Jennifer Holm used to do a great imitation of a child raking the lawn—raking with one hand while secretly reading a book she held in the other. According to Holm, “I loved books more than anything and I fantasized about becoming a writer.” But as she grew up and finished school, the idea of becoming a writer intimidated her. She preferred international economics and diplomacy to the usual English major path followed by many writers. In her senior year at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, she gathered her courage and audited a short story course. Her fellow students’ criticism was brutal. She remembers thinking, “If this is writing, I don’t think I’m cut out for it.” Instead, she began working for a New York City film company and eventually became a broadcast producer, creating commercials for American Express, Hershey’s, Huggies Baby Wipes, and music videos for early rappers.
When Holm’s father became seriously ill, Holm began spending more time with him. They passed the hours with stories of his childhood in Washington. From her father’s farm and his adventures on the Nasel River, Holm created May Amelia and her family. Our Only May Amelia (HarperCollins, 1999), Holm’s first book and winner of a Newbery Honor, has resulted in some unusual fan mail.
One little girl asked her mother to video tape an original impromptu production of May Amelia’s adventures complete with costumes. One child wrote a letter to Wilbert, May Amelia’s older brother, commiserating about having a large family and a little sister. But Holm says her “most rabid fan” journeyed three hours from Seattle to Naselle, Washington with his grandparents, found the cattle ranch described in Holm’s book (still owned by Holm’s aunt and uncle), and asked to meet May Amelia!
Holm not only relied on her family’s oral histories for Our Only May Amelia, she also delved into the history of Western Washington for an accurate picture of the events of the time. In the course of her reading, the oystermen on Shoalwater Bay intrigued her (again, because of family connections), but she decided they belonged in another book. Holm began thinking about a refined young lady leaving the safety and civilization of the East to meet a fiancé in the West. The Boston Jane trilogy continues Holm’s fascination with Western Washington history and has even spawned a new hobby for Holm—collecting books for young ladies (circa 19th century), such as The Young Lady’s Friend with gems like, “There is more to be learned about pouring out tea and coffee, than most young ladies are willing to believe.”
The Creek (HarperCollins, 2003), Holm’s newest book and her first contemporary novel, incorporates the woods of her childhood neighborhood, her pack of friends, and a fictional mystery. Through Penny, the main character, Holm revisits her childhood, re-experiencing some parts and rewriting others.
Holm has already proven she’s not shy about experimenting with new formats for her writing. In 2004, her fans can expect yet another new idea—the graphic novel. Eighth Graders Are Stupid (Atheneum, 2004) is a fully illustrated novel about a seventh grade girl told entirely through her stuff—email, letters, receipts, homework, etc. Holm’s mother gave her the idea when she gave Holm the box of stuff she’d been saving which included things like horrible class pictures, report cards, notes Holm passed in class, articles, and recital programs.
In 1999, Holm married Jonathan Hamel (the day before Our Only May Amelia came out), but recently they’ve formed a new partnership as co-authors. Their first venture, The Stink Files, Dossier 001: The Postman Always Brings Mice (HarperCollins, 2004), features an upper crust British cat who’s on his way to Norway in hot pursuit of his master’s murderer. But in London’s Heathrow Airport luggage department, he’s mistakenly routed to New Jersey. Holm describes The Stink Files series as “chapter books for younger readers. We’ve contracted for three books, but would like to do nine ultimately, because cats have nine lives.”
Holm alternates between writing and procrastinating. She works at her kitchen table in Hudson, New York and says that if she’s experiencing writer’s block, she dishes herself a bowl of chocolate ice cream. “You can tell by my weight when I’m writing!”