Jean kindly agreed to an interview, which is a great way to learn more about the author, her work, and her latest release – The Secret Life of Jenny Liu.
What is your first memory of writing?
I moved frequently as a child and as a result of wanting to stay connected to my friends and the places I left behind, I became a voracious letter writer. At seven, I remember writing weekly letters to my best friend from kindergarten. Almost forty years later, based on this early intimacy with words, we still keep in touch, although it’s through email.
When did you first consider yourself a writer?
In high school, I wrote for and was editor of the yearbook. I was also experimenting with writing poetry. When I began winning awards and college scholarships for both styles, I felt that my writing had some merit. But, it wasn’t until I got paid for writing, initially for magazines and television, that I actually considered myself a writer.
What inspired you to write your first book?
When my husband was little, he left his noisy preschool in the English countryside unnoticed and walked a mile back home, where he knew it would be quiet. The first children’s book I wrote was a picture book based on his story. “It’s Too Loud in Here!” is about a boy who can’t concentrate because his friends are making too much noise.
How did you come up with the title?
Jenny Liu is quiet and shy. She listens, observes and notices the details that others don’t, which helps her solve classroom problems. I liked the idea of a quiet, clandestine heroine. But, Jenny’s secret life doesn’t only include spying. Her new class assumes she’s super smart and her piano teacher thinks she’s a musical genius, but she’s neither. Keeping these secrets—not admitting the truth about her abilities—is a lot more difficult.
Are experiences based on someone you know or events in your own life?
A few of my experiences made their way into the book.
- Like Jenny, I moved frequently as a child. Although, I never lived in South Carolina.
- In the book, the winners of the soccer game get to spray each other with whipped cream. When I lived in southern Virginia, my elementary school held a similar party, except that we threw pies!
- The teachers in the book, Mr. Short and Ms. Candy, are sweet on each other. When I lived in upstate New York, my fifth-grade teachers got married.
- In the book, Ms. Candy begins every Tuesday with “Tuesday Times Tables” races. When I lived in the Washington, D.C. area, math races were a stressful part of my middle school day. During one race, a girl next to me admitted, “They think I’m smart, but I’m not.” This became one of Jenny’s dilemmas.
What was your favourite chapter to write?
I loved writing Chapter 11, “Thursday, February 11: Coming Clean,” because it includes such a lovely combination of humor, drama and suspense across situations and relationships. In addition, several characters reveal their true nature. Even though I know what’s coming, I cry every time!
What books have most influenced you?
- Anne of Green Gables: L.M. Montgomery
- This is How: Augusten Burrows
- Infinite Jest: David Foster Wallace
- Griffin & Sabine: Nick Bantock
- When I Have a Little Girl: Charlotte Zolotow
- The Poisonwood Bible: Barbara Kingsolver
- Living Zen: Charlotte Joko Beck
- American Pastoral: Philip Roth
- Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: Lewis Carroll
- Bridge to Teribethia: Katherine Patterson
- Ismael: Daniel Quinn
- Man’s Search for Meaning: Victor Frankl
- Janey: Charlotte Zolotow
- Flowers for Algernon: Daniel Keyes
- Flesh and Blood: Michael Cunningham
If you had to choose, which writer would you consider a mentor?
The late Charlotte Zolotow. I admire her ability to write honest children’s books using simple, impactful, authentic text. One of the first writers to address topics like losing a friend, anger, moving away, a grandparent’s death, boys wanting to play with dolls and envy, Ms. Zolotow’s level of respect for and understanding of a child’s experience is, in my opinion, incomparable. Through her legacy, I continue to learn not only about writing, but about myself as a writer.
What book are you reading now?
Rebecca Solnit’s “The Faraway Nearby.” I’m reading Eva Ibbotson’s “Journey to the River Sea” to my four kids.
How long does it take you to write a book?
The first draft can take anywhere from one to six months. Sometimes, picture books take longer to write than YA novels!
What does your family think of your writing?
They are very encouraging and understand that I am happiest, the most balanced and my best self when I am writing. My daughters and husband are my first readers and editors. I test picture book content and word choice with my younger sons. Not only is my family helpful, but in addition to their love of books, they have become respectful of the writing process.
Do you use an outline or just write?
I outline first, down to the chapter titles. Outlining takes me about the same time as the actual writing. I have to be clear about how the story will start, develop and end.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given by another writer?
Wait until the last possible moment to reveal significant information.
Do you start with character or plot?
Plot. Once I figure out the main plot points, the characters come to life!
What kind of questions do you ask yourself when you get an idea for a project?
It’s usually just one: “Why does this story need to be written?” If I can’t answer the question, I discard the idea.
What has been the toughest criticism you’ve received, and the best compliment?
I haven’t received much criticism, so I’ll focus on the best compliment. “Jenny’s like me,” a young reader said. “The Secret Life of Jenny Liu” was the first time she had seen a Chinese girl like herself as a protagonist of a contemporary book, let alone on the cover.
What are you working on right now? Tell us your latest news.
I am developing a children’s stage play for “The Secret Life of Jenny Liu.” The setting and the characters lend themselves to a visual telling of the story. I’m also editing my first YA novel.
Do you have anything specific you want to say to your readers?
By the end of the book, Jenny finds strength in the things that make her unique and she realizes that The Real Jenny Liu is “just right.” I would encourage readers to stay true to themselves. And, thank you for your kind words, smiles and photos of you reading “The Secret Life of Jenny Liu”—they bring me such joy.
The Secret Life of Jenny Liu
Publisher: Jam & Jabber Books
Genre: Middle Grade/Juvenile Fiction
Jenny Liu is on the move again. Except this time, she hasn’t landed at yet another Chinese-American School in California but at a public school in South Carolina. Shy, artistic Jenny wonders if she will ever figure out how to fit in amongst rowdy fifth graders and eccentric teachers with hard-to-understand southern accents. To make matters worse, the class thinks she is super smart and her piano teacher thinks she is a musical genius. With school activities that test her intelligence and an upcoming piano recital, it’s getting harder for Jenny to do what’s right—to tell the truth—especially since she knows that The Real Jenny Liu would be even more of an outsider. Or would she?
Jean Ramsden is a writer, producer and educational consultant. She graduated from Cornell University and Harvard University, and lives in North Carolina with her husband and four children.