An interview with Jasmine A. Stirling
The Children’s Book Review
In this episode of the Growing Readers Podcast, I talk with debut author Jasmine A. Stirling about A Most Clever Girl: How Jane Austen Discovered Her Voice, a picture book biography about the beloved and enduring writer and how she found her unique voice.
This conversation with Jasmine A. Stirling is equally as inspiring as it is empowering. You’ll very quickly realize that her knowledge of Jane Austen is extensive. We learn why this historical figure is such an important role model for our children—both girls and boys. Jane Austen is known for her swoony romances, but there is so much more to her than we are sometimes led to believe. Jasmine wants young people to see that creative mastery is the product of experimentation, persistence, and life’s hard-won battles.
Listen to the Interview
About the Book
A Most Clever Girl: How Jane Austen Found Her Voice
Written by Jasmine A. Stirling
Illustrated by Vesper Stamper
Ages 4-12 | 48 Pages
Publisher: Bloomsbury Children’s Books | ISBN-13: 978-1547601103
Publisher’s Synopsis: Witty and mischievous Jane Austen grew up in a house overflowing with words. As a young girl, she delighted in making her family laugh with tales that poked fun at the popular novels of her time, stories that featured fragile ladies and ridiculous plots. Before long, Jane was writing her own stories-uproariously funny ones, using all the details of her life in a country village as inspiration.
In times of joy, Jane’s words burst from her pen. But after facing sorrow and loss, she wondered if she’d ever write again. Jane realized her writing would not be truly her own until she found her unique voice. She didn’t know it then, but that voice would go on to capture readers’ hearts and minds for generations to come.
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About the Author
Jasmine A. Stirling is the debut author of A Most Clever Girl: How Jane Austen Discovered Her Voice, a picture book biography of Jane Austen about persistence and creative mastery. Jasmine lives on a cheerful street in San Francisco with her husband, two daughters, and their dog. From a young age, she loved to write poems and stories and worked her way through nearly every children’s book (and quite a few for grownups, too) in her local library. When she’s not writing, Jasmine can be found hiking in the fog, singing songs from old musicals, and fiddling with her camera.
Jasmine first fell in love with Jane Austen as a student at Oxford, where she read her favorite of Jane’s six masterful novels, Persuasion. A Most Clever Girl is her dream project, done with her dream team—award-winning illustrator Vesper Stamper and Bloomsbury Children’s Publishing. Jasmine also has a YA/New Adult history of the women’s suffrage movement out soon, titled We Demand An Equal Voice.
Visit www.jasmineastirling.com to get a free Jane Austen paper doll kit with the purchase of A Most Clever Girl. While you’re there, enter to win a Regency tea party gift basket!
Follow Jasmine on Instagram and Facebook@jasmine.a.stirling.author where she posts about kidlit and life with two young girls.
Read the Interview
[Bianca Schulze] Would you say that women empowerment and girl empowerment are important to you, Jasmine?
[Jasmine A. Stirling] Absolutely. I have two girls. I was raised by a single teen mom who was a devout feminist, so I’ve been a feminist my whole life. And it’s definitely a big theme and an inspiration for me and my writing.
[Jasmine A. Stirling] Thank you so much for inviting me to do this interview. I’m Jasmine Sterling, an author living in San Francisco with my husband and two daughters. Before becoming a writer, I was a c-level executive working in education technology companies. So writing is a mid-career change for me. I have two books in the works. The first, which we’re going to be talking about today, is a picture book biography of Jane Austen, which just came out in March. And I also have a history of the women’s suffrage movement for young adults, and that’s going to be coming out next year.
[Bianca Schulze] Ok, so we’re going to dive right in and talk about A Most Clever Girl: How Jane Austen Discovered Her Voice. And it’s gorgeously illustrated by Vesper Stamper. How did you decide that Jane Austen needed to be a theme for a picture book?
[Jasmine A. Stirling] Well, so when I began this journey, I was interested in writing about Jane Austen because I feel like her public persona is at odds with the real Jane. There are a lot of wonderful film adaptations, but many of them sort of paint Austen as the author of these sweeping, dramatic romances. When they wrote about Jane Austen after her death, even her own family painted her as sort of this prim, prudish matron. And if you learn about the real Jane Austen, what you quickly discover is that she was anything but any of these things.
