Chimney Sweep

Jen Bryant of Glenmoore, award-winning kids’s author

Jen Bryant, 55, of Glenmoore has written more than 30 books for young readers, from nonfiction to verse novels. Her most recent work, The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus, illustrated with vivid multimedia art by Melissa Sweet, won the Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Medal and received the Caldecott Honor Book award this year.

The annual Sibert Prize, presented late last month at the American Library Association conference in San Francisco, goes to the most outstanding U.S. children's information book in English of the past year. It is managed by the Association for Library Service to Children. As we learn below, Bryant found out much earlier when the awards ceremony took place in June.

What was it like winning the Sibert Medal?

We're having a Super Bowl party in our basement in Glenmoore. I was cutting hoagies when I got a call from Chicago. [home of the American Library Association]. I almost didn't pick up because I didn't know the number. I ran upstairs because our guests were arriving and started dancing around my office.

Why Roger? Why a picture book about words?

The thesaurus is so common for everyone, but no one has poked around in it [Peter Mark Roget’s] life and written about him for children. He was fascinating. Actually, I came across the topic by chance. My husband's family lives in the Pittsburgh area and I decided to attend the visit. I thought I had thrown in a book from the library to read, but I had brought the thesaurus with me. … It was not arranged alphabetically but according to its own categories. This really introduced me to the person behind the book and sparked the rest of my research. There was a lot of trauma [Roget’s] Family, a lot of transience. He started making these lists as something he could rely on, like driving stakes into a tent to keep it from blowing away.

What interested you in picture book biographies?

[Children’s book author Eileen Spinelli] pointed out the connection between the poems I wrote for magazines and the art of picture book manuscripts. Jerry [Spinelli] was also extremely helpful. Drawing on poetry, I also began writing novels in verse, combining individual poems to tell a whole narrative, as in The Trial. [about the 1935 Lindbergh baby kidnapping].

How do you get used to the mindset of your young audience?

I think that the emotional memory of what it was like to read as a child is a kind of timeless practice that all children's book authors do, even though children today have smartphones and other devices and their lives are more organized than ours. The emotional foundations of being a child are the same. It's important to remember this. So if you're writing for children, don't write anything down for them.

I go to the local YMCA. There are conversations here and there at the mall and the grocery store. I have four younger nephews. I also do a lot of school visits. Between my lectures I find out what they are reading and what they are doing. When I had a verse novel, especially when [daughter Leigh] I was in upper elementary, middle, and high school and asked, “What do you notice?” What do you like about it? What is unclear?”

Describe your collaboration process with illustrator Melissa Sweet.

[My publishers] chose Melissa Sweet for it [2008 book A River of Words] about William Carlos Williams. This book happened to win a Caldecott Award. …I don't advise her or tell her what to do during the illustration process. She has my finished manuscript in front of her and makes the artistic decisions for each page. The exception was the time we were working on it [Horace] Pippin Book: We went to the Brandywine River Museum. . . . She goes back to her studio in Maine and does her art separately.

We asked Jen Bryant

Favorite moments from “The Right Word”: The two-page London street scene where a chimney sweep says, “Do you need to clean, sweep, mop your chimney?” Bryant comments, “Roget really understands people and knows that they speak differently depending on their background .”

What picture books did she read as a child? Books by Dr. Seuss (Green Eggs and Ham) and PD Eastman (Put Me in the Zoo or Go, Dog, Go!) and Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are.

Who are some of your favorite children’s authors right now?

Kate DiCamillo, Jerry and Eileen Spinelli and Cynthia Rylant.

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