Jane Kohuth sent me her newest book, Anne Frank’s Chestnut Tree, to look at, and in checking out her web site I found out we have a lot in common. Besides our love of libraries and books, we both grew up in Brooklyn, NY and settled in Massachusetts after going to college in the Boston area. Here is my interview with Jane. She is generously giving away a signed copy of her book. Follow the link at the end of the post to enter the Rafflecopter giveaway.
Carol Gordon Ekster: You went to Brandeis University and majored in English and Creative Writing. Then you had an interesting segway at Harvard Divinity School. Was your focus always on children’s books, when did you get serious about writing for publication, and how did your degree in Theological Studies interact with your writing?
JK: The narrative in stories is always (by necessity) so much clearer than in life. Real life is messy and uncrafted and that accounts for my rather disjointed twenties. I have always wanted to be a writer, and, as a child, I thought that it would be magical to be one of the people who wrote the kinds of books that I loved — in other words, children’s books. I never lost my interest in children’s literature. In college I did research on gender in children’s literature, and in the summer and during vacations I worked at Eight Cousins children’s bookstore in Falmouth, MA. I majored in English and Creative Writing at Brandeis, but there were no classes in writing for children. I focused on writing poetry, which I also had a great interest in. I have also always been interested in Jewish history and women and religion and began writing on those topics. That led me to graduate school at Harvard Divinity, where I focused my studies on women and religion. I then spent a couple of years working in Jewish education, and then, feeling like I needed to know more, I spent a year in a PhD program studying Jewish women’s history. But life is messy, and around that time I was diagnosed with a genetic connective tissue disorder called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, which causes me chronic pain and fatigue. I couldn’t continue with my PhD, so I was forced to radically rethink where I was going in my life. I decided to turn back to my first love, children’s literature, and in 2007 I joined a writing group via SCBWI and got serious about writing for publication. I think my background in theological studies has certainly had an effect on how I see the world, though it does not usually turn up in a direct way in my manuscripts. One day it will, though. The ideas are percolating. My training in poetry has a direct effect on how I write, though — it was excellent preparation for writing picture books and early readers.
CGE: I saw on your web site that you are represented by The Prospect Agency. Did you begin your career with an agent or did you start submitting your stories to publishers on your own?
JK: I tried to learn a lot about children’s publishing when I got started, but there’s definitely a learning curve. I would advise people going through the process of trying to publish for the first time to be more organized than I was. I sent manuscripts to both editors (particularly editors open to submissions after SCBWI conferences) and to agents. Instead of compiling a list of my top agent picks and starting there, I sent piecemeal, one query here, one there, as I had time. I had luck with an editor first. I was assigned a critique with an editor at New England’s annual SCBWI conference, who ended up (after many months) offering to buy a revision of the manuscript she had seen at the conference. At that time I had had some interest from the Prospect Agency, which had requested to see more of my work. I was able to let them know I now had a contract, and they took me on as a client. If I had been more organized, I might have been able to go back to several agents with the news that I had a contract and then, perhaps, even get to make a choice. But, in the end, it worked out well! I love my agent, Becca Stumpf.
CE: Is Anne Frank’s Chestnut Tree your first venture into the world of nonfiction? Do you think you’ll write more nonfiction?
JK: Yes, Anne Frank’s Chestnut Tree is my first non-fiction venture. I had, at one time, thought of writing non-fiction for adults, but writing non-fiction for kids wasn’t at all on my radar. But my editor at Random House, with whom I’d worked on my first early reader, asked if I would like to write an addition to their Step Into Reading early reader biography series. In fact, she specifically requested a book about Anne Frank. This wasn’t an immediate “yes” for me. Not only did I have to think about the challenge of writing a biography, I had to think hard about whether I wanted to try to write about Anne Frank. The Diary of a Young Girl was one of the most profound reading experiences of my childhood, and I wasn’t sure if I could do Anne Frank justice. I was also, as a former Jewish educator and Jewish child, aware of the enormous responsibility of teaching children about the Holocaust in both honest and age-appropriate ways. I decided to take on this challenge, but not without trepidation. The early reader format was especially difficult. Space and language is so limited, and yet I needed to present context. It helped that Step Into Reading biographies focus on one aspect of their subjects’ lives rather than trying to say everything. By turning my focus on Anne Frank’s ideas about nature and the fate of the chestnut tree that stood outside the Secret Annex, I was able to sculpt the book to fit into the thousand word, simple language format. I came to think about the text as a poem. Each word had to count.I would like to write another non-fiction book for children. I’d like it to be a picture book next time.
CE: You did a fabulous job of writing beautifully yet keeping this STEP INTO READING easy enough for independent readers. I LOVE the very different angle you bring to the story of Anne Frank, with your focus on the chestnut tree. How did this idea come about? What was your process for writing this book? Was the topic your own choice and what kind of research did writing it involve?
