When Jane O’Connor was four or five year old, her grandmother and great-aunts visited every Sunday afternoon. “As soon as I heard the doorbell ring,” she says, “I would race in my room, jump in my pink tutu, wrap a satin red cape around me, and come galoomphing out to greet my guests in a pair of my mom’s high heels. I wasn’t a girlie-girl, but I felt it was important to look fancy for company.” O’Connor was Fancy Nancy long before she wrote Fancy Nancy.
O’Connor describes the Fancy Nancy series of picture books, easy readers, and soon-to-be-released merchandise as the biggest surprise of her life. “It’s fun to write. It’s fun it’s so successful. It’s fun to be at the bookstore with the outrageous little girls dressed to the nines.” Sometimes during a bookstore event, O’Connor brings her own dress-up props and lets the girls decorate her.
Reflecting on her career in publishing, O’Connor recalls that in 1969, Smith College degree in hand, “you weren’t supposed to know what you wanted to do with your life.” On a whim, she took a job as the assistant to the children’s book editor for a small, family-run publishing house. She loved it and has been editing children’s books for various publishers for thirty years.
Editing children’s books sparked O’Connor’s creative side and tapped into the voice of the child within her. In 1979, her first book, Yours Till Niagra Falls, Abby, was published and still speaks to children today. “I was a relentless camper,” she says. “I’d still be going if they’d allow it, but that first year I was very homesick.” O’Connor’s novel so effectively describes Abby’s experiences that even young editors with whom she works today tell her how much they loved reading about Abby when they were nine.
Since that first book, O’Connor has populated picture books, novels, and easy readers with appealing characters. “Practically everything I write comes from something that happened to me or my kids when they were little,” she says. In Ready, Set, Skip!, the main character can whistle, leap, and even somersault, but cannot skip. “I was a skip-challenged little girl,” says O’Connor. Nina, Nina Ballerina borrows O’Connor’s experience of performing in a dance recital with a cast on her arm, and Splat! recalls the exploits of her gentle-souled son equipped with a mammoth Uzi-like water gun.
Recently, O’Connor scaled back her editing responsibilities to part-time. The life of a writer is too solitary an existence for her to quit editing altogether, and she treasures the connection to other writers, illustrators, and the books she edits. But when she holes up in her Manhattan apartment to write, she doesn’t allow the office to distract her. Her newly released adult novel, Dangerous Admissions, took three years to write, and she has started another, but Fancy Nancy has grown to dynastic proportions. O’Connor is under contract for several more picture books and easy readers about the plump, anti-Disney princess who creates her own glamour.
O’Connor says that her editor at HarperCollins envisioned Robin Preiss Glasser as Fancy Nancy’s illustrator from the start. Before the Nancy books, Glasser and O’Connor had never met, but “after working on four books,” says O’Connor, “we are getting so that we feel we share one brain.” According to O’Connor, when her text is combined with Glasser’s illustrations, the product is somehow greater than the sum of its parts.
Now, Glasser’s visual Nancy affects how O’Connor crafts her story. In Fancy Nancy Bonjour Butterfly, Nancy must miss her best friend’s butterfly birthday party for a family function. O’Connor capitalized on Glasser’s gift for capturing Nancy’s body language when she wrote, “For the next two days, I scowl and sulk and storm around the house. Mad is way to plain for how I feel. I am furious.”
As the mother of boys (now men), O’Connor says that “the icing on the Nancy cake is seeing all these little girls at store events dressed in their lop-sided tiaras, ball gowns, and drenched in jewelry. My favorite, however, was one little girl who wore jeans with her tutu and tiara and kept on a Lone Ranger mask the whole time.”