Jessie Sima Talks with Roger

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Oh, wouldn’t it be great if we could go to the beach? DON’T GO TO THE BEACH. But let Jessie Sima take you there in Jules vs. the Ocean, a picture book about one little girl’s efforts to win over the waves — and her big sister.

Roger Sutton: Did you realize you had written a social-distance-approving picture book?

Jessie Sima: I did not. Who could have predicted?

RS: I’m not recommending that people go to the beach right now, but look at it. The only people that Jules is pictured with are her mother and sister.

JS: It’s true, immediate family only. And she’s all by herself on the cover.

RS: And in the scene where there are other children building sand castles, each one is working on their own.

JS: That’s so funny. And they are definitely more than six feet apart.

RS: How are you managing getting the news out about your book during the quarantine?

JS: That’s a great question. I am mostly trying to do social-media-related things. I have a newsletter that I need to rehabilitate and get back out there. Like a lot of people, I’m emotionally still coming to terms with all of this, so I’m a little bit slow to get started. My publisher has been doing a lot of amazing, creative marketing things, with little animations and images. I think once the book is actually out it will start to feel a lot different, because I’ll be doing everything online and won’t get that enjoyment of direct interactions. I love interacting with kids, that fun energy.

RS: So you like that part of the job.

JS: I do — that’s one of my favorite parts. I don’t have children of my own, and I really like hanging out with kids, so it gives me a nice excuse to read to them. It’s always interesting — I don’t always know exactly how they’ll react to different parts of the book, or what responses it might elicit. Once you get it out in front of the audience, you learn a lot about the book — where to pause when reading it aloud, what everybody finds surprising or dramatic. I really like that.

RS: And then there’s the odd kid who focuses on something that, for you, is not a major part of the story.

JS: Yeah, I’ve definitely encountered that before. Sometimes they’ll have questions about aspects of the book that I didn’t write into the story. “Where is that character from?” something like that. I love to ask what they think the answer is. I’m always more interested in hearing what they think might be the answer than telling them what my answer would be.

RS: And then do you steal their idea for the next stop on your tour?

JS: Yeah, I have them sign some paperwork.

RS: What was the germ of the idea that started this book? Was it sisters? sand castles? the beach?

JS: The original idea was a child thinking of the ocean as their adversary. It was a little bit more antagonistic on both sides — more of a battle. The ocean’s a villain, that kind of thing. After a while of thinking about it, trying to see what would work best, I brought in the sibling dynamic. I realized that gives Jules a more interesting reason to try to build her sand castle. Not just because she’s into building sand castles, but also because she would like her older sibling to pay more attention to her and take interest in what she’s doing. I have two older brothers and a younger sister, so I’ve been on both sides of the younger and older sibling dynamic.

RS: I can think of a number of recent picture books about relationships between sisters — as well as middle-grade novels and young adult novels, and it’s a whole subgenre in adult fiction. But I can’t think of many books about brothers. Why do you think that might be?

JS: In early drafts, Jules was a boy, so there was a younger brother-older sister relationship. At some point I decided to switch it to sisters, partially because Jules reminds me of my own younger sister. Also, I felt that Jules’s personality is not always the type that is represented in picture books — she gets very frustrated and angry.

RS: What was the age difference between you and your younger sister?

JS: My family is all very spread out — my youngest sister is ten years younger than I am — so we didn’t have a lot of antagonism. We were at such different times of our lives. I’m sure that sometimes she felt like a nuisance, and sometimes I didn’t give her all the attention she wanted; but we weren’t fighting over the same toys or anything like that. Some of that is reflected in this book, where the older sister is old enough that she is off doing something, bodyboarding, that Jules can’t do quite yet. It’s not that she doesn’t want to hang out with her younger sister, she just has her own thing going on. My older brothers are much older than me. I never had any close siblings.

RS: So, built-in babysitters, huh?

JS: Yeah, definitely. When I was young, and then when she was young.

RS: Did you grow up at the beach?

JS: I didn’t. I grew up in southern New Jersey, but not the beach part of it. Some summers we went to the beach and my grandparents would come. That is a strong summer memory for me.

RS: There’s that series of pictures in the book that made me remember that feeling of standing in the sand while a wave recedes, how it’s pulling your feet under the sand, and you feel the bubbles and grit against your feet.

JS: I’m glad that came across, because it was something of a drawing challenge. I had to figure out the best way to depict it, to make sure people understood what was happening, that her feet weren’t just disappearing. I have very strong memories of that feeling, too.

RS: Do you understand how waves and tides work? It’s such a mystery to me.

JS: I do. I am not a scientist, but vaguely, yes. I love that I was able to formulate an ending to this book that had to do with the moon. I understand that waves and tides have to do with shifts in gravity and the gravitational effect of the moon on the water, which pulls the water in different directions and then makes the tides. I could not write a nonfiction book about the ocean and tides, though.

RS: But you’re congruent with the facts here, which is great. It’s not like the ocean is a magical being. This is the real ocean. Did you regard the ocean as your friend when you were young?

JS: Oh, yeah, I would say so. Not a super-personified friend, but I really liked going to the ocean. When we would go to the beach, it was either really early in the morning or late at night, to avoid the super-hot sun. There were so many fewer people, so you’d get that nice one-on-one time with the ocean. Where we would go, on the very southern tip of New Jersey, there were always a lot of dolphins in the summer. It was nice, and you could see right off the coast, which I loved.

RS: I certainly wish you the best of luck in getting the word out about this book. I noticed that authors are reading their books out loud via YouTube, that sort of thing. Do you have an opinion about it?

JS: The experience of reading a typical picture book aloud with a child, or having it read to you by an adult in your life, is so different from having it read to you on YouTube. I think it’s great that, especially right now, publishers are lowering restrictions on being able to read books online. It’s a nice way for people who can’t really browse bookstores to be able to see a book — and if you like it, being able to order it to your home and read it again with your family. Hopefully people can support their indie bookstores as much as possible.

RS: I’m glad I got to see Jules vs. the Ocean on paper first. Right now I’m looking at a PDF. It’s still beautiful, but you’re missing that drama of the page-turn, which to me is everything a picture book is about.

JS: I agree. The page-turn is such a dramatic moment. It’s nice to have that in real life.

RS: Parents have told me that they sometimes have e-versions of their kids’ favorite picture books, to occupy them for a while if the parent needs that time. It works, because the kids already know the story from nighttime reading.

JS: That’s a nice supplemental, comforting experience to have. Once you know what’s going to happen, the drama of the page-turn still plays out in your mind, even if you’re not physically experiencing it.

RS: And as an author, you sell two copies.

JS: Yup, I won’t complain.


Sponsored by

Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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