approach. I could research this project for the rest of my life and still feel there is more to discover and to know, and so while I continue to read books and interview people on the subject, I have also begun writing. Although my draft will need extensive editing, the writing helps guide me with respect to what scenes and people to include, how to present the information, and topics that need further research.
Ellen: Having a good concept is important, initially, but are you ever influenced by the time required of you to bring the story to a completion that satisfies you? Therefore, do you sometimes choose to write the easier-to-develop stories or poems first?
Juanita: The time challenge is real but not as critical as if I were working toward a publisher’s deadline after signing a contract. Thus far, I’ve only had contracts and, thus, deadlines, for educational publishers. Just as real is the problem of pronouncing a story finished when I’m not satisfied. If it were published, then I would have to confront the flaws, shortcomings, and where the story missed the mark. The reality is that most of them do. As Edith Wharton wrote, “I dream of an eagle, give birth to a humming bird.”
One way to help determine if my story is done to my satisfaction is to give it time. I write the first draft and set it aside, When I look at the story again later, what works and what doesn’t work are obvious. The challenge is giving myself enough time for that second look and reaction and accepting that there is always the possibility that the manuscript will not satisfy me. I have folders of stories “in progress” that await some magic to make them right.
Ellen: So you now have an idea that resonates with you. Could you tell us something about how you begin the actual writing process?
Juanita: I think you could say I begin by pre-writing. I carry the idea around until it becomes so heavy, I can’t carry it any more. I set it down and start creating the plot, setting, and characters. Writing at this stage is in the form of notes, scenes, description of characters, their activities. I often write longhand on legal notepads or in small note books. If the story is to be a picture book, I can sometimes scribble a draft in a few hours or, at least, write until I run out of steam. In early drafts the ending is vague or non-existent. I know how the story is supposed to end, but I haven’t come up with an ending that flows naturally from the story. “Happily ever after” may work for fairy tales, but with realistic stories I find that endings that reflect the main character’s attitudes resonate more convincingly than pronouncements by the author. An example is from my novel in verse, Grow, told in the point of view twelve-year-old Kate, the main character. She concludes the ups and downs of her adventures in creating an urban garden with her adult friend and neighbor, Berneetha, by writing a poem:
I stare at the notebook paper
thin blue lines
that I’m supposed to be writing on,
pink ups-and-down stripes
to keep me
across the margin.
But we’re supposed
to write poems
long lines all the way to and even across the pink line
if we want,
or short lines
We can write
or write about yesterday
and make it seem
I think I’m gonna
I just have to
what to write about.
little loopy circles
in the margin.
The doodle grows
into a big round
sunflower with petals
shooting out like sunbeams
around a sunflower face.
I’ll write about
Writing novels or picture books or short stories involves visualizing and I also experience something I think of as transporting. My imagination takes me to the setting where my characters are brooding or acting. I even climb into the skin of the character. I am eight-year-old Leona when she defies her swim instructor and climbs up the ladder to the swimming pool high diving board. I leap into the air and splash with stinging force into the deep end of the pool. The more real the experience is to me, the more real it is to the reader.
All of this imaginary travel and experiencing a character’s life and adventures can be tiring. No wonder at the end of a day of writing, I’m tired and jet-lagged as if I’d been on a trans-Atlantic flight, but I’m also filled with nervous energy similar to the feeling I have when the jet lands in a foreign airport and sleep-deprived, I make my way to the city and a new world.
Ellen: How consistent are your ideas, by that I mean, do they intrigue you over long periods of time, or do you find that something that resonated strongly with you perhaps five years ago, no longer has the same appeal?
Juanita: Many of my ideas are persistent, and they remain consistent in the sense that if they are written on a slip of paper in a folder or jotted down in my notebooks, they don’t undergo change until I begin working on them. Then the change can be dramatic. When I read a historical anecdote about the first ballon flight involving passengers (a duck, a rooster, and a lamb), I thought such a story would make a good middle grade novel, but I captured the gist of the story in a poem published in an anthology. I may yet have the passion and energy to undertake the novel since the idea continues to haunt me periodically. Ideas in my folder from twenty or thirty years ago will probably never become stories. Some have lost their compelling quality. Some address a topic that has fallen by the wayside. One aspect of my writing that makes it less likely for stories to go dormant is that story ideas that fascinate me are seldom timely, of-the-moment stories, especially the picture books, which are less rooted in a specific time and place.
Ellen: From where do most of your ideas come?
Juanita: As I mentioned, the ideas that don’t go away, that haunt me for one reason or another, have staying power and demand to be addressed. But where they come from has always intrigued me. I’ve written picture books inspired by an argument, an accident, fairy tales, words from a stranger, my childhood, dreams, and a discovery I made in a book or magazine that demanded a story. For example, I once found a story idea in a Time magazine story about a Japanese ivory carver discovering a bullet in the ivory he was carving and then realizing that elephants had died, were being killed, to supply him with ivory. There it was: the deeply moving and unsettling climax of a story about an artist facing a reality check. Would he continue carving ivory? Or give it up? The answer can be found in Sato and the Elephants.
Often it is the idea of a character that leads me to a new story. This happened once when I was standing on my head. Eyes open, I noticed various titles on my bookshelf across the room and realized I had not read the mid-nineteenth century The London Journal of Flora Tristan. After my yoga session I took the book from the shelf, opened it to a chapter on London prisons, and read an anecdote about a sixteen-year-old chimney sweep who rejoiced at the bath he took and the shoes and the socks he was given to wear when he was admitted to prison. What had his life been as a chimney sweep to make him wish to stay in prison? My interest sparked, I researched chimney sweeps in 1840s London and wrote the story “Nimble Jack.”
Ellen: If you happen to be working on more than one story simultaneously, do you find that the one feeds the other?
Juanita: An interesting question and one I’ll have to ponder, especially when I’m working on two stories in the same time frame. I don’t recall a poem influencing a picture book or a picture book influencing a novel or vice versa. As I mentioned, I don’t often work on more than one project at a time. If I do have a break to write an article or a newsletter or a listserv announcement, the forms and styles are so different and, perhaps most important, the voice, that they may not appear to be written by the same person. Maybe a right brain/left brain difference applies here.
Ellen: Describe, if you can, the emotional connection you need to feel before you commit to exploring an idea.
Juanita: To be honest, I have never reflected on my emotional connection to an idea and the role that connection plays in my commitment to pursuing the idea. I do think an emotional connection exists. Is curiosity an emotion? It certainly evokes feelings in me. My story ideas often begin with a question: “What if….?” The “What if” question helps launch the story and compel me to research plausible responses. What if a Japanese ivory carver discovers a bullet in the ivory he is carving? What if a young girl finds a toy at the park and wants to keep it despite her family’s reaction? What if a French soldier in WW1 is haunted by the thought of encountering his best friend, an Austrian, in battle? What if a Swedish troll ends up in Kentucky? Answering such questions involves a strong desire to imagine what happens, a quest that offers excitement and when achieved, satisfaction.
Ellen: Do you ever factor in the marketability of a story that you are interested in developing?
Juanita: No, but the editors sometimes tell me they are aware of the market perhaps because the marketing department plays an increasingly influential role in acquisitions in many publishing houses.
Had I been paying attention to marketing, I would never have written my picture book Jamaica’s Find, a realistic story told in simple language (one reviewer said “pedestrian”), in print for thirty-one years. The title generated a series which has passed the million mark in trade sales. I guess I do pay attention to the sales figures – after a few years – but such information doesn’t seem to affect my choice of what to write about.