Jim Aylesworth is an American picture book author who was born in 1943 in Jacksonville, Florida. He now lives and writes in Chicago, Illinois. In this interview, Jim talks about his books, his love for fairytales, reading and writing.
Voicu Mihnea Simandan: You have been a storywriter for most of your life. How has your writing evolved over time?
Jim Aylesworth: I think everything evolves, but often so gradually that it goes unnoticed. However, when I look back at some of my early books, they strike me as a bit naïve, so I know I have changed. It’s like my autograph… From the beginning, I’ve been signing my autograph. Gradually, it has changed, and I can’t explain why, nor can I return to the way I signed in the beginning. It’s curious – like I’m a different person.
VMS: You have retold quite a few fairytales: Goldilocks and the Three Bears (2003), The Gingerbread Man (1998) and many more. Why fairytales?
JA: I know a great deal about folklore as it relates to the tales that have come to us from the past. (For years, I taught a college level course in this beloved genre.) These tales have been passed from teller to teller, and remembered from generation to generation. It occurred to me that they must be good – they must strike a cord within us – or they would have long ago been forgotten. As a storyteller, like the tellers that have come before me, I want to take my turn to tell the stories in ways that I think best.
VMS: In Our Able Lincoln (2009) the readers are infused with a sense of history. Please comment.
JA: I came to the world of children’s books as a teacher. For twenty-five years, I was a first grade teacher (six year olds). And as the teacher, I learned to use books to help me achieve curricular objectives like teaching the ABC’s, etc. A happy way to teach young children is to use song. I used this strategy with Our Abe Lincoln to teach about the life of one of America’s most famous presidents. The song is an old one that was adapted as a Lincoln campaign song in the 1860’s. Like my retellings of folktales, I have further adapted the song as a biography for children.
JA: The publishers, represented by the editors, pay for all the costs of publishing the books. And because they do, they want complete control over matters like choosing the illustrators. I would like to choose, but it’s hard to argue with them, and I sort of see their point of view. The publishers choose the illustrators and deal with all matters of book production. However, some editors let me into the process, and I tend to like those editors the best. The publishers deal with the money, the editors coordinate, the illustrators paint the pictures… Of course, their efforts are all set in motion by the text, and that’s the author’s job. Everyone is trying to please the children. And yes, I agree, I’ve had some truly great illustrators. I’ve been so very lucky in that way!
VMS: What is the importance of rhythm and rhyme in children’s books?
JA: Rhythm, rhyme, and repetition are three of the elements that young children like best in their books. I learned that this is true by reading hundreds and hundreds of books out loud to my students. These 3 R’s are present in my books because I know that children like them. I am trying to please children.
VMS: Some people believe that children no longer read and, with the availability of affordable e-readers, many believe that, sooner or later, children will no longer want to hold books in their hands. Please comment.
JA: Time will tell. All of us in the publishing world are very curious about the answer to this question. I’m convinced, however, that either way, story will live on.
VMS: You are very active online and maintain an excellent website. How important is it for writers these days to be “out there” on the Internet, interacting with their fans?
JA: I maintain my site so that children can learn a bit more about my life, and so that teachers can learn more about how to use my books in their classrooms.
JA: Yes, I do enjoy visiting children in their schools. It’s fun, and my way of continuing to be a teacher. I travel all across America and beyond – I have visited in Dubai… Reykjavik… Monterrey… Mexico…
More than once, this has happened: The teacher has told the children that the author is coming to visit with them, but the children hear that Arthur (the aardvark) is coming, and they’re confused when I first show up.
VMS: Do you still read children’s books?
JA: Yes, but as a retired teacher, I don’t read as much as I once did.
VMS: What book are you working on right now?
JA: I have two forthcoming books: Cock-a-doodle-doo, Creak, Pop-pop, Moo from Holiday House, and My Grandfather’s Coat from Scholastic. And I’m always trying for more.
VMS: What is your writing routine?
JA: I really don’t have a routine, but I’m happiest when I’m at work – writing!
VMS: What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
JA: My advice to aspiring writers is Know Your Readers! If you want to write for children, know children.
VMS: Thank you for your time.
JA: I thank you for being interested in me! And I send best wishes to your readers and to the children in your life!!
Watch a presentation of Jim Aylesworth’s books:
Voicu Mihnea Simandan
November 2, 2011