The Backstory: UNTIL THE BLUEBERRIES GROW
Jennifer Wolf Kam joins us today with her debut picture book, UNTIL THE BLUEBERRIES GROW (PJ Library, 2022) with illustrations by Sally Walker. Keep reading to learn the story behind the story, hear some incredible advice, and for your chance to win one of two signed copies of UNTIL THE BLUEBERRIES GROW.
Welcome to The Backstory and thank you for joining us and sharing the inspiration behind UNTIL THE BLUEBERRIES GROW.
First off, please tell us a little bit about your story.
In my book, UNTIL THE BLUEBERRIES GROW, Ben’s beloved great-grandfather, Zayde (Grandpa, in Yiddish), is going to move. Ben asks him to stay…until the blueberries grow, until the grapes are ripe…and throughout the year, until Zayde can stay no longer.
Without offering any spoilers, it was important for me to show the love between Ben and his Zayde, as well as the reassurance Zayde offers that even though things will change, he and Ben will continue to share more loving, wonderful experiences together.
The book is illustrated by Sally Walker and I am in love with her illustrations. It was exciting to see them develop—first as sketches, then with color and texture. The book is set in my grandparents’ garden, which was a magical place for me. Some of Sally’s illustrations look just as I remember them from my childhood—particularly the magnolia tree and the lilac bushes. You can visit Sally at Children's Book Illustrator | Sally Walker Illustration.
This is such a gentle and heartwarming story. I love the way you build the relationship between Ben and Zayde and the gorgeous sensory trip we get to take with them through the seasons. Sally's illustrations complement your words so well and I can only imagine how touching that must have been to see your childhood memories brought to life in her gorgeous artwork.
What’s the story behind the story? What was your inspiration? Where did the idea come from?
UNTIL THE BLUEBERRIES GROW was inspired by an actual experience, when my grandfather moved away across the country. I was an adult when it happened, but those feelings of loss—of the void that his move created, were strong. I wanted—needed—to write about it.
In UNTIL THE BLUEBERRIES GROW, I reimagined the experience through the eyes of a child, perhaps how I would’ve felt if I had been a little girl when he left.
So the idea came first, since, at its core, this is a story about a little boy and his great-grandfather. But I’m Jewish, so it felt natural to include some Jewish traditions in Ben and Zayde’s experiences with one another ( My grandparents spoke English and Yiddish).
And while Jewish content is woven throughout my book, children of all backgrounds can relate to and enjoy the relationship between Ben and his great-grandfather, as well as the delightful experiences they share together. I love sharing my culture and traditions just as I love reading about other cultures and traditions.
You did such a fabulous job of weaving in your culture and traditions in a natural way. Jewish children will be delighted to recognize their traditions in the pages of your book while, as you said, other children can relate to the bond between the two characters. It is also a great way for children of different backgrounds to be introduced to some traditions they might be less familiar with.
How did you approach going from this seed of an idea to what is now UNTIL THE BLUEBERRIES GROW? Was it something undeniable you had to write immediately or did you need to sit with this idea and let it grow for a while before it found its way to the page?
I wrote the story pretty quickly, actually–I think because at the time my emotions were raw. And when I was finished I had a lovely story, but it felt almost…generic. Several years later, I approached the manuscript with fresh eyes. I revised, infusing it with some of my traditions and personal experiences which added depth and richness to the story.
When I first started writing I feel like I heard the advice of giving a manuscript some space over and over again. And while I understood the advice, I couldn't possibly fathom stepping away from my new manuscript. Your situation above is the perfect example of why time away from a manuscript is so valuable. It gives us time to subconsciously marinate on the idea and the space makes those revisions less painful when the time comes, often elevating the manuscript and taking it to new levels.
Where do you tend to find your inspiration or your sparks for ideas?
Like most writers, I get ideas from a lot of places–I’m a BIG eavesdropper and sometimes I overhear snippets of conversation that lead to story seeds.
