Friday, November 3, 2017

Writer Spotlight: Jenny Desmond Walters

Jenny Desmond Walters just recently moved to Michigan and joined our SCBWI chapter. She's got quite a story about how she got here. It's a long and winding journey, but I think you'll find it worthwhile:

Your parents were both professional educators. Was there anything in your childhood and developing years that inspired you to write?

My parents definitely had a profound impact on my writing and creative life. In addition to being incredibly supportive people, they each actively pursued their own creative endeavors. My father kept notebooks of inventions he hoped to create, and he published solutions to mathematics problems which had been previously unsolved. My mother wrote poems and songs for children and created educational games and teaching materials before there was Pinterest for teachers. 
I always had access, in our home, to all kinds of art materials, writing supplies, and recycled materials which, I believe, laid a foundation for creativity and imagination in my life. Having access to these kinds of creative resources as a child was powerful. 
In fourth grade, at my elementary school, I wrote and illustrated my first picture book for a school assignment. That was an pivotal experience for me. When I had completed this seemingly impossible task, had created these words on a page, this story with plot and characters, these illustrations to accompany my text, and when I had then read this story to other children, I felt something amazing that has stayed with me to this day. 
I felt the power of sharing a story that was inside my heart and mind and seeing other people receive joy from it. I think it was from that point on that I wrote poems, short stories and picture books simply for my own enjoyment.

You excelled in school (graduating Summa Cum Laude) in education. What was your plan, your ultimate career path?

I think, initially, I was reluctant to pursue education. My mother was a classroom teacher before she became an administrator, and I spent so much time in her classrooms over the years. I never saw myself becoming an educator, but I think all the time I spent with her had a lasting impact on my career choices. 
I still remember several of her young students who I had the opportunity to meet on various occasions. When I was about nine years old, I helped tutor one of her six-year-old students named Charlton. He absolutely stole my heart, and it was probably one of those moments that shaped my destiny even though I could never have known it at the time. I loved being involved with her teaching and her creative content making. 
So, when it came time to choose a career path, it seemed that education was where I excelled. Of course, if that didn’t pan out, I had big plans to be a magazine editor at some big magazine in New York City. As it turned out, my pursuit of education led me to some exciting jobs outside of the classroom but still kept me involved in education.

You worked for PBS and a publisher in some of your earliest jobs. Were you even then chasing storytelling? 

Absolutely! I wrote a draft of my first serious picture book while I was in college. It’s still one of my favorite stories, even though it’s not something that could probably be sold to a publisher. Still, that first stab at writing, and the development of this fantastical story was exhilarating. When I was at the Public TV station I was able to use many creative skills developing on-air content for children, appearing on-air for our Parenting Tips segment, or hosting videoconferences for the Sesame Street Preschool Education Project. Barney and The Magic School Bus were big at that time, so I did workshops for teachers on utilizing shows like these in the classroom. It was probably one of my favorite jobs. 
When we moved to Nashville, I left WSRE TV and began working for Steck-Vaughn Publishers which, at that time, was a division of Harcourt Brace. For Steck-Vaughn I was working with schools across Tennessee and helping teachers and administrators effectively use literature in the classroom. This was a great opportunity for me to see what teachers needed in the way of content and curriculum support for students. 
Those were always great days. Lots of book promotion work took place there in cubicles decorated with the best book swag ever.

You joined Tennessee’s SCBWI in 2001. How did you find it, or it find you?

When I was in Nashville, struggling to figure out how to write a picture book, I felt lost. I’m not sure exactly how I found SCBWI, but I do remember the first meeting I attended. Tracy Barrett, the current SCBWI Regional Advisor Coordinator, was the Regional Advisor of the Nashville chapter at the time, and she was amazing. I felt completely out of place and completely where I needed to be, all at the same time. From then on, every time we moved, SCBWI was my very first connection to be made in every new location.

How did you and your husband meet?

When I was 18, I met the love of my life at a Christmas event near my hometown of Pensacola. Along with my father, my husband is one of the best men I’ve ever known. I’ve been so fortunate to have such compassionate, intelligent, creative men in my life who value women as partners and equals. I think ours is definitely a story of true love, soul mates, and destiny. We’ve been married for 27 years.

Your husband’s job took you and your three daughters across the globe to Tokyo. Was this a welcome life adventure, or did it require a leap into the unknown?

Wow! That’s a great question. I guess it was both a welcome adventure and a leap into the unknown. A few months before the Japan opportunity came up, my mother passed away, and we discovered we would soon be welcoming our third daughter into the world. I think my husband and I were both feeling that life is a gift, and it is also too short. We felt that we needed to live it now while we could. So, we were up for an adventure. However, I recall that I entertained a doubt or two during the 16-hour flight while I was six months pregnant.

