Author Spotlight

Author Spotlight: Barbara Jean Hicks

Barbara Jean Hicks
Barbara Jean Hicks is the author of the 2006 ALSC Notable Children’s Book, Jitterbug Jam: A Monster Tale (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Barbara lives in Oxnard, California.

What is your personal history and how has it informed your work?
I grew up in a small farming community in Washington State, the middle of seven children. My parents (who’ve been married 67 years and still live on their own) didn’t have a lot in worldly goods. Nine of us, for example, lived in a two-bedroom, one bath house. Honestly, I didn’t realize how poor we were until long after I went away to college. Our home life was secure and happy, filled with books, music, pets, and projects. We rented a tent-trailer in the summer and went on vacations together. When I was in high school, we even built a house together. (I remember helping mix concrete for the foundation and pounding nails on the roof two stories up!)

We went to the library every Saturday and Sunday School every Sunday. Both were religious experiences. We were encouraged to read and observe and think for ourselves. I loved school, loved learning, even loved homework! I grew up confident in my abilities and believed I was special. At home, I WAS special–as every child should be. The trouble was, the shock of discovering that in the larger world I WASN’T special absolutely threw me! As a skinny, near-sighted, pimply teen, I was shy, insecure, and preferred staying in with a book to going out with anyone, anywhere. I sometimes wonder if there’s a YA novel in me that I haven’t yet been brave enough to write because I don’t want to revisit those times and emotions! On the other hand, it’s huge fun writing for the person I was at a younger age. Fun is important. Picture books give me the opportunity to play.

But it’s serious play. Like a typical middle child in a large family, I grew up being the mediator. I still am, trying to understand everyone’s perspective and foster communication between people with diverse points of view. I’m drawn to write from unique perspectives, like the little monster in Jitterbug Jam who finds a scary boy hiding under his bed, or the cat in The Secret Life of Walter Kitty, whose real name is Fang. If kids can learn to empathize with a monster or a cat with an attitude, maybe they’ll learn to empathize with people different from themselves. If they can, there’s still hope for the world.

Describe your writing process.
Some writers are planners. I’m a seat-of-the-pants-er. For me, starting a story is always an adventure, a leap into the unknown. I might start out with a curious bit of dialogue, a vivid description, or a word or phrase that tickles my funny bone. Once I set pen to paper or sit down at the computer (I do both), I let the writing take me where it wants to go–no roadmap.

I love the poetry of picture books. I write for both the eye and the ear, constantly looking for ways to sharpen the imagery and finesse the cadence. I read my work aloud so often that by the time I’m done with a story I practically have it memorized. I tend to pay more attention to the music and the images than I do to the storyline–which makes for a very slow and inefficient process, as I end up having to throw out beautifully polished scenes that don’t belong in the story. But writing this way also gives the story time to work itself out, to find its own meaning. The act of writing teaches me what the story is, how it wants to be told, and why it matters. It’s a very organic process. Unpredictable, messy, and great fun!

How do you select your books’ topics?
I sometimes say that everything I know about writing, I learned from my cat. One of those things is to “scratch where it itches”! What are the ideas that just won’t leave me alone? What do I keep coming back to? What do I fall asleep thinking about? What moves me, intrigues me, makes me laugh? I write about those things.
Appropriately for a picture book author, many of my ideas come from visual images: scenes from real life, photographs, performances and visual art. The idea for Jitterbug Jam came from a Mother Goose and Grimm cartoon and was further developed from observation of kindergartners on the school playground. I Like Black and White began when I noticed how incredibly black and white my tuxedo cat looked against the lush, rain-fed lawn of our Seattle home.

I also get story ideas by playing with perspective, as I’ve already mentioned. I try to put myself inside the mind and experience of another person or creature, to see and explain the world from a unique point of view. I think part of a writer’s job is to provoke readers to think about the world and their place in it in new ways. A unique perspective can give a story meaning beyond pure entertainment.

