Author Bio Jess Townes is the author of several picture books, including the forthcoming Sometimes I Cry. A lifelong storyteller, Jess has worked in public education, non-profit development, birth, and lactation services, as a freelance writer and actress, and currently works as a bookseller at Main Street Books in St. Charles, Missouri, but her favorite part of any job is the connections she builds with other people. She believes there is no better path to those connections than through our stories. Jess lives outside St. Louis with her husband, two teenagers, and two black cats.
It's time for another great FEATURE INTERVIEW. Today, we're welcoming guest Jess Townes to the blog. It’s such a pleasure to have you with us, Jess! I loved learning about your colorful and varied work experiences as a doula and advocate for Spanish speakers in the public school district as well as your history with nonprofit fundraising, among other cool things. So, tell me, what was the series of events that landed you here in the wonderful land of children’s book writing? There's an expression about endings, I think it originated with Aristotle, that says they should be "surprising, but inevitable," and that's sort of how I feel about landing in the world of children's literature. I did not grow up wanting to become an author. I'm not sure it ever made my list of what I wanted to be when I grew up, and that list was long and varied, from journalist to Rockette to the first female Catholic priest (for the record, I wasn't even Catholic). Yet, I fell in love with children's books at a very young age and never fell out of love long past the age that our culture dictates I should have. I've always been a storyteller, and most of my work has involved advocacy for children, so in a way, though it was a surprise, it was perhaps inevitable that I eventually paired my love for story and my connection with children in this way. I saw on your author’s website that you memorized Richard Scarry’s illustrations. So, I’m guessing books played a large part in your young childhood. Can you tell us more about some of your favorite childhood book memories and how they influenced you then or maybe still influence you today? Books were a foundational part of my childhood. In early elementary school, I was completely obsessed with The Babysitters Club. I loved and admired all of them. Kristy's leadership, Claudia's artistic talent, Maryanne's empathy, and Stacey's ability to adapt to change. They felt like friends to me, and when I was going through difficult moments in my own life, I turned to them for comfort and consistency. As I got a little older, I discovered Judy Blume, and her books were a revelation. She wrote things that nobody talked about but everyone experienced, and reading them stripped away shame and self-doubt. I believe she shaped the future of children's literature through her vulnerability, and so many of the books I love and sell as a bookseller today might not have ever been published had she not paved the path for them. Another thing I wanted to talk with you about is your day job! I remember you mentioning that you work as a bookseller at an independent bookstore in St. Charles, Missouri (which is so cool)! It seems like a very fitting job for someone who enjoys reading and writing. I work in a library, and I love being surrounded by books and book lovers. I imagine you do too! Can you tell us a little more about the bookstore where you work and what it’s like working there? I love my job at Main Street Books! We are located on a historic cobblestone street in St. Charles, Missouri, where many of the buildings are over two hundred years old. It's a vibrant tourism location that hosts multiple festivals every year, from a floral festival in May to Halloween to Christmas. The street is charming, and you really get to know your neighbor merchants. We are a general interest bookstore, which means we have a little bit of everything, and our staff reads across all genres. I love getting to know our local readers as well as meet people from all over the country who are visiting. Working as a bookseller gives me a behind-the-scenes peek at the other side of publishing, which I find helpful in understanding the industry. And it's always so exciting when I get the chance to sell one of my writer friend's books!
Books & Writing
When it comes to your own writing… do you ever host storytimes or book signings of your books where you work? Yes, I launched both of my first books with a signing/storytime at Main Street Books. It's my bookish home, so it feels right to start there. Speaking of your books… let's talk more about those! I know you have Spellbound, which came out in January 2022; Groundhog Gets it Wrong, which came out in January 2023; and your next book, Sometimes I Cry, is coming out THIS Fall! Can you tell us about your newest book? Sometimes I Cry is definitely the most vulnerable of the books I've published so far. It's an exploration of all the different kinds of moments in life that can move us to tears, and as an easy crier myself, it hits very close to home. Growing up, I sometimes felt ashamed or embarrassed by how easily I cried (I'm that person that cries during commercials, for example), but once I had my own kids, it became important to me to model crying as a normal, healthy part of being human in a complex world. I started to notice the ways that boys, in particular, were discouraged from crying and wondered what our world would look like if men were able to access and express their full range of emotions in healthy ways. This book was born in my part from my desire to help create that world, and I really hope young readers see themselves on its pages. So now that we've wandered into the territory of one of my all-time favorite topics- books- I'd love to hear a little more in-depth of the behind-the-scenes of the creation of these stories. Can you share a little about how your books were born? What was the inspiration behind them? Spellbound was inspired by my work as a doula. I had the privilege of watching many families welcome a new baby into their homes and the varied reactions of the existing children. While some became immediate caregivers, others took some time to adjust to a new sibling, and I wanted to honor that reality in a playful but honest way. Groundhog Gets It Wrong was inspired by a winter in my region where the groundhog called for an early spring, and it actually came true! It made me wonder how often this rodent gets it right, which got me thinking about making mistakes and the aftermath of those mistakes.
