Thank you to Austin SCBWI member Jennifer Coleman for being this month’s member interview! Jennifer’s debut picture book, THE TEXAS NUTCRACKER is a Texas-themed retelling of the classic Nutcracker story. It includes historical details blended with fiction and magic that warps reality at Fort Davis on December 24, 1883. THE TEXAS NUTCRACKER is included in The Great Texas Readathon, a project of Austin SCBWI.
In addition to being an accomplished author, Jennifer is a read-aloud rockstar, a dance team volunteer and a super school librarian.
Where did you grow up, and how did that place (or those places) shape your work?
I was born in St. Andrews, Scotland overlooking the North Sea in a gorgeous mansion that had been converted to a hospital.(Craigtoun Maternity Hospital, St. Andrews. Would’ve lived a different story had we stayed!
Since I was the first child, my parents headed back to the States to be nearer to family. Instead of kilts and haggis, I grew up with dust storms and tumbleweeds, Friday night lights and big Texas skies. Started kindergarten in Lubbock, Texas and graduated from Lubbock High School as a magnet student and honor scholar.
My education at Lubbock High was rigorous! In my Honors English classes, we read a novel in one week and the next week we had a five-paragraph argumentative essay due. (For Moby Dick we got two weeks to read it—every other book was one week!). We’d receive a grade on content and a grade on grammar. I remember once I got a 60 on an essay’s grammar grade. The teacher wrote in big letters:
COMMA SPLICE/EGREGIOUS ERROR -40.
I never, ever forgot what a comma splice was again! I learned valuable writing skills in high school that made college and graduate school a breeze.
Did you always want to be a writer, or did that come later?
I enjoyed writing in journals and diaries growing up. Writing essays in schools was a thrill, and I loved essay questions on tests! Yet I always wanted to be an educator.
When I was doing my undergraduate work to be a teacher, one day my English professor read my paper aloud to the class. She never attributed the paper to me, but she outlined to the class why it was a good example. Hearing her “critique” my work affected me. I had been used to just writing for me, but that day I realized there was this thing called an audience! And an audience could respond positively to something I made up!
The last assignment in her class was choice based, and I couldn’t believe writing a children’s book was a project I could pick. I ended up writing and crafting a pop-up book. I got a 100 and she wrote on my grade sheet, “Jennifer, you should be a writer.” I still became an educator, but her words stuck and planted a seed in 1992.
If someone were to follow you around for 24 hours, what would they see?
Hahahahahahaha! READY? It starts early: 4:50am. I’m out the door by 6:50a.m..
In those two hours, I’m CEO of a crazy busy house filled with a middle school administrator (husband), three teenagers (12th grade, 10th grade, 8th grade), and two dogs. I get a lot of things done before the sun even rises (thank goodness the washing machine has a timer…I usually run a load each night, and first thing in the morning, I throw it in the dryer!)
My commute to work is one minute. I work at my neighborhood’s elementary school across the street. I have a crew of 5th graders come in at 7:20 to record the daily announcements. Then I’m the school librarian all day to 945 kids and a staff of almost 70. I’m very theatrical when I read aloud and am in a LOT of costumes!
After school it is meetings or it is mom life…I’m the Vice President of the Hendrickson High School Silver Dancers, where my daughter is the Captain and my other daughter is the manager, so there is always dance business in the week.
My son is an athlete in many sports, I’m either hauling golf clubs or cleats or mouthguards to some playing field somewhere. I try to cook as much as possible so my kids when they go to college miss my food and come home to visit!
From 8pm-9pm I try to read, write, or get ahead with school lessons. I’m out like a light at 9pm!
How does your everyday life feed your work?
I have the best job in the world to feed into being a children’s author…I am a children’s librarian in a large school filled with curious, funny, smart, kind, and interesting children!
I became a librarian in 1996, and it absolutely has helped me with writing because I read tons and tons of books, enabling me to see how young readers respond to the stories. I get to bring in visiting authors—picking their writing brain during lunch. I know trends in the business of publishing. I can test out ideas on lots of readers organically in a regular day. It is such a privilege to be a part of children’s literacy journeys. The students and teachers I serve inspire me all-the-time.
Tell us about some accomplishments that make you proud.
Becoming published! It also was amazing to do an author visit and book signing in the school where I teach. To be a role model to my students, to demonstrate perseverance, to model lifelong learning…achieving that was a proud milestone.
What surprises you about the creative life?
How it has taken me to places I couldn’t have predicted and grown me in ways I never expected.
My debut picture book is a holiday story, and I did about 12 book signings all over the state of Texas for it. I was used to talking to children and adults in the school where I work—but to talk to strangers in different cities and events led me to some wonderful conversations and encounters.
One man in San Antonio was a soldier about to be deployed to Germany. He said his wife was pregnant with their first child, and though it would be born overseas, he wanted my Texas Nutcracker book as a link to his Texas roots. I remember signing the baby’s book with “Welcome to the World! “and thinking how lucky I was to be part of someone’s journey.
When a reader discovers your work, what do you hope they find?
My hope is to use my words to spark a thought, an idea, or a smile, or something that causes the mind to linger. It is a privilege to be part of a child’s reading journey, and what a joy it would be to be part of someone’s childhood memories.
Quick Fire Questions:
Would you rather find $20 cash, or an unscratched scratch-off ticket?
Scratch-off tickets are a guilty pleasure of mine…so the gambler in me would cross my fingers and grab my lucky coin to start scratchin’!
Would you rather talk like Yoda or breathe like Darth Vader?
I think Yoda, because it is actually Grover’s voice. I relate more to Sesame Street than Star Wars, sorry!
Would you rather be a little late or way too early?
Early, early, early.. The early bird catches the worm!
Would you rather meet your favorite author or your favorite literary character?
Benjamin Franklin is my favorite literary mind of all time, so he is always my answer to these kinds of questions!