Jane Austen was enormously rebellious as a child. She wrote these incredibly edgy, almost disturbing stories that were super fun to entertain her family when she was 11, 12, 13 years old. And throughout her life, Jane made these iconoclastic decisions about marriage. She refused a wealthy suitor, even though she knew that it would mean a lifetime of dependence on relet male relatives and almost poverty. But she chose it because she didn’t love the man. And she also knew that being able to be unmarried would allow her to pursue her writing. So, in many ways, she was one of the first career women. She said no to marriage. She said no to a settled life so that she could have this independence. And she pursued her writing not just because it was her passion but also because she wanted to be more financially self-sufficient.
So, I initially began this project because I wanted children (girls and boys) to get in touch with this incredible woman in history who was not only a genius but also really inspiring in terms of her personality and her rebelliousness. And I felt like that part of the story had been neglected in popular culture. So that was my inspiration for writing the book. Having said that, when I really got into understanding Jane Austen’s life story, I was struck by what I learned as an artist about creativity and persistence from looking at her life path. So, the book has a little bit of both. We learn about Jane the Rebel, but we also learn about Jane and her struggles as an artist to find her voice.
There’s a second set of themes that have emerged in the project, which are really about persisting in one’s creative passion to the point of mastery. It’s a book that I hope will help children debunk the myth of the genius as being driven by talent and enable them to see that even a genius like Jane Austen had a dry spell. She had fits and starts, and she experimented; she required many things to be creative and pursue her art. Hopefully, the message is inspiring to kids and helps them realize as they grow up if they feel like, oh, maybe I’m not talented, perhaps I don’t have what it takes, no! Even geniuses like Jane Austen needed to persist over decades to mature as artists. And so, it’s hopefully an inspiration for kids to keep going even when they feel like they’re not sure if they have anything to say.
[Bianca Schulze] Absolutely. You know, it’s so wonderful for kids to realize that. We tend to idolize people and not realize that they’re multidimensional and that it takes a lot to master your craft. And it isn’t just all fun and games. You know, you have to put in the hard work. And I often find, too, that adversity plays a role in people finding their voice, too. And I picked that up in your book that, you know, through Jane’s adversity, she was able to turn that into finding more about who she is and what’s important to her. And, you know, I just think adversity can be a superpower as well.
[Jasmine A. Stirling] Absolutely. I mean, the wisdom that comes out of adversity was a key piece for Jane Austen. She even acknowledged that she loved Pride and Prejudice in her letters, but she felt like it was a little too sparkling and a bit too light. In her later work with Persuasion and some of the novels that she wrote after she went through this long period of not writing and of financial instability, there are wisdom and depth to those works that are not present in the earlier work. And that’s a function of maturity and persisting through adversity.
[Bianca Schulze] I would love to know what kind of research you did. And was it her letters that played a significant role in you crafting your own story here?
[Jasmine A. Stirling] Yes. Absolutely. One of the things that I think is particularly special about this book among children’s books is its liberal use and reliance on primary sources. I use Austen’s letters to describe details of her life in three parts. If you see an example in the book, like she noticed how James cut up his turkey with great perseverance, that is not a detail that I invented. I got that from a letter. And not only did I get it from a letter, but I got it from a note at about that time on the timeline in her story. When I was initially writing this, I read the letters, and I found a letter that had another funny detail in it about a neighbor she noticed put a large amount of butter on his bread. And I put that in the spread. But when I looked back, I realized that that letter was written when she was in her late 20s. And this part of the timeline was when she was in that early stage, under twenty-three years old. So, I discarded that detail, even though it was directly from a primary source, because it wasn’t appropriate in that part of the timeline.
So just as a grown-up biographer would, I adhered to a strict timeline. I used the letters. I used the juvenilia. So, you see on the spread where she’s rebelling against the fluff of her day with her writing as an adolescent. There are a series of examples on that spread about what she was writing about. Of course, those are all from juvenilia. So, I relied on primary sources as much as I could when writing the picture book.
Another interesting feature of the book is that I use quotes from Jane Austen’s novels to describe Jane Austen’s life story. And if you’re not a devout and avid Austen fan, you might not initially notice these, but they’re there in italics, in the text. So, if you’re reading the text and you come across italics, you’ll know this is a quote from a Jane Austen novel, which is fun for those among us who just have so many quips from Austen memorized. And you can turn to the end of the book and see where all the italicized quotes originate—this is a fun way of getting Austen’s voice into the book for young readers without having to slog through all of Sense and Sensibility to introduce them to Austen. Every detail in the book is taken from a primary source.
