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Who Wrote That?
Featuring Jennifer Armstrong
Published in California Kids!, September 2000 , South Florida Parenting, August 2001

Jennifer Armstrong describes herself as a “story-maker-upper. I don’t ever want a reader to think I’ve embarked on a project because I want to teach a lesson. I like to tell myself stories to understand the world, and I like to share those stories. Not to teach, but to show.”

Armstrong has been a writer all of her life. She knew in the first grade that she wanted to be an author, and in preparation, she had her first author photo taken in front of a bookcase at age ten. “I used to tell people that Neil Armstrong [the astronaut] was my father. I was born making up lies and honed my fibbing skills all through school and college. I told incredible whoppers, and people often believed me. Now that I make my living at it, it’s called writing fiction.”

According to Armstrong, her life has been one long big break. Raised by supportive parents who made sure she was well-educated, she had many opportunities which boosted her confidence. In fact, in elementary school she actually feared for her “artistic soul” because she hadn’t suffered enough. “. . .When opportunity knocks I always open the door wide, and this has been a great advantage. . .When my agent asked who I wanted to publish Steal Away [Orchard, 1992], I told her Dick Jackson, as he was the most eminent editor I knew of. I figured I’d start at the top. So she sent it to him and he decided to publish it. If I’d been timid, things would have been different.”

Susie, from Black-Eyed Susan (Crown, 1995) is Armstrong’s favorite of all her characters. “Although she lives an isolated and solitary life, she’s not lonely; she has resources within herself for making her life out on the prairie rich and rewarding. . .I work at a solitary job—a writer alone at my desk—but it is a richly interesting one. I live in my imagination and almost everything I do comes out of my own well, so to speak.”

Like most authors, Armstrong’s ideas come to her from things she sees, things she dreams, conversations, or a chance glimpse out of the corner of her eye. “I read a great deal of history, and I generally run across things that spark my curiosity, and that drive me to think and explore narrative ideas.” Little Salt Lick and the Sun King (Crown, 1994) was inspired by a Labrador retriever that Armstrong trained to be a guide dog. “She was such a clown she made me write a picture book about her. Cats are fine, but they always make me wonder if I’ve got a piece of food stuck to my chin.”

Although Armstrong works all day, she doesn’t write all day. When she’s trying to complete a book, she writes for four to five hours at a stretch, but her other work hours are spent on the phone with editors, at the library doing research, reading, visiting schools or answering fan mail. One reader complained, “My teacher makes me rewrite everything I do. Do you get your stories right the first time?”

No matter how perfectly Armstrong has polished a manuscript before submitting it, editors always have a few changes to make. “I don’t kid myself that my writing is perfect and that my books cannot be improved. Of course they can. I hope I never get to a point where an editor is reluctant to make suggestions to me about revisions. . .That would be too The Emperor’s New Clothes, wouldn’t it?”

Armstrong lives in Saratoga Springs, New York with her husband James Kunstler, also a writer. In her opinion, the greatest misconception about writing for children is that it’s easier than writing for adults. “I think we ought to call it ‘pediatric literature.’ I doubt anyone thinks that pediatric oncology is easier than adult oncology. . . ‘When you get better are you going to write real books?’ is not an uncommon question. Nobody ever asks a pediatrician if she’ll treat real children when she gets better at medicine.”

Another young reader asks, “Are you good at anything else besides writing?” Armstrong responds, “Well, let me think about that one. . .I’ll get back to you.”

HOW TO CONTACT JENNIFER ARMSTRONG

Website: www.jennifer-armstrong.com

 

SELECTIONS FROM JENNIFER ARMSTRONG’S LIBRARY

Theodore Roosevelt: Letters from a Young Coal Miner, Winslow Press, 2001.
Thomas Jefferson: Letters from a Philadelphia Bookworm, Winslow Press, 2000.
Spirit of Endurance, Crown, 2000.
In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer, Knopf, 1999.
Pierre’s Dream, Dial, 1999.
Pockets, Crown Books, 1998.
Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World, Crown Books, 1998.
Chin Yu Min and the Ginger Cat, Crown Books, 1993.
Steal Away, Orchard Books, 1992.

UPCOMING
Shattered: Stories About Children and War, Knopf, Spring 2002.

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