Meet the Author: Jody Jensen Shaffer

Wednesday, Mar 22, 2017
Tagged As: children's books
Jody Jensen Shaffer photo

It's not often you visit an author's website and find six forthcoming books featured, but such is currently the case with Liberty, Missouri's Jody Jensen Shaffer. To find out how she's managed to accomplish such a feat, read on . . .

You recently did a children’s program for Johnson County Library called “Write Something Delicious” that compared the writing and baking processes, springboarding from your book The Way the Cookie Crumbled, about the history, science, and math of cookies. Can you tell us a little about the creation of both the book and the program?

Sure! This book came to me a little differently than most. I saw previous books in Simon & Schuster’s “History of Fun Stuff” series at my local library, and I loved the voice, format, and subject matter of those titles. So I wrote a sample for Simon & Schuster, and they asked if I’d write about the history of cookies. I said yes and immediately began researching. I loved learning about the not-so-tasty beginnings of cookies and why we leave cookies for Santa, among other things. And that part about ground up deer horns instead of baking powder? That was interesting, too.

As to my program, “Write Something Delicious,” I wanted to compare the baking process to the process writers use when they write because they’re remarkably similar. And I could throw in a little science and math, and no one would be the wiser. It turns out Angel Tucker, Youth Services Manager at the Johnson County Library system, loved the idea. It was lots of fun to talk with the library’s patrons about writing and baking.

Who is Jody Jensen Shaffer?

I grew up in Tarkio, a small college town in northwest Missouri, the youngest of three kids. My parents were both educators. I fished in local ponds and rode my bike across town in the summer to swim at the pool. The best part was stopping at my church on the way home to get a cold drink from the water fountain. My family moved to and I graduated from high school in Cameron, Missouri. I received my undergraduate and graduate degrees in English from William Jewell College in Liberty and Truman State University in Kirksville, respectively. I worked in business and higher education in Kansas City for 12 years before deciding to stay home when my children were born.

Book cover

Who is Jody Jensen Shaffer, author? When did you decide to pursue that career, what steps did you take to get there, what detours and obstacles did you face, when did you feel like you’d “become” a writer, and the like?

I always loved to write, and with my English degrees, I had a background in writing for adults. But I’d never tried writing for children until I began reading children’s literature with my own kids. I was immediately hooked! But with little ones at home, I didn’t have time to learn the craft of writing for children until my youngest was in kindergarten in 2006. I began really studying how picture books were structured and the language they used. I learned all I could about the business of writing for children, too: who the publishers are, how you get an editor to read your manuscript. I joined the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), I attended conferences and workshops, and I joined a couple of picture book critique groups with writers who, like me, were learning the craft. I figure I spent at least four years getting my third “degree” called “Here’s How to Write a Picture Book.” Then I wrote and submitted, studied and revised, and wrote and submitted some more, until one day, I got a “Yes!” That’s when I thought I could actually do it.

Why poetry and books for children?

When I wrote for adults, I was working in adult settings, colleges and corporations. My writing and environments were all very serious and buttoned up. Then when my setting changed, I was surrounded by children and poetry and books for children. Definitely more my style. I could let the creative side of me out to play with words and ideas that appealed to kids.

The “About” page at your website mentions: “Her award-winning poems have appeared in magazines like Ladybug, Babybug, Highlights, High Five, Clubhouse Jr., and more.” Do you have a poem (or excerpt) you could share with us here?

I’d love to! “Scarecrow’s Restaurant” was published in the October 2015 issue of Highlights (reprinted with permission):

A scarecrow guards our garden plot.
His job: to scare the crows.
But I have seen him welcome them
When he thinks no one knows.

He drops his arms and says, “Come in!
Taste anything you want.”
I think I’ll change our Keep Out sign
To Scarecrow’s Restaurant.

Your website also includes a pretty extensive list of forthcoming books. What else have you written besides The Way the Cookie Crumbled? What else do you hope to write (or get published) in the future?

I’ve written 31 fiction and nonfiction books for children so far, 5 of which have yet to come out. I’ve written about everything from super-dangerous animals to Sitting Bull to how human lungs work. My next book, Prudence the Part-Time Cow, about a STEM-loving bovine trying to fit in with her herd, releases in June. National Geographic will publish my early reader, City and Country, in September, and Teacher Created Materials will release If at First You Don’t Succeed, about inventors who didn’t give up, later this year. A Chip Off the Old Block (Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin), about a rock who wants to be somebody, and It’s Your First Day of School, Busy Bus! (Beach Lane Books/Simon & Schuster), about a school bus’s first day of school, both come out in 2018. And there are more on the way!

Fun fact: local children’s author/illustrator, Daniel Miyares, (Float, Bring Me a Rock!, Pardon Me!), is illustrating A Chip Off the Old Block, and the initial sketches are fantastic! I’m so excited to work with Daniel.

What do you like most about being a writer?

I love coming up with an idea I think kids will like and then working to make that idea a reality. I love tinkering with words. Also, I really love wearing jeans and a sweatshirt to work.

What do you like least about being a writer?

Publishing runs on its own time, and by that I mean s-l-o-w-l-y. So I’ve had to get used to measuring things by months, not minutes.

What advice would you offer other writers about the writing process? About the publication process? How distinct are the two—writing and publishing—in your mind?

Writing and traditional publishing are two different things. (Self-publishing is a third kind of publishing.) Writing is the act of getting an idea down on paper and massaging it until it works. Publishing is the process of sending your work to a publishing house, having it vetted by an editor, and then allowing the publisher to print it for all to see. In the whole process, the only thing the writer controls is what he or she writes. Fortunately, learning how to write and striving to improve one’s writing are attainable goals for everyone.

What role have libraries played in your life (as both reader and a writer)?

Libraries have been huge influences in my life. From the bookmobiles of my childhood to the college libraries where I wrote papers and read Machiavelli to today’s public library down the street, libraries have been places of adventure, knowledge, and warmth for me. I visit my local library so often, I have my library card number memorized.

What’s your all-time favorite book?

That’s an impossible question for me to answer! So I’ll cheat and say I’m a huge fan of almost anything Cynthia Rylant writes—from Henry and Mudge to Missing May to The Old Woman Who Named Things. I also adore The Day the Babies Crawled Away by Peggy Rathmann, and Roald Dahl, and William Steig, and all the Frog and Toad books by Arnold Lobel, and . . .

If you had to be trapped in a TV show for a month, which show would you choose?

Lately, I’ve been hooked on Timeless. I love the concept, and I learn about history, too. I also like The Voice. Call me eclectic!