What Inspires You?

Posted July 25th, 2013 by Jen Bryant

7_25verticleI love the fact that the etymology of “inspire” is rooted in the body, that it’s a physical manifestation of the metaphysical. (After all, that’s what writers—and other artists—do, isn’t it? Make the invisible visible?) In that sense, the word translates as “giving breath to” or “inflaming.” Whenever I give a workshop or talk to aspiring writers, I emphasize the role that our bodies have in perception and memory. I urge them to set their stories in places they know well, using their stored perceptions of that place: what it looks like, sounds like, smells like, etc—in order to bring their scenes and characters to life.

The part of “inspire” that I object to is the implied assumption that the act of writing is somehow magical and immediate, that it comes from outside of the writer, and that certain people “have it” and others don’t. (Not true!) 7_25verticleBWhen I visit a school, talk to a book group, or do a library presentation, someone inevitably asks that question: “What inspires you to write your books?”—and I always struggle to answer it. On the one hand, I don’t want to shortchange the labor –the time, effort, false starts, rewrites and sheer perseverance—that it takes to bring every poem, story, essay or novel to fruition. On the other hand, I recognize that there are certain moments in the creative process where things “click”—where disparate ideas or images present themselves as useable material, and seem to do so without the writer’s conscious intervention.

But these are not “magic.” I prefer instead to view them as triggers or generators and I believe that, for me, my stories are most often triggered by place. Small towns, barnyards, artists’ homes and studios, museums and courtrooms, are examples of places that have spawned my novels, poems, and biographies. Other writers are not as inspired by place, but instead are triggered by dialogue, music, or personal experience.

How about you? What makes you want to write, paint, dance, compose, or sing?



Dog Days of Summer

Posted July 18th, 2013 by Jen Bryant

DogsMany writers have tempered the necessary solitude of their creative process by enjoying the company of canines. Emily Dickinson had Carlo, her faithful Newfoundland, Charles Dickens had spaniels, a Pomeranian, and St. Bernards, and I’m willing to bet that when President Obama drafts his important speeches, Bo the First Dog, a Portugese Water Dog, is waiting nearby, ready for a quick game of fetch. Likewise, many writers’ pets have made it into print (our Springer Spaniel SAM became “Blake” in the 2006 novel Pieces of Georgia.) and my good friend and poetry mentor, Eileen Spinelli, was inspired to write Do You Have a Dog? by Sam and other canines she knew and loved. In fact, many contemporary novels have dogs as their protagonists and/or narrators . . .  and here are some of my favorites:

For young readers:

  • Love that Dog, by Sharon Creech.
  • Where the Red Fern Grows, by Wilson Rawls.
  • Because of Winn-Dixie, by Kate Di Camillo.

For adults:

  • The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski (a must-read; great literature, a profound and memorable book!)
  • Unleashed:  Poems by Writers’ Dogs. Edited by A. Hempel & Jim Shepard
  • The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein

How about you? What’s your recommendation for a great dog book?


Of Great Apes and Sticky Notes

Posted July 9th, 2013 by Jen Bryant


Thinking, thinking

Did you know? John T. Scopes, the 1st-yr teacher/football coach @ Rhea County H.S. said NOTHING until the end of the 2-week trial that bears his name. In fact, after court had recessed for lunch on one particularly hot afternoon (it was a humid 90 degrees, the overcrowded, cigarette-smoke-filled  courtroom was on the second floor, most everyone wore dress shirts, ties, and  suits), Scopes left town and went for a swim in a nearby pond. When court reconvened, it took some time for anyone to notice that the defendant wasn’t even there!   

Tbk_ring_120his week marks the anniversary of the Scopes evolution trial, which took place in Dayton, TN. Ringside, 1925: Views from the Scopes Trial (Knopf, 2008) was an Oprah pick for ages 12 & up and an NCTE Recommended Book the following year. Even now, I get emails from readers who ask:

  1. “Why did you decide to use nine different narrators?”
  2.  and “How did you keep track of them as you wrote?”

Answer 1:  I originally had eleven narrators, but later decided to use just nine. I felt it was important to give voice to as many points of view as possible on this sensitive topic, while still remaining true to the historical facts of the trial. One, two, or even three narrators would not have allowed me to do that. Nine seemed about right, and also allowed me to embody in my characters a range of ages, genders, beliefs and opinions.

