Today, I will be interviewing multi-talented Jacqueline Jules. Her experience as an elementary librarian and religious school teacher led to a secondary writing career. She effectively has used her expertise as an English as a Second language teacher and Jewish Studies teacher to write books that address these two distinct audiences. She is the award-winning author of over two dozen books for young readers including the Zapato Power series, Unite or Die: How Thirteen States Became a Nation, Sarah Laughs, Duck for Turkey Day, No English, and Never Say a Mean Word Again.
If you leave a comment on this blog, you will be eligible for the book giveaway.
Your bio mentions that you are a teacher and an elementary school librarian. Can you briefly describe your background and how many years you have devoted to this career path? Have your experiences as a teacher and librarian affected your desire to write children’s literature?
I worked in education for about twenty years. Fifteen of them, I was a librarian working in schools and synagogues. I also taught religious school, led Tot Shabbat services, and was a writing resource teacher.
Some of my books, particularly Once Upon a Shabbos and The Hardest Word, were originally written to perform for my preschool audiences.
Other books have grown out of my experiences in elementary schools. No English and Duck for Turkey Day were both inspired by ESL students. My constitution book, Unite or Die: How Thirteen States Became a Nation began as a skit for my students to perform in celebration of Constitution Day. The days I spent as a librarian conducting story times are always on my mind when I sit at my computer. Stories that will capture young listeners in a group setting are the ones I want to write.
As a child, you had aspirations to become a writer. Were you able to pursue this dream while simultaneously being a teacher and/or librarian or did you have to wait? If you needed to put your dream on the back burner, when did you make the transition to writing? Did you jump right into writing books or did you write for other forms of media first?
After majoring in creative writing in college, I did some free-lance journalism and wrote short stories and poems. I also became the mother of two boys. It actually wasn’t until I became a school librarian, that I had enough ideas for writing children’s books. My years as a librarian fueled my writing rather than stalled it. Working in a school taught me what children enjoy and what was missing from library shelves. I could never do the writing I do now without having been a teacher.
Can you suggest 3 ways that parents can encourage their children to write more?
- Encourage your kids to make lists. Shopping lists. Vacation Lists. To-do lists. Wish Lists. Top Ten Lists. List making can be a fun game to get creative juices flowing and help students feel more comfortable writing.
- Ask your kids to write letters to grandparents and other relatives/friends who live faraway. E-mail letters are fine and will probably be more easily embraced by our technologically oriented children. Unlike the past generation, written communication is now the norm. People are using the telephone for talking less and less. You need to be able to read and write to communicate in our world. So help your kids e-mail and text.
- Read books aloud with your children. If your kids love reading, they will be inspired to write to write their own stories.
On Amazon, I can see that you have written a variety of books. The Zapato Power series is geared toward early readers. How are these books different from the other series currently on the market? Why did you write this series? How many more books do you anticipate adding?
Zapato Power is a mix of fantasy and everyday reality. The main character, Freddie Ramos, lives in a multicultural community with a single mother who speaks fluent Spanish. In the first book, Freddie receives a mysterious box containing super-powered purple sneakers. From then on, Freddie dreams of being a superhero. But where do you find superhero jobs at elementary school? Each book features a mystery and a rescue requiring super speed. Freddie is a good-natured hero who embodies the ethnic and economic diversity in our public schools.
I began this series when I was working as a school librarian in a Title I elementary school. My students were clamoring for superhero stories but there was almost nothing available on their reading level. So I imagined what it might be like if one of my own students had his dream of superpowers suddenly come true. How would his life change? How would it stay the same?
Zapato Power #5: Freddie Ramos Stomps the Snow was just released in March. I have ideas for more titles and students at my school visits enjoy suggesting plot lines for others. I don’t have a specific plan for the series at this time.
A couple of your books are written for second language learners. How do these books meet the needs of individuals struggling to learn English?
Several of my books are about second language learners and children from immigrant communities. Duck for Turkey Day and No English validates the experiences of ESL learners. The Zapato Power series gives young readers a Latino hero in short chapters with large, readable font.
Recently, there has been an outcry in the children’s book community about the need for diversity in children’s books. A campaign called WE NEED DIVERSE BOOKS has become a social media sensation.
All children should have the opportunity to see themselves in the books they read. When I decided to create characters named Gio, Geraldo, Tuyet, and Blanca, it was because I saw those names missing in the books on my library shelves. My characters are named after the students I taught—students who deserved to find their own circumstances and heritage in their school library. Once at a school presentation, a little boy stood up with excitement as I read. The teacher explained apologetically. “You have to understand. He’s never heard his name in a book before.” That moment remains one of the most meaningful ones of my writing career.
Most of your books focus on Jewish themes- holidays, Jewish Sabbath, Jewish prayer, biblical stories, and the Holocaust. This genre is limited. Certain topics only appeal to a Jewish audience. Is the publishing process for Jewish books different from the general publishing marketplace? Can you share 3 tips for people who are interested in writing for this genre?
- Write stories you feel should be told, that have meaning for you. A good story is a good story and will have appeal across cultures and markets.
