Author Spotlight: Jess Hernandez
Happy Thursday, kid lit fam! Thank you to all who participated in our Josh Funk giveaway contest! And congrats to Tamara Ritterhaus and Vanessa Mohler! There will be more giveaway opportunities around the bend.
Next week is The Remember Balloons week! We have in-depth interviews and giveaways with both Jessie Oliveros and Dana Wulfekotte, the dynamic duo of this heartfelt, award winning book so be sure to tune in or SUBSCRIBE!
But first, let's turn the Spotlight on one of our own! You've probably seen her fantastic pitches and hilarious posts on Twitter. Please welcome author, Jess Hernandez!
What’s something you absolutely must have in the refrigerator or pantry?
Garlic. I use an embarrassingly large amount of it when I cook.
Name three things you can’t do your job without.
Notebook and pen. I do most of my drafting longhand in one of those cheapy notebooks that sell for $0.50 when school starts. Longhand helps me turn off my inner perfectionist since I know whatever I put there isn’t in its final form. Also, a decent amount of sleep.
Where do you feel most inspired and why?
When I’m revising, I get most of my big breakthroughs either in the shower, putting my kid to sleep, or driving – anywhere my hands are busy but my brain can wander. Most of my story concepts come while hanging out with my kids. Interacting with them helps me understand their world a little better, making it easier to write relatable stories.
Tell us a little about yourself and your journey into writing picture books. Why picture books?
Growing up, I always liked writing, but I didn’t think I could make it a career. I’m diabetic, so health insurance was slightly more important than artistic fulfillment. I grew to love picture books during my grad work in librarianship, but I didn’t think about writing one until I tried to find ones that my daughter could relate to as a bilingual/bicultural kid, particularly since she’s half Canarian. It was one of those “write the book you wish you had” situations. After I wrote a few books just for her, I got hooked and kept writing.
Describe your style or voice as a picture book writer.
I tend to write human characters and try to put everyday things into a funny light. Also, I appreciate books that are clever and offer something for the adult reader as well as the kid, so I strive for that.
I see you are expecting your third kiddo this fall! Congrats! We just had our first child in December. Hands down the most important job in the world. And boy does it zap your time and focus (in a good way). It’s been incredibly inspirational to see my wife balance work and mommy life. I can’t even imagine three! Talk to us about how you balance writing and pursuing publication while being a busy, working mom?
I keep a pen and a notebook wherever I go so I can jot down ideas on the fly. I also try to include my kids in my writing life. I’ll read them my rough drafts, ask them to name characters, and have them give me suggestions. They’re a lot more supportive of something that they feel like they’re a part of. Plus, I love that they see me do hard things and deal with rejection. I hope it makes them more willing to try new things when they get older.
Glad that you are a fellow librarian & teacher! How has your work as a librarian and teacher impacted your writing? What unique advantages do you have being in those positions?
Working as a teacher and a librarian, I get more of a sense of why some books work while others don’t, as well as seeing more over-all trends in publishing. Plus, I have some wicked research skills that definitely come in handy.
I’ve seen you participating on twitter pitch contests like PBPitch and PitMad. What have you learned from these types of opportunities? What would you say to someone on the fence about them?
I’d definitely say do it. Pitching on Twitter helps you learn to hone your pitch and find out what really resonates with readers. This is huge when writing a query. Plus, it’s a great way to find your tribe. I ended up in a fantastic critique group because someone reached out to me after PitMad.
Speaking of twitter pitches, probably my favorite of yours is the one about Milly the donkey infiltrating Unicorn School. Please tell us more about this story! Is this project still on submission? What are some other current projects you’re working on and submitting? Give us a few more pitches!
Milly is a great example of my kids influencing my writing. They were arguing over who got to use an empty paper towel roll as a unicorn horn and my daughter told my son, “You can’t have it. You’re just a horse!” I’d been toying with the idea of unicorn school story and all the pieces just clicked into place. Milly is still looking for a home, but I’ve got quite a few things in the hopper at the moment. I’m revising a story about a preschool kid going through the stages of grief after his blankie gets put in the wash and drafting another one about a little girl who doesn’t have pockets and is forced to make a tricky decision about where to store a jelly bean while she rides her bike down a hill.
You recently posted about writing zero words on a particular week. I really applaud that. I believe artists need to have regular breaks and that we can’t heap shame on ourselves when we don’t meet our own arbitrary goals. Talk to us a little more about that. What advantages are there in intentionally taking breaks, and being okay with not being constantly “productive” as a writer?
