It’s common knowledge among agents and publishers that Utah is home to a thriving community of children’s writers. One of these is Jean Reagan, whose picture book “How to Babysit a Grandpa” was a New York Times best-seller. Her new book, “How to Babysit a Grandma,” will be available on March 25. She recently talked with The Tribune about her new book, the loss of a child and the best and worst parts of being a writer.
Tell us about your new title.
“How to Babysit a Grandma,” a companion to my Grandpa book, is a tongue-in-cheek story of a little girl’s helpful hints about “babysitting” a grandma for a sleep-over. Tips include: How to Keep a Grandma Busy, What to Do at the Park, Possible Places to Sleep, and How to Say Goodbye to a Grandma.
Both books are so charming. Where did the idea come from?
My original idea for “How to Babysit a Grandpa” was triggered when I heard that a friend’s baby was going to be babysat once a week by the grandpa. “How cool is that?” I thought.
For authors, those thoughts quickly morph into, “Great story idea!” To make it more fun, I flipped the idea on its head and wrote it in a how-to style with the little boy sharing tips about “babysitting” a grandpa. Even young readers love being in on the joke.
Who is your intended audience?
My favorite part of raising children was reading picture books together on the couch.
What keeps me going as I write is imagining all those shared moments my book might create between children and their adults. For my grandparent books, I focused in on that special bond between grandparents and grandchildren.
Besides the general audience, when I write I imagine specific children listening to my story. I ask myself, “Will they find this funny? Will this ring true to them? Will they understand this?” I also include chuckles for the adult readers because they might have to read the same book over and over and over!
Recently I learned that “How to Babysit a Grandpa” is in Braille. I’m thrilled beyond measure to know my book includes this audience now.
Your book “Always My Brother” deals with the loss of a sibling. Would you mind sharing the story behind it?
My son, John Reagan Philips, was an absolutely delightful and compassionate child and young man. His death in 2005 from a drug overdose at age 19 devastated our family and our broader community. “Always My Brother” does not exactly mirror our family’s story, because I wrote it for picture-book-aged children. For example, I did not specify the cause of death to make it accessible to a greater audience. But the story does tap into the emotions and experiences of our family’s loss.
Sibling death is often considered an unrecognized grief. Surviving siblings are sometimes even admonished to be “extra good,” because their parents are grieving. In “Always My Brother,” I wanted to honor siblings for the devastating loss they face with the death of their brother or sister. I also wanted to offer realistic hope that with the passage of time, the gripping, paralyzing pain would ease as family members cherish and honor their loved one.
How can people help someone who’s lost a child?
The overall thing to keep in mind is that there is nothing you can say or do to make the grieving family feel sadder or feel “all better” about their loss. What this means is that you can relax, find courage and continue to connect with them. Don’t walk on eggshells around them. Naturally and comfortably mention their child in conversation. Share memories: sad ones, happy ones, silly ones, poignant ones.
I believe there is no shame in how someone dies. All deaths share deep sadness and tragedy. Please don’t burden a grieving family with misplaced judgments.
Don’t forget, siblings are grieving, too.
What are you working on now?
I just finished the next book in this series, “How to Surprise a Dad.” Sneak preview: “Shhhhhhhh. If you want to surprise a dad, you have to be tricky.” (Can you tell I’m excited?) The expected publication date is spring 2015. I haven’t started working on a mom book yet, but I don’t want us mothers to be left out of the series. For sure!
I’m also working on some stories set in nature. Each summer my husband and I serve as wilderness volunteers in Grand Teton National Park. We live in a patrol cabin without running water or electricity with elk, deer, bears and an occasional mountain lion as our neighbors. That’s the setting for some new stories.
What does your writing process look like?
Messy! When I first start, I brainstorm — jotting down any and all ideas that pop in my head. I pester my friends and family for their ideas. At school visits, I solicit ideas from students. For the sake of “research,” I indulge in “Calvin and Hobbes” and other comic books.
Then, I buckle down and figure out how to string together the best ideas to create a story that is fun and makes logical sense. This step can be very frustrating. I usually experience a crisis where I think the idea is completely unworkable and that as a writer I’m utterly hopeless. After several days of wailing and lamenting, I solve the problems in the story and I’m back on track. (My books only have about 600 words. How novelists survive their crises, I don’t know.)
Next, my critique groups help me polish the manuscript. After they give it their seal of approval, I send it to my agent and editor for their response. If all goes well, after some back-and-forths, it’s done! This process has taken me as long as five or six years or as short as six months. Then the illustrators work their magic. I’m always wowed by their creative expansion of the story.
What’s the hardest thing about being a writer?
Rejections. Since I started writing over 10 years ago, I have received well over 300 rejections from publishers and agents. (“How to Babysit a Grandpa” had 29 rejections.) It’s just part of the process of getting published, but it’s still hard.
The best thing?
Knowing that your book might create a magical moment or a chuckle between a child and an adult who loves them. Makes me smile just thinking about this.
I also love “fan” letters from kids that say things like: “You spell good.” (Little do they know how much I rely on spellcheck and copy editors!) Or another fan who proudly stated, “I went to a bookstore and almost bought your book.”
What are three things readers don’t know about you?
1. I have never downhill skied. (I’m a scaredy-cat.)
2. As a child I struggled to learn to read. My mom made flashcards and snaked them all over the floor, putting candy on every fifth card. But it was still torturous for me to conquer reading. I was well into third grade before I read my first book with ease and joy.
3. Whenever I have to attend a fancy shindig, a friend loans me clothes and jewelry and writes instructions on what to wear with what. On my own, without her cheat sheet, I’m totally clueless.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Join the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, a national organization that has an active Utah chapter. They offer online resources, conferences, advice, grants and awards for aspiring and established authors.
Form or join a critique group. (I would have given up long ago if it weren’t for my critique buddies.)
Enter local and national writing contests.
But, the single most important quality is perseverance. Don’t give up. Good luck to you!
O For more about Jean Reagan and her books, as well as information about upcoming events, visit her online at www.jeanreagan.com.