Featuring author Jenn Reese
Interviewed by John Repplinger
December 1st, 2023
Jenn Reese (they/she) writes speculative fiction for readers of all ages. Jenn is the author of the middle grade novel Every Bird a Prince, A Game of Fox & Squirrels, and the Above World trilogy. Puzzleheart, their next, will be out in 2024. They also write short stories for teens and adults. Jenn lives in Portland, Oregon where they make art, play video games, and talk to the birds.
Icebreaker: If you could choose to be an animal, what would you choose to be and why?
Your icebreaker is one of the hardest questions possible! Ever since I was young, “shape-changing into animals” has been my most wished for superpower. However, since you’re making me choose and birds feature in almost all my work, I’ll pick a songbird. Perhaps a jaunty little nuthatch that darts with total confidence through the trees and often pauses to sing. I’m envious of their freedom and vocal talents, as well as the unwavering sense of purpose they display with each and every movement.
The writing process varies a lot between authors. Can you explain what the average writing time is like for you? Do you have any unique writing customs such as a must-have favorite beverage on hand or time of the day to write?
First, I’ll have to instantly dispel the idea that I have an “average writing time.” When I was starting out, people said “Real writers write every day,” and that faulty adage hurt me far more than it helped. Some days I want to luxuriate in new words early in the morning, or late at night. Some days I fall into the trap of revising what I’ve already written over and over. Some days I have to do freelance work to pay the bills, or deal with life stuff, or I simply want to finish a book I’ve been reading and then tell everyone about it. I also practice other art forms, such as drawing and linocut and ceramics, and I try not to minimize how much all forms of creativity are connected when I spend a three-day burst doing nothing but hunching over my sketchbook.
So no, sorry, no consistency at all, I’m afraid. Having been recently diagnosed with ADHD, I can see how I arrived at this place. My task now is to not feel guilty if I wake up and want to sketch instead of write, or if I decide I have to rearrange all my art supplies. I tell myself I’m fighting capitalism and the idea that our worth is tied to our productivity, which helps a little.
Most people are unaware that you are also an accomplished graphic designer with your own company that specializes in book cover design. Do you ever sketch concepts or schemes from your writing? And do your illustrations ever influence your stories?
What I love about graphic design is how we can draw the eye across an image, how simplicity can imply complexity, how we can tap into common emotions and ideas with color and font choice and composition. I think distilling complex ideas into something understandable by more people is one of the through lines of my life as a creator.
As an illustrator, I have tremendous imposter syndrome. As recently as last year, I would never show someone a piece of art without tacking on “I’m only an amateur artist” or “I’m just learning” or “I know it’s not any good.” When I started writing, I had the hubris of not knowing how bad I was. (I got better.) As an artist, I’ve leaped straight into the self-doubt portion of the journey. But I’m working on this. One of my goals for 2023 was to pursue art (not just graphic design) more intentionally. And, amazingly, I was asked to illustrate one of my stories for an anthology, and my book editor at Henry Holt asked me to draw the interior illustrations for my middle grade novel, Puzzleheart.
In short, I’m extremely excited to start integrating my art and writing more. I feel like there are whole new pathways opening up in my brain when I think in both words and pictures.
Many of your characters are animals that talk such as Ashander from A Game of Fox & Squirrels. Do you have any specific authors that you turn to for drawing inspiration about animal characters? And what do you do when you hit a scene where you’re not sure how an animal character might react/behave/interact with other characters?
T.H. White’s The Once and Future King was certainly one of my early influences — young Wart changes into different animals and learns from them, and that’s the dream, right? That book reinforces the idea that humans and animals are inseparable, and I’ve been writing them both ever since.
Even so, I was nervous to write a book with talking animals, as many readers hate them, especially adults. And then I read the most brilliant essay by the legend herself, Ursula K. Le Guin. “Cheek by Jowl: Animals in Children’s Literature” has so many brilliant insights that I urge everyone to read it for themself. Here is one of them:
“Children have to be persuaded, convinced, that animals don’t talk.