You spent 4 years in Japan. What was that like, moving from small town America to a bustling city of new language and culture?

It was so foreign, in every way, from what we had previously experienced, that not a single day passed where we didn’t marvel at some new wonder. The sounds of the crows, the shapes of the trees, the way the sky looked, the architecture, the bullet trains, the tiny cars and narrow roads, the richness of the culture and the openness of people to share their traditions with foreigners – there we so many delights and curiosities that it was like being awakened for the first time. 
I distinctly remember the moment when I realized that there is no such thing as “one right way” to do something. Things I had once thought could only exist in one form or another – things I had never dreamed could be any different than they were and than I knew them to be – suddenly were turned inside out. Everything could be thought of in new and different ways. That was a transformational awakening.

You joined SCBWI-Tokyo, and became an Assistant Regional Advisor (RA). Describe SCBWI in Japan.

SCBWI Japan is a wonderful, vibrant chapter. They hold frequent events throughout the year which support the varied needs and goals of members abroad. One of the best things about our international chapters is the opportunity for expat members and local national members to collaborate. 
We have American members living overseas for a variety of reasons, and we have bi-lingual, international members who are creating work for children in their native language and culture who also see the value of SCBWI as it supports the creation of quality children’s literature. SCBWI Japan also has a very active translation group where members discuss the ins and out of translating and support one another in this field. 
These connections are crucial as our industry strives to seek out diverse voices and cross-cultural perspectives to offer our young global citizen readers. I hope that we SCBWI members who are stateside can find ways to reach out to our sister chapters around the world to support them as they work to raise up members who can write the cross-cultural stories our children need to hear.

After 4 years, you were uprooted to Seoul, South Korea. Many Americans would assume it was a simple transition, from one big Asian city to another. What differences did you notice between Japan and South Korea?

Seoul was dramatically different from Tokyo. It’s hard to articulate without writing an entire book, but it was my impression that, in many ways, Korea was like its food –spicy and colorful. From the red chili peppers and kimchi to the bright, rainbow-colored Hanbok, the traditional dress in Korea, Seoul was strikingly different from Japan. 
It was another experience in mind-broadening as we navigated the culture and came to understand Korean life in amazing new ways. The language, history, and traditions of the country are rich and wonderful. Scholars held the places of highest respect in their society through the ages. Even today, education and scholarship are respected and pursued. As an educator, I find this very gratifying.

According to your Korean radio interview, there was no SCBWI chapter in the country when you arrived, so you founded one. How does one create a writing group in a new place where you’re struggling to understand the language and customs?
                                                   To listen to the interview, click here.

Ha! That’s certainly a big hurdle! It was an adventure, for sure. But, as I mentioned, SCBWI had become the rock that supported me no matter where I moved, so when I found that there was no chapter in Korea, I spoke with Holly Thompson, SCBWI Japan’s RA, and Kathleen Ahrens, International Regional Advisor Coordinator in Hong Kong, about the idea of starting one and having our chapters collaborate in the Pacific region. 
They had both hoped to move in this direction for some time, so they were supportive about the plan to start up a new chapter. We had tons of ideas about sharing expenses for bringing in speakers and mentors from the US. It was also advantageous to have an SCBWI presence in Korea because they have an incredibly rich children’s literature market, and their English language book divisions are continually seeking content from writers. 
South Korea hosts major book fairs and festivals each year, and they even have an entire city dedicated to the book industry -- from artist lofts, to print houses, to distribution warehouses – it all takes place in Paju Book City which I wrote about for the SCBWI Bulletin in 2009.
Finding members was not as difficult as you might think. While our membership numbers were small, we had a wonderful core group of expat writers. Some were in Seoul as military spouses, others were teachers working at one of the many international schools in the city. 
One of our original core members was Christina Farley who now lives in Florida and has just published her fourth novel, The Princess and the Page with Scholastic. Her debut novel, Guilded, is first in a trilogy set in Korea and is a story that she shared with our critique group in SCBWI Korea when she was first drafting it. We had an incredible group, and I remain in contact with almost all of our members. 
One of the best things to come out of SCBWI Korea was the SCBWI Korea Author-International School Network which I created to help connect US authors with English-language international schools across the Korean peninsula. 

You created a thriving SCBWI community in South Korea, but you had to relocate to Germany after 2 years. That must have been bittersweet.

