Today, I welcome Jane Kohuth to my website. Jane is the author of Ducks Go Vroom, Estie the Mensch, Duck Sock Hop, and the recently published Anne Frank’s Chestnut Tree . Jane graciously answered a list of email questions. After the Q & A, I have included a brief review of her book and giveaway instructions. Don’t forget to leave a comment so that you can be eligible for the drawing.
Q & A
Jane, can you share some of your background with my readers?
Let’s see . . . I grew up in Brooklyn, NY, and my family moved to Massachusetts when I was in high school. I loved writings stories and poems when I was growing up, and I majored in English and Creative Writing (with an emphasis on poetry) at Brandeis University. I changed directions a bit for graduate school, studying women and religion at Harvard Divinity School (though the initial thought in going there was to inform my writing). I then did some work in Jewish education and went on to a Ph.D. program in Jewish Studies. I had to make the difficult decision to leave the program in 2007, after being diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a chronic illness. At that point I decided that I would go back to an earlier love, children’s books, and start writing again seriously.
If for some reason you’d like to know even more about me (!), you can go to the About Me page on my website: http://www.janekohuth.com/aboutme.html
Thanks for informing my readers about your background. What prompted you to write children’s books?
When I wrote as a child, I often tried to write in the style of my favorite children’s writers. I loved to draw as well, and my friends thought I should write and illustrate picture books when I grew up. In college I worked at Eight Cousins, a children’s bookstore in Falmouth, MA, where I became reacquainted with children’s books as an adult. I also did some research on gender in children’s literature and worked in the children’s room at a public library. When I left my Ph.D. program, I turned to my neglected children’s writing. I had a couple of picture book manuscripts that I hadn’t had much time for. I rejoined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, found a writing group (I’m with them right now!), learned as much as I could about the publishing world, and got started in earnest.
How long did it take for you to complete your first published children’s book?
Six years! When I present to schools, I make students guess. I get a lot of answers like “a week,” and “three months.” The writing and publishing process sure does take a lot of patience. I wrote the first draft of Ducks Go Vroom in 2005; it was accepted for publication in 2009 and published in 2011.
What steps did you take to get the book published?
I joined SCBWI and used their resources to familiarize myself with children’s publishing. I attended conferences and read articles and blogs. I signed up for free newsletters like Publishers Weekly’s Children’s Bookshelf. I subscribed the the Horn Book Magazine.
In 2008 I attended the New England SCBWI conference and submitted a manuscript for critique by an editor. The editor I was matched with, Christy Webster, worked on the Step Into Reading line of early readers at Random House. She thought that the manuscript I’d submitted, Ducks Go Vroom, which I had envisioned as a picture book for toddlers, would work well as a Step One reader, because of the simplicity and pattern of the language. She asked me to revise the manuscript to meet Step Into Reading Guidelines. I went home and set to work right away. I probably sent her my revision within a week! That was my first experience with the glacial pace of the publishing industry. Nine months later, I received the phone call that changed my life.
I had been querying agents, using the SCBWI Market Survey for guidance. The Prospect Agency had recently expressed interest in seeing more of my work. With contract in hand, they took me on.
Can you share 3 tips for aspiring children’s authors?
Read a lot of children’s books! If you really love children’s literature (and you should if you want to write it) this should be a joy. Familiarize yourself with what’s being published now as opposed to what you remember when you were growing up. Practice looking at the books with a writer’s eye, thinking about what works and doesn’t work and why.
Take a writing class. If you already have a creative writing background, you can skip this. But if you do skip it, go right to joining a writing group. SCBWI is a great resource for finding open and forming groups. I found my group that way, and we’re still going strong. Without their critical and moral support, I would not have published my books.
Persist. In my experience, what often separates working writers from others is not talent but effort and the ability to keep going in the face of rejection. That’s not to say you shouldn’t take criticism. Constructive criticism and revision is essential. I’ve found it very hard to handle the amount of rejection writers get, but I hope I can keep persisting.