This is kind of really geeky, but I even found as I was going through my research that there were discrepancies, of course, in terms of the sources about what actually happened throughout Jane Austen’s life. Several early sources said that when Jane Austen got the news that she was to leave Stephenson, she fainted. So, I had that in an earlier version of the book. But as I delved more into the primary sources, I discovered that that was a tale that was relayed in a letter by a neighbor to another neighbor—and to me, that didn’t pass muster. A lot of historians think she didn’t actually faint. It was sort of an urban legend, even in her day. So, I took it out because the last thing I want to do as a biographer for young people is perpetuate misinformation about Jane Austen. So, yeah, I took the whole project very seriously.
I recognize that there is an enormous number of Austen experts and novices who are super, incredibly passionate about this topic and that I needed to tread lightly and get it right while also hopefully having a distinct narrative arc through the book. So that’s what I tried to do.
[Bianca Schulze] Well, the back matter is fantastic. It’s so extensive. I will go on the record and say that I have not ever read a Jane Austen novel. And I am so sorry to say that I have watched the movies. This is very sad, but I feel like it’s a confession. So, for me to read all of that back matter was fantastic. And you said something about being geeky, so I’m a little bit of a quote geek. And I loved the back matter section that included the quotations. And I enjoyed the letter from Jane to the Prince Regent, George IV’s librarian. I think his name is James Stanier Clarke. I’m going to read the quote:
“I could not sit seriously down to write a serious Romance under any other motive than to save my life, and if it were indispensable for me to keep it up and never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first chapter. No – I must keep my own style and go on in my own way; and though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I should totally fail in any other.”
In your story, you’ve included an abbreviated version of that. And I just loved the message that it sent of sticking to your style and believing in yourself and staying on the path that’s true to you. I loved that message for young readers and adults, too. So, do you have a favorite quote?
[Jasmine A Stirling] Thank you, I’m so glad to hear that you connected with that quote, and I just want to say don’t feel bad about having only seen the adaptations. The adaptations are a wonderful way to get introduced to Austen. And I want to make sure that I mention to parents who are listening that I’m a big advocate for watching adaptations with your children before or after reading an Austen novel. Clueless is an awesome adaptation of Emma that parents can share with their preteen daughters or teen daughters to help them understand the novel’s dynamics.
[Bianca Schulze] Ok, so I don’t mean to interrupt you, but I did not know that Clueless was an adaptation of Emma. I had no idea.
[Jasmine A. Stirling] Right, exactly. And so, that’s part of my job to help connect the dots here and let parents know that there are a lot of different ways to get into Austen. And the great thing about Austen is that there are so many different ways to get into her. She’s everywhere throughout our culture. So, it’s sort of a perfect introduction to English literature and great women in English literature because, you know, we don’t have quite as many adaptations of Mary Shelly or some other great women in literary history.
Before we go on to the quote, I just want to say that I don’t have a favorite Jane Austen quote because it would explode my brain to select that. But I have a couple of fun ones. One is:
“For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors and laugh at them in our turn?”
So, I think this really embodies Austen’s spirit and the comedic spirit that is her and that sometimes we do miss a little bit in some of the adaptations. The new Emma is comedic. It’s really funny. I mean, there’s even a scene in which her nose starts bleeding in the middle of a proposal scene. And this is maybe not precisely what Austen would do, but it’s in the spirit of Austen, as is clueless, I think.
I have another quote, which is great for the pandemic. It’s from Pride and Prejudice:
“Do not give way to useless alarm; though it is right to be prepared for the worst, there is no occasion to look on it as certain.”
So again, I think this is that keep calm and carry-on sensibility one hundred and fifty years earlier. I think that’s one of the reasons we love Austen during the pandemic because there’s this light-heartedness, and then there’s also this composure. So those are two of my favorite Austen quotes.
[Bianca Schulze] So I am curious, do you have a favorite highlight from the book or maybe one of Vesper’s illustrations?
[Jasmine A. Stirling] Yes. So having Vesper illustrate this project was a dream come true for me. I don’t think there is an illustrator living who could have done a more incredible job. I truly believe it is one of the most beautiful picture books I’ve ever seen, and that is all Vesper. So, I’m just overjoyed that we got her to do this project, and it would be incredibly difficult for me to select a favorite spread. There are a couple that I want to talk about, both in terms of the story structure and in terms of the art.
The first is the spread where we see Jane Austen on stage with Cassandra, and the whole Austen family is putting on performances of London plays in their barn. I love the spread. And I remember when Vesper got the manuscript, she right away homed in on this scene and knew that she wanted to make it a spread. And we sort of rearranged all of the paginations to make sure that this could be a spread. So, she did a wonderful job here. And it’s a delightful scene. It’s also really pivotal to the story because the first third of the story is about the perfect conditions for creating a literary genius. Jane Austen had this incredible childhood. She was nurtured and encouraged. She was given a room of her own. Every night, she had a captive audience that she read to, and she had a family who put on productions of full-length London plays in their barn. I mean, what could be better for someone with budding literary talent than this? The first part of the book is all about this, this incredibly perfect environment for nurturing her genius.