But recently, I’ve been exploring the idea of Mining Memories (the title of my new blog), which is essentially digging deep into our life experiences to find meaningful story seeds. Writing is hard–life is hard–and sometimes the proverbial creative well dries up. I started Mining Memories as an exercise to jumpstart my writing during one of those dry spells–and I was amazed with the ideas that emerged. In fact, one of my blog pieces inspired a new picture book draft.
Such a great idea and useful exercise for digging up new ideas. One of the greatest benefits to this that I see is that the ideas usually come with an inherent emotional attachment allowing us to infuse our manuscripts with authentic feelings rather than needing to fabricate them for a make-believe character.
What books have been the most inspirational/impactful on your writing?
My favorite craft book that I go back to all the time is, What’s Your Story?: A Young Person’s Guide to Writing Fiction by Marion Dane Bauer.
Oh, I haven't read this one. I will need to add it to the TBR list. Thanks for sharing.
What are the must haves for your workspace? Tools? Inspiration? Reference materials?
I don’t really have a workspace–I work all over my house, on my laptop, switching spots every few weeks. I enjoy the change of perspective! But I always have coffee and/or water nearby–and (a little too often), chocolate. Also, my Halloween rescue kitty, KitKat, who repeatedly walks across my keyboard.
Any inspirational words of advice for aspiring authors?
Grit. Sheer, unadulterated, roll-your-sleeves-up, butt-in-chair grit! The only way to not succeed, is to stop trying. Don’t get discouraged. Some days the words don’t flow. Some days are…difficult. Sometimes the best strategy is to put a piece aside and work on something else. You can always go back to it when you feel ready.
If writing is what you love, keep at it. Just keep at it. The world needs your stories.
I have lots of other suggestions, too—feel free to stop by the FOR WRITERS section of my website for more information!
So true! Perseverance and tenacity are key. And while I love your emphatic push for grit, I love even more your follow-up acknowledgment that this is hard and also the permission to step away for a moment. It is equal parts motivating and promoting self-care.
Where can people connect more with you?
Please visit me at my website! www.jenniferwolfkam.com
Your website is beautiful and packed with wonderful content for readers and writers.
Readers be sure to check out Jennifer's debut picture book, UNTIL THE BLUEBERRIES GROW (PJ Library, 2022) with illustrations by Sally Walker. You don't want to miss this sweet and endearing story.
Thank you Jennifer for taking the time to join us and share all about your beautiful picture book, UNTIL THE BLUEBERRIES GROW.
Jennifer is generously giving away 2 signed copies of UNTIL THE BLUEBERRIES GROW each with a bookmark to 2 different winners. (US only)
Ways to enter:
1. Retweet my tweet about this blog post. Additional entry for tagging friends!
2. Leave a comment on this post.
3. Post about this interview on FB/Instagram and tell me in the comments that you did.
Each method earns an extra entry!
ABOUT JENNIFER WOLF KAM
Jennifer Wolf Kam writes books for children and young adults. Jennifer’s debut picture book, UNTIL THE BLUEBERRIES GROW, was published by PJ Library in May 2022. Her young adult supernatural novel, DEVIN RHODES IS DEAD, was published by Charlesbridge and nominated to VOYA MAGAZINE’S Top Shelf for Middle School Fiction. Jennifer lives in New York with her family and a cuddly rescue kitty named KitKat. Visit Jennifer at www.jenniferwolfkam.com.
ABOUT ANDREW HACKET
ANDREW HACKET always dreamed of writing picture books, but never believed it was possible. Then one day he thought, “I could. I should.” So he did (with a lot of hard work). And while he hopes no one swallows acorns as a result of his story, OLLIE, THE ACORN, AND THE MIGHTY IDEA (Page Street Kids, 2024), he does hope kids will be inspired to grow kindness in their communities and stand up for themselves — without eating anyone, of course.
Andrew lives in Holden, Massachusetts with his wife and three children, all of whom are very mighty.
Andrew is represented by Dan Cramer of Page Turner Literary.