Jenn Bailey has won blue ribbons for pie baking, roamed Australia as the still photographer for Continuum, and made it to the Top 40 in the Lego Master Builder competition. Bailey has her MFA in writing for children and young adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has received the Candlewick Picture Book Scholarship and the Beyond Words award, among others.
She recently visited the Los Angeles Public Library to read her new work A Friend for Henry and we were able to chat with her about the inspiration for her book as she finds the voice of children in her writing.
For people who haven’t read the book, can you sum up A Friend for Henry?
Sure. The story opens with a little boy named Henry entering Classroom Six and wondering who in there might become his friend. Henry isn’t an extrovert. He has rules about how friendship should work, and he has difficulty decoding social situations. Making friends doesn’t come as easily to him as it may to some of his classmates. Henry tries to befriend a few of the kids, but it doesn’t really work until he meets Katie. They aren’t an exact match, but they are compatible. I’ll let folks read the rest to find out if that is enough.
What was your inspiration for the book?
My middle son has Asperger’s syndrome, a diagnosis on the autism spectrum. He was a strong inspiration. I remember a chat we had when he was still in elementary school. He wanted a friend, but the other kids thought he was rather odd. He felt finding a friend would be a lot of work, and he wasn’t sure it would be worth it. One of his rules for a real friend was that they would like him the way he was.
Some children’s books almost seem more geared for the parent than the child, but your book is written in a voice that speaks directly to children. How are you able to capture the emotional complexity of children?
First of all, thank you. That is the greatest compliment I could ever receive. I sincerely hope I am writing to children and not at them.
When I write a story for children, I write to them as peers. I’m hopeful we can have a conversation and share an experience. I guess you could say I capture their emotional complexity because I realize children have complex emotions. Their fears, worries, and hopes are just as important and valid as an adult’s. Perhaps more so, because they have less life experience to guide them. Their perspective on the world is fascinating and deserves my attention and respect.
The book never explicitly mentions autism, but the description mentions that Henry is on the spectrum. Was it a conscious choice to not mention autism in the story?
Yes, it was. Henry doesn’t label his actions and behaviors as being a symptom of his autism, so I wouldn’t either. This is simply who Henry is, and I wanted readers to meet him and see him as a person, not as a diagnosis.
There was another reason too. It isn’t just children on the spectrum who may find friendship daunting—the shy child, the introverted child, the ESL child. I wanted the story to speak to any child who finds social situations difficult.
What are some misconceptions you think people have about autism?
The biggest misconception is that folks on the autism spectrum don’t care. That they don’t have emotion. In my experience, children on the spectrum have intense emotions and great empathy. I see their disassociation as a way to protect themselves. Think of how frustrating it must be to have to decode what people all around you know innately. I think anyone would feel overwhelmed and overloaded and need to “shut down.”
When it comes to my son, he is incredibly self-aware and has a dry and delightful sense of humor. You just have to grant him time and space to share those gifts.
Why did you choose to focus on friendship as a theme of the book?
Because it is a universal and ageless theme. Finding good friends belongs to all cultures, and it doesn’t end in childhood. I also wanted to expand the idea of friendship. Although Henry has “rules” about who would be a best friend, this is still a story about inclusiveness and tolerance and kindness toward everyone, not just our friends.
What feedback have you gotten from readers?
This is where I cry. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. And I’m hearing from so many people from all over. Teachers who have shared the story with their classes and seen new friendships bloom. The Scottish Book Trust made it their book of the day on Autism Awareness Day. What has been particularly moving is hearing from adults who are on the autism spectrum. A few months ago, a mom tweeted the following to me: “This is the first time I’ve seen my childhood self (daughter and I are on the spectrum) in a book…cue happy tears.”
That was worth everything to me. Everyone deserves to find themselves in a story.
As the writer, can you describe how the process works creating the book with the illustrator and what was the feeling when you saw the work come to fruition with the illustrations?
It may surprise people, but authors and illustrators rarely meet or even know each other before they are brought together for a project. Such was the case with Mika Song and me. But let me tell you. I couldn’t have dreamed of anyone better! Picture books are a true collaboration – the author does half and the illustrator the other half. As the author, I feel it is my job to inspire the illustrator and leave her plenty of space for her own creativity. When I had the opportunity to see Henry—I was sent Mika’s character sheets—I fell in love. She had captured in imagery the spirit of the child I had written.
Who are some of the authors you look up to?
Terry Pratchett and Connie Willis are my heroes. How they weave together a story, bring you from laughter to tears in a single sentence, and craft a world you see as clearly as the one you are standing in is a skill I aspire, and aspire, and aspire to. In the world of Children’s Literature—along with your classics’ authors like Sendak, Paterson, and White—I am a big fan of John David Anderson (spectacular), Martine Leavitt (riveting), Oliver Jeffers (hysterical), and Lesa Cline-Ransome (thought-provoking). If they wrote Yelp reviews for a living, I would read them. These authors are quite divergent in genre, category, and theme, but all of them know story!
What books are you currently reading?
I love all kinds of stories and I try to read widely and well. This means I’m usually reading several books at the same time. Currently on my nightstand, my coffee table, my desk, and in my car, you will find Mythos by Stephen Fry; The Starlight Claim by Tim Wynne-Jones; the Charlie and Mouse chapter books by Laurel Snyder and Emily Hughes; and Story Genius by Lisa Cron.
What are you working on next?
I have a number of projects going. A picture book that tackles skip counting, another picture book that shares a quirky tale between a sheep and a rooster, and a new project that continues Henry’s story. I’m very excited to share more of his world.
I’m also working on two novels that are in various stages of revision. It’s taking longer than I’d like. Besides being an author, I’m an editor, conference speaker, and workshop leader. Those gigs make it very easy to avoid my own creative work. So, what am I really working on? Balance!
Do you have any tips for other writers looking to write books for children?
Yes. My first tip is to read! Strong readers make good writers. Read, read, read the types of books you would like to write. Read them critically and pay attention to what you like and don’t like about the story. I see a lot of potential clients who can’t name a children’s book that is less than 15 years old, which is a shame because there are so many fantastic new works out there.
My second tip might be more of a statement. Children’s books are some of the hardest things to write. You don’t get a lot of pages to grab a child’s attention. As an author, you are competing with screens and school reading lists and social activities. Yet, young readers are wide open to experiences, ideas, and stories. It is a time in their lives when they are figuring out how society works and how they fit into the world. This is why I strongly encourage new writers to never write down to children. Or lecture them. Or think, “it’s just for kids.” It’s because it’s for kids that we owe them our very best work.