Jen, the Writer
Many author biographies seem to start with the author admitting to a lifelong love of reading. I cannot claim the same. I was not an avid reader as a kid. I thought reading was boring. I’d much rather be riding my bike, playing in the woods, building Barbie furniture or extensive Barbie towns in the basement where Daring DeeDee could ride her motorcycle down from the ping-pong table on the Hot Wheels track.
My parents were grateful for summer camp, and so was I. It was my sister who thought a long, lazy summer and a shelf full of unread books was pure heaven.
The Summer Camp Effect
Summer camp is where I learned that everything in life can be a game, a competition. At camp, cabin inspection was fun, getting a letter at mail call was a physical challenge, and laughing was a well-rewarded competitive sport. Wacky and convoluted were celebrated as the highest level of fun and brilliance. A kid who was clever, funny, a willing participant, and a good sport was a summer camp hero, and that is what I always wanted to be. No matter that I was often too shy for the role.
Jen, the (Non-)Reader
In an effort to get me to read, my parents signed me up for a book club so that I’d receive books in the mail regularly. I loved getting those books in the mail, but to keep getting them, I had to read them. Sneaky parents. So I did: I read the books. Reading was never my problem, sitting still was.
I didn’t become a dedicated recreational reader until after college. I love stories. I adore them. I want to marry them. But sitting still remains an issue. I prefer to do things while having stories read to me. As a result, I listen to more stories than I read, but, still, I read a lot. I’m not especially picky about what I do, either: I listen to audio books while I do dishes, clean house, pick berries, bake cookies, plant beets, embroider bracelets, knit socks, sew curtains, walk the dog, ski to the mailbox, drive, exercise, you name it.
Enjoying stories as much as I do, of course I also want to create them. Like most people, I had to write in school. You know, essays, reports, papers, journals. My favorite assignments were ones where I got to pick the topic and creativity was encouraged. Summer camp, meet school. I chose topics like slapstick comedy, hair styles through history, and Christmas traditions around the world. Forced to write a straight-up report on Lord of the Flies, I titled mine “Spectacular Insight,” and compared events involving Piggy’s glasses to the overall story arc, making use of every sight pun I could conjure. I thought that was a particularly clever paper, yes, I did.
I didn’t mind writing, mostly at 4:00 a.m. on the day papers were due, but it was nowhere on my career radar. Did I have a career radar?
Jen, the Explorer
During and after college, summer camp continued to influence and direct my life. I worked at a camp, as a bunk counselor, athletics counselor, then in administration, and finally as program director, where I got to devise, plan, and implement as many wacky camp-wide events as I wanted. Sounds perfect, no? It was, for a time.
I also had a sense of adventure that demanded I go out and explore. Remember that inability to sit still?
- I explored Philadelphia, a book store, and juvie (as an employee, silly, not a resident).
- I explored Maryland and Delaware, temp work, and mail sorting.
- I explored Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming, backpacking, river rafting, and rock climbing.
- Then I got braver (that is, my car died, and I had no personal transportation): I explored California and a ski lodge.
- Then I explored Alaska, natural history, and tourism. (Don’t kid yourself, “natural history” and “tourism” is high-faluten speak for “summer camp for grownups.”)
I stayed in Alaska once I’d discovered it, but I continue to explore businesses and activities. Today, if you ask me what I’ve become or what is my career, I think I’ll say “Explorer.” Tomorrow, who knows, you may get a different answer.
The Thread of Life
The thread that runs through and connects most of what I’ve done, the story arc of my life, is “summer camp” or, more accurately, “fun and games.” I made mail sorting a competitive game. I won my own game and earned Friday lunch with the boss! (Winning was fun, but the prize…meh.) I made up, organized, and ran competitive games for Christmas and Presidents’ Day at the ski lodge. I made natural history puzzles for kids who visited Alaska.
Oh, Here It Is: The Writing Life
The Alaska puzzles I made earned a full scholarship to the Highlights Foundation Writers’ Workshop at Chautauqua, and there I learned to submit puzzles and articles for publication. I began publishing puzzles and articles in kids’ magazines: American Girl, Footsteps, Games, Guideposts for Kids, Guideposts for Teens, Highlights for Children, Kid Zone, National Geographic World, Spider, and Sports Illustrated for Kids.
I pitched the idea of an Alaska puzzle book to Sasquatch Books and got a contract for my first activity book. (Oh, the timing of this was beautiful, but that’s another story.) I convinced Simon & Schuster, via Simon Scribbles, to let me craft the activity books for the Nancy Drew and Spiderwick movies. Evan-Moor Educational Publishers allowed me to employ puzzle fun in their Vocabulary Fundamentals (Vocab Fun) book for grades 6+. Taku Graphics and Alaska Geographic let me share wild and interesting facts about Alaska through puzzles and games. And now Arbordale is helping me share one of my favorite things to do: go for a walk and search for wildlife and the signs they leave behind. Fun!
So here we are, and here we go. I continue to listen to stories while not sitting still, and I continue to write puzzles, articles, stories, blog posts, instructions, and any old thing that strikes my Explorer’s fancy. No matter what I’m writing, thanks to the summer camp effect, it is a game and a puzzle to me.