Children’s books reigned supreme in Emily Jenkins’ childhood igniting a fire within her to become an author. She self-published several stories as a child, designing covers for them and getting her parents to type them. Jenkins was an avid reader with a particular fondness for Joan Aiken’s gothic novels. “I thought I’d be more of a middle grade writer than I turned out to be,” she says, recalling Aiken’s mysteries.
Jenkins’ playwright father encouraged her love of the written word. “I have a strong memory of a story I wrote about an animated sleeping bag,” she says, remembering the orange sleeping bag her father had given her. “[My father] took me seriously and I valued his opinion,” she says. Jenkins used to sit in the back of the theater while her father directed, edited, and adapted his plays. She credits him with providing the tools she needed to become a writer; “I developed a sense of how something improves and how it comes together,” she says.
Jenkins was deep into a graduate program in English literature at Columbia University when she decided she did not want to live the life of an academic. Together with her father she wrote The Secret Life of Billy’s Uncle Myron (Holt, 1996). “It was barely reviewed and quietly released,” she says, “but being published for the first time was a big deal.” Jenkins’ next published work was a book of essays for adults (Tongue First: Adventures in Physical Culture), but her writing career reached a crossroads. “I had published two books, but I didn’t know where I was or what I was doing”—until Frances Foster from Farrar, Straus & Giroux pulled her manuscript for Five Creatures from the slush pile. Jenkins received several awards for Five Creatures, including the Charlotte Zolotow Honor Award for outstanding writing. “At that early stage in my career it was very encouraging for people to show appreciation,” she says.
Family stories and her own feelings inspire Jenkins and often lead to story ideas. Her newest book, The Little Bit Scary People, was inspired by her irrational fear of the sommelier in posh restaurants. “[The fear] does not incapacitate me,” she says, “but it’s an emotion children identify with.” Jenkins taps into her feelings of intimidation and drops them into a child’s world populated with people in mild positions of authority such as the janitor, the cafeteria lady, and the bus driver.
Although events or memories trigger story ideas, Jenkins changes the details to suit the dramatic arc of her story rather than trying to mimic real life. The Daffodil stories recall Jenkins’ grandmother who as a girl was forced to wear a yellow party dress that she hated. “But,” says Jenkins, “she wasn’t a triplet and her name wasn’t Daffodil.” Skunkdog pays tribute to Domino, a black lab owned by her aunt and uncle, who was according to Jenkins, “an indiscriminate eater” and “chased skunks at my grandmother’s summer house.” LikeSkunkdog, Domino was oblivious to the fact that he smelled terrible, but Jenkins created a boy as Skunkdog’s owner to appeal to children.
The initial kernel for Toys Go Out came when Jenkins stuffed her unwilling cat in a carrier for a trip to the vet. The cat’s yowls were full of suffering, a stress point Jenkins mimicked with her toy characters, Lumphy, Plastic, and StingRay who were full of anxiety at being stuffed in a backpack. In the sequel, Toy Dance Party, Jenkins introduces new characters to keep the story fresh. “In the first book, StingRay always talked about being afraid of a garbage-eating shark and I realized I have a garbage-eating shark in my house,” she says. Her husband has a hollow rubber shark from his college days that a friend’s child loves to fill with Cheerios. Although the garbage-eating shark is StingRay’s worst nightmare, Jenkins adds a bit of humor by naming the shark Princess DaisySparkle, a name inspired by a suggestion from her three year old daughter.
Generally, Jenkins writes in the morning from her Brooklyn home and spends the remainder of the day with her family. By the time her manuscripts are ready for publication she may have revised them as many as 18 times. She works hard to create stories that children want to pick up for themselves. The author in Jenkins takes her cue from Jenkins the English major and Jenkins the mother. Her job as a parent is to provide her children with quality literature. “I think of it as a balanced meal,” she says. Her kids read some books by celebrities and some books based on television characters, but she also provides a healthy dose of high quality literature which she describes as “deeper and more complicated, more cathartic, more engaging, and more stimulating.” Jenkins uses her passion for literature in her art, creating stories with well-defined characters whose problems and fears mimic those of many of her readers.