My Writing and Reading Life with Jennifer Berne, Author of On Wings of Words: The Extraordinary Life of Emily Dickinson.
The Children’s Book Review | February 21, 2020
Jennifer Berne is the award-winning author of picture book biographies: MANFISH: A Story of Jacques Cousteau; ON A BEAM OF LIGHT: A Story of Albert Einstein; and LOOK UP WITH ME: Neil deGrasse Tyson: A Life Among the Stars. Her fiction books include CALVIN CAN’T FLY: The Story of a Bookworm Birdie. Her books have earned stars from Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, SLJ, and Horn Book, as well as being chosen as New York Times Editors Choice, NPR’s Great Reads, Eric Carle Museum’s “Best of the Best,” and have been translated into 15 foreign languages.
Jennifer grew up in New York City where she was active in dance and theater as a child. She studied art and design, and worked for Andy Warhol at “The Factory.” After a successful career in advertising, Jennifer began writing for Nick Jr. Magazine and writing books about the subjects she loves most—our amazing universe and the people who discover its secrets. She lives in a house she designed in the rolling hills of Columbia County, NY. She and her husband spend their summers aboard their sailboat, cruising the coast of Maine.
I write because …
Writing makes me feel like myself. It makes me feel whole. I started writing when I was three, before I had the physical skills to write. I would say to my mother, “I have a poem” and she would reach for pencil and paper and take dictation from that little three-year-old. Writing is an act of creation that totally absorbs me. I lose myself in it. And it is topped by the greatest reward of all — when a book of mine gets published and goes out into the world to meet its readers and become part of their lives.
I read because …
Reading connects me to all of the world, all of history, everyone and everything who lived on this planet. Because of reading I know about the dinosaurs, about the stars and planets, about the structure of everything. By reading, Einstein talks to me, Jacques Cousteau talks to me, ancient voices tell me about the past, poets send me their visions and creations, explorers of the mind and of our planet’s phenomena tell me the secrets of our thinking and our universe. People I never met make me laugh, amaze me, entertain me, astound me. Without reading, our lives would be very small indeed!
My latest published book is …
ON WINGS OF WORDS: The Extraordinary Life of Emily Dickinson
Illustrated by Becca Stadtlander, and published by Chronicle Books.
I wrote this book because …
A long time ago — I can’t even remember when — I discovered Emily Dickinson and her poetry. And, very gradually, she and her work and her mind began to fascinate me, to draw me in. The more I read of her writing, and the more I read about her, the more I came under her spell. I think, although she lived over 150 years ago, her writing and her thinking are as relevant now as ever, maybe more so. Emily Dickinson was an explorer — an explorer of the outer world, and of the inner world, of nature, of the essence of what life is about, the mysteries of eternity, and of her own emotions. She was a creative genius, a superior intellect, a subversive thinker, a rebel, a mysterious soul who went her own way no matter how often she was told to think like everyone else. She was a person like no other. So how could I not write about her!
Best moment …
For every book I write, there is always a best moment. It is the first moment when I hear how it has entered a child’s life and has transformed that child in some way, no matter how large or small.
My special place to write is …
Everywhere! I write in my bedroom, my office, my living room, riding in our car, in our boat, in restaurants, on little scraps of paper while taking walks. Once I’m working on a book, I think I even write in my sleep.
Necessary writing/creativity tool …
Lined pads and my favorite kind of smooth-writing pen. I can’t write my initial drafts on the computer — I only edit on the computer. I don’t know why, but it feels as though handwriting and computer-writing use different parts of my brain.
The person who has been my greatest writing teacher or inspiration is …
I think I would have to say, lyricists. The lyricists of the songs I listened to as a child, a teenager, and beyond. I’m having a hard time picking just one, but since the question asks for “the person” I’ll select Oscar Brown Jr. The skill and brilliance and style with which he wrote his lyrics always astounds and inspires me.
If I were to answer the question somewhat differently and select an author who was my greatest writing teacher, I would say Richard Selzer. His books aren’t widely known, but I think they should be. I read and reread them, and reread them again. His writing always challenges me to become a better writer myself.
Currently reading …
I just got a copy of Martha Ackerman’s new book about Emily Dickinson, THESE FEVERED DAYS. I can’t wait to dive into it!
Favorite bookshop …
There are wonderful independent bookshops here in New York, and also in Maine where my husband and I spend our summers. I love them all. But the most fun for me is bookstores that sell used books. I love the treasure hunt aspect of them. The discovery of a book I would never have otherwise seen or considered. It is at one of these bookshops — Rodgers Book Barn in Hillsdale NY — that I first discovered Richard Selzer’s books, and as I mentioned above, that changed my life.
All-time favorite children’s book I didn’t write …
I’m going to change the question slightly to “longest-time favorite” and go back to my childhood. A book that I loved then, and that has stayed with me all those years, is TUBBY THE TUBA. And of course, the versions with musical accompaniment make it that much more special.
Favorite illustrator …
Oh, there are so many brilliant talented illustrators. What an almost impossible question! But, just going with my feelings at the moment, I think I’ll select Vladimir Radunsky. His work had such a rare kind of creativity, uniqueness, free and joyous style, and an ability to communicate so much in such deceivingly simple little drawings. I was fortunate enough to work with him on my Einstein book, ON A BEAM OF LIGHT. We even planned to do another book together, but sadly he passed away before that could happen. The world lost a magnificent creative being.
A literary character I would like to vacation with …
When I am not reading or writing I am …
In the summers, my husband and I live aboard our sailboat and cruise the Maine coast. The other seasons, when not reading or writing, you can find me walking on country roads, browsing in antique shops and thrift shops (doing far more browsing than buying), doing research on the computer (all my friends use me as their free research service because I love researching so much), or sitting in a little cafe sipping a hot mocha.
Written by Jennifer Berne
Publisher’s Synopsis: An inspiring and kid-accessible biography of one of the world’s most famous poets.
Emily Dickinson, who famously wrote “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul,” is brought to life in this moving story. In a small New England town lives Emily Dickinson, a girl in love with small things—a flower petal, a bird, a ray of light, a word. In those small things, her brilliant imagination can see the wide world—and in her words, she takes wing. From celebrated children’s author Jennifer Berne comes a lyrical and lovely account of the life of Emily Dickinson: her courage, her faith, and her gift to the world. With Dickinson’s own inimitable poetry woven throughout, this lyrical biography is not just a tale of prodigious talent, but also of the power we have to transform ourselves and to reach one another when we speak from the soul.
• Fantastic educational opportunity to share Emily Dickinson’s story and poetry with young readers
• An inspirational real-life story that will appeal to children and adults alike.
• Jennifer Berne is the author of critically acclaimed children’s biographies of Albert Einstein and Jacques Cousteau.
Fans who enjoyed Emily Writes: Emily Dickinson and her Poetic Beginnings, Emily and Carlo, and Uncle Emily will love On Wings of Words.
Ages 5-8 | Publisher: Chronicle Books | February 18, 2020 | ISBN-13: 978-1452142975
Buy the Book
Discover more books like On Wings of Words: The Extraordinary Life of Emily Dickinson, written by Jennifer Berne and illustrated by Becca Stadtlander, by checking out our reviews and articles tagged with Biographies, Emily Dickinson, Jennifer Berne, and Poetry Books for Kids; plus, be sure to follow along with our Writing and Reading Life series.
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