Jennifer Chambliss Bertman is the New York Times-bestselling author of the Book Scavenger series and Sisterhood of Sleuths. Her debut picture book, A Good Deed Can Grow, illustrated by Holly Hatam, releases in February 2023. Jennifer's books have received many honors including being Indie Next List selections, Junior Library Guild selections, and have been named to numerous “Best of the Year” and state award lists. Her work has also been translated into more than a dozen languages. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing and has worked in a variety of roles with children and in publishing. A native of the San Francisco Bay Area, Jennifer now lives in Colorado with her family. You can learn more about Jennifer by visiting her website.
1. When did you first realize you wanted to write for young readers?
It was 2000, and I was working toward my MFA in Creative Writing. The writers in my program were focused on literary fiction for adults. I thought that was what I was writing too, but I felt like such an imposter. I thought, “What do I have to say to adults? Why would adults want to listen to me?” Mind you, I was an adult—I was in my early 20s—but I wasn’t typically comfortable with adults. I liked working with children—at that time I worked as a nanny, a tutor, and, in the summer, I also worked as a recreation camp leader. I liked communicating with children. I understood being a kid. But it didn’t occur to me to write for them.
Then one of my MFA classes focused on different genres of writing, and we did a two-week study on picture books. For my assignment, I wrote and illustrated a dummy of a picture book, and it was the most fun I’ve ever had on a school project. It was a breakthrough moment for me. I thought, “THIS! This is what I want to do.” Actually, it was more than wanting to do it. I felt like I’d found what I was meant to do.
From there I started working part-time at a children’s bookstore, and I signed up for a children’s writing conference through Book Passage. Lois Lowry was the keynote speaker. She wrote one of my favorite series as a kid, the Anastasia Krupnik series, and I found myself sitting next to her at lunch. I was too shy and in awe to say much (plus, you know, making conversation with adults—EEK!), but I knew I’d found where I belonged in the writing world.
2. Do you work on multiple projects at the same time?
I have many picture book manuscripts I jump back and forth between. With novels, I usually only work on one in the drafting stage, but I might be simultaneously doing work for a different novel that is in the production phase—things like reviewing copyedits or first pass pages—and I might also be jotting down notes for a book that is only in idea form.
3. When you begin writing a book, do you always know where the story is going?
No, and that’s part of the fun! Seeing where my ideas take me. I usually start with a character in a situation that feels interesting to me. With Book Scavenger, it was a girl moving to San Francisco, and I knew she was going to find a book that would get her involved in a mystery of some sort. But I didn’t know any of the specifics beyond that. What was interesting to me was writing about San Francisco, and moving, and loving books. So, I started there and wrote a scene with her in the moving truck and asked myself questions: how did she feel about moving, what was her family like, where were they moving from, how did it compare to San Francisco, etc. I worked on that scene until the characters began to come alive and I could imagine them in other scenes, and then plot beats started to materialize. I’m a very visual person, so it’s like watching a mini movie in my mind. I could see her making a new friend, I could see her and this friend and her brother finding a book in a BART station . . . And with every step along the way I’m asking myself questions about these characters to better understand the meaning behind what I’m imagining. Eventually, a plot arc takes shape. That’s more or less been my process with all my novels.
With picture books, my process is similar: I typically start with a character or situation that interests me. But I’m thinking about communicating this idea through the short form of a picture book, with an audience who is younger than the readers of my novels, who might be hearing the story read aloud, and with illustrations that won’t be drawn by me. All of those factors influence the choices I make as I try to put my idea into words.
4. Where did you get the idea for your new book? What was your inspiration?
With A Good Deed Can Grow, I was inspired by a bad morning I was having—a series of annoyances that made me grumpier and grumpier. But then my grumpiness was turned around by the very simple kindness of a stranger. It made me think about how moods can be contagious, in both positive and negative ways. When we’re grumpy, we might snap at others or be less considerate, which might in turn make someone else feel badly too, and they might turn around and do something to make another person feel badly, and so on and so forth. But cheeriness and positive gestures can rub off on other people as well, creating a chain reaction of kindness. And I thought about how we don’t really know what the trajectory of that chain reaction will be, or where it will end--if there ever even is an end. That stranger who shifted my mood years ago with her simple kindness will never know that it resulted in me writing A Good Deed Can Grow, and who knows what seeds of goodness might be planted by the readers of the book, and the ways their positive energy will continue to spread?
5. How was the editorial process? Did you do any revisions? Did you have a lot of collaboration with the illustrator?
The editorial process was very interesting to me since I’ve published novels before, but this is my first picture book. The process is both similar and yet extremely different. With a picture book, my words are only half the story. And with A Good Deed Can Grow, there is no main character. The story is essentially an idea told in poetic form. It’s Holly Hatam’s art that brings that idea to life, creating the world that my words live in, and populating it with characters. We worked together in the traditional way of communicating about the project via our editor. Holly is a top-notch professional with dozens of picture books published, and my editor has decades of experience and has produced some of my most favorite picture books. I knew my words were in good hands, and it was quite fun watching the book take shape and seeing the art my words inspired.
Holly worked with the manuscript that was sold, and I didn’t do any revisions until we were in the sketches stage. And even then, it was more like line edits. With each pass, my editor and I scrutinized every word and punctuation choice, making sure we liked how it sounded and flowed. I really enjoy that kind of editing, where you carefully consider every detail—should it read “nerves and worries” or “worries and nerves”? That sort of thing. I try to edit with that level of attention in my novels, too, but that feels like more of an act of endurance, whereas working on something that’s only about 150 words was just fun.
6. If you read this book to a room filled with kids, what message would you want them to leave with?
The things we do and say create a ripple effect that extends far beyond what any of us can see or know. You have the ability to make a big difference through simple actions and everyday kindness.
If you're a traditionally published picture book or middle grade author and you'd like to be featured in SIX QUESTIONS, drop an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.