A solitary pursuit, together

By Christine Yeres
December 14, 2007

Jean Van Leeuwen had worked as an editor of children’s books at Random House, Viking and Dial, in addition to publishing three books of her own, when she moved to New Castle with her husband, Bruce Gavril, and their two small children in 1977. Not long after, Amanda and Oliver Pig (her easy-to-read series based on her own children) were born.

Jean Van Leeuwen with Jennifer Thermes and Julie Fortenberry
For many years there had been a writers’ workshop in New Castle, led by authors and editors of children’s books. After it passed from Phyllis Krasilovsky to Ann Tobias, who ran it for five or six years, the baton went to Van Leeuwen in 1979. “One aspect that has changed is that when Ann Tobias was running it,” says Van Leeuwen, “you were eased out after being published, pushed from the nest, so to speak. But I found that even after being published people want the moral support and the discussion. Ann’s idea was that you’d work with your editor once you were published. And, in fact, in those days, editors did have the time to spend cultivating authors. But the publishing business – along with everything else – has undergone a lot of stress and competition at all levels.”

Writers’ workshop meets at the dining room table

The writers’ workshop became – and has remained—a group of three to eight people that meets once a month at the dining room table in Van Leeuwen’s Lawrence Farms home. “Before the internet,” she recalled, “everyone would put their stories into a folder we kept at the library. We would go there to read the pieces, then meet to work with one another once a month, on a Wednesday morning.” Now, of course, their advance look at one another’s work takes place through email.

On a Wednesday morning in late November, two of Van Leeuwen’s fellow writers—Jennifer Thermes of Newtown, CT, and Julie Fortenberry, a resident of New Castle—were at work with her. They had hoped to see a third member of the workshop that morning, Jody Sitts, “—all ‘J’ names!” observed Jean. “But,” Jean announced, “Jody won’t be able to make it, because she’s on . . . ” the three women shot glances at one another and chirped, “Another ’J’ – ‘jury duty’!”

Van Leeuwen has written easy-to-read books; picture books for young children; humorous fantasy such as “The Great Cheese Conspiracy” and its sequels, about a gang of mice living in New York City; contemporary fiction for upper elementary children, like “Dear Mom, You’re Ruining My Life;” and historical fiction. Van Leeuwen admitted, “The historical ones involve a lot of research. I’m fascinated by stories of the American Revolution and of pioneer settlers and travelers on the Oregon Trail.”

Thermes had published one picture book when she met Van Leeuwen. “But I’m an illustrator also, so I was coming at it more from an illustrator’s viewpoint. My second book came out of the workshop. “Sam Bennett’s New Shoes” was born here,” said Thermes. All three women beamed like proud parents. Thermes both wrote and illustrated the story about a colonial farm boy whose shoes go from too big to too small, then on his younger brothers, and end up in a hidden place inside the wall of his house as a good-luck charm.

“I have three manuscripts out there now, submitted to publishers,” Thermes explained. “It’s tough to get them accepted. But I tell people, ‘If you’re serious about doing it you should join a writers’ workshop for feedback, moral support and constructive criticism. You don’t feel so isolated and as though you’re the only one banging your head against the wall.’”

Brainstorming instead of head banging

“Yes, and rather than bang our heads against the wall, we brainstorm,”  Van Leeuwen noted. “We might discuss a manuscript, pointing out what isn’t clear, what we think is great and what doesn’t work so well. We also talk about strategies to catch publishers’ attention. One that I stress is doing research on the various publishers to see what kind of books they seem to like. And if you get a rejection letter, but it contains useful or encouraging comments, you should definitely submit new manuscripts to that editor.”

Fortenberry considers herself an illustrator, too. She has a fine arts degree from Hunter College, and has exhibited as an abstract painter in galleries and museums. She still paints, and also does book illustration work . However, she wanted to try more writing. “I’m working on the illustrations for a book due for publication in about a year and a half.” Fortenberry heard about the workshop three and a half years ago from Martha Derman, a children’s book author and long-time resident of New Castle who had participated in all the workshops in succession, including Van Leeuwen’s, and recommended it to Fortenberry.

“I wanted feedback,” said Fortenberry. “Writers live with a story for so long and have an idea that the story says one thing, but by sharing it with others you can find out that it’s not at all what you intended. And if several people at the table say the same thing, you know you’re off the mark. Our group is good too with illustrations, seeing that a picture might not work with a particular text. Just as with the writing, you can be too close to the illustrations and believe they match up with the emphasis in your text or that they even advance the story, but a fresh eye might see it differently.”

Van Leeuwen added, ” Maybe something that is illustrated isn’t as important as something else that should have been illustrated. Then, too, you need to see how the book paces out. You’re probably working toward a double-page spread as the story builds to a climax, so you need to have that coordinate with the story line.”

“I joined four years ago, because I needed feedback to make myself better,” said Thermes. “Our husbands and children can only take so much of our talking shop, whereas we could do it endlessly.”

Jean Van Leeuven has written more than 50 books for children, including the Oliver and Amanda Pig easy-to-read series, as well as picture books, contemporary novels, and historical fiction. Her book “Amanda Pig and the Really Hot Day” was recently an honor book for the Theodor Seuss Geisel Award. To find out more about the workshop, contact her through her website, http://www.Jeanvanleeuwen.com.

Illustration by Julie Fortenberry 

Jennifer Thermes with “Sam Bennett’s New Shoes”


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