Each author has a different introduction to literature and writing. Their stories often begin with writing as a child and loving it. Not so for Jean Reagan.
As a child, Jean struggled to learn how to read and write. She did, however, love being read to. When she became a parent, she read stacks and stacks of books to her own children.
“This fun of shared reading is probably why I gravitated towards writing picture books, the ‘lap reading’ genre,” Jean told Cracking the Cover.
Writing for young readers was the natural choice for Jean. “As a child, I was a bit of a worrier (still am, in fact!), so I empathize with that part of childhood,” she explained. “But I also love the fresh, unexpected and often-hilarious perspective kids have on the world. I love combining these aspects in my stories.”
Jean’s stories are developed from her own childhood, watching her children as young kids and hearing stories from friends. “In other words, I ‘steal’ from anywhere,” Jean quipped. “Sometimes an emotional truth (like being scared or embarrassed) triggers a story. Sometimes an incident triggers a story.”
In the case of “Always My Brother,” the story emerged from a tragedy that struck Jean’s family — the death of her son. “This story, told from the perspective of the surviving younger sister, is about moving forward after the loss of a sibling,” Jean said. “The storyline does not exactly mirror our family’s, yet it does tap into the emotions and experiences of our loss.”
“How to Babysit a Grandpa” has a much lighter tone. “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.”
It took almost five years of work before “How to Babysit a Grandpa” was published — about three from initial concept to selling the manuscript and another two before hitting bookstores. Not that Jean minded in the long run of things. She couldn’t be happier with the end product.
“I was absolutely blown away by the magic Lee Wildish, the illustrator, brought to the manuscript,” she said. “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.”
With any job or project, there are ups and downs during any number of stages. It’s no different for writing a picture book, Jean says.
“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.”
All those elements sound impossible, but Jean has a secret weapon — talented writing buddies who step in as critique partners. “Truth be told, they should all be listed as co-authors on my book covers!”
All that work has major payoffs, too. When Jean writes, she gets to remember all kinds of funny or poignant incidents from her past. And after publication, the joy comes in seeing how a book resonates with readers; sometimes in completely unexpected ways.
“Recently at a book signing for ‘How to Babysit a Grandpa,’ a newly expectant couple asked me to sign a copy as a pregnancy announcement to their parents,” Jean shared. “I wrote, ‘Congratulations on becoming grandparents!!’ How cool is that?“
Jean hopes people recognize parts of themselves in her stories and are able to share a laugh or a hug with someone they love. She’d like to think that will happen with what she’s working on now, a companion book to “How to Babysit a Grandpa” — a grandma book.
*Jean Reagan will read from and sign “How to Babysit a Grandpa” at The King’s English Bookshop, 1511 S. 1500 East, in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 3, at 11 a.m.
**Read the complete transcript of Jean’s interview with Cracking the Cover.
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