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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Jennifer Ward

Jennifer Ward writes full-time from her home in Illinois where she lives with her husband and two dogs and is easily distracted by everything outside of her windows - particularly if it has feathers! Most of Jennifer's books are inspired by science and nature and artfully combine elements of STEM & literacy.

She is the author of more than 25 award-winning nonfiction and fiction books for children and adults, including Round (2020), I Love Birds!: 52 Ways to Wonder, Wander, and Explore Birds with Kids (2019), How To Find a Bird (2020), Mama Dug a Little Den (2018), Feathers and Hair, What Animals Wear (2017), There Was an Old Martian Who Swallowed the Moon (2015), There Was an Old Mummy Who Swallowed a Spider (2015), Mama Built a Little Nest(2014), What Will Hatch? (2013), and The Busy Tree (2012).

Her newest picture book, Just You and Me: Remarkable Relationships in the Wild, releases September 14th.

Welcome Jennifer, thank-you so much for stopping by to talk about your newest books and writing.

JW: So happy to be here! Thanks!

Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write? How long have you been writing? What is your favorite type of book to write?)

I’m super old school and do most of my writing, initially, on scrap paper with a pen. Once I’m ready to go digital with my thoughts, I type at my kitchen table which is tucked in an alcove of windows where I can look out to my property/woods and bird watch while I write. Am I birding? Am I writing? It’s always a bit of both! I write whenever the mood strikes, which could be morning, noon or night. I do love writing! It’s a challenging skill; not always easy to master a story, but I do love it. I love the creative process and seeing each book as a puzzle of sorts - using language and a limited number of words to create imagery and a story. My favorite form of writing involves creating picture books.

My first published book, “Way Out in the Desert” debuted in 1998. (It’s still in print!) I submitted it to a publisher never expecting it to get published, but remarkably the publisher made an offer to publish – beginner’s luck for certain! I’ve been writing professionally ever since.

Great luck indeed and what a wonderful spot to write. What is something no one (or few) knows about you?

I am an ordained minister ~ officiant of weddings : ) Mostly the weddings of sisters, nieces and close friends.

Interesting, that's a new one! Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?

My favorite book as a child was The Tiger Who Came to Tea, written and illustrated by Judith Kerr. I still have my childhood copy in my home library. As a child, I even inscribed a message to myself in it, “forging” my mom and dad’s signatures: ‘To Jenny, for being such a good girl. Love Mom and Dad’. I have four sisters, so this was likely my way of putting my mark on a book I treasured, lol.

Did your writing, research, or publishing experience with Just You and Me differ from your other NF books - How To Find a Bird or Mama Dug a Little Den, Feathers and Hair, What Animals Wear, or Mama Built a Little Nest? If so, how? Was one easier or particularly harder to write?

Writing about symbiotic relationships in nature was a wee more challenging than my other NF picture books with Beach Lane Books – only because I wanted to solely feature ‘mutual’ symbiotic relationships (where both partners benefit), vs. say, parasitism, where only one partner benefits. Symbiosis was a concept I was aware of, but not a topic I was deeply familiar with compared to – general example - birds (Mama Built a Little Nest). I am a true bird nerd: I study bird behavior as a hobby, I photograph birds, I volunteer at a wild bird rehabilitation center, I am involved with wild birds every single day. So naturally, writing “Mama Built a Little Nest” was a more innate, creative project than embarking on, Just You and Me – which has just received its first starred review from School Library Journal, by the way! [Did you notice the orphaned Yellow-shafted Northern Flicker on her shoulder?]

Just You and Me was a wonderful journey because of the research involved. I learned a lot! And it was AMAZING to partner with illustrator Alexander Vidal again. He also illustrated my book, “I Love Birds! 52 Ways to Wonder, Wander and Explore Birds with Kids”. Alexander’s artwork is STUNNING!

Sounds like it was the perfect book to stretch your comfort zone. What was your inspiration for Just You and Me?

