Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Interview Session: Jen Bryant, author of Six Dots

Author Jen Bryant
photo by Amy Dragoo

JEN BRYANT is the author of numerous non-fiction picture books for children, including A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams, The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus, and A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin. Her newest book, SIX DOTS: A STORY OF YOUNG LOUIS BRAILLE, is about the life of Louis Braille, a child inventor who created the alphabet system that blind people use to read. 

Keep an eye out for Six Dots when it hits shelves in a week on September 6! And if you want a sample of Six Dots in Braille, make sure to visit Jen's website.

Jen talks about which inventors inspire her, the Braille Alphabet, and why she enjoys writing non-fiction picture books for kids.  

Where are you from? Where do you live now? Do you do anything else in addition to writing great books?

I grew up in Flemington, NJ, a small town in the central-northwest part of the state. It’s quite expanded now, but when I lived there, it was pretty rural and very navigable by bicycle. I walked to school my entire life, and that was a great way to observe people and to feel physically connected to the community. Flemington is also where the infamous Lindbergh baby kidnapping trial took place, an event which became the subject for my first novel in verse. I now live in Chester County, Pennsylvania, which is about halfway between Philadelphia and Lancaster, PA. It’s primarily suburban and not so bike-navigable, so I have to drive to West Chester, PA to get my “town and sidewalk fix.” But our home is in the woods, which I love, as I do a good bit of bird-watching and nature-observing.
We also have a great state park nearby where I frequently go to compose new work: I park facing the lake and write in my car, or I sit at one of the many picnic tables scattered around the park. At the end of the day, I usually go to the YMCA and bike or swim.       

When did you get your start as a writer of nonfiction picture books? How long have you been writing?

I fell into it by accident, really. After graduating from Gettysburg College, I was a language (French & German) teacher for several years, but then we moved around and I began to do some freelance work for smaller publishers and gift book companies. It agreed with me, so when our daughter was born in 1988, I gradually did less teaching and more writing. My first non-fiction books (1991) were a series called “Working Moms” and my editor worked in a small office over a pet store in Frederick MD. I learned a lot from him and from other editors who, in those pre-digital days, had a lot more time to mentor new authors like me who were clueless but very eager to learn! 

What were some of your favorite books as a child? Authors, illustrators, you name them.

My Mom is a very expressive reader and both of my parents had books all around the house.  I loved to hear Dr. Seuss books read out loud to me, especially Green Eggs and Ham and Hop on POP. I also loved P.D. Eastman’s Go Dog, GO and Are You My Mother? Later, as an independent reader, I gravitated toward non-fiction books about animals: bears, penguins, lions—and especially horses. I was a horse-crazy girl and along with all that non-fiction, I devoured the books in Walter Farley’s Black Stallion adventure series.

Top 3 favorite inventors?

Louis Braille, inventor of the braille code, and Johannes Gutenberg, inventor of moveable type/the printing press—tie for first. Both enabled widespread access to knowledge that was previously denied. 

Guglielmo Marconi, who sent the first radio signal in Italy in 1895 is second, for purely selfish reasons. I listen to the radio most of the day and I’m quite sure I’d go crazy without it.

“Amazing” Grace Hopper, who invented COBOL and other computer languages is third. I’m not very adept at technology, but I do appreciate Hopper’s pioneering spirit and experimentation, the result of which allows
me to do what I do at my desk and still keep in touch with the world!    


In your own words, describe what SIX DOTS is about.

Like all of my biographies, SIX DOTS celebrates two things I feel very strongly about: 1. Quiet courage, the kind that is passion-driven, yet not chest thumping, “hey look what I did” driven. 2. Improvisation—the impulse to create something new out of just what is at hand, and frequently in less-than-desirable circumstances. Louis Braille worked for 3 years, from age 12 to 15, in unhealthy surroundings, with no emotional or financial support, using only crude tools and the rough idea of an unwieldy, complicated battleground messaging system. From that, he created a wholly new and—I think Steve Jobs would have agreed—sleek, intuitive code that is used throughout the world today in its original form. His invention single-handedly provided (and continues to provide) millions of people with access to knowledge.    

Why did you choose to write Louis Braille’s story? You actually wrote a young adult biography on Braille in 1994, so why did you come back to his story? You write that this was your attempt to understand what it was like to BE Louis Braille.

At age twenty, I did some reading for a blind college student and that experience really made me appreciate what I took for granted each day as a sighted person. When I penned that 1994 book, I was writing single titles for publishers who wanted to produce a topic-centered or themed series (Braille was part of a series called Great Achievers: Lives of the Physically Challenged.) Much later—as I began to do author visits in schools, to teach at a local university, and to travel to conferences around the country, I saw braille in so many of those public spaces and realized how ubiquitous it really IS. And yet—how little we sighted folks know about and appreciate the origins of that invention. I decide to revisit the topic—but this time, I wanted it to be a much more emotional, much more personal story than that earlier book. 

An example of a sign written in Braille. 
We see the Braille alphabet all the time. Can you explain how the Braille alphabet works?

Although we often refer to braille as a “language” it’s really a code or system based on a 6-dot cell, arranged in 2 columns of 3 raised dots each. Various arrangements of the top four dots form the first ten letters of the alphabet (A-J), then adding the bottom left or bottom right dots makes the rest. The expanded code also incorporates punctuation, numbers, scientific and musical notation. Braille also provides for contractions by using cells that can stand for more than one letter or even whole words. Thus, it’s a simple, but highly adaptable system that can be employed in any context in almost any language. What is even more extraordinary, each cell fits easily under a human fingertip—something that Louis must have worked toward instinctively, given his earliest lessons in tactile learning with his family. Including actual braille in Six Dots put the book’s cost totally out of reach for most people . . . but I’ve provided a link on my website for obtaining a sample—and readers can send their address to me to and I’ll provide them with a braille alphabet card.  

The Braille Alphabet

What do you hope this book achieves?

I hope it raises awareness, among sighted children and adults, about the existence and abundance of braille in their own communities—and a sincere appreciation for the (very young!) man who created it. Louis Braille is, by far, the youngest individual we know of who made such an impact on so many people. Today we think of invention being done in sleek labs or well-funded and staffed research facilities. But Braille worked alone, unsupported, and while enduring the early stages of tuberculosis. In fact, as I type this response (I’m at a university library), his code appears on signs by the elevator and the restrooms, just across the hallway. I want others to make that connection.     

What do you love about creating picture books for children, specifically nonfiction picture books?  

I love doing research—it’s like a big scavenger hunt for facts and original anecdotes. Then I love the challenge of choosing the most resonant images and details and arranging them in an accessible narrative. Occasionally, I do wish it were easier! It takes a lot of time, a lot of patience, a lot of trying things out as I go. It feels like I’m putting together a big jigsaw puzzle where every piece must fit perfectly—and yet I have no idea what the image on the box looks like.

What is next? Any future projects for us to look forward to?

I’ve contributed to a couple of poetry books this year, so that’s been fun (see my website for those.) And, yes, I’m working hard on another picture book biography—but it’s a little early to talk about it just yet!!

Interior illustration of Six Dots by Boris Kulikov

 Thanks for stopping by Twenty by Jenny, Jen!

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