Jacqueline Jules is the award-winning author of 23 books including The Hardest Word, Once Upon a Shabbos, Goodnight Sh’ma, Picnic at Camp Shalom, and two Sydney Taylor Honor Books, Sarah Laughs and Benjamin and the Silver Goblet. Her books have been named on state reading lists, Bank Street College Best Books of the Year, the New York Public Library list, the Chicago Public Library List, and ALSC Great Elementary Reads. In 2010, she won the CYBILS Literary Award and the Library of Virginia Cardozo Award. She is also an award-winning poet. Please visit her website.
The Whole Megillah (TWM): What were your favorite books growing up?
Jacqueline Jules (JJ): I remember being particularly entranced with The Borrowers because I enjoyed the idea of miniature people taking off with all the things I misplaced. I also loved The Jungle Book, The Secret Garden, and all the Childhood of Famous Americans biographies.
I was a voracious reader as a child. Genre didn’t matter to me. My reading tastes are still eclectic. I read fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction, realistic fiction, and nonfiction. All I need is a good story with a strong character to get hooked.
TWM: What inspires you?
JJ: I am easily inspired. A librarian, teacher, or editor just needs to tell me they are interested in a particular type of story and my mind begins to churn. Sadly, crafting a good story is much harder, and every inspiration does not produce a usable product.
Teaching is the fuel for many of my ideas. I worked as a school librarian for 15 years and now I work part time as a writing resource teacher. My picture book No English, about two girls who find a creative way to overcome a language barrier, is based on my experiences with English-as-Second-Language learners. Duck for Turkey Day began after a discussion on Thanksgiving with immigrant students. Unite or Die: How Thirteen States Became a Nation started as a skit for my students to perform on Constitution Day. And my Zapato Power series was inspired by students clamoring for a superhero story.
Folktales have been a great inspiration for my Jewish children’s books. For a number of years, I was a Tot Shabbat leader. I was also a synagogue librarian. During that time, I told stories with puppets and props. I scoured traditional Jewish literature for stories to tell. That’s how I learned about the giant mythological bird called the Ziz from The Hardest Word.
TWM: How do you prepare for a school visit?
JJ: I create Powerpoints with images from my books. I’ve become very comfortable with using Powerpoint visuals as a way of keeping students involved. I ask my audiences to sing along with lyrics on the screen and to answer questions.
I also bring early drafts and galleys of my books to show how many times I revise.
If I am doing a presentation on one of the Ziz books, I bring a big stuffed Ziz and a flannel board. The children help me create the Ziz with pieces on a flannel board.
In all my presentations, I always sing and ask my audiences to sing with me. I like to hear the children leave the room, humming.
TWM: Do you have a favorite book among those you’ve written? What makes it special to you?
JJ: Students often ask me this question, too, and it is a little like asking me which one of my sons I like better. Some days, it is my younger son. Other days, I prefer my oldest.
My favorite book is generally the one I’m currently working on, usually not yet published. Every book holds a special memory of why it was written and at what time in my life. They are all like children to me, so I can’t say I love one more than the other.
TWM: Please describe your writing process. Does it differ depending on whether you’re writing picture books, chapter books, or poetry?
JJ: When I write a poem, I often write it over a period of a week or two, drafting and re-drafting the poem in a stenographer’s notebook. I will look at the poem in the morning while I eat breakfast, carry the notebook with me on walks, and think about the arrangement of lines and words at every available moment, especially just before I fall asleep. So my poems are generally written by hand first and then typed into a word processing document for the final versions.
For picture books and other stories, I begin on the computer. I write pages of notes or musings on the topic rather than a formal outline. In these notes, I ask myself questions, give myself pep talks, and freely jot down any ideas I have. After that, I begin the story. My first drafts are painfully slow, like watching grass grow without rain. Revisions are much easier. I love to revise. I copy the file and rename it with a new date in order to give myself the freedom to change anything I want without fear of losing a good sentence or idea. If I don’t like the change, I can always go back to an earlier draft to retrieve it. I generally rewrite my stories more times than I can count—at least 25 times, but sometimes much more than that. I often work ten or more hours a day.
TWM: What prompts you to write on Jewish themes?
JJ: As I mentioned above, I was a synagogue librarian and Tot Shabbat leader. Many of my books have been directly inspired by a need for material to use with students. If I couldn’t find a book I liked on a particular subject, I became intrigued by the idea of writing one. So during the time I taught primarily Jewish students, all of my books were on Jewish themes. When I started teaching in public schools, I broadened my topics.
However, I go to Shabbat morning services on a regular basis and I often come up with ideas while I am reading the Torah portion. I still have Jewish stories inside me I want to tell. Jewish stories and themes were my first love as a writer and one never forgets their first love.
TWM: Do you have an agent? If so, how did that come about? If not, how do you find your publishers and negotiate contracts?
JJ: I don’t have an agent right now but I am hoping to change that in the coming year. I don’t feel especially comfortable negotiating contracts.
I have five publishers. I found three of them over-the-transom, one at an SCBWI conference, and one at BEA.
TWM: Do you set goals for yourself?
JJ: I am very goal oriented and pretty much a workaholic. I make lists and take great pleasure in crossing items off. If I don’t feel I have accomplished much during the day, I go to bed in a bad mood.
So happy to read this interview. Goodnight Sh’ma is part of our nightly ritual just before we sing the Sh’ma and say goodnight. Both the words and the illustrations prepare us for sleep; my little guy to sleep without nightmares…and me to leave my little guy and walk down the hall.
Although my teen children have outgrown your wonderful books, I look forward to giving them to my grandchildren one day.
Wonderful interview as usual, Barbara. I will be checking out Jacqueline’s books.
Thanks, all, for the great comments!
Barbara, I always love to hear how other authors manage the process of writing. You do such a great service for the literary community. Thanks for this great interview, and I will also be checking out Jaqueline’s books.