Interview with Jamie A. Swenson, debut author of BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!
The story behind the story is what my father-in-law likes to call a "true life adventure" story. It was a dark and stormy night. I was snuggled in my bed with a book when BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! Before I knew it, my entire family - two daughters, cat, dog, husband, various stuffed animals -- were all huddled together in my not-big-enough bed to wait out the storm. We talked and sang and had a pretty good time -- and when the storm ended everyone headed back to their own spots - leaving me free to run to my keyboard and write the first few lines of BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! Of course, I took creative liberty and changed the story so we would have a brave young boy, many frightened animal friends -- and of course -- the bossy big sister! I hope kids have fun with the book as they brave through noisy thunderstorms (which can be scary for kids and animals, too!).
2. Did you know right away that this was your story, or did you discover it as you wrote? How did the story evolve?
I knew the voice for the story from the very moment the idea came to me -- and I knew the refrain -- flash, crash, boom boom boom! -- but it took many, many revisions to get the story into its current version. At one point mom, dad, granny -- and I think a rat -- all jumped into that bed! For many reasons, this did not work! The only part that is exactly the same from the first version is that the child is brave and the dog jumps in first (as that is what really happened in MY real-life story) -- otherwise, I played and had a lot of fun trying to get this story just so!
3. Once your editor became involved, did the story change, or is the story in the book similar to the one you first submitted?
There were not any changes made to this manuscript from the time I sent it to FS&G to the text that is in the real book -- but, as I said earlier, the text went through many changes before I started submitting it to editors. I had many talented writer friends read it aloud to me and help me hear the words and the rhythm of the story (including my dear Tamera Will Wissinger) -- there comes a point when you are so close to your story that you cannot hear it any longer -- and you can make anything work. It's important to have friends who are willing to read your work to you so you can hear another person's voice reading the text.
4. Can you describe how you felt when you first saw David Walker’s charming illustrations?
The very best part of being a picture book author is seeing the artwork for the first time. It's Christmas, every birthday, and the Fourth of July all at once. Every time I see the art, I find a new favorite illustration. I am especially fond of the cat (who looks remarkably like my dear cat, Jack), and of Fred the bear. I have to say my favorite illustrations show the little boy happy, safe, and reading with Fred. Still, the reptile hug illustration makes me smile ear-to-ear -- just like the text did when I wrote it: "Snake coiled up -- a bit too snug! Seven squished folks in a reptile hug."
5. What is the best part of writing picture books for young readers?
I have been fortunate to work as a librarian/early literacy storyteller for over 12 years now -- and the very best part about writing books for kids is sharing that book with kids. My library is so good to me -- we are having a book birthday party to celebrate Boom! Boom! Boom!'s release -- and I hope many of my storytime friends will be there to celebrate with me -- after all -- I wrote this book with them in mind!
6. What is the most difficult part of writing for this age reader?
Twos, threes, fours -- and even fives -- are not designed to sit still for very long. They are meant to interact with their world -- and anyone who writes for this age group should keep that in mind. They don't want flowery descriptions - they want to SEE the flowery thing and touch it and hold it and maybe taste it! Writing for the youngest group does not mean you cannot use wonderful words such as: "Three burrowed under all comfy-cozy" - it just means you better choose the words wisely. Make the words you use count. Invite the child into your text - either by intentionally giving them a role: FLASH CRASH BOOM BOOM BOOM (onomatopoeia works wonders with this age group) or by using words that are simply fun to listen to: "With five this bed is tip-flip-flopping!
Another thing to keep in mind when writing for the little folks is that a big person is more than likely going to be reading the text aloud. Make it fun for that person. Give the adult room to play, too. Be creative! Have fun!
7. You are also a children’s librarian. How has that helped you in your writing? Is there any downside?
Being a children's librarian/early literacy storyteller has exposed me to thousands (probably more) fabulous picture book texts. When I use a book with a group - I get to see how the kids react to certain aspects of the text and illustration. I've been doing storytime for over a decade now -- and I feel like the rhythm and flow of picture book text are within me now: the language, pacing, page turn - pause for effect. All of this helps and hinders me. I think of a new story! Hooray! Oh, but isn't that similar to XYZ? I am constantly comparing my text to fabulous books -- and that can be highly motivating -- or highly intimidating! Sometimes I just have to block out the books and give myself room to tell a story with my voice. There is probably a story already in existence for almost every scenario -- so the key is -- figuring out how to tell that story in a slant/unique way. And that is challenging for any writer -- not just me! I may be a bit more sensitive to it is all -- being in my line of work!
8. Can you tell us what you’re working on now, and what’s up next for you?
I am currently working on a new early chapter book. It combines some historical settings with some interesting characters who I am just getting to know. I'm still in the dreaming/researching mode for this story -- but so far -- it's been a lot of fun and I've already learned some new facts about the revolutionary war. I don't think that there is ever a time that I'm not jotting down new phrases that hit me - words that I like the sound of - sentences I'd like to read aloud. There are scrapes of paper all over my workspace, kitchen, living room, and bedroom ... with little bits of prose that might sprout and grow into a picture book or something even longer!
9. Is there one question you wish you could answer about writing, your book, or the author's life, but have never been asked? Here's your chance to Q &A yourself. One question that has not been asked of me yet is: When did I decide to become a writer?
There are a quite a few important people who played a role in my journey so far whom I would like to thank. First of all - my mother read to me and my brothers every day. She made a point of taking us to the library every week and letting us pick out our own books. As I grew, I was surrounded by people who loved books and reading -- my great aunts (The Joyce Girls) were constantly sending good books home with me. They sent me my first set of Anne of Green Gables -- my favorite books to this day. Plus, my Aunt Kay was a writer too -- she wrote short stories and novels -- and while she never had a book published -- she let me see that people in our family could be writers. And then there were my librarians: Cathy, Beth, and Kathy. Cathy Norris, my librarian when I was a child, taught me to love picture books. Beth Murray taught me to act out stories and make them more fun as I retold them. And Kathy Kennedy-Tapp was a real-live writer. She wrote novels that were published when I was a teen. From the moment I told her I thought I would like to be a writer - she supported me. She was another person who let me know it was possible for someone like me to grow up and be a writer. Since that time, there have been so many people who have helped me, supported in me, believed in me, and taught me -- that there is no way I could list each and every one. Still, I must say, my husband, Jon, is the person who supports me as a writer every single day. When I said I wanted to write books, he said, "Cool." When I told him I wanted to go to school and get my M.F.A. in writing, he said, "Absolutely - do it!" And when I told him I sold my first book, he said, "Of course you did. Now go write another.
I can't imagine being more blessed or having a career that better suits me -- and if not for the amazing people in my life -- I might not have followed this dream. Thank you for asking!
Jamie A. Swenson is the author of newly released BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!, pictures by David Walker (FSG), and the forthcoming BIG RIG, pictures by Ned Young (Disney/Hyperion, February 4, 2014), and IF YOU WERE A DOG, pictures by Chris Raschka (FSG). Online, you can connect with Jamie through her Website, Facebook, or Goodreads. BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! is available wherever good books are sold, including through this FSG link.