Answer 2: Sticky notes! If I’d had any sense at all, I would’ve run out and bought stock in 3M before I tackled this book. Every week, I’d take the pages of the particular section I was working on and spread them out across the floor of our living room, down the hallway, or across the top of my husband’s basement pool table. I assigned each narrator a certain color of pool-table275sticky note, so that when I put the pages back together again, I could easily see how often, and when, each narrator spoke without having to flip through the manuscript or look at a table of numbers (I am not a sequential thinker—just ask my 7th grade algebra teacher). Thank God for those multi-colored notes, that’s all I have to say . . .

You can visit the Scopes Trial Museum here. And watch a short video  here.

Chicago, Chicago

Posted June 27th, 2013 by Jen Bryant

ALAFor the curious traveler, the sports fan, the arts enthusiast, the Windy City has it all: museums, stadiums, architecture, and great food. Melissa Sweet is there starting tomorrow, and you can find her here and follow all of the events from the annual ALA conference here.

white cityDo you have a favorite book set in Chicago? Or—a favorite writer, poet, or artist from Chicago? Let us know in the comments section. My favorite “Chicago” book is Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City, a work that successfully blurs the line between fiction and non-fiction with meticulous research, and superb storytelling. Highly recommended for your summer beach reading, even if you never get to Chicago! 

Celebrating 75 years of Caldecott

Posted June 25th, 2013 by Jen Bryant


Melissa Sweet and the Caldecott honor medal

Actors hope for an Oscar, Broadway performers a Tony, musicians a Grammy. But those of us who create children’s books dream of being tapped for a Newbery or Caldecott —either as a medalist (TWO books of the 50,000 + children’s titles published each year are chosen, one in each category) or as an honor book (normally, 2 or 3 are designated as honor books in each category.)  In January, 2009, Melissa Sweet received a call from the ALA Caldecott committee, saying that her illustrations for A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams had won a Caldecott honor. As the author of the book, I was also invited to take part in the glorious and unforgettable ALA annual ceremony which took place in Chicago several months later.

This week, Melissa will return to ALA in Chicago to celebrate 75 years of the Caldecott Medal. Here’s where you can find her.


A River of Words; Melissa and Jen signing AROW


Overlapping Circles

Posted June 20th, 2013 by Jen Bryant

Politics_and_Prose_FrontI recently met with over a hundred 2nd  and 3rd graders from DC elem schools at the wonderful Politics & Prose book store in Washington, DC. We talked about Horace Pippin’s life and work and how he used his creativity to strengthen his arm and clear his mind after the horrible battles he fought in during WWI.

The students were very surprised to learn that several of Pippin’s most interesting paintings are located in their own Washington, DC museums!   Afterwards, I signed books in the same room where I’d signed my novel Pieces of Georgia , in April 2006. The connection between the two events AND the two books (I discovered Horace Pippin while researching that novel at the Brandywine River Museum in Pennsylvania) was another chance to see my writing life as a series of wonderful, overlapping circles.

Summertime, and the Reading is Easy

Posted June 13th, 2013 by Jen Bryant

bk_kaleid_140Memorial Day is behind us, the summer season is here, and that set me to thinking about the origins of my verse novel Kaleidoscope Eyes.  While I would like to think all my books would be great for summertime reading, “Kal Eyes” is the one that could definitely be labeled a summertime story.

Long before TV’s Jersey Shore, there was the real NJ shore where kids like me went for our family vacation. These annual trips were a clear and useful memory when I began work on what would eventually become Kal Eyes. Set in the fictional South Jersey town of Willowbank in the summer of 1968, the novel follows three friends as they navigate the challenges of family, community, and race while uncovering what may be a long-buried treasure of the notorious Captain Kidd.

In writing this book, I researched pirates, rock ‘n roll, Civil Rights, and Vietnam. I had plenty of material to work with; the trick, of course, was figuring out how to put all that good stuff together in the right way.

I’m a terrible cook. But while writing Kaleidoscope Eyes, the only way I could imagine the story coming together, was to pretend I was on one of those cooking shows, where they give you a bunch of ingredients that you’d never in a million years want to mix together (radishes, whipped cream, saltines, eggplant, chocolate, mustard) and they say: “Make something delicious.”

Ingredient #1:  The Sixties: the Beatles, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, concerts, tie-dye, Vietnam, peace rallies, Women’s Rights, Civil Rights, riots.

Ingredient #2: Pirate treasure: a map, a key, a metal detector, a churchyard.

Ingredient #3: Three 13-yr. old NJ kids: one black, two white, who find something that may be a lost chest of Captain Kidd buried right in their town.

