Author Spotlight: Jess Townes
Happy Monday and welcome back to Picture Book Spotlight! We have a very special interview to share today. We feature authors, illustrators, agents, and champions of picture books. Today we have our first Champion Spotlight! Jess Townes is an author and also the Co-Regional Advisor of Kansas-Missouri for SCBWI.
What is something you must have in your refrigerator or pantry?
Coffee. I will go out at any hour of night if I realize we are out of coffee for the next morning. I also really like to have homemade creamer on hand (super simple recipe: sweetened condensed milk, milk, cinnamon) and a tiny handheld milk frother. It makes my homemade coffee feel coffee shop fancy.
Name three things you can’t do your job without.
Coffee, but I already said that. Patience, curiosity, flexibility.
Where do you feel most inspired and why?
I am constantly inspired by the kids that I work with in classrooms and libraries every week. It's a privilege to hear their stories and see the world through their unique perspectives, but that privilege is compounded when we help bring their voices and experiences to the page. I also find inspiration when I travel, because it's a reminder that while the world is vast and our experiences varied, there is also so much that binds our shared humanity.
I get the sense that you’re a bit of a theatre gal. Extra credit for you! Your website mentions doing “driveway musicals.” Please unpack this wonderful spectacle for us!
I love musical theater, and from time to time, I come out of what my theater friends describe as my self-imposed retirement and perform in locally. As a kid, my driveway was the set of many zero-budget productions, but I'm most proud of our attempt at staging The Little Mermaid on roller-skates. You know, so it would look like we were swimming.
Walk us through a bit of your background and how you stumbled into kid lit.
I've always been a storyteller, though it's taken many different forms throughout my life - theater, music, journalism, blogging. I was in my thirties when I realized that I had never stopped reading books for children, and that I still listed Judy Blume as my favorite author. As soon as I opened my mind to the possibility of writing books for children, I wasn't able to let it go. Also, my grandmother and my aunt both write for children, so maybe it runs in the family.
I’m proud to say that I’ve been a member of SCBWI since 2016. You are the Co-Regional Advisor for Kansas-Missouri. Since you live in St. Louis, I will temporarily forgive that you’re probably a Cardinals fan. : ) Describe what your position with SCBWI entails and how you fit into the larger mission of the organization. How did you initially get involved with SCBWI, and how did you become a Regional Advisor.
I'll let you in on a secret if you promise not to tell anyone in St. Louis, but I don't follow baseball. I do love to go the stadium at least once a year though, because I think there's something inspiring about fandom and the way it creates community. Also, for the nachos.
I share the position of Co-Regional Advisor with Erin Mos, and I'm grateful to have her as a partner! Together with the rest of our regional team and incredible network of volunteers, we work to make sure our members have access to the many benefits of SCBWI, from local community to craft and industry-focused events. We are always seeking more people to join in planning and hosting events and bringing fresh ideas to our region. (Pssst...I'm talking to you, Brian!)
What are some practical reasons kid lit authors and illustrators should join SCBWI?
SCBWI is the leading professional organization for authors and illustrators of children's literature. The organization can help a new writer or illustrate navigate the path to publication and grow as an artist, as well as help connect them to community along the way.
What is something SCBWI KS-MO, or even the organization as a whole, is doing that you are really excited about?
I'll answer answer this in two parts. As far as the Kansas/Missouri region goes, I'm excited that we have added webinars to our regional programming this year. Our region is geographically large, and it can be difficult for members to travel across both states to attend local programming. Webinars allow our members to access top-notch faculty from the comfort of their own home while also connecting through the chat feature with other members. As far as the broader organization goes, I've been excited to see the way we continue to bring diverse voices and a wide variety of perspectives to our conferences as keynote speakers and faculty. I also am very proud of the work SCBWI is doing through its Books for Readers program, which places books directly in the hands of children who need them.
What’s your favorite thing about SCBWI?
Easy question - the people. I'm about to make a sweeping generalization, so forgive me, but I find that people who want to write or illustrate for children are generally kind, empathetic, and fiercely devoted to making the world a place our children will be proud to inherit. We learn and grow from one another in this community, and we are all better off for it.
You attended the 2019 SCBWI Annual Winter Conference in NY. Give us some of the highlights of your trip?
A highlight of the trip was hearing Justice Sonia Sotomayor speak about the privilege and responsibility of writing for children, and then hearing that theme echoed in all of the keynote speeches throughout the weekend.
Let’s put on your author hat. You are repped by Stephanie Fretwell-Hill with Red Fox Literary. How has it been working with Stephanie? Tell us a little bit about your path to representation and where you’re currently at with your path to publication.
My path to representation began with SCBWI actually! I had a written critique with Stephanie on a picture book manuscript through a SCBWI event. She asked to see a revision, which led to a request for more work and ultimately an offer of representation. I am incredibly lucky to be represented by someone as talented and kind as Stephanie. She is an open communicator, she has a great editorial eye and has really helped me reshape parts of my manuscripts, and she has been a very supportive partner in this process.
As a querying author, there is a false narrative I sometimes tell myself that once I find my dream agent, everything will be kitties and rainbows and I’ll skip and bound my way into picture book glory and success. But I also know the cold, hard truth. It’s just one step in a larger journey. On the other side is work. And waiting. And more work. And more waiting. Talk a little bit about the unique challenges you face being represented while also not being published.