JK: Thank you for believing that I succeeded in creating that difficult balance between beautiful language and simplicity needed in an early reader! As I mentioned above, the main subject of the book was given to me. The choice to ask me to write this book wasn’t random, though, as I understand it. I had written both an early reader (Ducks Go Vroom)
and a “Jewish interest” book (Estie the Mensch), and my editor knew that I had a background in Jewish Studies. It was up to me to find the focus of the book. I started by rereading The Diary of a Young Girl and embarking on further research. I looked at The Critical Edition, which includes all versions of Anne’s text. I read articles. I read biography and memoirs written by people who knew Anne. I read everything I could find that had already been written for children. I then came up with several ideas or “lenses” through which I could tell Anne’s story. One of the ideas, which actually initially sprang from a mention of the chestnut tree by my editor, was to write about Anne’s passion for nature. I discovered that Anne revisited her ideas about nature often in her diary and in the short stories she wrote while in hiding. I also learned that there were plans to plant saplings from the chestnut tree (which had died in 2010) in various places around the world. I hadn’t seen this focus in any books about Anne Frank before, and it seemed like something to which children might be able to relate.
The writing process for this book was a new sort of beast for me. As I said, I started with research. I made a lot of notes. I wrote potential outlines. I wrote drafts that were much much much too long. Through what seemed like a miracle, working with my editor, the story took shape, and I was able to whittle it down to the allowed thousand words. I very much wanted to provide more back matter, more context for students, parents, and teachers, but the Step Into Reading format simply doesn’t allow it. There’s a chance we may be able to provide some more online.
I was also delighted that Random House decided to publish Anne Frank’s Chestnut Tree simultaneously in hardcover and paperback. They rarely put out early readers in hardcover, and it so lovely looking.
CE: How do you balance your writing with school visits and marketing? Do you adhere to a structured writing schedule?
JK: Balance is something I struggle with. It’s a little different for me than for some people, I think, because of my health issues. After marketing and school visits, I have little to no energy left for writing. So I tend to push the marketing and visiting around the time when my books come out, and then come back to more writing in down times. I don’t have a structured writing schedule. I grab the opportunities when I’m feeling well. My fabulous writing group of six years keeps me on track. I know we’ll be meeting once a month and I strive to have something to submit. These wonderful women are also so encouraging — it keeps me going.
CE: You were mentioned in this great article for educators about Skype visits. Have you done many, and how do you like them compared to in person school visits?
JK: I was so tickled to be mentioned in this article! I try to keep up with what’s going on in the children’s lit world, so Skype visits came onto my radar a couple of years ago. I signed on as a potential Skype visitor on Kate Messner’s website, but didn’t get any takers until last spring, when I had my first visit with a school in Illinois. My last book, Duck Sock Hop, was published by Penguin, and they have a partnership with Skype, so they also put my information up online. I just had my second Skype visit with a great first grade in Dallas and I’ve had a couple more requests come in. I think it’s a great way to get teachers outside of my region to know about my books and order them for their classrooms and schools. I prefer to meet kids in person — it’s easier to connect and there are more options for interactivity, but I’m hoping I get the hang of interacting via screen as I practice.
CE: All your books are illustrated. Were you one of those rare authors that had input into choosing your illustrators or in their illustrations of the story? Do you have any stories relating to the illustrations of your story that you’d like to share?
JK: I haven’t had any input in choosing my illustrators, I’ve just been lucky. I have had some input into the revision of the illustrations (yes, illustrators revise, too!). I’ve been able to review sketches and send my editors comments, which they can pass on to the illustrator and art director. For Anne Frank’s Chestnut Tree, I ended up reviewing the illustrations for historical accuracy, to the best of my ability. I found places where details needed to be double checked, and one outright mistake, which I’m happy to say was fixed! I also spent some time online searching for photographs of what a Dutch postman would have worn in the 1940s. The internet is a miraculous tool.
CE: You’ve had some wonderful successes with your books, for example, Duck Sock Hop being named as one of New York Public Library’s Top Ten Picture Book Read-Alouds of 2012, and Ducks Go Vroom named as one of Parents Magazine’s 20 Best Books of 2011. You’ve also gotten great reviews for your books. What do you think has been most important in bringing you to this place of accomplishment in your work at this time?
JK: It is so very hard to get your books noticed in this era of declining marketing and publicity by publishers. I feel like, with all my efforts, there is little I can do as an author that can have the effect of even a small effort by a big publisher, which can be disheartening. It is wonderful when any piece of notice comes one’s way . . . to know that people out there have read and appreciate what you’ve done. So many many thanks to those people who chose my books for their lists and wrote thoughtful reviews of my books. I’d say the most important thing that’s gotten me to where I am is persistence. I have to remind myself of this often. The only way to get anywhere is to keep picking yourself up and trying again.
CE: What’s in the future for Jane Kohuth?
JK: I’ll be teaching a writing class for third through fifth graders this winter at the Greater Boston JCC in Newton. I don’t have a link yet, but look for the Young Authors Club! I also hope to be teaching a workshop for Grub Street on picture book basics this October and again over the winter. If you might be interested in having me visit your school or organization to give workshops, please be in touch! You can see some of what I offer here: http://www.janekohuth.com/authorvisits.html
Thank you so much for inviting me here, Carol!
You can connect with Jane here:
Her website: http://www.janekohuth.com/index.html
Twitter Jane Kohuth @janekohuth
Enter to win a signed copy of the Step Into Reading biography Anne Frank’s Chestnut Tree! Click here and follow the instructions on Rafflecopter. Last day to enter is Thursday, November 21, 2013. Sorry, the book can be shipped only to a U.S. mailing address.