Allison's Book Bag

Perfection in Pencil

Posted on: November 20, 2014

Judith Schachner is the #1 New York Times best-selling author and illustrator of the popular Skippyjon Jones series. While best known for creating this lovable Spanish-speaking cat, Schachner’s twenty-year career in children’s books spans many different genres. She lives in Pennsylvania with her family, a dog, and two Siamese cats. Tomorrow I’ll review Skippyjon Jones Class Action. Save the date: November 21!

On paper I drew myself a world where mothers were healthy and teachers were kind. My life was perfection in pencil.

Judith Schachner, About Judy

PERSONAL LIFE

JudithSchachnerBorn in 1951, Schachner grew up in an Irish working class family where money was tight. According to About Judy page, her dad was a machinist while her mother, a homemaker and musically-gifted, was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer when Schachner was only eight. Her oldest brother Ted excelled in art, while her middle brother Kevin kept Schachner laughing with his funny stories.

As for Schachner, she was painfully shy. Her teachers complained that “Judith needs to speak up in class, Judith needs to improve in arithmetic, and Judith needs to finish her work on time.” Art was her escape.

Her way of escaping the anxiety which hung over their family was through her imagination. Schachner grew up sketching thousands of characters on long sheets of shelf paper taped to the wall of the family bathroom. Many of her characters’ stories began in orphanages or convents. Schachner loved rags to riches stories or happy ever after stories. “It’s what I wanted most for my own life.”

Despite low SAT scores, in 1969, the Massachusetts College of Art accepted her as a student. After graduation, Schachner went straight into the greeting card factories. For five years, she designed cards but the career move almost destroyed her. “I was not having fun; in fact I never wanted to pick up a paintbrush again.”

Babble reports that when Schachner met her husband, for the first time in many years she could step off the 9 to 5 treadmill and devote all of her energy to creating a portfolio of children’s book art. That was until her two baby girls were born. Then motherhood became Schachner’s favorite new job.

As a mother, Schachner read hundreds of books to her daughters. Her favorite was A Visit to William Blake’s Inn by Nancy Willard and illustrated by Alice and Martin Provensen. Indeed, it proved so special that Schachner keep thinking that one day she had to create her own picture book. Schachner also credits another book, Willy and May. The rhythm of it also got her into telling stories.

At age 40, when her youngest entered first grade, Schachner decided to revamp her portfolio and take it on the road. That’s when she met editor Lucia Monfried. “With her gentle encouragement and wisdom she took me by the hand and helped me accomplish the impossible.”

WRITING LIFE

The great thing about my job is that one day I can be writing about history, as I did in Mr. Emerson’s Cook. The next day I’m drawing a wacky old woman for I Know An Old Lady Who Swallowed a Pie. Or I can bring to life a beloved pet cat in my book The Grannyman. I live in a constant state of 3rd grade bliss–making up stories and drawing pictures. Isn’t that what we all did as children?

Judith Schachner, About Judy

JudithSchachner_SkippyJonJonesIn a lengthy interview with Babble, Schachner shares how the character of SkippyJon Jones came about. One of her all-time favorite kitties was SkippyJon Jones. Schachner says that when he was a kitten, his ears were huge, and he’d always come up on her bed and bounce on it. The two would play with danglers and he would leap up into the air and do triple flips. Sometimes he’d miss the bed completely, but that was his ritual every night at bedtime.

Schachner also says that SkippyJon did actually go down into the basement and have an altercation with a large bumblebee and end up with all these gumball size bites over his head. “I was about to take him to veterinarian and that’s when something magical happened. He began to speak Spanish to me. That’s how it all began…. Books, no matter how crazy they are, are always borne from some kernel of truth. I’m surrounded by Siamese cats, and they are great writers.”

As for SkippyJon’s name, Schachner believes her husband gave the name Skippy to the little kitten. She wasn’t satisfied with that, believing like T.S. Elliot that all cats should have three names. The name came of fooling around with word play until Schachner hit upon an appropriate name she liked.

Finally, there is SkippyJoh’s accent. Schachner explains to Babble that she grew up with an ear for accents and languages. As a child, she would always pretending to be somebody other than myself. “I was always pretending, so the accents really come from that part of me, the little bit of actor in me.”

As you can see, for Schachner, her books are all about a little mix of reality thrown in with a whole ton of imagination. For her, imagination is what allows one to handle the world and solve life’s problems.

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Summer Reviews

Books can take connect us with strangers, take us to unique places, and introduce us to new ideas. They can also offer hope in a chaotic world. And so I must share what I read!

Each week, I’ll introduce you to religious books, Advanced Reader Copies, animal books, or diversity books. Some I’ll review as singles and others as part of round-ups. Just ahead, there will be reviews of:

  • Joni: The unforgettable story of a young woman’s struggle against quadriplegia & depression by Joni Eareckson
  • The True Story of the World’s Most Beloved Animal Sanctuary by Samantha Glen
  • Brothers in hope : the story of the Lost Boys of Sudan–refugees by Mary Williams
  • The Inner Life of Cats by Thomas McNamee

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