Q&A with ‘How to Babysit a Grandpa’ author Jean Reagan

Jean Reagan is the author of “How to Babysit a Grandpa.” The following is a complete transcript of her interview with Cracking the Cover.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?

As a child I struggled to learn how to read and write, so I am definitely NOT one of those writers who wrote their first book as a small child and always knew they wanted to be a writer. But I loved being read to. Then as a parent I read stacks and stacks of books to my children. This fun of shared reading is probably why I gravitated towards writing picture books, the “lap reading” genre.

Why do you write for young people?

As a child I was a bit of a worrier (still am, in fact!), so I empathize with that part of childhood. But I also love the fresh, unexpected and often hilarious perspective kids have on the world. I love combining these aspects in my stories.

Where do your ideas come from?

My ideas come from remembering my childhood, watching my children as young kids, and hearing stories from friends. In other words, I “steal” from anywhere. Sometimes an emotional truth (like being scared or embarrassed) triggers a story. Sometimes an incident triggers a story.
Sadly my first picture book, ALWAYS MY BROTHER, emerged from a tragedy that struck our family, the death of our son. This story, told from the perspective of the surviving younger sister, is about moving forward after the loss of a sibling. The storyline does not exactly mirror our family’s, yet it does tap into the emotions and experiences of our loss.

Where specifically did “How to Babysit a Grandpa” come from?

When I heard that a friend’s daughter was regularly babysat by the grandpa I thought, “Hmmm. Great story idea.” Eventually I flipped the story, reversed the role of the child and grandpa, and turned it into a “How To” book. Readers of all ages seem to enjoy being in on the joke.

What are the challenges of writing a picture book?

The challenge is that you have about 500 words to develop the characters, convey a story, add some humor, portray an emotional thread, and create an “ahhhhh” ending. The characters have to be unique, but universal; likeable, but believable; and cute, but not coy. The story has to be multi-layered with a twist and a hook so that parents are willing to read it over and over and over.

Sounds impossible, right? That’s where my talented writing buddies step in as critique partners. Truth be told, they should all be listed as co-authors on my book covers!

What were the highlights?

While I write, the highlight is remembering all kinds of funny or poignant incidents from my past.

After publication, the highlight is seeing the book resonate with the readers, sometimes in completely unexpected ways. Recently at a booksigning for HOW TO BABYSIT A GRANDPA , a newly expectant couple asked me to sign a copy as a pregnancy announcement to their parents. I wrote, “Congratulations on becoming grandparents!!” How cool is that?

How long did you work on “How to Babysit a Grandpa”?

From initial concept to selling the manuscript was about three years, and it was another two years before it was published. I worked on other manuscripts during this time as well.

Did the book turn out the way you thought it would?

I was absolutely blown away by the magic Lee Wildish, the illustrator, brought to the manuscript. He created delightful characters, expanded the story, and cranked up the humor. In my thank you note to him, I’m afraid I sounded like a gushing teenage fan.

Why do you think young people enjoy your books?

I hope they recognize parts of themselves in the stories and are able to share a laugh or a hug with someone they love. With ALWAYS MY BROTHER, I hope to help ease the pain of a grieving child.

Looking back, how has your work evolved?

When I first start writing for children, my tendency was to be a bit serious and didactic, even though I thought I was oh-so-subtle. This is a common pitfall for new writers, I think. Now my writing is more relaxed and playful.

What are you working on now?

I just started a companion book to HOW TO BABYSIT A GRANDPA. Yep, a grandma book!

What do you do when you’re not writing?

In the summer my husband and I serve as wilderness volunteer rangers in Grand Teton National Park. We live in a patrol cabin that has no running water or electricity and that is four miles in from a trailhead. We love canoeing and hiking as we watch for wildlife and chat with park visitors.

Is there a book from your childhood that still resonates with you today?

A little known book called SMILING HILL FARM unlocked the magic of reading for me. I am forever grateful to its author, Miriam Mason.