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 book about Anne Frank that is geared toward an early primary audience (1st-3rd grade)?
I was asked specifically by my editor to write a Step Three book about Anne Frank. The publisher chose me because of my education and early reader background, but I had never considered writing a book dealing with the Holocaust for young readers. I had to think about it carefully before accepting the challenge. I remembered my own education about the Holocaust, which began in third grade. I don’t believe I was too young, though I do believe my Hebrew School could have benefited from more children’s books designed for our age group. In the next couple of years I read chapter books such as When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, which have stayed with me for life. They treated their material in a way I could handle. I believe children want and need to know about the difficult and frightening parts of life. They sense them anyway, and books written for them may be the best way to help them deal with what they see, hear, and even experience themselves. Many Hebrew schools and secular schools DO teach this period in Jewish history, and they need good materials. Many schools also teach about other harrowing subjects, such as the enslavement of African Americans. What frightens me much more than teaching children about these things is ignorance and its repercussions.
How did you select the content pertaining to Anne Frank’s life that you felt was appropriate for this age group?
I learned as much as I could about Anne Frank and selected aspects of her writing and experience to which I thought elementary school children could most easily connect. The idea of staying inside for years at a time is something I think children might be able to begin imagining. What would it be like not to play outside? Not to step on grass or feel the wind? Not to be able to play sports or run? I also thought that children would be able to imagine a favorite tree or place outside and to begin to understand why Anne found the chestnut tree and the view from the attic window so comforting.
Which Holocaust themes do you feel are suitable for a primary audience?
I think a primary audience can understand the themes of prejudice and injustice. They can see how unfair it is when some people are treated as less than others. They can empathize with what it feels like when someone is cruel to another person. Moving from there, ideas of creating a better, more just world are very suitable.
Why did you choose to use a “chestnut tree” as the focal point for your story?
Step Into Reading biographies focus on one aspect of or event in their subjects’ lives. I needed to find a focus with which I could present the full outline of Anne’s life while emphasizing a specific part of her writing and experience. The chestnut tree was a very tangible symbol, one whose story continues as its saplings are planted around the world. It creates a way to talk about Anne’s experience as well as the way her work and influence endure.
Are you planning to continue writing books for a primary audience? If so, can you share some information about your next book?
I will definitely continue to write for a primary audience. I have several manuscripts at different stages. I hope I have some more information to share soon!
I have written a couple of Nerdy Book Club blogs about the controversial topic of introducing the Holocaust to primary aged children. See Memorable Holocaust Picture Books and Notable Holocaust Picture Books Illustrate People Making a Difference. Jane contacted me after reading one of my blogs. I was delighted to learn that she had recently authored a Step Into Reading Level 3 Book that focused on Anne Frank’s life. She graciously sent me a copy for review.
I was curious to see how she would present Anne’s remarkable story to a young audience of early readers. Jane skillfully provided an overview that used a unique approach to this famous story. Jane used numerous references to the chestnut tree that stood outside Anne’s window. Even though Anne Frank was unable to go outside, the tree and nature provided hope and joy. In recent years, the tree was destroyed by a storm. All was not lost because chestnuts were used to grow new saplings. Jane weaves this fact back into the story by reminding children that Anne’s words remain alive long after her death. Jane created a positive spin to a very sad topic.
Anyone willing to introduce a young reader to Anne Frank’s life or the Holocaust should not hesitate to recommend this book to a child. I agree with Jane that more early readers should be written on the Holocaust to meet the needs of the kids who want to learn more. If you used this book in your classroom or shared it with your own child, I’d love to hear your feedback.
If you are interested in a drawing for an autographed copy of Anne Frank’s Chestnut Tree, please leave a comment regarding this blog. A random drawing will occur on November 15. The lucky winner will be sent a copy.
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, and a Honorable Mention award in the Multicultural Non-Fiction category for the 2013 Global ebook Awards.