Connecting Texas books and writers with those who most want to discover them
Kay Ellington has worked in management for a variety of media companies including Gannett, Cox Communications, Knight-Ridder, and the New York Times Regional Group, from Texas to New York to California to the Southeast and back again to Texas. She is the coauthor, with Barbara Brannon, of the Texas novels The Paragraph Ranch and A Wedding at the Paragraph Ranch.
Jennifer Hamburg is an Emmy Award-winning children's television writer and story editor whose work can be seen on Doc McStuffins, Henry Hugglemonster, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, Super Why!, Little Einsteins, Blue’s Clues, Creative Galaxy, Jack’s Big Music Show, and Between the Lines. She is the author of two children’s books A Moose That Says Moo (FSG, 2013) and Monkey and Duck Quack Up (Scholastic Press, 2015). Hamburg lives in Austin with her husband and two children.
Praise for Jennifer Hamburg's work
“This one is as much fun as it sounds, and it will find a regular spot in the storytime rotation.” —Booklist
“In this debut picture book, a little girl imagines a zoo with no cages and an assortment of uniquely talented animals.” —School Library Journal
Infectious good fun.” —Kirkus Reviews, starred review
“Amusing illustrations perfectly reflect the spirit of the story.” —starred review / Kirkus Reviews (on CHICKEN SAID, "CLUCK!" by Judyann Ackerman Grant)
“Perfectly silly.” —Kirkus Reviews (on THIS IS A HOSPITAL, NOT A ZOO by Roberta Karim)
If you have children, the likelihood is they’ve watched one of the TV shows that Jennifer Hamburg has written for —Doc McStuffins, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, Super Why!, Little Einsteins, Blue’s Clues, and more — an impressive body of work. But what’s even more amazing is that Hamburg is a mom and wife and has juggled her TV writing as well as children’s books from her home in Austin. She took time from her obviously hectic schedule to tell us how she does it in Lone Star Listens.
LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: Your career as a children’s television writer has led you to two Emmy Awards and work with Disney Junior, Nick Jr, PBS, and Amazon. How did you first get started in this field?
JENNIFER HAMBURG: In grad school, I studied educational psychology with a focus on children's media. After an internship at Sesame Street, I knew I wanted to work in kids' TV (I actually wanted to live on Sesame Street but that wasn't an option). My first job after graduation was as a research analyst for a spinoff of Blue's Clues, a job I absolutely loved. As I got to know the writing process on that show a bit more, I expressed an interest in writing myself, and when the timing was right they gave me a shot. I had my first writing credit! From there, I started writing for other children's shows, then eventually moved into story editing and head writing.
In your role as a children’s book writer, what differences have you found writing for TV and writing books? How did you make the transition?
As far as I was concerned, it was like transitioning from TV writer to farmer. Even though I had a lot of TV credits by then, I knew nothing about the publishing world. The biggest difference I found between books and TV is the pacing. TV is fast — one script a week, rewrites a week later. Done! With my books, I generally need to write the entire manuscript before I send it out, so it’s more of a self-imposed deadline. I'm not sure which is harder, actually!
How do you balance raising small children, writing for children’s television shows, and being a children’s literature author?
Wait, I do all that? I sound very impressive! Really, I just take it one day at a time. My kids are school-age now, so I have plenty of quiet during the day. Sometimes at night I have to finish writing a script, or send in some edits, but I do try to stop working by a certain hour. My husband is a great help, too!
How has children’s literature changed since you were a child? Are children more sophisticated? Are their attention spans shorter? Are topics more adult now?
I don't know that children are more sophisticated, but I do think there’s a bit more of an awareness for authors in terms of what young kids can handle. It isn’t assumed that there should be a certain kind of content, or a specific way of telling a story. Authors can be more experimental and playful, which helps kids stretch their creative muscles, too. Attention spans might be shorter, but a good story should keep them engaged! At least, that’s the goal.
How did you find your illustrator(s)? What is the creative process like, in a children’s book, between the author and the illustrator?
For all three of my picture books, my editors chose the illustrators they felt would best bring the stories to life. During the illustrating process, sometimes there was a lot of back and forth between the editor, the illustrator, and myself, and sometimes very little. It was amazing to see how they interpreted my words, how they choose one particular image to convey an entire page of story. I’m totally in awe of illustrators, and if you saw me attempt to draw anything, you'd understand why.
What Texas children’s books do you enjoy sharing with your children?
Good Night, Austin is a book we’ve ready over and over. Armadillo Rodeo is hilarious. Beyond that, there are a few Austin authors who have middle grade books out, and I'm just waiting until my kids are old enough to read them!
In 2015 you wrote a pilot of a children’s show for Amazon, Buddy: Tech Detective. You seem to embrace every medium for telling stories to children. What’s on the horizon in children’s storytelling that excites you?
Amazon and Netflix have really set the stage for creators like me to reach our audience in new, innovative ways. Buddy was a terrific experience because, among other things, we saw feedback in real time as viewers posted their thoughts and comments after they watched the pilot. There's no better connection to your audience than that! More outlets for content also means more opportunities to find a great fit for your show. Before, if it didn't fit the brand of one of the bigger networks, there weren't many other places to go. Now there are homes for every type of property.
I’ve heard that Austin is very fertile ground for children’s literature authors. Have you found a coterie of children’s writers there?
I went to a Scholastic event in Austin last year for my new book, and I met so many authors I didn’t know were based there! Austin has a very active SCBWI chapter, and a big conference each year. I’ve become friendly with a few fellow authors, and each one is cooler than the next.
Do you do a lot of research with children for your work?
My five- and seven-year-olds are my current research. I test jokes on my kids. There’s a lot of “What do you think of this joke?” or “Let me read you this part.” We had an entire dinnertime conversation a few months ago where my seven-year-old explained why my story wasn’t working. And he was right, by the way! One thing I do love is to listen to kids talk. When my daughter was in preschool, I’d hang around her classroom and just listen to the way they interacted and played. It’s essential if you're going to write for that age.
Are you working on a new book or project that you can tell us about?
I have one project that I can tell you about, a picture book called “Billy Boo Is Stuck in Goo,” coming out next year. I have another project that I wish I could tell you about — but not yet!
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