Five questions for Emily Jenkins

On the hundredth day of school, members of Harry Bergen-Murphy’s first-grade class will celebrate the milestone by each bringing in one hundred of something. “But what?” he worriedly wonders. Emily Jenkins’s slice-of-life chapter book Harry Versus the First 100 Days of School (ages 4–7, Schwartz/Random; Educators’ Guide here), illustrated by Pete Oswald, takes readers day-by-day through the experiences, at school and home, of a child who’s “believably imperfect in a Ramona-like way.”

1. Please tell us about your favorite teacher. (Also, where did Ms. Peek-Schnitzel get her name?)

Emily Jenkins: Peek-Schnitzel is a name that gives me joy every time I say it aloud. I look for juicy read-aloud names when I write for young readers. As for a favorite teacher, I recently found a note that had been written to me by my third-grade Montessori teacher, Amanda. I am paraphrasing, but what it said was: “Dear Emily, you are a very slow eater, but a fast and good writer! Thank you for suggesting the book about the wrinkle in time. I think the class loved it and so did I.” Much gratitude to Amanda, for praising my strengths and for reading Madeleine L’Engle to our class when I asked you to.

[Photo: Heather Weston]

2. What’s something about writing a chapter book that’s different from any of the other age categories you write for?

EJ: I always think about voicing and validating the emotional experiences of the very young, even when I am writing comedy. Sometimes I give those big feelings to stuffed animals or rubber balls or magical creatures, but I begin with trying to get in touch with kids’ experience.

3. Did you know going in what Harry’s expertise would be? And/or what he’d be bringing to school on the hundredth day?

EJ: Harry dreams of becoming an expert on something in first grade, but as Ms. Peek-Schnitzel says, we tend to be beginners at a lot of things in first grade. So that’s a tall order! I didn’t know what the solution would be until late in the writing process. I was too distracted by finding the best booger jokes and figuring out how to write a story in one hundred tiny chapters! But eventually, the answer came naturally from the story I had written. As for what he brings to school on the one hundredth day: Fluff Monsters are pretty much the only thing I considered. I wanted as much Fluff in the book as possible.

4. How do Pete Oswald’s full-color illustrations compare to the images you had in your mind as you were creating this book/these characters?

EJ: Oh, Pete. He paints with so much love and respect for kids’ feelings that I’m surprised the guy isn’t walking around bent over because his giant heart is like, weighing down his chest and causing him health problems. Also, he’s funny.

5. The story is so in touch with — and takes so seriously — Harry and his cohort; their worries, triumphs, and reasons for feeling D & M (disappointed and mad). What should others keep in mind when interacting with first graders?

EJ: Thank you. I’ll be opinionated here. Don’t make first graders read “just right” or leveled reading books and little else. Their love of story will be squelched. Their search for empathy and self-recognition and new experiences will be starved. Starved! Sure, do a little of that leveled reading if you must, but first graders need a steady diet of excitement and comfort in book form. If they want board books still, if they want picture books, if they want chapter books that seem way too old for them, if they want New Yorker cartoons they can’t understand, if they want some badly written TV tie-in books, if they want superhero comics — get those babies for them from the library on the regular! Read aloud often with no complaints or judgments. The book my youngest adored most in first grade was Matt Groening’s Will and Abe’s Guide to the Universe. Seven years later, we still laugh, remembering scenes in that book.

From the August 2021 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

Horn Book
Horn Book

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