Why do you write for children? What experiences have influenced your writing for young people?
My last five works for adult readers were romantic comedies set in the fictional and very quirky town of Pilchuck, Washington. These were not typical genre romance novels, and one online reviewer who clearly thought they were meant to be expressed the opinion that I “really ought to be writing for children, as no one else could appreciate such silliness.” Ouch! But I’d always been interested in children’s books and was ready for a new challenge, and the comment gave me the kick in the pants I needed. (Thank you, reviewer, wherever you are! I have truly found my calling.)

I always wanted children, but motherhood never happened for me. I find great joy now in writing children’s literature as a way of sharing myself and my values, perhaps influencing kids in a way I would have as a mom–letting them know how special they are and how much power they have in their abilities to think, consider and choose for themselves and in the ways they interact with other people.

Please describe a few of the collaborations that you have developed because of your writing, either during the writing process or after the project is completed.
Unless you’re an author/illustrator (which I am not–yet!), picture books are a necessarily collaborative process. But it’s an odd sort of collaboration, mediated completely by the editor and art director–who thus also become part of the collaboration. Authors and illustrators are actively discouraged from contacting each other until after a project is completed. I’ve never met Alexis Deacon, the phenomenal illustrator of Jitterbug Jam, who lives in England. But I am amazed and incredibly moved by how much he added to the story with his exquisite artwork. I have a new book coming out next summer, Monsters Don’t Eat Broccoli, which is unique in that the sketches and some of the finished artwork were completed before my editor asked me to write a text to support them. Without the two of us ever speaking or writing, Sue Hendra’s images communicated with me in much the same way my texts must communicate with the illustrators who are assigned to them. Matching author and illustrator is a real art, and my editors have done superbly!

Another note on collaboration: I belong to several critique groups, and I really depend on the feedback of the talented writers and artists who belong to those groups. Working on a story for days and weeks and months (sometimes even years) can make it almost impossible to be objective about one’s own work. While I don’t always agree with or follow the advice of every person who shares his or her opinion about a story, I consider every comment. I know my work is greatly enhanced by that consideration. I truly value the members of my critique groups as collaborators in the process. Thanks, friends!

Share any experience you may have regarding audiobooks.
Picture books rarely become audiobooks because “true” picture books are dependent on the illustrations for meaning. Jitterbug Jam, however, was written as a picture storybook in the oral tradition, so it’s perfect for an audio format. I’m disappointed that the reader selected for the current recording has an East Coast accent, however, because the story is written in my grandmother’s Southern voice! I really feel some of the story’s charm is “lost in translation.”

I’ve just received permission from my publisher to record my own podcast of Jitterbug Jam for use in a Los Angeles Public Library program, and I plan to post it on my website as well. I love to read aloud and look forward to sharing the book this way.

I also love to be read to! I’ve only recently discovered the joys of audiobooks as traveling companions, especially on long road trips to speak at schools, libraries and conferences. They truly do make time fly.

Describe yourself as a reader. What books influenced and inspired you as a child? As an adult?
I was such an avid reader as a child that my parents had to shoo me out of the house so I’d get some exercise. Then after they put me to bed and turned out the lights, I’d read under the covers with a flashlight! But really, it was their fault. Without a television when I was growing up, books were our major form of entertainment. My favorite picture book as a child was about a puppy named Timmy, and had as its refrain: “And there was Timmy–right spang in the middle of everything.” Have no idea who wrote it or what the title was, but I still love that word “spang”! My parents read all the classic children’s novels to us. I particularly remember The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew and Robinson Crusoe. We also had a set of Childcraft books, and I especially loved the poetry volumes. I still remember lines from “Sea Fever” by John Masefield and “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes.

