Although Jim Aylesworth retired from a 25 year teaching career in 1996, he still thinks of himself as a teacher when visiting schools, talking to children about his books. His experiences in the classroom taught him the power of a good book. “I have seen a room full of children sit still and pay attention to a good book when it may be the first time they’ve been still at the same time all day.” Consequently, Aylesworth fills his own stories with things children love, like loud sounds, catchy rhythms, and nonsensical rhymes.
Aylesworth began writing his own stories because of his fascination with the books he read to his students. He used his own new-found interest to encourage his first graders to take risks and try new things. “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,” became his favorite expression. “It wasn’t too important to me that I would get published until I started getting rejection letters. . .I realized I had put more of my ego into this project that I thought.” Initially, the rejection letters hurt Aylesworth’s feelings and he thought about giving up, but his “if at first you don’t succeed” adage had a hollow ring to it. He decided to follow his own advice and persevere.
His perseverance paid off; in 1979, Hush Up! was accepted for publication by Holt, Rinehart & Winston. “They were going to pay me money. I decided not to tell them I was willing to do it for free!” Now, Aylesworth has over 25 picture book titles to his credit.
Character ideas are easy for Aylesworth. He particularly loves hillbilly and mountain folklore on which several of his characters are based, like Jasper Walker, the laziest man in Talula County, from Hush Up!; Hanna, from Hanna’s Hog (Atheneum, 1988), based on a real pipe-smoking woman Aylesworth once met; and Kenny Jackson, a hog-stealing trickster also from Hanna’s Hog.
The settings and particular incidents in many of Aylesworth’s books are taken directly from his childhood visits to his grandparents’ farms in Alabama and Indiana. The loud hog call he learned as a boy was so unforgettable it found its way into Hanna’s Hog. Aylesworth finds that the most difficult part of creating a story is the plot. When asked where he gets his ideas, he responds, “If I knew for sure I’d go to that place every day and get another one. . .I’m always looking.”
Aylesworth points out that one of the biggest misconceptions that parents and children have about his books is that he works intimately with the illustrator, creating the pictures that will accompany his text. Not so. Often he and the illustrator, chosen by the publisher, don’t talk at all. The best example of this occurs in The Folks in the Valley(HarperCollins, 1991). Aylesworth wrote a farm book, but Stefano Vitale, the illustrator, was skilled in the art of the Pennsylvania Dutch. So while Aylesworth’s text refers to general farm life, Vitale’s art focuses on the Amish, adding another layer to Aylesworth’s story.
Currently, Aylesworth lives in Chicago with his wife of 35 years. He travels frequently, speaking at conferences and visiting elementary schools. On February 3, he is scheduled to speak at a teacher-in-service for the Pinellas County School Disctrict in Largo. He’s also taught Children’s Literature and Writing for Children at several colleges in the Chicago area.
When Aylesworth creates a story, his mind overflows with the students who enriched his life for 25 years and the children he meets during school visits. “My readers are children and I want them to know without me saying it that I care for them.” But Aylesworth, ever the teacher, also imagines today’s teachers reading his books aloud to their classes. “If my books somehow inspire a teacher to do an extension lesson, that would please me. . .Writing children’s books is my way of being the teacher beyond the walls of my classroom for children that I may never know.”