For me, the biggest creativity killer is guilt. There are times when I'm ridiculously productive and following those times, I think it’s okay to let myself lie fallow for a while. I read and watch TV and fill myself up with words and stories. I might make notes about future projects, but I try not to feel pressure about doing them in that moment, particularly if there’s a lot going on in the rest of my life. I love to write, but there are times when it has to take a back seat.
What is a picture book published recently that has inspired you or had you laughing out loud?
I really loved Two Problems for Sophia by Jim Averbeck.
It’s about a girl who has a snoring giraffe who’s keeping her family awake and it’s such a clever take on STEM and nonfiction in general since, as it turns out, giraffes really do snore.
As a writer on submission, how frequently are you sending out queries? How long have you been submitting?
I first started querying in 2016. I’d written a memoir which actually one a significant contest, so I thought I’d bag an agent probably by the end of the year. A year and 140 rejections later, I trunked the book. At last count, I’ve queried at least ten other books since then.
Everybody processes rejection differently. When you experience rejection, what does that look like for you?
When I first started querying, it stung. A lot. After something like 300 rejections, it stings a little less. There are still times I get my hopes up, but I try to keep my expectations low and my productivity high. I’ve learned that if it isn’t this book, it will be the next one or the one after that. Every book gets better and every time I get a little closer.
How do you stay organized and document submissions you make? Any helpful tools you care to share?
I’m a big believer in the spreadsheet. I have columns for agent names, agencies, MSWL and other preferences, contact info, and date of submission/response. Then I color code everything. Grey for rejections, blue for pending submissions, pink for requests, yellow for agents I’m waiting to query because they’re closed or I’m missing something like a synopsis, and green for who I’ll query next.
Are you in a critique group? If so, how does your group swap manuscripts? How have you seen this discipline affect your craft?
I’m in a wonderful critique group. Someone in the group usually has a draft to share at least once every week or so and will make a Google doc we can all edit. Because picture book texts are really only half the story, working this way has really helped me be more visual in my writing. I’m much better at illustration notes and storyboarding in my head than I used to be.
What advice do you have for other writers just starting their submissions?
Find your tribe. You’ll need someone to cheer for you or talk you off the ledge as needed. Find someone who will support you in that while pushing you to improve. Also, if you’re in it for the long haul, there’s going to be a point where you’re left behind. Someone will land an agent, sell a book, make a list before you do. But publishing isn’t a zero-sum game. Your friends’ success doesn’t rob you of anything. Stay supportive and loyal to the friends you make. You’re going to need them.
How would you define success for yourself as a writer?
I’d love to give a Zen answer about how success is to keep trying or getting better with every book, but I really, really, really want to hold my own published book in my hands one day.
What’s a message kids today desperately need to hear?
Kids need to experience unconditional love and know that nothing can change their innate worth as a person. Anything that can help them feel and believe that is worth celebrating.
Anything coming up that you are looking forward to and would like to promote?
There are some really great picture books coming out this year and I’m really excited for the ones on the #SeenIn19 hashtag. Check it out!
Thank you for sharing your journey with us, Jess! Really hoping to see Milly the Unicorn on the shelves as soon as possible!
Thanks for stopping by, kid lit fam! Next week is The Remember Balloons week! On Monday, March 18th we have an interview and giveaway with author Jessie Oliveros. Then on Thursday, March 21st, we have an interview and giveaway with illustrator Dana Wulfekotte!
Don't want to miss an interview or your chance to win awesome giveaways like signed books, original artwork, and agent query critiques!? SUBSCRIBE! All the cool kids are doing it...
ABOUT JESS HERNANDEZ
Jess Hernandez is a writer, librarian, teacher and all-around word girl. A mom of two (soon to be three), she writes mostly humorous picture books and the occasional essay about parenting with mental illness.
Follow Jess on Twitter!
Brian Gehrlein is an educator and youth services librarian living in Kansas City with his wife, Katherine, and son, Peter. He is represented by Melissa Richeson of Apokedak Literary Agency. He thanks you for reading this post. He thanks you for reading in general. Thank you for reading. You are still reading. You are literally reading this very second. How meta is this sentence? How meta is this paragraph? Just think of it...you are STILL reading. Right now. Your brain is interpreting these strange markings and ascribing meaning to them at lightning speeds. You're incredible! And here all this time you thought this was just Brian's extended bio. He has NOT done that much to warrant such an extended bio. He just likes to entertain and tease you with silly little pretend bios at the end of every post. Don't believe me? Go back. Check. I dare you. They are all unique. They are all ridiculous. Mic drop.