Sunday, March 7, 2010

Voices You Should Hear: Jan Godown Annino

Today I want to welcome Jan Godown Annino, who has written a fascinating picture book biography, illustrated by Lisa Desimini, about Seminole tribal leader Betty Mae Jumper.

Congratulations on the publication of your book, SHE SANG PROMISE: THE STORY OF BETTY MAE JUMPER. Can you tell us a bit about the story and what inspired it?

A pleasure Janet, & hello to Through the Wardrobe visitors!
Betty Mae Jumper is an amazing elder in the Seminole Tribe of Florida. Yet despite her memoir for adults, A SEMINOLE LEGEND, written with Patsy West, (2001 University Press of Florida) few people know of Mrs. Jumper's story. It includes: escaping attempts on her life as a child, the discrimination she faced as a mixed-race child; an unrelenting desire as a child to become fluent in English after she saw a comic book that a pal read, but she couldn't; her unwillingness to give in to adversity, such as her being willing to wrestle alligators when her World War II Veteran husband was sick & couldn't handle his tourist job; & her willingness to face down an elder who didn't want her delivering modern medicine to remote South Florida camps. There's more, but that's a synopsis.

What an interesting person. How did you meet your book subject?

I met Mrs. Jumper nearly 28 years ago when I complimented her on her newspaper. I recognized her only because of a newspaper clipping my Mother had saved for me, when Mrs. Jumper was elected her Tribe's first chairman, in 1967. We met at a festival where she sat at a table of beautiful craft work. But she also had a pile of the newspapers she edited, at one end of that table. That's what we mainly talked about that day. We stayed in touch.

I was enjoying my work, writing on nature topics. During travel for an ecotourism guide my car broke down in the parking lot of the Seminole Tribe of Florida. Through serendipity, that evening I ended up traveling with women, including Mrs. Jumper, to a storytelling presentation at the Sanford Ziff L. Jewish Museum in Miami Beach. Betty Mae Tiger Jumper presented the story of Seminole elder Annie Jumper Tommie. As she presented the life of this Elder, I thought, "Who is going to present Betty Mae Jumper's life?" Later on, things fell into place & she authorized me to bring her story to children.

How long have you been writing for children? Have you written other books for children or is this your first effort?

My second. The first is FLORIDA's FAMOUS ANIMALS from The Globe Pequot Press, in 2008. It's a peek behind the headlines at stories of real animals that became famous in Florida. I'm especially proud of the chapter about a Florida panther, who became known as Big Guy.

I saved some books from childhood & began buying others that I remembered enjoying. I've long loved illustrated children's books, including the nonfiction ones I had as a child, such as an autographed copy by Gladys Emerson Cook of The Big Book of Cats & The Golden Encyclopedia by Dorothy A. Bennett which is a large-format colorful book with pictures I pored over. Taking that love and turning it into writing for children didn't happen until 1991 when our child was born. I began writing for our regional family publication. Serendipity again, as my editor then, Suzanne Schaeffer, is a gifted storyteller, The Story Hat Lady. At the same time, I created a memoir- writing workshop at a local college & one of our most prolific members was a fascinating retired librarian, Mary Fears, who just insisted, I have to emphasize that, that I had to come to a storytelling meeting. That was a catalyst. It brought me to a strong interest in writing for children. From there, I found out about SCBWI. I went to SCBWI events in West Palm Beach, Orlando & eventually in Los Angeles. I was hooked.

Can you describe your path to publication of SHE SANG PROMISE: THE STORY OF BETTY MAE JUMPER?

At a creative nonfiction workshop at the Atlantic Center for the Arts, we were each asked by group leader Michael Dirda, who is now a retired book editor of The Washington Post, what our writing projects were. I was working toward a collection of nature essays, but I told him I wanted to write Mrs. Jumper's biography for children. He said I should contact an editor at the National Geographic. I did. By postal mail. Didn't hear anything back. After some time I screwed up my courage to call. I discovered the editor I wrote to had moved on (I had violated that rule about always verify editor names & info before contacting them!) but the new editor, Nancy Feresten, had kept the material I had sent in. That began the process of my writing in picture book form - an area of writing new to me. I brought it to my critique group over & over & over. I tried to put everything in - there is so much depth to Mrs. Jumper's family & her own story. Finally I accepted that everything couldn't be in there.

It's an honor to have Mrs. Jumper's son write a letter to children in the book as an afterword. It was important to me & our publication team that the book also be vetted by staff at Ah-Tah-Thi-ki, the Seminole Tribe of Florida museum.

The colorful part of the publication process - sorry for this long answer Janet - involves the only part of it that ever makes a story a picture book. And that's the skill & passion of the artist. Lisa Desimini, who has won awards for her books, created oil paintings that make me shiver when I see Mrs. Jumper sitting around the campfire on a cold night. Lisa's work is stunning. I am grateful over and over to David M. Seager, of National Geographic, for bringing us together. I think Lisa's work deserves to be in a museum gallery. I think children especially, will enjoy the scene where young Betty Mae is looking at a comic book for the first time. It's what galvanizes her to learn to read English. And this is at about age 13.

