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Sunday, August 17, 2008

Children's Author ~ Jeanne Birdsall

Jeanne Birdsall did not pick up a pen until the age of 41, but her prose reads like that of a seasoned master. She has been a proofreader, a layout editor at TV Guide, a television production grunt, a technical writer, and an artist-photographer. The author lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, with her husband and a large assortment of animals. The Penderwicks on Gardam Street is her second novel.

What are the highlights of your journey to publication?

A major highlight was when Barbara Kouts agreed to become my agent. I could tell she was a perfect fit for me, and was delighted that now she’d be the one looking for publishers and talking to them about contracts and money. I just wanted to write, without worrying about the outside world.

Why do you write for young people?

The stories I tell are more suitable for children than for adults.

What prepared you to write for children?

To quote the incomparable Ursula Nordstrom: “I am a former child, and I haven’t forgotten a thing.”

Your first novel, The Penderwicks, won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Did that award change the way you write, market, and live?

I never did any marketing and still don’t, so that didn’t change. And the award didn’t change my writing, but it certainly gave me more self-confidence, which very slightly lessened the agony of writing. As to how I live—now I can afford to buy hardbound books. What a luxury!

What are a few of your all-time favorite books?

A few! This is a terrible question! I’ll have to do the desert island thing, and limit myself to fourteen (I tried ten and it was impossible) split down the middle between adult and children’s fiction. And arbitrarily, only one book per author.

Adult: Persuasion, Jane Austen. The Egoist, George Meredith. Wives and Daughters, Elizabeth Gaskell. Can You Forgive Her?, Anthony Trollope. Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray. Bilgewater, Jane Gardam, The Greengage Summer, Rumer Godden. Gaudy Night, Dorothy Sayers.

Children’s: The Enchanted Castle, E. Nesbit. Knight’s Castle, Edward Eager. Ballet Shoes, Noel Streatfeild. The Dark is Rising, Susan Cooper. Journey to the River Sea, Eva Ibbotson. The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett. Eight Cousins, Louisa May Alcott.

What’s the best or worst advice (or both) you’ve heard on writing for young people?

I grew up surrounded by bossy people, so try very hard not to listen when people start spouting advice.

What is the first thing you do when you begin work on a new book?

Call on the gods for mercy.

In my opinion, you’re the new Elizabeth Enright: quiet glimpses into a close-knit family’s life, perfect for reading aloud. The current youth culture, however, seems obsessed with fantasy. Did you expect such a widespread, enthusiastic response to your work?

Good grief, no.

What aspect of a story is most challenging for you: strong setting, vivid characters, engaging voices, delicious prose?

What a leading question, Noel! A humble writer would say that all of those things are equally challenging. Delicious prose? Ha! Stripping out your adjectives, though, I will say that setting is most difficult for me—I never know how much to describe.

How do you develop your weak areas?

I just keep rewriting and rewriting and rewriting and . . .

Can you give us a typical day of your writing life?

I think all day—when not bothered by the detritus of daily life—then try to write a decent page or so at night. Ice tea, ginger cookies, and naps are necessities.

If you could choose to have one strength of another writer, what would it be and from whom?

Ah—Jane Gardam’s ability to say just enough and never too much. She’s perfect.

How much publicity do you do? Any advice in this area?

I leave it all up to my publisher’s capable publicity department.

Your current work in progress is…

The third book about the Penderwick sisters.

Do you have a dream, something you’d love to achieve with your writing?

World peace, but if not that, I’d like to host Saturday Night Live.


  1. Wonderful interview, Noel. :)

  2. I enjoyed learning more about you too. I am 25 and first picked up the first Penderwick book at my Aunt's house. I loved it and when I saw the second I read it and loved it too. I am very excited to learn that you are writing a third book about the Penderwicks. :)


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