“I’ve never been a person who saw something and said, ‘Oh, I could never do that’,” says Jill Esbaum. An author of picture book fiction and nonfiction, she prefers to learn how to acquire a new skill rather than shy away from it. And as a child, she approached writing that way, too.
Esbaum recalls a loving childhood in small-town Iowa—a best friend who lived next door, four other pals within two blocks, and family camping vacations on a favorite lake. She began writing with two girlfriends from her third or fourth grade class, and the fun they shared reinforced her desire. “[We] loved to write and illustrate stories, and we made up comics,” says Esbaum.
But one day, “some boy” told Esbaum that writing was “weird,” and as a result, she buried her passion, which didn’t resurface for thirty years.
In college, Esbaum struggled to find her life’s goal, and eventually dropped out. She worked as an administrative assistant and as a teacher’s aide where she learned that she enjoyed working with children. But Esbaum continued to search. “I wanted to do something with my natural talents [and] I wanted to leave something behind for my kids,” she says.
Finally, in her late thirties, a combination of events—a poem she wrote for her father, major surgery, and reading to her three children—led Esbaum to unearth her love of writing. She gave herself the gift of a writing class and promised to give the experiment four years. “I told myself it would be like designing my own college education on how to write books for kids.”
In her book, Stanza, Esbaum reprises the events from fifth grade that led her to stop writing. “Stanza is me in elementary school,” she says. He writes poetry in secret because he’s afraid that his tough-as-nails brothers (as opposed to his classmates) will find out and make fun of him.
When Esbaum began writing she thought she didn’t mine her childhood experiences that much. “But when I really take my books apart, I think I’m in every book,” she says.
Two of her newest titles are no exception. Teeny Tiny Toady takes her back to the lake where her family camped in the summer. As a kid, she collected frogs and toads in a bucket, but as an adult wondered how they might have made their escape.
Elwood Bigfoot draws on Esbaum’s love of nature. “[The story] is me imagining what it would be like to be out in the woods alone,” she says. “I love being out in the woods.”
“I think my favorite [book] is always the next one because you haven’t yet heard what any reviewers think of it,” she says. “It’s exciting to have a new one ready to enter the world.”
Esbaum says one of the big misconceptions about writing for children “is that it’s easy because it’s not as important” as writing for adults. However, she believes writing for children is more important. “The books that affected me the most deeply were the books that I read as a kid, not the books I read as an adult.”
Inspiration can come from anywhere and strike at any moment, according to Esbaum. Yet, her writing process differs for fiction and nonfiction. Characters and plot ideas for fictional stories come while driving or folding laundry, but nonfiction requires more time at her desk researching her topic. “[And] I have to keep track of [my sources] because my editors at National Geographic require that I turn [them] in,” she says.
As a picture book author, Esbaum has to be sure her words suggest possible images for an illustrator. During the revision process, she sometimes has to clarify her vision of the story. “It’s a matter of where [editors] aren’t seeing the same mental picture I am,” she says.
Esbaum strives to entertain both children and their parents with her books. When she was a child, she used books as an escape from the real world and hopes that her books can do the same for her young readers.
“One thing I like to tell kids now is not to hide your light,” Esbaum says. “If you’ve got something you love to do, do it. If you think you’re good at it, don’t let anyone talk you out of it.”