Wow! And she went on to become a newspaper editor! Do you have advice for beginning writers?

Not only a newspaper editor- but a crusading one. Her paper won awards & helped bring world attention to the massacre in Florida known as Rosewood.

For beginning writers, join a community, online or in person. Places to begin include JacketFlap or SCBWI. You don't need publishing credits to begin with either of these fine support systems. Then take a big step & start an in-person critique group if there isn't one in your area. SCBWI has guidelines on how to conduct one.

Take classes. Many community centers or adult enrichment programs offer them. The Institute of Children's Literature in Connecticut has helped beginning writers for a long time. One of my critique partners subscribes to their newsletter & it is jammed with editor contacts & how-to tips, every issue. I know a faculty member who enjoyed her experience with ICL & also a student who is glad she signed up, but there are other excellent places such as the Highlights long-weekend workshops. I know a talented writer, Verna Safran, who was in my critique group before she moved away, who studied at the summer Chatauqua program of Highlights & she found it inspiring. My critique group hopes to get there some day.

There are fabulous sounding cozy settings all over - in Canada, in the Pacific Northwest. Save $2 every day & your frequent flier miles & get to some place special for an intensive day or a few days that cherishes the process of writing for young readers.

Can you tell us something about your life - inspirations, plans, goals, etc.?

I was fortunate to grow up hearing stories from both of my parents. They each loved reading history. My father was born on a tenant farm in 1903 and left school after the 8th grade to do the work of a man on the farm. My mother was born to an Irish/Danish family - she was the 6th child, the last one, & the first one to be born in a hospital. And she was a suburban NYC newspaper reporter in the 1940s. Their stories were peppered with references to the Ice Man, oxen, life without indoor plumbing, having the first radio in the neighborhood, the Rockettes, Abbot & Costello, Rockefeller Center under construction, Princess Julianna of The Netherlands - quite a colorful mix. My father built a marionnette stage, my mother ordered those stringed puppets - which I still have - & we put on plays.

My husband is a dedicated public servant, as a law clinic instructor at Florida State University, whose students advocate for children. Our girl is the best teen in the universe. Our cat is orange, our reptile is a red rat snake who I like from a distance but can't bring myself to pick up & our fish are the longest lived aquarium-dwellers ever to inhabit the same house with a cat.

In middle age I went back to college. When I walked into Han Nolan's class that first day, it was my first course in creative writing ever. I've been able to learn about writing for children and the history of children's literature in a thoughtful way from caring faculty. I hope to nail that thesis by 2011.

When I was younger I hiked two mountains - Katahdin in Maine & LeConte on the Tenn/NC border & I would like to return to taking long walks, but I'm not sure I'm so interested in scaling mountains. Perhaps I'll do something like Shirley McClaine's Spanish walking trek or talk my husband into walking from castle to castle in England, while a van takes our gear on to the next castle.

Do you have any new writing ventures underway?

I'd like to make sure that several I've written are brought into the world as well as National Geographic has done with SHE SANG PROMISE. I've written a picture storybook involving a Ford Tin Lizzie inspired by an incident in my father's life. And I've created two picture book fantasies one set in a market & the other in a rooftop garden. I'm revising my historical fiction chapter book set in the 1960s and Ive just completed a chapbook of poetry - all for children. Right now I'm having fun in verse with a character that came out of a bird I watched on one of my daily walks.

These are the ones that I think have a chance of being published down the road. I've also written a few baskets full of items still ah, marinating. Plus, there will always be my embarrassing very first fiction story for children written the same year our daughter was born - about a little wood button that ah, lived in a button box.

In research, I'm looking into a few topics that no one else has shared with young readers. I like bringing little-known people or subjects to attention. But I also have two incomplete picture books about well-known figures, but from angles that haven't been told.

Do you have a website where readers can learn more about SHE SANG PROMISE: The Story of Betty Mae Jumper?

My website, which has my contact info at the Hullo page (I tend to spell words oddly when I can get away with it & to substitute the ampersand for and...) a photo-heavy occasional blog, & pages relating to my books, tips, etc. It's

Thanks for coming, Jan!


Anonymous said...

Great post, Janet and Jan--thanks for sharing! This sounds like a fantastic book. I love it when I see picture-book biographies on lesser-known personalities with unique and important stories--three cheers for National Geographic for taking this one on. I can't wait to check it out! =)

Janet Fox said...

Thanks for commenting, Laurie! This is really a beautiful book about a fascinating person.

Beverley BevenFlorez said...

I wanted to let you know that I gave you the "One Lovely Blog Award" today. :)

Janet Fox said...

Beverley - You have made my day!!

Thank you so much! :) (very big smiles)