Welcome to The Teachers Digest Interview Series. In this series, we will post interviews with authors and educational experts from around the world, twice a month.
Veda Boyd Jones is the author of forty-seven books from: a coloring book to nonfiction and fiction for children to romance novels for adults, and another five books that are original e-books.
Other published works include over 600 articles and stories in children’s and adult magazines (Cricket, Highlights, Humpty Dumpty,The Writer, Writer’s Digest, Woman’s World, etc.), and five romance novellas. She has a MA in history at the University of Arkansas, taught writing at Crowder College in Neosho, Missouri, and for the Institute of Children’s Literature. She also served on the literature panel for the Missouri Arts Council and was a past president of the Missouri Writers’ Guild.
Tell us a little bit about yourself, how you came to be an author and your interests outside of writing.
I read a romance novel years ago and said, “I could do better than this.” I found out it just wasn’t that easy. I wrote four of them that were rejected; the fifth one sold. Later, after I’d learned a lot about revising, I rewrote those first four and sold them.
When our three sons were young, I switched to writing for children. I wrote for children’s magazines and wrote lots of nonfiction books, historical novels, and a couple picture books.
For fun I like to sail. Our old boat has delivered many hours of pure pleasure on the water. It’s named Wrinkle in Time, not for the book, but because time stands still when you’re on the lake.
You’ve written a lot of historical non-fiction books for children. How do you take a subject such as history – which gets dry sometimes – and make it interesting for children?
I have an MA in history, which tells you that I never found history boring, and that’s because I had some extraordinary history teachers in high school. History should be taught as a time line, so that kids know what came before the next thing, but memorizing dates is not important. What is important is trying to understand the people who lived in times before us. Seeing the house where someone lived and learning what the day-to-day life was like, and learning how that person made the decisions that directed his/her life—that’s history to me. Because the decisions those people made before our time have influenced our times. History should be taught by extensively using biographies.
How much time and effort goes into writing historical books?
For nonfiction, I read, read, read and take notes and I find more than one source for a fact. My editors would never let me get away with using Wikipedia for a source. They want primary research if possible. Once I write a nonfiction book, I carefully fact-check it to make sure I didn’t get something wrong. For fiction, I also research a setting a great deal, and when possible I visit the setting.
Some kids love writing essays and stories while others tend to drag their feet over it and view it as a chore. What tips would you recommend for teachers who want to get their students to write with enthusiasm?
As a first exercise in writing, I’d have students make up a character by writing a character sketch. It’s easier to begin with a list of questions: gender, age, where he lives, parents, siblings, does he keep a messy room or a neat room. That sort of thing will lead to a paragraph. Describe the room where your character lives. Or name the siblings. Or draw a map of your own neighborhood, and now draw a map of your character’s neighborhood. One thing will lead to another, and soon your students will see that imagination is fun.
Do you have any general tips for English teachers that you would like to share, with respect to improving a student’s reading, writing and comprehension skills?
I’d try an experiment which goes something like this. Read a paragraph aloud, then give the kids a test on the details. Have them read a paragraph silently, then ask them a few questions. See which way they have a higher success rate on the questions that measure their comprehension.
Teach them observation skills. Tell them reading is a type of observation. Have them look at a scene and try to remember the things in the picture. Then have them write down what they remember seeing. Read a description, which they should see in their minds’ eye, and have them write down the things they remember seeing. Make them realize they want to make their brains powerful by developing a sense of observation that leads to comprehension.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Read, read, read. The more you read, the more you will see how writing is done. You will absorb not just the story, but the way it unfolds, and that will teach you structure. Keep a journal, not just of what you do each day, but how you feel about what you’re doing. Capturing emotions is the core of writing.
Is there anything else you would like to add that I haven’t included?
We never stop learning, and I think the goal of teachers is to make kids inquisitive. I don’t know the magic way of making them want to expand their minds, but having kids earn the warm feeling of accomplishment can change their lives.