They have to be informed that there is an impassable gulf between
Man and Beast, and taught not to look across it. But so long as they
disobey orders and go on looking, they know better.”
I love that so much! And in terms of writing, my one trick is this: do not allow your human characters to be astonished that animals can talk for very long. When they accept this reality, the reader will too. Because we have always lived and communicated with animals, and giving them actual words requires only the smallest of leaps.
Do you base any of your characters on people you know?
I think almost all writers are collectors. Our brains house scraps of dialogue and interesting character traits and Polaroids of fun locations paper clipped to index cards and shoved into a massive card catalog, willy-nilly. All my characters have something of me in them, whether I want them to or not, but none of them are entirely me. Even in A Game of Fox & Squirrels, which is my most personal work to date, the characters only have pieces inspired by real people. The fun is creating something fresh from little bits of truth.
What is the most challenging aspect of writing middle-grade and young adult books?
I don’t find writing for middle-grade and young adult audiences to be any different than writing for adults, except that I feel a deeper responsibility to make sure my metaphors and messaging is intentional. Adults are more practiced at reading something and disregarding it if they disagree with its premise or worldview. Many adults love anti-heroes who are ruthless serial killers, for example, without ever feeling like those sorts of people or those activities are condoned. Kids are still working on building their critical reading muscles, and writers have to be more careful with how they approach their material.
Your Above World series portrays vivid scenes of a futuristic sci-fi life where humans have adapted physically to a post apocalyptic world. How do you select your locations and scenes? How do you develop your rich sci-fi and fantasy worlds?
I grew up inhaling mountains of fantasy and science fiction novels, and playing Dungeons & Dragons, and I can’t really remember a time when I wasn’t creating worlds and characters and asking “what if?” I’m a very visual writer in that I picture every scene in my mind as I’m writing it. I have to know what it looks like, and building those “sets” is a huge part of the fun for me. The Above World books took years to write, and I felt as if I were living in that world, with its wild deserts and oceans and mountaintops. I’ve been writing contemporary fantasies lately, and I have to admit, it’s a lot easier to describe a chicken coop than an underwater city.
Your stories touch on heavy themes such as domestic violence, self-doubt, and identity which can be much more challenging to write than adult books. Why did you choose to write a children’s book on these topics?
For some books, I am writing the stories I wish I’d found when I was young. I had no idea that growing up in an abusive household was something other people were experiencing too. I had no idea that this idea of “don’t talk, don’t tell anyone” was how abusers controlled their victims. Even more fundamentally, I didn’t understand the concept of unconditional love. I’m sorry to say that there will always be kids out there in that same boat, and I wanted to throw them a life preserver.
For Every Bird a Prince, I wanted to speak openly about aromanticism and asexuality, because romance and sex are considered universal desires and goals in our society, and this is simply not the truth. Giving readers words for their experiences is giving them choices and power, and kids need those things more than anyone.
What do you hope readers will take away from your books? If you could talk directly to your readers, what would you say?
I hope my readers are entertained, first and foremost. I hope they laugh at least once. I hope they get a sense of warmth and belonging, and they realize that a wonderful family can be made or found. I hope they feel seen.
I keep thinking about what I would say to them directly, and this is hard! Kids are all so different. There are some who will read my books and see themselves, and some who might recognize their friends or family members. There are many kids who will get nothing from my books, and that’s okay, too. Maybe I’d say, “Hey, thanks for reading my book!”
Do you have any new books or projects that you’re working on that you’d like to mention?
I sure do! Puzzleheart (learn more on Goodreads) is the story of a nonbinary, science-obsessed kid who goes head-to-head (head-to-ceiling?) with a sentient “puzzle house” during a strange spring snowstorm. It’ll be out on May 14th, 2024, from Henry Holt.
Thank you so much for these wonderful questions!