Did you know the Brown-headed Cowbird never nests or raises her young? Instead, she secretly spies on other bird species as they build their nests. Then, she sneaks in when they’re not around and lays an egg in their nest - leaving the mother and father warbler, Northern Cardinal, House Finch, wren… to incubate her egg and raise her chick. Pretty clever! I knew this was a cowbird thing, but when I actually witnessed a female cowbird SPY on a nesting pair of cardinals as they were nest building – and then witnessed her fly in and lay an egg in that nest – wow! Nesting season is a challenging, exhausting and energy-taxing time for birds, with only a small window of time to do it (spring/summer) – and the Brown-headed Cowbird doesn’t have to do any of it for the survival of the species. So that’s an example of symbiosis: parasitism. Although I don’t feature parasitism in Just You and Me, the concept of symbiosis is fascinating. I love science and animal behavior – so writing Just You and Me came naturally.

It's interesting that an example of parasitism inspired you to create a book of mutual symbiosis. How long did Just You and Me take from the idea to publication?

A long time. From idea to publication – let me check my notes – drafting and revising took place in 2017/2018. Acceptance by publisher, Beach Lane Books, in 2019. Release fall 2021. Such is the timeline of publishing, at least in my world.

It's ordinarily a bit slow, but recently....well. Did anything surprise you when you first got to see Alexander Vidal’s illustrations for Just You and Me? What is your favorite spread?

Text © Jennifer Ward, 2021. Image © Alexander Vidal, 2021.

It’s always a surprise to see the finished book! I was familiar with Alexander’s art and had seen sketches through the process, but seeing everything in final color and design was such a joyful experience. A favorite spread? Hmmm. Well, I LOVE the croc. Just look at him! The boxer crab swinging the anemones on each claw is super fun too, with the predator lurking from the top of the page spread.

Ever since I read Eric Carle's Hermit Crab book, years ago, I've been fascinated with the symbiosis of the anemones (food & movement) and the crabs (protection). So glad they are in this book! Is there something you want your readers to know about Just You and Me?

Isn’t nature amazing? And it’s all yours - to explore and wonder about! There’s so much we still don’t know about the natural world. The concept of this book is just one tiny example of how things work in the wild.

What a great message! Which was harder to create, the succinct main text or the sidebars? Why? [Example from above image.]

Text © Jennifer Ward, 2021. Image © Alexander Vidal, 2021.

That’s a great question! The stanzas were more challenging to create than the informational sidebars. This was due to needing to convey a symbiotic relationship between two living things using only four lines of rhyming text, each with eight beats per line. I always use a rhyming dictionary and a thesaurus when I write in rhyme, which helps!

Yikes! Though I imagine condensing the sidebars into child-accessible language wasn't always easy either. What/who is your greatest source of inspiration? (either as a child or now as a writer.)

As a child, my parents. They always encouraged me to write. At present – connecting children to nature.

So, you’ve written nonfiction, fiction, humor, and activity picture books. Is there one type that you enjoy writing most?

I know! I’m varied! I love humor, but I enjoy writing creative, nonfiction the most.

How have you been staying creative this past year, or so? Is there anything that has helped you “prime the well”?

Always creative! During Covid lockdown I obtained a very (very!) old kiln and taught myself how to fire clay and I’m embarrassed to say I’ve rolled and fired hundreds of pounds of clay. So yes, my friends and family know what they’re getting for gifts the next few years…That, and volunteering rehabbing injured and orphaned birds. And spending time outdoors – the well is very well primed.

HA! There's nothing quite like squishing and creating with clay - unless it's dough (which has the "benefit" of being able to eat it). Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?

Yes! Bird related concepts - and dabbling in illustration for simple, science-concept books for young readers.

I had two books debut in 2020, “Round”, illustrated by Lisa Congdon, and, “How to Find a Bird”, illustrated by Diana Sudyka (both with Beach Lane Books), and now “Just You and Me” in 2021, so I’m navigating Covid 19 and cancelled book events as everyone is navigating this crazy, new world. That said – I love to Skype and Zoom with schools and chat books and writing! As a former educator, I love visiting schools and libraries. And everyone, stay well.

Good luck with the launch and virtual visits. And I echo your statement for everyone to stay well. What is your favorite animal? Or one you are enamored with. Why?

My favorite domestic animal is the horse. (Dogs are a close second!) In the wild: elephants – such sensitive and intelligent creatures. (And birds, of course – but don’t get me started…)

Thank you, Jennifer for stopping by and sharing with us. It was truly wonderful to chat with you.

Thank you so very much for the opportunity to share and for giving Just You and Me a little boost in the big world! Very much appreciated!

Be sure to stop back on Friday for the #PPBF post on Just You and Me.

To find out more about Jennifer Ward, or get in touch with her:


Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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