Writing in verse was, I found, the key. The fluidity of the verse format allowed me to move from ingredient to ingredient quickly and connect the seemingly disparate elements (War? A treasure map?).  Most important: the verse allowed me to explore and share the inner lives of the characters—even as they were on the wild ride of solving a mystery.


Posted June 6th, 2013 by Jen Bryant

Saying Prayers, by Horace Pippin. Oil on canvas. Courtesy Brandywine River Musuem, Chadds Ford, PA

Saying Prayers, by Horace Pippin. Oil on canvas. Courtesy Brandywine River Musuem, Chadds Ford, PA

Imagine you’re a veteran of the terrible trench warfare of WWI, a steel plate serving as your shoulder joint after you were shot by a German sniper. Back home in Pennsylvania, suffering from PTSD, you somehow manage to return to your childhood love of drawing and painting. You and your wife live on your meager soldier’s pension and the money she makes doing laundry for rich folks. You trade your work for haircuts, sell it for five dollars in the shoe store window.

Then one day, a local art critic and his friend (a famous illustrator) happen to see your work in town. They ask you if you have more . . . you show them what you’ve made. They encourage you to enter the local art show, and you do. Two weeks later, these men organize your first one-man show at the West Chester Community Center, where visitors see seven of your wood-burnt panels and ten of your paintings, all made with materials you’ve scavanged from the alleys of your neighborhood. At the show’s opening on June 8, 1937, those men—N.C. Wyeth and Christian Brinton—speak about the quality and integrity of your work. The future civil rights leader Bayard Rustin sings. Art lovers flock to see the exhibition.  Reporters ask for interviews.

Your name is Horace Pippin, and after today, your life will never be the same. 

 June 8th marks the 76th anniversary of Horace Pippin’s first one-man show. Held at the West Chester Community Center in West Chester, PA, this exhibit launched his career as an artist.

Two Way Street

Posted May 30th, 2013 by Jen Bryant


A large group presentation during a visit at Timber Ridge in Plainfield, Illinois.

School is out in many places, and I’m catching my breath after another wonderful year of author visits. Spring is an especially busy time for authors, and I have to work hard to find the balance between writing and talking about writing. Still, I do love meeting so many avid young writers and readers, as well as the teachers and librarians who work so hard to inspire their students’ interest in reading and writing.

And of course I’m learning, too! I come away from each visit thinking about my presentation and how to better share my work and my passion for my subjects. It’s been especially useful to see how my books are used in the classroom; as a former classroom teacher, I appreciate the extra creative effort that’s involved when a book is integrated into the curriculum. On my website, you can find  teaching guides for my books, all of which have been written by veteran classroom teachers and reading specialists.   


Talking poetry with a small group in Radnor TWP, SD.

Do I have the classroom in mind when I write a book? No—I’m driven by a story or subject that has taken hold of me. But the educators who create my discussion guides have perfected the art of developing multi-age, multi-learning strategy activities so that ANY adult can use my picture books or novels in whatever manner suits their classroom, library, or smaller tutorial group.  

I’m looking forward to the next school year and many more visits. To find out more about how to arrange an author visit at your school or library, please go here.

Back home, a true honor

Posted May 21st, 2013 by Jen Bryant


Honorees David Gergen and Jen

Gettysburg College has always been a second home to me and to my husband, Neil. We met there, have remained involved there in as many ways as we can, and continue to draw strength from our alma mater’s history, integrity, culture of intellectual curiosity, and most of all—its wonderful people.

On Sunday May 19, it was my privilege to accept an honorary degree, Doctor of Humane Letters, from Gettysburg College and to be a part of the graduation ceremony for the class of 2013. With many family members and friends in attendance, we heard a brilliant commencement address delivered by CNN’s senior political analyst David Gergen, who made connections between the Battle of Gettysburg and this year’s graduating class, and dispelled prevailing myths about the millennial generation. Gergen and former ambassador to Nepal Julia C. Bloch also received honorary degrees from Gettysburg College on Sunday.

It’s a day I’ll never forget and for which I’m truly thankful. As often happens when I feel emotionally overwhelmed, lines of poetry will spring to mind, offering comfort and a sense of connection. Such was the case yesterday when I received the Doctoral Hood, saw my family’s faces in the crowd, and hugged President Riggs. The line from Jane Kenyon’s poem “Otherwise” echoed through my consciousness: “It might have been/ otherwise.” —to remind me, I believe, that I was standing there at that time, on that day, for that reason, because of hard work, the willingness to risk, and sheer persistence —yes—but also because of many people who took the time to nurture and to mentor me, and to provide me with opportunities that I otherwise would not have had. For them, I am eternally grateful.


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