Maryland Author Turns to Family for Inspiration
By Raechal Leone
Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2007
FALLSTON, Md. - Pick up any of the children’s books Marylander Jennifer L. Holm has written -- including two Newbery honor books of historical fiction and graphic novels about a mouse who loves cupcakes -- and you’ll see a trend.
At its heart, each book is about a kid, usually a spunky young girl, and how she relates to her family.
Then again, how could the theme of Holm’s work be anything but family?
The writer splits her days between working on books either inspired by her family or written with a family member. Brother Matt Holm co-authored the Babymouse graphic novels; husband Jonathan Hamel co-authored The Stink Files series.
Her children, curly-haired Will, 4, and Millie May, who was born in June, are never far from her home office in Harford County.
Holm’s husband, a video game designer who once edited plays, usually takes the first look at her writing, she said. And when it comes time to choose a new project, she mines family stories and asks lots of questions.
“Luckily, I have a really eccentric family,” said Holm, 39, laughing.
Saturday, family will undoubtedly come up when Holm talks about her latest book, “Middle School is Worse Than Meatloaf: A Year Told Through Stuff,” and signs copies at the 2007 National Book Festival on the National Mall in Washington.
She and about 70 other American writers, poets and illustrators are scheduled to meet with book lovers at the seventh annual family-friendly event.
Authors like Holm are selected to appear at the free festival through a process that begins with publishers answering a call to nominate “popular, nationally-known authors who have won book awards at the national level,” according to the letter sent to publishers. Library of Congress officials whittle the hundreds of nominees to the final 70, said John Cole, who coordinates the authors for the festival.
“They tend to be veteran, and they tend to be well known, because we want the author to have a following” and draw crowds, said Cole, who also serves as director of the Center for the Book at the Library of Congress.
|About the Author
Name: Jennifer L. Holm
Family: Husband Jonathan Hamel; children Will, 4, and Millie May, three months
Home: Fallston, Md.
Books: "Our Only May Amelia"; the Boston Jane trilogy; "The Creek"; "The Stink Files" series (co-authored with husband Jonathan Hamel); the Babymouse series (co-authored with brother Matthew Holm); "Penny from Heaven"; "Middle School is Worse Than Meatloaf: A Year Told Through Stuff"
Upcoming appearance: Scheduled to speak from 10:40 a.m. to 11:10 a.m. Saturday, sign books from noon to 1 p.m. in the teens and children pavilion at the 2007 National Book Festival on the National Mall in Washington
Author With a Following
Holm, who grew up in Pennsylvania but moved to Maryland three years ago for her husband’s work, definitely has fans.
Of course, there’s her family. Although it was with “much trepidation” that she wrote about them, they all love it when they see a familiar name and all get a book dedicated to them at some point, she said.
Her supporters in this category include Matt Holm, who remembers that as kids, he and Jennifer and their three other brothers always had kids to play with because of their large family.
Then there are girls like Breanna Colella, an eighth-grader at Fallston Middle School, who’s become a big fan of the Babymouse books.
Breanna, who lives just a block from Holm, met her neighbor before reading her books. Holm ended up giving the student several of them. The “Middle School” book, which is formatted sort of like a scrapbook, has become Breanna’s favorite, she said.
“It reminded me of my seventh-grade year,” Breanna said. “She gave me a signed copy. … I started reading it, and I read it in two days.”
Boys are among Holm’s readers, too.
Edie Ching, a librarian at the St. Albans School for Boys in Washington, remembered that Holm drew a crowd as the guest speaker at a monthly meeting of the parent-son book club last spring.
The author showed up about eight months pregnant with a macaroni cake—a dish from Holm’s book “Penny from Heaven”—and talked about her childhood and becoming a writer. The book is about an 11-year-old, Italian-American girl, Penny, who in 1953 New Jersey untangles the family secrets surrounding her father’s death. It was inspired by her grandfather’s Italian-American family in New Jersey.
“The issues she’s dealing with are issues for everyone,” said Ching, who was a member of the committee that named “Penny” a Newbery honor book.
|Jennifer L. Holm's next project is another historical fiction novel meant for elementary and middle school-age students. (Photo by Jodie Otte, courtesy of the 2007 National Book Festival)
| Video: Jennifer L. Holm talks about her inspiration. (By Raechal Leone / RealPlayer file; also on YouTube)
Plunging into 'Crazy Jenni Research'
Holm this summer attended the awards luncheon for Newbery winners with family in tow, including her husband, parents, son and daughter, who was less than a month old at the time. She wouldn’t have missed it for anything, she said.
The American Library Association each year awards the Newbery Medal to “the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children,” according to the award Web site. Holm’s books have twice been one of a handful of runners-up for the grand prize, or Newbery honor: once in 2000 for her debut novel, “Our Only May Amelia,” written while Holm was a producer for television commercials in New York City, and this year for “Penny.”
Kathy Caisse, manager of Barston’s Child’s Play store in Rockville, said winning the honor is a big deal.
“It locks you in and makes your books continue to be published for a very long time,” Caisse said. “If you wanted to get all the books that have won the Newbery, you would run into a problem about 1928.”
When she begins a book, Holm said she doesn’t think about awards or commercial success. Instead, she leans toward settings and subjects that help her dig deeper into family history.
“I think I mostly write about the past, because I try to find out what happened in the family,” Holm said. “What’s left unsaid is really interesting.”
She decided to write her next book about a girl who goes to live with relatives in Key West, Fla., during the Great Depression after realizing her mother, whom Holm said usually talks a lot, didn’t really mention the time the mother had spent with family there.
Holm pressed her mother through informal interviews, the most basic kind of research Holm said she does when writing a book. The result was a lot of “bizarre, funny stories,” like how Holm’s mother didn’t understand why she had to shake out her shoes before putting them on until the day she found a scorpion in one.
Later in the writing process, Holm plunges into what she calls “crazy Jenni research.” For the “Penny” book, she listened to a box set of popular radio programs from the 1950s to get a feel for pop culture of the time and consulted the writer of a book about wringer washing machines because the main character has her arm stuck in one, among other things.
She creates an iTunes playlist for each of her books to keep her in the mindset of the time period, she said.
Holm’s attention to detail and ability to put the reader in another world is one of her strengths as a writer, said Jennifer Ralston, who orders books and other materials for the Harford County Public Library.
“I think that she has a respect for the audience,” said Ralston, who was also a member of this year’s Newbery committee. “She uses good storytelling, and she respects the child audience that she’s writing for. We’re just very excited to see what she’s writing next.”
Holm has several things planned. Besides the book set in Key West, she’d like to continue working on books about Babymouse with her brother. ("Babymouse: Skater Girl" is due out Sept. 25.)
Will she ever set a book in her family’s new home state?
"Give me about 10 years,” she said.
Maryland Newsline's Raechal Leone can be reached at email@example.com.