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Juanita Havill: Tough Love, by Becky Rodia

For this author, each story is a problem to be unraveled in a way that's true to the human heart

What do you do if you've cheated on a test and you feel awful about it? What's your life like if you're a gentle individualist but your older brother is a natural-born boss? What happens when a troll from Sweden finds himself in Kentucky?

These "hows," "whys" and "what ifs" are the sorts of questions that have kept Juanita Havill writing children's books for nearly 30 years.

"Stories present problems that have to be solved," Juanita told us. "What do you do if you're drawing a picture and somebody comes over and makes a mark on it! What if you have two very different people in the same family?"

In Juanita's books, the answers to these tough questions are revealed during a test of character. Jamaica, the star of Juanita's books Jamaica's Find, Jamaica Tag-Along, Jamaica and the Substitute Teacher and Jamaica's Blue Marker (and others, all from Houghton Mifflin) wrestles with the grade-school dilemmas in ultimately heart-warming but always realistic ways.

In Jamaica's Blue Marker, Jamaica's teacher asks her to share her markers with Russell, the class troublemaker. When Russell ruins Jamaica's picture with her own blue marker, she gets angry and refuses to make a goodbye card for Russell when she finds out he's moving away. By the time she realizes she'll miss Russell, there's no time to make a card, so she gives him another gift — her set of markers.

Jamaica and the Substitute Teacher book cover

Jamaica and the Substitute Teacher (Houghton Mifflin)

Jamaica and the Substitute Teacher initially shows Jamaica basking in the attention she's getting from Mrs. Duval, the substitute teacher. But then it's time for a spelling test, and Jamaica copies an answer from her friend's paper. As a result, she gets a perfect score, but she knows "[i]t's not a perfect paper even if it looks like one." She hides the paper in her desk, but comes clean about what's she's done when Mrs. Duval asks to see her paper. Jamaica's substitute teacher admires her honesty and reminds her that you don't have to be perfect to be likable.

Solving problems. Though there seem to be lessons — albeit gently — and realistically-rendered ones — at the conclusions of these stories, Juanita says that it's never her intention to end her stories with a moral.

"I don't think about putting in a lesson. I think about having a satisfying ending," she said. "I think about putting a real problem into the story, a problem that a child can deal with on his or her own.

Juanita Havill

Authur Juanita Havill on solving a story's problem.

"I have a copy of Aesop's Fables that was published in the 1950s and at the end of each story, there's a moral with a finger pointing to it. That's not something that interests me. I do like to get into these moral problems that sort of make you squirm. In fact, sometimes I squirm when I'm writing about them — it's very physical for me. Maybe there are some people who have never copied or cheated, but I'm not one of them, and Jamaica's not one of them. So how do I resolve that problem? These are the things I think about as various stories come to me."

Observation and research. Solving a story's problem and reaching the satisfying ending for which Juanita aims is often a question of knowing the story's characters and what they're capable of, and it's clear that Juanita knows Jamaica very well. The character was inspired by a former classmate of Juanita's at the University of Illinois.

"In my sophomore year I moved into a 'language house' where we had to speak French all day," Juanita recalled. "There were two African-American students in that house, and one of them became the basis for Jamaica years later. We spent a lot of time together — we even lived in France at the same time — and what struck me about her was that she always wanted to do the right thing, yet she had her own ideas about life."

That certainly sounds like brash-yet-bashful Jamaica all over. Juanita says that she also observes people's behavior and interactions for insight into characters.

"Somebody will say something and suddenly I'll think, 'That sounds like something Jamaica would say.' " she told us.

Juanita Havill

When she leads writing workshops, Juanita discusses everything from the basics to the finest aspects of the craft.

Juanita also does a great deal of research for her books. When a publisher asked her if she had any Scandinavian stories, she went to the library and read 14th century Icelandic stories — in Icelandic.

"I got a primer and read the stories as best as I could," she remembered. "It was a lot of fun." Those folktales were the inspiration for Kentucky Troll (Lothrop, Lee and Shepard, 1993) as well as some other stories that "didn't work." But Juanita insists that the things she learned in preparation for writing those stories are still meaningful.

"All of your research goes somewhere for something," she said. "It's like saving string — you're going to need it someday!"

Making it work. Juanita enjoys imparting this — and other — information to other writers. At the time of this interview, Juanita was hours away from leading a three-day children's writers workshop at the Highlights Foundation Founders Workshop in Honesdale, PA, which was where we interviewed her. She told us about some of the writing exercises she was planning to do with the group:

Juanita Havill and Patricia Broderick

Juanita (right) talks about the writing life with Teaching K-8 Magazine's Editorial Director Pat Broderick (left).

"We'll write about an object. We'll describe it, get in touch with it. Reading the results of those is interesting because we get to see who described the object from an adult's viewpoint and who described it the way a child might. If we have time at the end, we'll do an exercise in which we visualize a door, open it, walk through it and describe the scene we see."

Juanita will also spend much of the weekend talking about what makes a story, and how to make a story work.

"You have to have your turning point, your conflict. Everything has to work just right, up to the ending," she said.

For all of her concern with the technique and craft of writing, Juanita Havill writes books that truly live. She has the gift of putting all the pieces of a story together in a way that touch a child's mind and heart.

Becky Rodia, senior editor Teaching K-8 magazine.

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