Sunday, September 20, 2009

Anne Sibley O’Brien interviews Juanita Havill

Juanita Havill has been writing for children since 1982. Her first book Jamaica’s Find, illustrated by Anne Sibley O’Brien, has won many honors including the Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Award in 1986. Since then Havill has written and O’Brien illustrated six more books about Jamaica, all published by Houghton Mifflin. Havill has written many other picture books, a collection of poems I Heard It from Alice Zucchini (Chronicle Books 2006), middle grade novels, and a novel in verse Grow (Peachtree Books 2008). Havill also teaches writing classes and leads writing workshops.

ASOB: The Jamaica books are often cited for their ethical content and used in character or core values educational units. How did you come to write the first Jamaica story and were you thinking of it as a story about a child's ethical dilemma?

JH: Actually the first Jamaica story idea I had was for the second published story: Jamaica Tag-Along. I had sketched out a plot with a young African-American girl as my main character, but the story wasn’t coming together. Then when I had an argument with my daughter about a stuffed animal she found and wanted to keep, I outlined a story which included this common dilemma of childhood, and since I already had a character in mind, I asked, “What would Jamaica do?” I didn’t set out to write about ethical dilemmas, but the fact is children often face choices, difficult choices, although adults don’t always realize how large such situations loom for children. I tried to depict a child facing an everyday challenge.

ASOB: How did the character of Jamaica first come to you?

JH: Like all of the characters in my picture books and novels, Jamaica is a composite. I had observed a couple of girls at a park in Minneapolis where I lived at the time, one African American and one white. I saw them often, always together. Jamaica is also inspired by a college friend with whom I lived in a language-learning house on campus. Like my friend, Jamaica is intelligent, friendly, active, and resourceful with a normal capacity for anger, moodiness, and hurt feelings. Although she is not overly assertive, Jamaica is not timid about pushing the limits. She is, in some way, every child, but she happens to appear in the body and with the mind of a six-year-old African-American girl.

ASOB: When you wrote Jamaica’s Find, did you ever suspect that you would go on to write six more Jamaica books?

JH: I did have that scribbled draft, and once I got the story right, I figured that I would have a second Jamaica book. But seven books about Jamaica? No, I never envisioned a series although students have always offered lots of suggestions during my school visits. “Why don’t you have Jamaica go on a trip?” “What would happen to Jamaica if she really messed up?” Educators, too, have made suggestions: “Have you considered writing a Jamaica story with bullying as a theme?”

ASOB: Do you often encounter readers who are surprised to discover that you're white? What do you think accounts for the warmth of the reception of the Jamaica books by African-American reviewers and readers?

JH: Young readers up to eight or so seldom express surprise that I am not African American. They don’t ask me why I, a white woman, chose to write about Jamaica as a character nor do they wonder if the illustrator is black. On the other hand, educators, especially white teachers, have often said when they meet me, “We thought that you were black.” That was many years ago. With the arrival of the internet anyone can easily view my photo and make judgements from the photograph. I don’t think that people/students aren’t curious but that they are too polite to ask, “Why did you choose a main character who is black?” Perhaps Attorney General Eric Holder is right about the inability of black Americans and white Americans to speak openly and frankly about race. I think, though, if he had been paying attention to the children’s book community, he would have been aware of lively, informed discussions about race and encountered strong opinions expressed without timidity. I am aware of many discussions about cultural authenticity, about who can write about whom, and I follow these conversations with interest.

I am grateful for kind words and a warm reception from the African-American audience. I don’t know if this has happened to you, Annie, but I suspect you would have the same happy feeling I did when a twenty-five-year old African-American woman meets you at a talk, pulls out her dog-eared copy of Jamaica’s Find, and asks you to autograph one of her favorite childhood books. Or a five-year-old white girl with her blond hair done up in multiple braids asks you to sign her book and tells you her name is “Jamaica” and explains, “Like the girl in the book.”

ASOB: What's your experience having stories that you've written interpreted by someone else in pictures? How do the final books resemble what's in your mind as you write, and how are they different?

JH: Remember the film Amadeus and that funny little laugh Tom Hulce did as Mozart that expressed such spontaneous joy? That’s how I feel when I see words become images with color and movement and expressive characters. Often the images do remind me of those in my mind when I was writing. For instance, the Jamaica in my mind resembles the one you have created. Sometimes the characters or setting surprise me. When I wrote Leroy and the Clock, I visualized a portly, bald grandfather and the illustrator Janet Wentworth, portrayed him as a slim, bearded man with a full head of hair. This surprised me, but after reading the story hundreds of times at school visits, my original vision fades.

ASOB: The editor of the early Jamaica books told me that when you wrote Jamaica and Brianna, you saw Jamaica's best friend, Brianna, as African American. What was your response when you saw (or heard about) the sketches in which Brianna was Asian American?

JH: At a book-signing in Minneapolis I autographed a book to an African-American girl who told me her name was Brianna. I took note of the name and visualized this girl when I introduced Brianna in Jamaica and Brianna. When my editor showed me your sketches, we talked about your Asian-American Brianna, and I thought she was compelling. As Asian American, Brianna added another cultural presence to the story. Then when I learned that your daughter was the model, I thought “Terrific.” That must have spared you searching the island for a model. You may not know that when I wrote Jamaica and the Substitute Teacher, I thought of Russell as African American. I have always believed in allowing the illustrator room to imagine and unless it is crucial to the story, I don’t make a list of “to dos” for the illustrator. The cultural dynamics may be different, but I think that your depiction of Russell acting out in response to his family’s imminent move is spot on.

ASOB: Three years ago, Houghton Mifflin released the twentieth-anniversary edition of Jamaica’s Find. All six titles are still in print, and a seventh book is coming out in the fall. This is almost unheard of in children's picture books. What are some of the factors you think have contributed to the longevity of the series?

JH: That the Jamaica stories remain in print and continue to be read, and I hope, pondered and enjoyed, amazes me, especially since the shelf life of books has shortened considerably in the past twenty years. I think that the accessibility of the stories has helped keep them viable — the everyday situations and choices that reflect a reality that children and their parents recognize and identify with. The multicultural aspect of the books reflects contemporary life in the US and many other countries of diverse cultures and populations. The language is straightforward (“pedestrian” a critic once wrote over twenty years ago) and the traditional plot does not make demands on the young reader. The illustrations are compelling, too, picture-perfect depiction of emotions that deepen the reader/listener’s identification with the characters. I would have to commend the design including page breaks and pacing that make the stories so natural to read aloud to groups.

ASOB: Are there any other Jamaica stories in your head or in your files?

JH: Oh yes, there are always Jamaica stories in my head, and snippets in my files. I even dream about Jamaica. The challenge is finding the right situation for Jamaica, the true-to-life problem or dilemma which will challenge her. Then I can ask, “What will Jamaica do?” and let her show me her response.

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