Jennifer L. Holm came to the University of Michigan on Thursday, March 29th as part of the Sarah Marwil Lamstein Children’s Literature Lecture Series. (That's a long one, innit?)
I first read Holm's Our Only May Amelia when I was ten years old. My school had this Book-a-thon contest which essentially consisted of reading as many Newbery Honor and Medal books as you could in one year. For each book read (and you had to answer a short quiz to prove you'd really read the book — the system worked back then, Wikipedia didn't exist), you got one Book-a-thon certificate. At the end of the year, they tallied up who in each grade had collected the most certificates and the winner received a $20 Border's gift card. I won both years — 5th and 6th grade. My small moment of glory.
Ahem, anyways, to get back to the point, I read Our Only May Amelia as part of that whole Book-a-thon competition, and have loved it ever since. The book follows May Amelia, a girl with seven older brothers, as she grows up on the Nasel river in Washington state at the beginning of the 20th century. It's touching and funny, surprisingly dark for a children's book, and exceptionally well written. I'm an enormous fan of well-done children' literature — Richard Peck is another author to check out if you're similarly inclined — and was very excited when I found out Jennifer L. Holm was coming to Ann Arbor.
The lecture was scheduled to start at 5:10pm in the Helmut Stern Auditorium of the UMMA, but I got there a bit early. Ms. Holm was actually up at the podium signing a few books for some kids whose parents couldn't stay for the lecture and I decided to go up and introduce myself and tell her how much I love Our Only May Amelia. I also had my copy with me, and was hoping it wouldn't be too weird or intrusive to ask her to sign it.
Now I've met a few authors over the course of my twenty-one years: Brian Jacques when I was twelve, Lois Lowry just last year (she was the children's literature lecturer for 2011), the poet Suzanne Buffam only a few weeks ago (as part of the Zell Visiting Writer's Series). They were all nice people — I have a very fond memory of Brian Jacques telling me that my name sounds fierce and warrior-like — and I was super excited to meet them, but Jennifer L. Holm stands out nonetheless.
She was not only incredibly gracious about signing my book, but seemed thankful that I had liked it/it had meant so much to me. In short, she seemed as thrilled to meet me as I was to meet her. This is somewhat obvious from how she signed the book.
I had the feeling that she's the kind of person who tries her best to answer any fan mail she receives from kids, and as the lecture started it quickly became obvious just much she loves her audience.
There were two kids attending this lecture with their moms, and at multiple times during the lecture she referred to them and had them come up on stage to help her out: to read an excerpt from her upcoming book, to answer questions about what kids look for when choosing a book to read, to participate in a small drawing segment surrounding her Babymouse series. You could tell she wanted them to have fun during the lecture. It seemed important to her.
The lecture was largely aimed at adults, but it was definitely fun and interesting by just about anyone's standards. She talked about how big an influence her family has had on her books — her three Newberry Honor books are all historical fiction tied to her own family history — and about what her writing process is like. I'd had no idea just how much research went into writing a children's historical fiction novel (which was rather closed-minded of me considering how much I presume to respect the genre as a whole). For example, she actually spent a lot of time in Key West to research and write Turtle In Paradise, and Our Only May Amelia took her six total years to research and write. I didn't know that she currently collaborates with her brother Matthew Holm on her Babymouse series either, or that she had originally thought of Our Only May Amelia as a novel for adults.
The lecture was illuminating in so many ways, and really has rekindled my adoration of children's literature. I'm going to devote some time to finishing a few more of Jennifer L. Holm's novels soon, as well as more of Richard Peck's. The lecture also made me suddenly homesick for Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan. Not every university has such amazing lecture series, or opens up so many opportunities to meet incredible writers.
As for where I'm going exactly that I'll be homesick for Ann Arbor anytime soon, I'll be sure to do some illuminating of my own in the near future. Keep an eye out for that post. But for now, do yourself a favor and go spend some time with May Amelia.