Raise your hand if you’ve read every single Skippyjon Jones book aloud to a little one. Keep it up if you did so in a truly authentic cat-who-believes-he’s-a-Chihuahua voice! We can all thank Judy Schachner for these unforgettable moments and, with every new Skippyjon Jones book she releases, our well-honed and probably pretty hilarious Spanish accents! Friends, I loved getting to know Judy. Her understated response to my first question floored me, and I’ve since softened my tone when reading Junebug Jones’ words out loud. I hope you enjoy her, too.
Q: I always ask about childhoods. For some reason, we all imagine that a creative mind like yours was inherited! How would you describe your upbringing and early family life?
A: I grew up in an Irish Catholic working class family where money was as tight as our apartment was tiny. My brother Kevin, who was six years older than I, was the funny-bone of the brood. My brother Ted, who was eight years my senior, was always considered the family artist. My Dad, a man as decent and honest as they come, was a machinist, and my musically gifted Mother was a homemaker. She was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer when I was eight.
Anxiety was always the elephant in the room and my way of not getting trampled was to escape through my imagination. I sketched thousands of characters on long sheets of shelf paper taped to the wall of our one and only bathroom. But as I’ve come to realize, it was never really about the art; it was more about being able to morph into every creature that I put down on paper.
Many of my characters’ stories began in orphanages or convents. I loved drawing nuns in their habits…I loved rags to riches stories with incredibly happy endings…it’s what I wanted most for my own life. Other potent themes in my secret world of morphing centered around beautiful women of questionable virtue, with exotic accents, tragic lives, and fabulous wardrobes. On the other side of that bathroom door, little Judy was smoking her pencils and drinking water like it was champagne.
Q: We would love to hear about your studio and where you’re most creative; what’s your view while you work?
A: I have a brand new studio in my home which for me is a dream come true. It has great windows and plenty of storage. I have a large drafting table and several work tables that are usually covered in projects, reference materials, and art supplies. There is also a floor-to-ceiling bulletin board wall which doubles as a painting area for larger works.
I am surrounded by things that inspire me: toys, textiles, books, and taxidermy (somebody’s got to love those poor creatures). My studio is on the second floor, up in the trees, and it’s beautiful during a snowstorm. I listen to all kinds of music, including my daughter Sarah’s compositions, which she scores for film and television. I’m a huge fan of all things NPR, as well.
Q: When did you first realize that you were great at writing stories and making wildly popular books? When did the world realize this, too?
A: Illustrating children’s books had been a long-time goal of mine but it didn’t become a reality until I turned 40. It was when my youngest daughter entered first grade that I decided to put a portfolio together and take it around to a few of my favorite publishers in New York. The very first editor I met, asked me if I wrote stories too. I lied and said “Of course!” Then I went home and had the first of many, many panic attacks. I didn’t know the first thing about writing but I had read a gazillion books to my daughters over the years, and that was a good start. That and a great editor, which I have been fortunate enough to have worked with for over twenty years. Her name is Lucia Monfried. The first book that I both wrote and illustrated was called Willy and May. It received excellent reviews and I was hooked.
I’m still not comfortable calling myself a writer but I have learned that if you can tell a good story, you can write a good story.
Q: What was the first book that made you cry?
A: I believe it was Rascal, by Sterling North. It was a story about a motherless child and his pet raccoon. I related completely.
Q: Is there one book out there that you wish you’d written yourself? Who are your favorite authors?
A: I wish I could take credit for Sam, Bangs & Moonshine, written and illustrated by Evaline Ness. Another book about a motherless child…..hmmmm….seems like I’ve touched on a theme here. I would also take credit for A Visit to William Blake’s Inn, written by Nancy Willard and illustrated by Alice and Martin Provensen. Oh, how I wish!
Q: The best professional advice you’ve ever received?
A: In terms of writing and illustrating – Editorial and art direction are a vital and necessary component to all book making. However, there are times when the team and I do not see ojo to ojo on certain points. Most times they are correct and this saves me from public humiliation, but on occasion, when I feel deeply about an editorial or artistic choice I have made, I hear my editor Lucia’s voice in the back of my head saying “Stick to your guns, kiddo. After all, it’s your name on the cover.”
Q: And how about the best personal advice?
A: Although Henry David Thoreau did not personally whisper this advice into my ear, “If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” I was listening.
Q: Your favorite character…and why.
A: Emma and Ollie, two characters from a book I did back in 2002 called Yo Vikings! It’s based on a true story about my two daughters and their procurement of a 29 ft. long viking ship that ended up in our backyard. It’s a story about how far imagination, fueled by knowledge, can take one determined little girl. It was a sweet moment in our lives so very long ago. Emma is now a paleontologist.
Q: What has been the best, most memorable response to your work by a reader?
A: The letter came from the mother of a little boy with Autism. She talked about the struggles of her son and how they had not held out much hope for him in school and in life…until they had introduced him to, of all things, Skippyjon Jones. It seems that my kitty boy has taken up residence in this little guy’s body, enabling him to accomplish things they never dreamed possible. Who knew? But how wonderful!
Q: What’s next for you?
A: I recently finished the seventh Skippy book called Cirque De Ole. It comes out in October and I think it just might be my favorite of the series! Skippyjon Jones, The Musical, by TheaterworksUSA, has been touring the country since last fall and has been selected for their Free Summer Theater 2012. So fifteen thousand kids will be invited free of charge to see Skippyjon Jones off Broadway at the Lucille Lortel Theater.
There’s also our online store for all things Skippy. We’ve been busy creating new items for sale like jammies, tee shirts, and costumes. Then there is the sequel to my book The Grannyman which has to be finished by October while I ready my home and garden for a house tour happening right before I leave for a national book tour. Other than that, not much!
Gracias, Judy! Thank you for spending your time with us!
Friends, what are your favorite books to read out loud to your kids? Do you read them in a special accent? Can you describe it to the rest of us? Please do!
You can find the entire Author Interview series here.