Moving to Germany was very unexpected. We had no plans to make that change, but the opportunity came up. After we weighed all the options, it seemed like we just couldn’t say no. It was only 30 days from the time we were first presented with the idea until we had our feet on the ground in Stuttgart. 
It was incredibly rough, and my oldest daughter, who was in high school at the time, was quite unsettled. In the end though, she told us that moving to Germany was the best thing that ever happened to her. In fact, she is there right now as she tours with a group called The Young Americans. Amazingly enough, the Young Americans have a huge Michigan connection. They perform a dinner theater every summer in Boyne and do music workshops all over the state. All three of my daughters have taken part in Young American workshops in Japan and Germany, so to be here now in Michigan feels very providential.
Another fantastic aspect of being in Germany was getting to connect with SCBWI Germany/Austria and our neighbor, SCBWI Switzerland. The European chapters are vibrant, and they host fabulous events. One of our novel writing retreats took place on a car-less island in Bavaria at a Benedictine convent dating back to the year 782. Our membership was very diverse with incredible talent, and the chapters shared a dynamic connection.

You’ve got numerous picture books with Tun-Tun Books. Who are they, and how did you get started working with them?

I met Tun-Tun Books at the Seoul International Book Fair in Korea. They are an educational publisher specializing in English-language children’s books for Korean speakers. They have an immense book list, and I learned a lot working with them. I published twelve books with them, and it was incredibly insightful to work through their editing process to create books to teach English to non-native speakers. I could do a whole workshop on that topic alone.

You moved from Texas to Troy, MI over the summer. Are you ready for winter?

Absolutely not! I donated all of our snow pants, sleds, and winter gear when we left Germany because I knew we would never use it in Texas. I have never experienced a Michigan winter, so I hope I can make it. My whole family loves the changing of the seasons, and I’ve probably taken 100 photos of leaves this fall, so I think that I will be able to withstand the cold if it means I will have the joy of exquisitely colorful leaves in fall and fresh, new blooms in spring. Living and appreciating life by the marking of the seasons is a practice I learned while living in Japan. I’m feeling very grateful to be here in Michigan, winter and all, because many of the nicest people I know are from here.

14. What’s next for you?
Next on my list is finding a publisher for my recently completed picture book, 100th Day Troubles. It’s about a sequence of things that go absolutely wacky in a classroom on the one hundredth day of school. After several years of working on and thinking about this book, it finally came together last year. I am absolutely in love with this story, and I am hoping and praying I can find someone who feels the same about it as I do. 
While I wait for responses to my first round of submissions, I have two new books that have been swirling around in my head. I’ve started my first drafts of both, and I’m getting that excited feeling again, where I feel like I might have hit on something really special. All of this positive creative energy makes me think that I must definitely be right where I am supposed to be.

Charlie Barshaw appreciates the photo artistry of Nancy Shaw, a splendid Ann Arbor children's author (and pretty good with the lens, too.) Charlie  is working on revising his YA novel while resurrecting his first MG novel. He loves his life in SCBWI.


  1. Jenny, I learned so much about your rich and wonderful life! Thank you for sharing here and for being part of our MI community. We are so glad to have you. Thanks also to Charlie for the interview.

  2. Fabulous interview! Thank you for sharing your amazing story, Jenny! And thank you for the valuable and insightful questions, Charlie! It’s so good to have the broadened perspective you offer, Jenny; so important!

  3. Great to learn more about you, Jenny! Thanks for doing the interview, Charlie.

  4. Welcome to Michigan, Jenny! Enjoyed the interview immensely. Such a wealth of fascinating experiences and opportunities, all of which you've taken full of advantage of. Best of luck with your newest PB. And thank you, Charlie, for posting this.

  5. Jenny, your story is fascinating, thanks so much for sharing. I love your descriptions of being somewhere foreign and realizing the "no one right way" - that sounds like a book in itself!?! Welcome to Michigan!

  6. Thank you so very much for the wonderfully sweet comments and also for welcoming me so warmly to this vibrant chapter filled with such talented people. I was surprised and honored by Charlie's request for an interview and blown away by his amazing compilation of thoughtful questions. It was a very nostalgic experience thinking back to many of these cherished memories. I'm grateful for the opportunity. Thank you, SCBWI-MI, and especially, Charlie!

  7. Great interview, Jenny.

    We miss you here in Germany.

    1. I feel the same way. Every time I see your posts from the Stuttgart stadtbibliothek, I miss you all like crazy. But I am so much better as a writer because of my time spent with you, Catherine and the rest of the SCBWI Euro contingent. Looking forward to the day when we will sit side by side again.

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