My first homework assignment for the 28 Days Later campaign was to read the book The Chicken-Chasing Queen of Lamar County (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2007), written by award-winning author Janice Harrington. I read it out loud with my 6-year-old son, who enjoyed the playful chicken noises — “Pruck! Pruck! Pruck! Pee-o, pee-o, pee-o!”
Ms. Harrington is the winner of BOA’s 5th annual A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize for Even the Hollow My Body Made Is Gone. Her collection was selected from more than 900 manuscripts. For her first children’s book, Going North (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2004), she won numerous awards including the Ezra Jack Keats Award from the New York Public Library. She is a recipient of a 2007 NEA Fellowship in Poetry and her poems have appeared in many literary journals.
Ms. Harrington grew up in Alabama and Nebraska, and now lives in Champaign, Illinois, where she is a librarian at the Champaign Public Library.
I’m pleased to present poet, author, librarian, Janice Harrington:
Don: Please tell me about your most recent book?
Janice: The Chicken Chasing Queen of Lamar County is the story of a little girl who wants to catch a favorite chicken that she calls Miss Hen, but Miss Hen has other ideas. Home wisdom, patience, and steadfast determination finally bring our heroine face-to-face with her quarry. Miss Hen, however, is a chicken with a secret, leaving our unredeemed chicken chaser a difficult decision.
Don: What is your mission? What do you want to bring to the world of children’s literature?
Janice: I want every child to know that he or she has stories to tell, to write, and to share with others. If children read my work and then try to write their own story—then I’ve achieved my goal.
Don: What was your inspiration for the book?
Janice: Chicken Chasing is based on my obsession with chasing my grandmother’s chickens. I was a wicked child, and it was my childhood ambition to catch a chicken or at least splash one with water from the hand basin on the back step.
Don: I loved Shelley Jackson‘s mixed media collage illustrations. What did you feel Shelley’s illustrations brought to the story?
Janice: Her artwork is absolutely glorious. She captured the joy, the wonder, and the excitement of childhood. I laughed when a child looked at the cover and said, “It’s you!”
Don: What about your road to publication. What were the highs and lows?
Janice: Re-writing, re-writing, and more re-writing. With my first children’s book, I had to learn the concept of “arc,” that a story has to have a change or conflict or transformation. In Chicken Chasing, my greatest challenge was closure. Okay, I got the reader here—now what? There was a moment when I threatened to drown myself in a bucket of Kentucky nuggets out of despair.
Don: Kentucky nuggets! I’ll have to remember that one! How long did it take to get Chicken Chasing published?
Janice: Unfortunately, I didn’t mark the date, but like any picture book, it took several years. Any picture book is a team effort of the author, editor, illustrator, book designers, and a crew of unheralded behind-the-scenes support. It takes patience and a long-term commitment to producing the best book possible.
Don: As an African American author, what challenges, if any, have you experienced. And how have you met those challenges?
Janice: The challenges differ with every story and every poem. I feel deeply fortunate to be part of the renaissance of African American children’s literature. How far we’ve come since Nancy Larrick’s article, “The All White World of Children’s Books”: African American publishing houses, the Coretta Scott King Award, a growing market, and a burgeoning community of talented artists.
Don: What advice can you give to newbie writers like myself?
Janice: 1. Read as many new children’s books as you can and then read more. 2. Study the works of successful children’s writers. 3. If possible, take a writing class. 4. Join a writing group or start one. 5. Write and rewrite. Write and rewrite. (Repeat for a lifetime.)
Don: As an African American writer and illustrator, sometimes I feel boxed. I feel the pressure to write a particular kind of story, or address certain types of subject matter. What advice do you have for African American authors who want to write stories outside of the box?
Janice: Keep writing, support African American publishing houses, and when a book outside the box gets published, buy twenty copies.
Don: How do you find balance between family, writing, speaking? Where do you find time to write?
Janice: I practice the principle of Kaizen, continual improvement by taking small steps. Following this principle, I don’t try to write a book. I try to write a page, and sometimes only a paragraph, and sometimes just a sentence. But I try to do that every day, and the small steps add up. The ocean is only ten trillion raindrops added together, according to my last count. I celebrate whatever I complete, no matter how small. It is still an accomplishment, and it is still progress. No matter what happens, I keep writing.
Don: What is on the horizon? Can you discuss your current works in progress?
Janice: I’m working on several collections of adult poetry and of children’s poetry. We’ll see what happens.
Don: Anything else you’d like to say to parents, teachers librarians or other others with an interest in children’s literature?
Janice: Let’s keep bringing our children to books: books in our homes, in our libraries, and in our churches. Let’s also make sure that our children have the technical skills needed to share their stories. We need to encourage, educate, and challenge the next generation of writers: our future novelists, poets, and children’s book writers.
Don: I love it! Thank you for your time.