And then, of course, we reach the middle, where things start to fall apart. And I want to talk a bit about the spread where Jane has just gotten the news that her father has died. She’s walking out into the snow in Bath, and it’s dark, and the snow is falling, and you see the chimneys with their black smoke going up into the air. And this is the low, the emotional low of the book. And Vesper does a beautiful job of bringing us into this scene. It’s like fine art. We really feel it. I love that scene. And then, at the end, when Jane has reached her creative peak, there’s a spread with many of the heroines from Austen’s novels. And this is just so beautiful. You just feel like jumping into the spread, and they’re so beautifully outfitted, and you feel that it’s come to life and in Technicolor.
So those are three of the spreads that correspond to the beats of the book. And I have one more comment to make about the illustrations: Vesper, when she took this project, went to the UK and visited every single site in the manuscript before she started to sketch. So, the illustrations that you see here are taken from her experience being there. And she got amazing access to many places as an illustrator. And so, it’s just a treasure from an illustration perspective.
[Bianca Schulze] I couldn’t agree more. I just think the marriage of words and art for your book is incredible. I think you both did an outstanding job. And the spread in which Jane has just lost her father. It’s so powerful when you can deliver something such as a loss or death in such a beautiful way with just minimal words. The gorgeous double-page spread that Vesper created for this loss is outstanding.
[Jasmine A. Stirling] Thank you. I think we really got lucky with this combination.
[Bianca Schulze] We are going to talk a little bit about what it takes for you in your daily practice. You’re a mom and you have you’re raising two kids. What does your daily routine look like to write a book (and you have another book on the way)? What do you do during your days to manage your time and make sure you get some time to be creative and write? And we also need to mention that you’re a beautiful, talented photographer as well.
[Jasmine A. Stirling] Thank you so much. So, the next book that I have coming out is four hundred and fifty pages. It’s a long book. And so, if I didn’t learn good habits when I was writing A Most Clever Girl, which I think I did, I definitely did when I was writing We Demand an Equal Voice. It started as a picture book, and the publisher wanted it to be a long book, and I had never written a long book before. I’d never attempted a long manuscript, and they wanted it on a pretty short timeline. I was expecting my second child when I got this information, and it came through my agent, and she said, do you want to take this? And I just was like, Yes, of course, I want to take this. So, I wrote the book while I had a newborn. I started it when I had a newborn, and I wrote it that first year of her life.
For me, the daily practice as a writer always includes reading. I am an avid reader. I read every day. If you follow me on Instagram, I’ve probably DM’d you and asked you either what you’re reading or what your favorite book was as a child. And it’s not just an icebreaker. I take notes on everything everyone sends me, and I use it to build reading lists. I also create reading lists from my writer friends; I’m in a couple of writing groups. So, I read. I also take as good care of myself as I can. So that’s hiking and getting good sleep. So, if I have the kids and I have the opportunity, I’ll take us all on a hike so that we’re together. But we’re also getting the exercise in so that when I’m off, or they’re napping, or they’re asleep, I can write.
The third thing that I do is just sit down and work, and I work pretty much every night. I work during naps. And for me, what sort of inspires me to work is just sitting down and working. If the other parts of my life are in balance, the writing almost always goes well. So, I set up the structure, and then I work within it. Just sit down and start writing those first few words, and you’d be amazed at how quickly if you have everything else turned off—turn off your phone, turn off all the instant, all the Instagram and Facebook and social media and all the tabs on your browser—and just go.
Some of these ideas are encapsulated in a book that I love called Make Time. It’s a book written by two Google executives who wrote books and transitioned away from executive life while holding down really big jobs. And they talk about the 90-minute block, which I use a lot. I have this visual timer that goes in 90 minutes. It doesn’t make noise, but you can see it to get started. I’ll turn that timer on, and I’ll sit down, and I’ll consider it a challenge. I literally cannot get up for 90 minutes unless it’s an emergency. So, if you sit down and write for 90 minutes, you’re really warmed up. And usually, what you find is that you can keep going. So those are some of the things I do.
[Bianca Schulze] I really like that. Just sit in the chair and committing to that 90 minutes. I might have to try that myself. I like that tip.
[Jasmine A. Stirling] Yeah. It’s an incredible thing. And get the visual timer; they have a visual timer that they suggest, which is awesome. The book has a vast range of tips that you can try for making time for what really matters every day, for these big projects that are easy to push out of our lives and never get to.