My favorite authors as a child reader were C.S. Lewis and Madeleine L’Engle. As an adult, I still like stories with a fantastical element of some kind. Not pure fantasy, but something beyond pure realism. I read widely, both adult and children’s books, and I always have a book going. There are so many good books out there that whatever I happen to be reading is my favorite at the time! I do read more fiction than nonfiction. For me, good fiction is more compelling and in some ways “truer” than nonfiction because it speaks to the heart. Whatever the genre, the emotion has to be true for me. I have to believe in the experience of the characters to be able to lose myself in the imagined world.

I also love what my family always called “the funny papers.” In just a few strokes and a few words, a good cartoonist can make me smile, chuckle, or even howl with laughter. And of course I read lots of picture books.

What role did libraries play in your childhood? What role do libraries play in your life now?
Books were revered in our home. When we built that house during my teenage years, it included a library, filled with after-Christmas sales books and discarded volumes my dad brought home from the library at the hospital where he worked. But most of our reading material came from our public and school libraries. The weekly trip to our community library was a much anticipated treat. When I was a little older I was allowed to walk the half mile by myself. I spent one summer there researching Russian history just for the fun of it. Ah, Rasputin! Later, when I was an insecure teenager, the school library was my haven, especially during lunchtime. Libraries still feel like that to me.

Now, as a visiting author, libraries are among my favorite places to do children’s programs. I like doing large school assemblies, too, but the more intimate setting of a library is so special. When I read my books to kids in a library, I get their immediate reaction–I can see them lean forward, wide-eyed, and hear their intake of breath, or see them smile and hear them giggle. Kids are so in-the-moment, and library visits take me back to being in-the-moment too. On top of all that, children’s librarians are about the nicest people in the world!

I use the Internet for quick-question sorts of research now, but for broad-based background research I still want real books. My local library is my second office.

What do you consider the challenges and rewards of being an author? Of being an author who visits schools and libraries?
My challenges are similar to those that any self-employed person faces. As a fulltime writer and speaker, not getting a regular paycheck or having health and retirement benefits is very stressful. I’m constantly scrambling to sell my manuscripts and promote my books and my services as a visiting author. Being a writer and speaker isn’t just about writing and speaking, it’s a great deal about marketing–which requires lots of time and energy and a whole ’nother skill set.

I will often get so caught up in my writing that I forget to eat–which unfortunately has not kept me from gaining unwanted pounds. Maybe it’s the fact that I forget to exercise, too… I really have to make a conscious effort to get up and move around during the day, or get to a yoga class, or take a walk, or go dancing.

However… I am doing work that I love, work that often feels like play, work that makes me feel alive and happy. Writing for children is a wonderful opportunity to connect with the kid inside me, and speaking in schools and libraries is a wonderful opportunity to connect with kids “out there.” I love knowing that as a picture book author whose books are read aloud, I’m helping bring families together. I love that my books might challenge kids (and their grown-ups) to think about the world in new ways. It’s also been such a surprise to me, remembering how painfully shy I was as a teenager and young adult, to realize how much I love being in front of an audience. Where did that ham come from?!

What do you want children to come away with after reading one of your books?
My ultimate hope is that kids identify their own experience in my books, that there is a heart-to-heart connection, and that they learn new things about themselves. I also hope that in my books they will find a friend, the way I found friends in books when I was a child.

Please share a little about your current work.
Abelard and the Big Bad Why-Bother Blues is a multi-cultural tale about a boy who wants to bake “a cake that tastes like summer” to blast his Gran-Daddy’s blues away on a gloomy winter day. He’s successful, but not exactly in the way he’d planned. The tale is a picture storybook that has more similarities to Jitterbug Jam than anything I’ve written since. I had a difficult time selling Jitterbug in the United States–it was rejected by 22 U.S. houses before it sold to Random House England, who later, ironically, sold U.S. rights to FSG. Jitterbug is long for a U.S. picture book, language rich, with a fairly complex story line. It’s also told in dialect, which you don’t see much in U.S. picture books. Abelard shares those characteristics, and my first thought was to send it directly to a couple of English publishers. But I really don’t want to count on foreign sales to see my work published in the U.S., so I thought I’d try my connections here first. I’m happy to say I have some interest from Knopf, who published The Secret Life of Walter Kitty. Keeping my fingers crossed!