Book Publishing Territory & Timeline
I know I have a lot of readers who are at different stages of writing and publishing. Some are just starting out with finding a home in the writing community and joining their first critique groups. Others are already a part of the writing community and now have polished manuscripts that they are querying to find an agent. Some are now agented but don't yet have book deals. And others may be agented with multiple book deals. So, I like to ask questions that help give more information about each stage. I'll start with the beginner questions. When you first started writing, can you tell us how/where you discovered your writing community? Were there any groups or things that helped, in particular? There were two groups in particular that were an enormous help to me as a beginner children's writer - the 12 x 12 Picture Book Challenge and SCBWI. I met my first critique group through SCBWI, and they remain close friends and writing partners to this day. I attended workshops and conferences through SCBWI, eventually becoming a Co-RA of my local region. It's hard to imagine my publishing journey without this organization that I have learned so much from. Likewise, 12 x 12 continues to be a huge part of my writing life! The program helped me challenge myself to write drafts and practice craft on manuscripts that I knew would never be published, which for me, is an essential part of the process. But more importantly, I meet writers through this community that understand the ups and downs of the publishing journey and the specificity of picture book writing. I currently serve as a Critique Ninja for 12 x 12, and I am honored to give back to a community that has given me so much. From the time you first started swapping manuscripts and getting feedback on your work, how long did it take you to start querying agents, and what was that process like? It took me a long time to be ready to swap manuscripts and seek feedback on my work. I wrote privately for a couple of years before even joining SCBWI and learning about critique groups. Once I did have those groups in place, I started querying agents about six months later and was fortunate to sign with my agent very quickly after that. Once you started querying, how long did it take you to find your agent match? I received an offer to revise and resubmit from my current agent within a month of querying agents, and I ended up signing with her a few months after that. Once you found your agent, how long did it take to get your first book deal? Much longer! I was with my agent about a year and a half before we had our first offer. We had a couple of other manuscripts go through acquisitions more than once, so I got a lot of experience in getting oh-so-close to a deal but not quite crossing the finish line. This is a part of the process even after multiple book deals. Each time on submission is like starting over.
Discouragements, Set-backs, Words of Wisdom
We've gone over the timeline. Now let's talk a little bit about the in-betweens. Were there any points throughout your publishing career that you felt discouraged? If so, what/who helped you overcome it? Yes, of course. So much of publishing is outside our control, and keep in mind that my own publishing timeline fell in the middle of a global pandemic. There has been near constant uncertainty about everything from shipping to supply chains, sales, a changing market, the fate of brick-and-mortar bookstores, book challenges, and bans, the future of AI, etc. I try to remind myself that I can only impact so much. The things inside my control are the stories I write and, to a smaller extent, the ways I share my work in the world. I try to focus on what I can control, as well as the joy I find in the craft of telling a story, instead of the many things outside my control. What were some of the struggles you faced during your writing career? Because writing is not my full-time job, it can be a struggle to give my stories the space and time they need to grow into what they could be. Balancing work, family, health challenges, volunteering, and the many things life throws at us with an extra job like writing can be a lot. Sometimes, writing is able to take the front seat and other times, it has to wait patiently in the background. I miss being away from my stories in those seasons, but I trust that something new will always be waiting. I think a lot about this advice from Stephen King - "Put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn't in the middle of the room. Life isn't a support system for art. It's the other way around." Are things all breezy and easy now? Explain. If you've read this far, you probably already know my answer to this! Of course not, but I don't expect there will ever be a season in my writing career where all things are breezy and easy. This is an ever-changing industry with new challenges every day. The best we can do is honor our craft and adjust the best we can. We can remind ourselves of why we write in the first place and follow that "why" as long as it makes sense to you and your life. Is there anything you know now that you wish you had known earlier on that you think might be helpful for other writers? This is a hard question because what motivates one person can discourage someone else. I like data. I like understanding the reality of the publishing industry. For me, working as a bookseller has opened my eyes to the absolute miracle it is to get a single book published, ever, much less have that book find a lasting place on the shelf. I know the numbers, I know the odds, and for me, this helps me understand why it is that so many beautifully crafted stories have a hard time finding a publishing home. Recognizing that this is out of my control is freeing to me as a writer and artist. But I always hesitate to share those numbers in a concrete fashion because I've seen it have the opposite impact on others. Anything else you'd like to share? I want to thank everyone who has ever shared one of my books with young readers. So much of this process, in the beginning, involves other adults reading your work, but there is something so deeply gratifying about the moment you finally get to share your book with kids. Their reactions, connections, and responses to my work have been the best part of this journey, so thank you to all of you who help make that happen.
Favorite book(s)- and why? (I'll allow up to 5 because I know choosing favorites is hard). Impossible! I'm a bookseller! How could you do this to me? ;) How about instead, I name five picture books from recent years that I've loved sharing with young readers? After the Fall by Dan Santat Little Witch Hazel by Phoebe Wahl The Vamos! books by Raul the Third The Longestletsgoboy by Derick Wilder and Catia Chien Big and Small and In-Between by Carter Higgins and Daniel Miyares Favorite color? Green Favorite place, real or imagined? Grand Teton National Park Favorite quote? "Instructions for living a life. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it." ― Mary Oliver Thank you, Jess for joing us today. And now it's time for...
THE GIVEAWAY PRIZE
This month, Jess is offering multiple-choice prizes.
A signed book of your choice! Or, if you’re a teacher or librarian, a 30-minute zoom call with classroom/patrons. (This could be a fun storytime idea!)
How do I enter the giveaway?
Simply like August’s Feature Interview post (the one you’re reading now) and subscribe to the blog. And that’s it! You’re entered.
How long will I have to enter the giveaway?
The entire month of August 2023
Deadline: August 31st
Already subscribed? Awesome! You’re halfway there!
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