First grade was a defining period in Jill Santopolo’s career as a writer. “Elizabeth Levy…came to my elementary school,” she says, “and I thought this was the coolest thing that had ever happened in my life. So I decided I had to do something very special to mark [the occasion].”
Before Levy’s visit, Santopolo wrote a fan-fiction book called “Something Queer in the Auditorium” based on Levy’s characters and Levy’s world, but set in Santopolo’s elementary school. Levy responded with a lovely letter thanking Santopolo, complimenting her imagination, and saying she was off to a great start. “What [Levy] said to me at age seven, I really took that to heart,” Santopolo says.
In a serendipitous twist of fate, Santopolo’s first book, An Alec Flint Mystery: The Niña, the Pinta and the Vanishing Treasure, was published by the same house that published many of Levy’s titles. “One of the people in the marketing department thought it would be really cool for Elizabeth and I to do a school visit together,” Santopolo says. Even today, the awe in Santopolo’s voice is akin to a musician who had the opportunity to jam with her favorite rock star. Now when Santopolo visits schools to talk about her own books, she brings Levy’s letter as an inspiration to her young audiences.
Throughout elementary, middle, and high school, Santopolo wrote short stories with young protagonists. In the summer after her junior year of high school, she attended a writing program at Columbia University. “We got to work with…poets, novelists, short story writers, and that was the first time I thought this is a job I could do one day,” she says. One of her teachers advised her to study English Literature in college to understand where her writing would fit within the context of the larger literary world. After four years as an undergraduate at Columbia and an internship at Philomel (an imprint of Penguin Books), Santopolo took her English degree to HarperCollins Publishers where she landed a job as an editorial assistant. “I really loved the world of children’s literature,” she says.
Santopolo thought she’d found the perfect job to nourish a writing life. Yet after the release of The Niña, the Pinta and the Vanishing Treasure, she set out to write book two in the Alec Flint Mystery series and became mired in indecision and self-doubt. In spite of the fact that she loved mysteries as a kid, the ideas wouldn’t come. A colleague at HarperCollins suggested the Master of Fine Arts program in writing for children at Vermont College. She wrote The Ransom Note Blues as her thesis, a book she describes as “one I would have loved to read as a kid.”
Before Santopolo begins each novel, she creates a detailed chapter-by-chapter outline with specific plot points and character revelations. Sometimes the book unfolds according to plan, but other times she scraps her meticulous blueprint. At that point, she revises the pages she’s already written to, as she says, “set the groundwork before I continue. But I don’t back-revise the outline. I forward-revise it.”
The idea for the Sparkle Spa series came from her editor, but it appealed to Santopolo, too. “I think a lot of kids want to do things that feel grown up,” she says. “When I was a kid, I was writing stories and wanting to babysit and make money and be responsible…I think Sparkle Spa is an homage to The Babysitter’s Club in that it’s a group of girls who are entrepreneurial and are coming together and making a business.”
The series centers around two sisters whose mother owns a spa. The girls step in to paint kids’ nails to relieve their overworked mother, and their budding business turns into a fundraising mechanism for community charities.
“The most fun thing about writing these books is getting to paint my nails ridiculous colors,” Santopolo says. To celebrate the release of A Picture Perfect Mess, she painted her nails Pretty Edgy, which translates to a darkish green to match her book cover. Occasionally, she turns to Google to answer quirky questions, such as whether sparkles are edible or what pet polish looks like.
Santopolo is the current executive editor at Philomel where she works four days a week. Fridays are devoted to writing, and her schedule is packed because a new Sparkle Spa book debuts every four months. To keep up with the frantic pace, she carefully schedules her time. “I’m a planner,” she says. “When I’m super under deadline I…try to write every day.” With eight to ten chapters per book and approximately eight pages per chapter, that usually means roughly two pages per day. Dividing the project into digestible pieces makes the work load more manageable.
“I have a blast writing these books,” she says. “I hope kids have as much fun reading them as I have writing them.”