At this point in your career, what has been your most memorable experience?
I have two that stand out: Having a full-page review in the New York Times Book Review when Jitterbug Jam was named on their list of Best Illustrated Books of 2005; and having a classroom full of fourth graders at one of my earliest school visits react like I was a rock star when I walked in. Two things I never in my wildest dreams imagined!

In this world of instant communication and concerns about privacy, how does the Internet (if it does at all) affect you personally and as a writer?
E-mail and the Internet are both a boon and a curse. Almost all my business communication takes place through e-mail, from submitting manuscripts to negotiating contracts to making editorial changes to finding speaking venues. But I can check my e-mail a dozen times a day, interrupting my creative flow, and spend hours responding to messages instead of writing. The Internet gives me instant access to information when I need it for something I’m working on, but one link leads to another and pretty soon I can’t remember what it was I was looking for–or why! Writing is such a solitary pursuit that it’s great for writers to be able to make connections with other writers through social networking sites and blogs, but again, it can get out of hand. There’s only so much time in a day.

I’m also concerned that teens and young adults of the Internet generation seem not to value privacy at all–either their own or others’. Yes, I think we are born with a need to know and be known, but not universally! Sometimes when I stumble across something I wish I hadn’t, I just want to say, “People! Have you no shame? Set some boundaries!”

What are your goals and aspirations?
Very simply, to continue to be able to make a viable living doing what I love to do best–writing, teaching and speaking. Oh–and I’d love to be interviewed by Oprah and Terri Gross!

What piece of advice has been the most valuable to you?
As a writer: “Show, don’t tell.” As a speaker: “Imagine the audience in their underwear!” As a person: “Be true to yourself.”

Is there anything else you would like to share with the readers of the ALSC (Association for Library Service to Children) Blog?
I confessed to my editor at Knopf recently that I am terminally “un-hip.” (Turns out she already knew. Huh.) Probably another reason I’ll never get to that YA. In a world where “edgy” is “in,” I’m about as un-edgy as anyone gets. (Quirky, maybe; edgy, not.) Fortunately, there are still readers out there who like playful language and a tender story. To you, I say thanks!


  1. Caroline Corser

    Hey, Barbara… I love your honesty and humility, as well as your simple, direct writing style. It was great to get to know you better through this interview.
    Way to go, Girl.

  2. Susan Herbert

    My Friend Barb, you are as fun now as you were in college! I have always loved your stories! Blessings, Susan & Kim

  3. Pam wilkinson

    Wonderful! That’s the Barbara Jean Hicks I got to know in a critique group in Seattle! And the Barbara Jean Hicks who took a fine red pen to the historical fiction, More Gold, that I wrote. Good editing. (I didn’t see that income and helpful activity in the ASLC article about you.)

    Thanks to Barbara, my current critique group, and to Carolyn Yoder at Calkins Creek of Boyds Mills Press, maybe, just maybe, More Gold wi’ll go through another revision and arrive on bookshelves sometime.

    I enjoyed reading this, and will share it with others — including Tekla White, the RA of North Central NORCA SCBWI and my critique group members.

    Pam Wilkinson

  4. Denise Gruska

    I think Barbara Jean Hicks is so totally spang in the middle of everything literarily, and I, for one, hope that she digs deep and pulls that YA novel out. I think it would be spectacular.

  5. Tina Nichols Coury

    Our critique group was blessed the day you moved to Oxnard. Your input and friendship are invaluable. Not to mention your fabulous editing skills. Seattle’s loss was our gain!

  6. Little Willow

    Greetings to Barbara Jean – and her cats, past and present. 🙂

  7. Mary Heaney

    Barb, Thanks for giving me more of a window into the world of writing. Being an elementary teacher, I am always on the look for books that can help students to understand “voice.” The characters in Walter Kitty will help me do that.

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