Sometimes that happens! We've all heard overnight success stories. Everyone's path is different, and I remind myself of that on this side of publication often. Rejection is a big part of this process, whether you are querying agents, submitting to editors, or waiting on the outcome of an acquisitions meeting. I'm reminded by my friends who are published that those things will always be part of the process, so we all have to find ways to accept that reality and protect our creative selves from being bogged down by it. I try to stay focused on the next thing I'm working on, and chocolate helps.
SCBWI Writer Retreat at Conception Abbey
What are some picture books published recently that have inspired you or had you laughing out loud?
Julian is a Mermaid, written and illustrated by Jessica Love
A Bike Like Sergio's by Maribeth Boelts and illustrated by Noah Z. Jones
Everything You Need for a Treehouse, by Carter Higgins, illustrated by Emily Hughes
The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld
Dreamers, written and illustrated by Yuyi Morales
I’ve noticed you write a lot about your concerns with our culture’s over use of social media. I also walked away from Facebook and never looked back. Tell us more about your concerns and what you’re doing to remain social media healthy.
How long do we have? ;) I really like the way Cal Newport approaches this topic in his new book, Digital Minimalism. It is sharpening my thinking on how to stay connected in the world of social media with my value system as my guide - identifying what works best for me and unapologetically letting the rest go. My concerns range from the devaluation of a reasonable person's expectation of privacy (upon which our constitutional right to privacy is predicated, so we really need to hang onto some exceptions here folks!) to the ways that social media can narrow the discourse of our conversations to the impacts of the attention economy on our brain chemistry to the fact that it's just a little bit creepy to walk around in a world where everyone around you is staring into a phone. It feels like stepping into the pages of a dystopian novel I read as a teenager. Though, nowadays when I do catch the eye of someone else looking up, there's a new magic there in that momentary shared recognition of "Hey, we're both here, present in this space together. It's nice to see you."
What are some current projects that you have in the works that you can (are allowed to) tell us about?
I'm always working on a couple of picture books at any given moment. Right now I'm revising one that deals with making mistakes and amends. I'm also working on revising my first middle grade novel and drafting a second. I just discovered Scrivener and I think I accidentally joined a cult.
What do you think of the state of kid lit at this moment in history?
It's incredibly exciting to see more and more diverse voices find their way to the pages of books for children. As a writer, I'm also continuously blown away by the art inside of picture books. Illustrators are wizards, and their work is pure magic.
What advice do you have for authors and illustrators looking to jump into writing or illustrating for kids?
Read and read some more. I know you've heard this advice before, but it's true. Read books published in the last five years so you are grounded in the current industry. Read your own childhood favorites to reconnect with what drew you into the magic of story in the first place. Stephen King says, "If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that." I believe him. Plus, if you follow this advice, you get to read. Win/win.
Do you have anything coming up that you’re looking forward to and would like to promote?
I am really looking forward to the return of All the Wonders in 2019. Stay tuned for more on that. I'm also excited about an upcoming SCBWI event in our region for graphic novelists this spring! Details will follow on our website soon: ksmo.scbwi.org
Thank you so much, Jess for sharing with us! And thank you for being a picture book champion! SCBWI supports writers and illustrators and ultimately KIDS! We appreciate your passion and service.
Thank YOU for reading, kid lit fam! If you happen to be new to picture books, I want to encourage you to invest in yourself as an artist and consider joining SCBWI. Without a doubt, it has been the number one game changer for me as a writer. Agents love to see membership with SCBWI on your query bio. It means you're taking this seriously. I've been fortunate enough to have my parents gift membership to me for two years, and my wife renewed my membership this year on my 31st birthday. It's important to know my people are cheering me on and supporting my professional development. So head over to their website and become a member! It's an absolute must! SCBWI website.
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ABOUT JESS TOWNES
My love of words and stories began as a young child, when I spent my days singing on my swing set, recruiting neighbors for driveway musicals, reading under my desk at school or writing in my voluminous (and embarrassing) diaries. I believe that our stories connect us to one another in ways that nothing else does. I never listened when adults warned, “Don’t talk to strangers!” and as a result, I’ve yet to meet one.
I currently serve as the Co-Regional Advisor for SCBWI Kansas/Missouri. I live outside St. Louis, Missouri with my wildly creative husband, our two insatiably curious boys, two feisty cats and a fifty pound lap dog. When I’m not writing or reading, you can find me hiking, making music, in my garden, or at the theater.
If all else fails, check the hammock.
Brian Gehrlein is an educator and youth services librarian living in Kansas City with his wife, Katherine, and son, Peter. He is currently querying picture books and actively seeking literary representation. He thanks you for reading this post. He thanks you for being the type of person who reads the fine print. There are so few of us left. Sometimes the best stuff is buried at the bottom and written in a smaller, slanted font. Am I arguing this is the best content of this post? How would Jess feel about that? How do you feel about that? How do I feel about that? Well, I never said it was! Don't put words in my mouth. Don't put anything in my mouth for that matter. Unless it's a taco. MMmmmmmm tacos...have you noticed that there are a lot of picture books about tacos? I should probably write one if I want to be at least halfway relevant. And now I'm hungry. So thanks for that. Stop reading this ridiculous paragraph and make yourself a taco. Well, don't make YOURSELF a taco. I meant make a taco. If you can make YOURSELF a taco, then you must be some sort of witch or wizard. If this is the case...I may have use for your magical powers...