Six Questions with Jilanne Hoffmann
Jilanne Hoffmann is a former engineer, and has an MFA in Creative Writing. She has traveled to the Amazon rainforest highlands in Peru, collected the dust of six continents in her shoes, and plans to see the dust swirl in Africa's Sahel and Sahara Desert before she turns to dust. A RIVER OF DUST: The Life-Giving Link Between North Africa and the Amazon, her debut picture book, is a JLG Gold Selection. Jilanne is also the author of two board books for young explorers, THE HONEY BEAR HIVE and HAPPY CAMPER, both illustrated by Erica Harrison for Mudpuppy. She lives with her family in San Francisco. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.
1. What was your favorite book as a child, and why?
I didn’t have a huge number of children’s books to read when I was growing up, but I distinctly remember a book of poetry called JUST AROUND THE CORNER by Leland B. Jacobs, illustrated by John E. Johnson. The poems were arranged by season, and I think it was the mix of fanciful images and possibilities that fascinated me. You never knew what might be just around the corner, a dancing bear in an evening coat or a high-stepping man who stepped in the ocean and sank in the sea. The poems felt like spells that could conjure anything. I read it over and over.
2. What one piece of advice would you like to give aspiring kidlit authors?
Read poetry and essays about poetry. It opens the valve that allows the metaphor juices to flow, and it makes thought processes more intuitive, less predictable. I find that it helps my writing whether I’m working on a novel in verse or a picture book.
3. If you could be any character in a book, who would you be? Why?
Well, I AM a character in a book. Call me Tigger. I’m highly impulsive, enthusiastic, and I mean well, even when I say or do the wrong thing in the moment. I can, however, be grumpy like Rabbit if I don’t get enough alone time to recharge my Tigger batteries.
4. Where did you get the idea for A River of Dust? What was the inspiration?
In 2015, I received an email from NASA about the dust, and it jogged a distant memory. While growing up on a farm in the Midwest, I’d heard about dust flying to the U.S. from Africa. It was on the evening news, and I just found that astounding. But it took another 40 years for them to quantify the amount (about 700,000 18-wheelers worth makes it to the Amazon on average), when and where it flew, and what it actually carries with it. So I took the email as a sign that I should write a book for kids about it. It was pretty cool when dust was a headline again the same summer Chronicle bought the book!
5. What was the most challenging thing you faced while researching/writing this book?
Figuring out the entry point. I had tons of research, but no idea as to how to approach the story. It took me four years and a question from Miranda Paul—Why don’t you write it from the dust’s perspective?—that finally opened the door.
6. If you read this to a room full of kids, what message would you want them to leave with?
That Earth is both enormous and tiny. A place of wonder on a grand and microscopic scale. A place where everyone’s and everything’s actions, even a speck of dust, matter. A place that needs them—their curiosity, their skills, their love. They are our future, the future caretakers of our glorious planet. Earth needs each one of them, their ideas, their words, their stories, their inventions, and their love. Because we are all connected on this tiny-enormous blue marble hurtling through space.