It isn’t hard for author Jamie Swenson to find inspiration for her popular line of children’s books. All she has to do is look around.
Growing up in the Midwest, it’s no surprise seven of Swenson’s eight books focus on either the weather, animal friends or a combination of the two: “Boom! Boom! Boom!,” “If You Were a Dog,” “Meet Woof & Quack,” “Woof & Quack in Winter,” “A Fall Ball for All,” “CHIRP: Chipmunk Sings for a Friend” and “We Want Snow: A Wintry Chant.” Her remaining title, “Big Rig,” is an animated tale about a semi-trailer—one similar to the hundreds that pass Janesville each day along the Interstate.
Several of Swenson’s books have been honored as Junior Library Guild selections, named top titles by the Bank Street College of Education in New York City, or have received Parenting Choice awards. In 2015, “If You Were a Dog” was highly commended by the Charlotte Zolotow Awards Committee.
Swenson also remains energized by spending her workdays surrounded by kids as an associate librarian and early literacy storyteller in the Children’s Room at Hedberg Public Library in Janesville. A 20-year library employee, Swenson has been writing children’s literature for equally as long.
A Craig High School graduate, Swenson’s education also includes a bachelor of arts degree in communication from UW-Whitewater; a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing from Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota; and half of a master’s degree in library and information studies from UW-Milwaukee.
Swenson and her husband, Jon, are parents to two adult children, Addie and Norah. The couple also have a pair of Labrador retrievers, Tuck and Koda; some yet-to-be-named kittens, and “various creatures too numerous and weird to explain.”
1. Why write children’s books? I’ve loved children’s literature since I was a child—especially picture books. I have never fallen out of love with the language, the art and the way listeners respond to a well-written book.
2. Where do you get ideas for your books? Many have been inspired by kiddos I’ve met at the library. Others come from paying attention to the world around me and allowing simple ideas to swirl about in my mind. (“Fall Ball for All” was inspired by an especially gorgeous fall walk).
3. Do you have any superstitions? Yes, I’m Irish.
4. Who is your favorite author? Unfair question for a writer/librarian. I grew up on Agatha Christie, Madeleine L’Engle, L.M. Montgomery, Jan & Stan Berenstain, A.A. Milne. And there are so many current authors I admire: Louise Penny, Kate DiCamillo, Grace Lin, Mem Fox and too many others to list.
5. What was your favorite book as a child? My strongest book-related memories are of my mother reading the first few pages of “The Boxcar Children” by Gertrude Warner and also the moment (plot spoiler) where Charlotte dies in “Charlotte’s Web” by E.B. White. In both cases, it was likely the first moment I encountered real sadness in a story. “The Boxcar Children” are hungry in that opening chapter, and the adults they encounter are not kind. That was shocking to me, and I’ve yet to recover from Charlotte’s death. Children’s books build empathy in ways we cannot fully understand, and a book read to a child can stay with them for a lifetime.
6. Who or what is your favorite character in literature? Anne Shirley. She is surrounded by interesting characters and places because she sees the sparks that make them interesting. I have never stopped loving her from the day I met her in “Anne of Green Gables.”
7. What do you hope kids and adults learn from your books? I hope they enjoy my books together and that they discover that the shared joy and sorrow books/stories provide is one of the best experiences we can share. Snuggled together reading with my children will forever be a favorite human experience for me. And reading with groups of kiddos at the library, watching them react to the stories and seeing their grown-ups watching and enjoying seeing them grow. Very few things can beat that.
8. One of your most recent works, “CHIRP,” involved collaboration with an illustrator based in Boston. How does that process work? As a traditionally published author, my agent sends my work to various publishers. When we get the good fortune of selling a book, the editor/publishers/book designers contact various illustrators (who I have never met) and offer them the project. If they connect with it, they sign on, too. I’ve been blessed with highly talented illustrators such as Scott Magoon, who knew exactly in his heart how to illustrate “CHIRP.”
9. Share something people would be surprised to find out about you. I’ve written the annual “Mingle, Murder, Mystery” for Hedberg Public Library for about seven years now. I love writing mysteries—especially creating the suspects. I also love teaching writing to adults. And I have a pet axolotl (paedomorphic salamander).
10. Your eighth and latest book, “We Want Show: A Wintry Chant,” was released Sept. 15. While I’m sure you love all of the books you’ve written, is there one in particular that holds a special place in your heart? There will always be a special spot in my heart for “If You Were a Dog,” the first book I sold. The story was inspired by a little person at the library. I will also always love “BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!” because my dearly departed beagle, Ruby Lulu Tulip, inspired that one.
11. On average, how long does it take you to finish a story? I have a novel I’ve been writing for years now. I’ll let you know how long it takes once I’m done with that. I’ve had picture books that have poured out of me in one writing session and others that I revisited and tweaked for years before they were done.
12. Do you take your stories for “test drives” with young people before you submit them, or do you feel you have a good understanding of what publishers are looking for? No. Kids love almost anything an adult reads to them (especially if the adult is reading it with enjoyment). I do have a critique group of writers I share early manuscripts with, and my agent always has some thoughts. Sometimes I agree and sometimes I don’t. I do spend a lot of time revising and playing with stories before they are ready to submit to editors.
13. Describe your first car and how you got it. My first car was obtained by my father for a really good price from a “friend” of his who must have been shocked to find a buyer. It leaked everywhere—sunroof, oil ... you name it. I would drive around with a case of oil. I would never do that now, but hey, it was the early ’90s. I was just happy to have a car.
14. What is the most challenging aspect of writing children’s stories? It’s not specifically related to writing for children, but keeping my writing time from getting swallowed up by everything else has been a major challenge of late.
15. Do you have any writing rituals? I love sitting at Mocha Moment (a coffee shop in Janesville) for an hour or two playing with language and just being creative. I also love taking walks with my dogs and writing in my head while walking through the woods. If I drop these two things, I tend to drop a lot of other things, too.
16. Are you more of an introvert or extrovert? I am an extroverted introvert. I LOVE being around people ... until I don’t. I need plenty of time to recharge and to be alone with my thoughts.
17. Name a popular actor/singer/musical artist who simply doesn’t appeal to you. I honestly don’t pay a lot of attention to pop culture. I can’t say I understand all the TikTok-famous folks, but hey, they have plenty of people who love them without me.
18. How many times were your ideas rejected before you finally broke through and got your first book published? A million and one rejections for about seven painfully long years. It was extremely frustrating at times, because I kept coming REALLY CLOSE and hearing, “I love this, but I have to pass.” Why? Why???? WHY!??!
19. Who is your favorite Muppet? Beaker. So underappreciated, but he never gives up. So. Much. Enthusiasm.
20. When I think about it, the single coolest thing that has ever happened to me is: Meeting my husband in middle school. Jon has been by my side through everything important. That one random moment has led to an amazing life together.