When she was six years old, Gennifer Choldenko knew she wanted to be a writer. Her father loved to write and shared with her his passion for the written word, but he passed away before he could see any of his work in print. His lack of success left Choldenko with a sense of foreboding, and it took her a long time to build up the courage to pursue writing as a career.
A graduate of Brandeis University, Choldenko majored in literature and creative writing before entering the world of advertising. She grew to hate advertising, but learned a lot about craft, discipline, and deadlines. In the meantime, she realized that many of the stories she wrote focused on 12- to 16-year old characters. “I got bored when the characters grew up,’ she says.
Children’s writing seemed a likely place to start. Her artistic talent came through during her advertising days, and she enrolled at the Rhode Island School of Design for a degree in illustration. Teachers like Chris Van Allsburg (Jumanji and The Polar Express) and David Macauley (The Way Things Work and Castle) gave Choldenko a sense of belonging. “I had never met anyone who was part writer, part illustrator,” she says. “That is what I wanted to be.”
Gradually, Choldenko’s writing skills became much stronger than her illustration skills, and the sale of her first book confirmed her suspicions. Hyperion purchased her text for her picture book, Moonstruck: The True Story of the Cow Who Jumped Over the Moon, but not her illustrations. “My illustrations were not as professional as they needed to be,” she says.
Choldenko describes herself as an intuitive writer. “I have to trust my intuition,” she says. “It’s all I have.” For those of us who have read Notes From a Liar and Her Dog(Putnam, 2001) and Newbery Honor Book Al Capone Does My Shirts (Putnam, 2004), we realize intuition isn’t the only thing she has going for her. Choldenko’s characters leap off the page at the reader, alive with emotion and possibility, because she puts a little bit of herself into each character. In fact, after completing Al Capone Does My Shirts, she felt sad when she realized that the fictional main character, Moose, would probably be drafted into World War II when he turned 18.
Choldenko’s stories are also well researched. She volunteered at the Oakland Zoo for one year, following a keeper around to learn about the routines and rhythms of a zoo in an effort to make scenes from Notes From a Liar and Her Dog more believable.
In Al Capone Does My Shirts, Choldenko wanted to polish her skills using setting as an integral part of her story. She chose Alcatraz after reading a San Francisco Chroniclearticle about the prison guards’ children who grew up on The Rock. The book required several years of research on a myriad of topics—the Great Depression, life on Alcatraz for prison employees’ families, gangsters, Al Capone, autism, and baseball.
The idea for A Tree Falls at Lunch Period began with a car accident involving a friend. The accident had a racial element that upset Choldenko. She felt she needed to write a book about it, but she couldn’t merely report the accident. She had to weave a story around it. Research included pouring over books in law libraries and sitting in court listening to cases being presented. After six weeks Choldenko’s intuition told her she was going in the wrong direction. She started writing—an unusual beginning for her because she didn’t have a clear idea of her story. The characters came alive, but the accident idea slowed the story to a crawl. She finished the book without the accident that started it, trusting her intuition to get her to the end. “I do try to intellectually figure out a book,” say Choldenko, “but intuition is the driving force that powers the story.”
Passion, coupled with intuition, makes Choldenko’s work stand out. Authors are instructed to write what they know. “Write what you want to find out about,” she advises. The passion she puts into her research is conveyed in her stories.
When Choldenko was a kid, she used to choose books from the library shelves because they had pretty seals on the covers—gold for Newbery Medal winners and silver for Newbery Honor books. “I never really thought about the awards process, I just knew the books with the seals were usually better stories,” she says. Choldenko enjoys thinking about her readers who choose Al Capone Does My Shirts because of its silver seal. She hopes they find something special within its pages.