Today, I am talking with Jennifer Elvgren, the award-winning author of The Whispering Town. This picture book is based on actual events that occurred in a small Danish fishing village in 1943. Members of the community worked together to help a Jewish family that was seeking safety from the Nazis. During the interview, Jennifer provides tips on how to make a successful transition into writing children’s books and shares background information about The Whispering Town. Anyone who leaves a comment on this blog by Sunday, April 26, 2015 will be eligible for a book giveaway.
What was the biggest challenge you faced when you made the transition from being a full-time magazine and newspaper writer to a children’s picture book author?
My biggest challenge switching from magazine and newspaper work to writing children’s fiction was a sense of isolation. I am a social person, and I enjoyed being out and about conducting interviews. I also enjoyed working frequently with my editors. When I started writing for children, I knew few people in the business. I had a four-year-old and a newborn at the time, and I wrote before they were awake and during naptimes. There were many long days at home.
What steps did you take to make this transition?
First, I joined The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI – www.scbwi.org). SCBWI’s publications and website helped me to start learning the market and studying publishing trends. I began to see what publishers might be a good fit for my work. Another wonderful website is Harold Underdown’s The Purple Crayon (http://www.underdown.org/.)
Second, I joined a critique group. Over the years I have belonged to three different groups. I am still involved with two today. One is a mixed-genre group. The other is a KidLit group. It was excruciating to show my work at first. Sometimes, it’s still painful but it always leads to a better manuscript.
Third, I attended as many conferences and workshops as I could afford. My favorites were and still are: SCBWI, Highlights Foundation Workshops (http://www.highlightsfoundation.org/) and Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature On-on-One Plus Conference (http://ruccl.org/One-on-One_Plus_Conference.html)
Can you share 3 tips for anyone who is trying to make a career shift?
- Read. Read. Read. Read even more than you write.
- Write every day, even if it’s only for 30 minutes.
- Don’t give up. You will receive enough rejection letters to wallpaper a bathroom. Remember the only difference between a published author and an unpublished author is that the published author refused to give up. Following the steps in the previous question will also help on the pathway to publication.
Why did you choose the picture book genre?
Whenever I walk into a library or a bookstore there seems to be a strange gravitational pull toward the picture books. The wonderful marriage of words and art makes my heart sing. I think it’s because I have such strong memories of my parents, grandparents and elementary school teachers reading picture books to me. Elementary school was such a happy time – so full of wonder and possibilities.
Your website mentions that you do school visits. Can you briefly describe what your school visits include? Can you share a memorable classroom experience?
Currently, I’m offering an assembly about The Whispering Town where I talk about what modern day Denmark is like; what occupied 1940s Denmark was like emphasizing the helpers; and the process of making a book from idea to bookstore. This assembly is suitable for 4th through 8th grades.
I’m also offering two workshops: Animals, Aliens and Monsters: Creating Characters that Pop from the Page where I discuss popular characters in KidLit and lead the children through an exercise where they create their own character and Off to a Good Start: Hooking Readers With the Opening Paragraph where students bring a first page of their fiction to be read out loud anonymously. I discuss what is working and what can be improved in regard to character, setting, plot, point of view and voice.
Last fall, at the end of a character workshop, the students were drawing the characters they created before they shared them with the class. One boy was trying to sharpen his pencil with a broken sharpener at his desk. He ended up slicing a chunk of skin off his finger. He came up to me holding his finger in his cupped hand filled with blood. The teacher intervened before I fainted and took him to the nurse. The class ended on an up note, however, with the other students sharing some of the most clever characters that I have seen!
Many secular and Jewish educators feel that primary aged children (Kindergarten-5th grade) should not be introduced to the Holocaust. Why did you decide to write a Holocaust picture book that is geared toward a young audience? What age group is your intended audience?
Somewhere around late elementary, early middle school, my grandmother gave me her copy of The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom, and my mother gave me a copy of The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. From a young age, I pondered the bravery of those hidden and the bravery of those who protected the hidden. Over my children’s writing career, I looked for a way to talk about that type of bravery and kindness to younger readers. So The Whispering Town is geared toward second to fifth graders, but I have had middle school and high school teachers tell me that they have used it in their classrooms.
Which Holocaust themes do you feel are suitable for a primary audience?
I feel that Holocaust themes for the very young should focus on the helpers.
The setting for The Whispering Town is Nazis occupied Denmark. When did you first learn about how the Danes smuggled Jews to Sweden during World War II? Why did you choose to write about the fishing village of Gilleleje?
Around 2009, I read Ellen Levine’s nonfiction book Darkness over Denmark: The Danish Resistance and the Rescue of the Jews. One Jewish boy recollected his father trying to find the Gilleleje harbor on a moonless night and villagers stood in doorways giving him directions. As I read this, I could see the storyboard in my mind – Anett and her parents hiding a Jewish family and enlisting the entire village to whisper them to safety.
While researching this aspect of history, did you learn anything that surprised you?
At the beginning of the occupation, the Danish government established the Social Services department in Copenhagen to help with wartime hardships and food distribution. But in the fall of 1943, the Social Services was given the task of securing the property of the Jews that had fled Copenhagen. This organization cleaned up the properties left in haste. They cataloged belongings and stored them in warehouses and safety deposit boxes. They made rent and insurance payments on properties and even oversaw the subletting of those properties. At the end of the war, the Social Services department returned property keys and belongings to their rightful owners.
Fabio Santomauro’s illustrations skillfully add to the message of your story. Did you have any contact with Fabio? If so, were you able to work together to capture the essence of your words?
I didn’t have any contact with Fabio while he was illustrating. When the book was finished, we began emailing to share news and collaborate on marketing efforts. He is Italian and lives in Rome.
Are you currently working on your next book? If so, can you share some information?
I am jumping out of my comfort zone and writing a middle grade novel about a rescue horse. It was too big of a story for a picture book.
Whispering Town Awards
- ALA Children’s Notable Book List
- Sydney Taylor Honor Book
- National Jewish Book Award Finalist
Jennifer, thanks for taking the time to answer my questions.
Later this week, I will be reviewing The Whispering Town
In exchange for an honest interview and review, I was sent a copy of Whispering Town.
Anyone who leaves a comment on this blog by Sunday, April 26, 2015 will be eligible for a book giveaway. Jennifer will send the randomly selected North American winner an autographed copy of Whispering Town.
Sandra Bornstein is the author of MAY THIS BE THE BEST YEAR OF YOUR LIFE. It is available on Amazon. Sandra’s memoir highlights her living and teaching adventure in Bangalore, India. She is a licensed Colorado teacher who has taught K-12 students in the United States and abroad as well as college level courses. Sandra is married and has four adult sons. The memoir was a finalist in the Travel category for the 2013 Next Generation Indie Book Awards, the 2013 International Book Awards, the 2013 National Indie Book Excellence Awards, the 2013 USA Best Book Awards, and received an Honorable Mention award in the Multicultural Non-Fiction category for the 2013 Global ebook Awards.