[Bianca Schulze] That’s great. Well, to be a writer, they say that you need to be a reader first. So, was there a pivotal moment in which you considered yourself a reader?
[Jasmine A. Stirling] I was a reader at a pretty young age and a writer. As I said, I grew up with a single mom, but who was a teen and not even a high school graduate. But my mom is an incredible intellectual and a tremendous reader and a poet and a writer herself. So, I was very fortunate. And when I was three, she encouraged me with a lot of games and poetry. We would write poetry together. I’d write a poem a day to her and would dictate it to her when I was three, and she’d write it down. She worked at my daycare. So, she got to be involved in my life even though she was a working mom. I think her influence was huge.
I learned to read young before kindergarten when I was probably about four, and I just took off from there, and I was reading Charlotte’s Web and falling in love and reading it over and over in kindergarten and first grade. So, I’ve always been a reader. I come from a family of artists, visual artists, and writers, which I think was very helpful for me, having that environment to grow up in.
[Bianca Schulze] I love that your mom nurtured you and that you would read out your poetry, and she would write it down for you. I just think that’s such an excellent way for you to have bonded with her. But for her to also, just maybe even unknowingly at the time, inspire the inner writer in you. Do you have any of the poems that she wrote down for you that you dictated to her, or are they long gone?
[Jasmine A. Stirling] She sent me a big box last year of some of my schoolwork from when I was in elementary school. We’ve lost some of the independent projects that I did. I used to write poetry books, and I’d illustrate them, and they were entirely not school-related. I’d write short stories and other things that weren’t for school. I think I kept those myself. And so, I don’t know if they ever made their way into her hands, but she has all the schoolwork that, you know, the teachers gave her that I brought home. And so that’s been fun to see. And there are some poems in there from when I was really, really little. And those are fun to see, too.
I think one of the cool things about poetry is you can, as a parent, take poems or even picture books that are rhyming and remove some of the lines and then have your kids create their own content in those missing lines, and then you end up with a polished result. Parents can do this at home—it helps their kids get into writing poetry and makes them feel successful with, you know, a very minimal investment of time.
[Bianca Schulze] Yeah, I love that idea. That’s great. Is there anything else that maybe we haven’t covered already that you would love to share with the growing readers’ listeners?
[Jasmine A. Stirling] I mean, I just really appreciate being here, and I so thank you for having me. I would just say I’d love to keep in touch. So, if you do buy my book, please go to my website, which is www.jasmineastirling.com, and go to the giveaways section because I give away a free downloadable DIY Jane Austen paper doll kit, and it’s beautiful. It has these incredible Regency outfits. She’s got a writing outfit, and she’s got a fairy costume to wear to a masquerade ball. And anyway, I give that away for free to everyone who buys the book. So, if you go to my website, you have to fill out a form, and then I can keep in touch with you, and I know who you are, and I can let you know when my next book comes out and about other free things that I like to give away. I like to give away a lot of stuff. That’s one of the things I do on my website.
I’m also on Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/jasmine.a.stirling/), where I post photos of my kids and a lot of what I’m reading now, which tends to be middle-grade novels, but there is a range there too. Some of its parenting, some of its adult. But if you like books and you like kids, please follow me on Instagram. It’s fun to stay in touch. As I said, I’ll probably DM you right away if you follow me and ask you what your favorite book was as a child because I love learning about that, and I love having genuine relationships with people who follow me on there. So, keep in touch.
[Bianca Schulze] I have to say, I think your website is beautiful, and I love following your Instagram account—your photography and the quotes you share are all incredible. So great job, Jasmine.
To remind everybody, we talked about A Most Clever Girl: How Jane Austen Discovered Her Voice—it is available now. And then We Demand an Equal Voice: Carrie Chapman Catt and Votes for Women will be Jasmine’s young adult book which will come out in 2022. Is that correct?
[Jasmine A. Stirling] Yes!
[Bianca Schulze] Well, it’s been a pleasure talking to you.
[Jasmine A. Stirling] You too. I’m so grateful and so excited about this podcast.
The transcription of this interview with Jasmine A. Stirling has been condensed and edited for readability.
Thank you for listening to the Growing Readers Podcast episode: Jasmine A. Stirling Discusses ‘A Most Clever Girl: How Jane Austen Discovered Her Voice. For the latest episodes from The Growing Readers Podcast, Follow Now on Spotify. For similar books and articles, you can check out all of our content tagged with Growing Readers Podcast, Biographies, Jane Austen, Jasmine A. Stirling, Picture Book, Vesper Stamper, and Women’s History.
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