Jill Landis Jha: Author of Tickle Trouble
What inspired you to become a children’s book writer? Have you written books before this?
Jill: The dream to write children’s books emerged about ten years ago, when I was in the thick of reading picture books to my then three-year-old daughter. The children’s books available for us were not the ones I grew up with, nor were they like the ones I read when I was a babysitter. There were so many beautiful stories out there. My children and I became totally immersed in picture books. Though Tickle Trouble is my first children’s book, I hope it’s not my last. I’ve harbored a dream to write books about my late husband’s early childhood. He was a very, very naughty little Nepali village boy, but he ended up channeling that energy into pretty amazing things.
Can you share your experience about writing Tickle Trouble?
Jill: Writing a children’s book about extraterrestrials from another planet was not easy, and I’m surprised how vulnerable I feel just putting this work out there. It made me realize why I hadn’t yet embarked on writing a children’s book. It really took a lot of effort. In terms of the process, I started by reading through Ladderworks’ first picture book, The Flood at Fanoolu. Then I focused on learning about The First Wave, the organization that Tickle Trouble is based on. We interviewed one of the Wharton Business School students involved in The First Wave, which gave me a feel for the relationship between the founders and how the project emerged. This was helpful because the book needed to highlight teamwork, networking, and volunteerism, and hearing about it from the founders provided that clarity. Then I got to the “drawing board.”
How did you go about articulating the characters in Tickle Trouble? What came first to you - the storyline or the characters?
Jill: The storyline came first. Some of my initial ideas were a little too direct. And, as my editor said, nothing scary and no one gets injured. So that ruled out a lot of plots! My kids actually contributed a lot to the storyline, and were really helpful in coming up with a problem that is not scary. There was actually quite a bit of conversation between me, my kids, and my editors. It was a real team effort! The characters were easy for me to imagine. Once I gave them names, I could play with their personalities and relationships, I could picture the space they inhabited, and I could hear their little voices.
Were there any specific challenges you faced in writing the book? And how did you overcome them?
Jill: One of the biggest challenges was probably the difference between how I wanted to present the written drafts and how my editors wanted to receive them. I am used to writing with a word limit in mind. So I was approaching this as a type of poem or prose. I would have just submitted the text as a one-page document, but the editors wanted it laid out by pages, with notes to the illustrator. My mind doesn’t work this way — at least not during the creative process. I knew that once I got the gist of the plot and storyline, and was within the word limit, we could edit and format it properly. So, I ended up going back and forth between my free-flow version and the editor’s page-number version. It probably took me a little longer to get the story to where everyone wanted it but it worked out in the end.
Do you have any quirks related to/while writing?
Jill: I need to be alone, where it’s quiet and there is minimal interruption. I like being able to see nature, so I often worked overlooking my parents garden. I like to have a glass or mug of something within arms reach — sparkling water, hot or iced tea, pepsi, something like that. My need for solitude was difficult for my kids. There were times my middle daughter would hang out with me in my parent’s office, and after about five to ten minutes, she’d start chatting and I’d have to kick her out. She understood that the process wouldn’t last forever. But it was sometimes hard for them to leave me alone for one to two? hours at a time. And yes, I would have definitely wanted longer stretches of time to work!
Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about your writing journey?
Jill: When I was in fifth grade, I won a writing competition in our city — it was about the meaning of Christmas — and I received a $50 savings bond. This experience was pretty key; it confirmed my innate ability and belief that I could be a writer. This was crucial because I was not the best writer in school and often felt discouraged with my average grades. After submitting my first college writing paper, the English professor told me it was a “typical first-year paper”. I was totally offended. I did not feel like I was a “typical first-year student”. I had taken a gap year after high school and spent it working and traveling across three countries. That professor’s comment really turned me off to writing as a profession. Luckily, I had to write a lot of papers for my major (philosophy and religion) and I really enjoyed it. I eventually landed a couple of writing gigs for religious publications and received positive feedback from the readers, which helped me get over the other discouraging feedback I had received in school. A lot of my post-college and post-grad school work included drafting letters and reports, which I loved because it required me to hear, and capture in writing, the voice of the particular person or organization I was writing for.
When I was asked to work on Tickle Trouble, I really wanted to say no. I had two other intense work projects, I was in the process of moving, and I was doubtful about my ability to create something magical. But I kept hearing my late husband’s voice, encouraging me to do it. It’s always been easier for me to write non-fiction, autobiographical and philosophical pieces, so writing Tickle Trouble pushed me out of my comfort zone. It was challenging and it made me realize that you can’t sit around waiting for inspiration, you need to sit down and write. And when an opportunity like this, or an idea presents itself, you really just have to take the plunge!