- Approach smaller publishers that specialize in either Jewish markets or unique stories.
- Be persistent. Sometimes it takes years to perfect and sell a story.
Thank you for sending an advanced galley for Never Say A Mean Word Again: A Tale from Medieval Spain. Why did you choose to write about this medieval legend about the Jewish poet Samuel Ha-Nagid (993-1055)?
The story of how Samuel Ha-Nagid made friends with a man who cursed him “by tearing out his angry tongue and giving him a kind one” captivated my imagination from the first time I read it in the Hertz Chumash. It is such a powerful example of turning an enemy into a friend. Even more intriguing, was the scenario itself. A man in a Spanish medieval court was given permission, in fact, ordered to punish another man. When the Caliph (King) hears that his vizier has been insulted, he tells his vizier, his highest advisor: “Cut out that man’s tongue!” Samuel Ha-Nagid was disobeying a direct order when he chose to befriend his enemy. One generally does not ignore a monarch, not if you want to keep your own head. And Samuel Ha-Nagid was a Jewish advisor in a Muslim court, making his position all that more precarious. I was struck by Ha-Nagid’s dilemma—and his courage to choose a righteous path.
How does your story differ from the original version?
The original legend was about two grown men. To make the story meaningful for young readers, I had to change the characters to children. I also had to abandon the beautiful metaphor of “tearing out an angry tongue and replacing it with a kind one” because the image was too intense for a picture book. While my story is not a retelling of the legend, it was clearly inspired by it. The essence of the tale remains and Yael Bernhard’s illustrations beautifully evoke the medieval time period and the atmosphere of court life.
Were you able to collaborate with your illustrator Durga Yael Bernhard?
I have never actually collaborated with an illustrator on any of my books. Occasionally, I have had the opportunity to make suggestions when sketches were sent to me but illustrators work with editors rather than authors. As an author, I have been thrilled many times by how an illustrator added details and color that enhanced the story beyond my expectations. Yael’s illustrations for Never Say a Mean Word Again is a prime example of that. I was delighted by her paintings for the book, particularly the endpapers and the artful design. Yael and I did a signing for Never Say a Mean Word Again at BEA in New York. I had the privilege of meeting her in person and telling her how much I admired her work.
Have you created any teacher’s guides or supplementary materials for any of your books?
There is a teacher’s guide for Never Say a Mean Word Again on my website
You can also find a Youtube book trailer for Never Say a Mean Word Again.
Guides for my other books along with songs, coloring sheets, and book trailers are posted on my Website Activities Page.
As a former teacher and librarian, I feel it is important to have ready-made content for educators to download and use with my books. Whenever I hear that a teacher has visited my website to find materials for her classroom, I am honored and happy.
Your website mentions that you visit schools. What is your favorite aspect of meeting children in their classroom?
Most of the time when I visit schools, I speak to big assemblies. To keep everyone involved, I often ask students to sing songs and to participate by reading questions on my Powerpoint slides. Many of my stories are designed for reading aloud with a repetitive chorus. I love hearing a room full of students joining in. It reminds me of my days as a school librarian and joyful story times.
Jacqueline is there anything else that you would like to share with my readers?
I am also a poet with poems in numerous journals and anthologies, including The Poetry Friday Anthologies, curriculum based collections for every day of the school year published by Pomelo Books.
My first chapbook, Field Trip to the Museum, was released by Finishing Line Press in April. This book is a thematic work of narrative poems telling the story of an 18 year-old-girl who travels away from self-destructive behavior to a new acceptance of herself. To read some of the poems, please visit The Field Trip to the Museum blog.
AWARDS & HONORS:
- 2014 Spirit First Poetry Contest, First Place
- 2013 Beverly Cleary Children’s Choice list, Zapato Power
- 2012 Forward National Literature Award, First Place, Picture Books, No English
- 2012 Tennessee Volunteer State Award Nominee, Duck for Turkey Day
- 2012 Washington State Children’s Choice Nominee, Duck for Turkey Day
- 2011 ALSC Great Early Elementary Reads, Zapato Power
- 2011 Chicago Public Library, Best of the Best Book, Zapato Power
- 2011 Bank Street College Best Children’s Books of the Year, Zapato Power
- 2011 Maryland Blue Crab Honor Book, Transitional Fiction, Zapato Power
- 2010 CYBILS First Place Winner, Early Chapter Books, Zapato Power
- 2010 Library of Virginia Cardozo Award, Unite or Die
- 2010 Sydney Taylor Honor Award, Benjamin and the Silver Goblet
- 2010 Tennessee Volunteer State Award Nominee, No English
- 2009 SCBWI Magazine Merit Award for Poetry
- 2009 Sydney Taylor Honor Award, Sarah Laughs
- 2008Delaware Diamonds State Reading List, No English
- 2008 Best Original Poetry, Catholic Press Association
- 2007 Winner, Arlington Arts “Moving Words” Poetry Competition
In exchange for an honest review and an interview, Jacqueline sent me a copy of Never Say a Mean Word Again.