Chris Jespersen, author of Georgia ABC’s, spoke with us about his writing process, the original inspiration, and his research. Jespersen is a professor of American diplomatic history in the Department of History, Anthropology, and Philosophy at the University of North Georgia (UNG). He has served as dean of the College of Arts & Letters since 2005. He has written and edited books on U.S. diplomatic history in addition to publishing various journal articles. Georgia ABC’s is his first children’s book.
[Collette Whittemore] Was Milo the first inspiration for Georgia ABC’s or was there another inspiration?
[Christopher Jespersen] No, Milo’s not the inspiration, but we’re going to make use of him as part of the book. The inspiration really comes from the fact that I have two sons. They’re now adults. One of the great joys of being a parent is reading to your children, and both of them liked to be read to and I enjoyed reading to them and watching them learn how to read, how to read children’s books, and just reading along with the kids. So, the fact that I have sons is really where the inspiration came from.
[CW] What was your method in choosing locations around Georgia. Was it based off locations you’ve been to?
[CJ] In some cases yes; in some, no. We can’t do every place in the state. It would be too long and children’s books have a certain limited number of pages that you can really use. We had to cut out a number of places that would have been nice to include. We’re using the alphabet, so when you get to “Q,” you have to find a town that begins with Q. When you get to “Z” how many towns are there that start with Z? Fortunately, Georgia has Quitman and Zebulon. So for some, it’s based on the letters of the alphabet, but really, it’s based on places that are significant either because of their size, or what they’re known for, their history, their culture. When you get to things like “Q” with Quitman or “F” for Folkston or “Z” for Zebulon, you’ve got to find places that fit within the parameters of a pattern that are also significant.
I’ve lived in Georgia since 1994, so I’ve a long history here. Both my sons grew up in Georgia; one was born in Georgia. The other was born out of the state, but he was very young when we moved here. We would take them around to places, so part of this book is thinking what are some of the fun places to go? What are some of the significant places of the state? And what’s going to attract a certain readership level? We tried to put all of that together. I had discussions with the editor and we would get to certain places and she might tell me we’ve got too many for the letter ‘D’ but not enough for the letter ‘N,’ so we’d have to think, what are we missing that we need to include. And what can we consolidate. A combination of the two thoughts.
[CW] Since you’re the Dean of Arts and Letters, I assume you are a busy man. How did you fit writing Georgia ABC’s into your schedule.
[CJ] I did that on weekends, sometimes at night. It’s something I enjoy doing, so I don’t consider it work or difficult or a problem. It’s interesting, such as how to find the places after looking for geographical diversity so that you don’t use every place around the city of Atlanta, for example. “S” is for Savannah; you’ve got to do that, but maybe you don’t need Sandy Springs, even though Sandy Springs is a lovely place. I’ve been there. In fact, when I first moved to the state, I lived there for a while. But Savannah is significant in and of itself. So, you’re kind of looking at a map and doing that. That’s what I’ll do on the weekends. I’ll sit down and look at places and plug them into the alphabet, and then it’s reading about the places if I don’t know much about it.
As I mentioned before, I kind of know where Folkston is, but I’ve never been there, and I didn’t know much about it. So you look at the town website, the chamber of commerce, something like that where the city is telling you what they want to be known for. And Folkston happens to have a large water tower and because it’s near the Florida state line, they painted an alligator on it. So I knew I had to use that.
One of the most significant identifying locations of Marietta is called the Big Chicken, and it’s an old KFC. They have this giant chicken. And the beak opens and the eyes roll around, so for a kid that’s pretty cool. You’ve got to include that. So when we did Marietta, I made sure to mention the Big Chicken. I’ll sit down on the weekend for an hour or two and just look at a map, do some research, and start the couplets with the rhyming sequence that I like.
[CW] If a child only learns one thing from your book, what is the main thing you hope they take away from it?
[CJ] I hope they take away the idea of diversity, the breadth of interesting places in the state, the beauty, and the fun that really resides in different parts of Georgia. I’m not a native Georgian, wasn’t born here, I didn’t move here until I was much older, but it’s my home, and it’s been my home for over two decades and I love being here. I think the state has a tremendous amount to offer, so I hope kids take away that sense of beauty, wonder, excitement, and fun that comes from living in the state of Georgia.
[CW] You’re a long-time reader of children’s books. Who are some of your favorite children’s book authors?
[CJ] Reading to my sons and reading with them, I became a huge fan of Shel Silverstein. The Giving Tree, The Missing Piece, but the favorite book of his, I still have a copy of it, it’s Where the Sidewalk Ends. Each page is a poem, some of them are really short, and some of them are much longer, and a simple line drawing that goes with it. They’re witty, they’re interesting, they’re fun to read, and my sons, especially the younger one, became quite attached to that book, and so I would read it to him over and over again. I’m a big fan of that. The other thing my kids were really impressed with was by a guy named Richard Scarry.
[CW] I’ve never heard of him.
[CJ] Well, you wouldn’t, unless you got your child interested in certain kind of stories, and this particular incidence, he wrote a book about the best transportation ever. He was an illustrator for the most part, not a lot of text in fact. No text in the book that I remember. These are just illustrations. It’s just different kinds of firetrucks or other kinds of trucks, construction site trucks. That’s one page. And the next page is trains, all kinds of different trains. Steam, electric, the whole bit. And the next one is airplanes. And it’s just page after page of tiny drawings and my sons were fascinated by his books.
You asked before whether Milo was a motivation for the books. Not exactly, but he appears in the books. And it’s sort of what Richard Scarry did. He had a figure called Goldbug, and it was this tiny little bug that was painted gold. And he would appear on different pages, not necessarily every page, but he might be behind the red fire truck, or on the hook and ladder, or he might be by the tractor trailer on a page. And so, you’d turn and because there’s so many illustrations on each page, you’d be looking at it, and we would say “Where’s Goldbug?” And we’d try to find where gold bug was. So in addition to my sons being interested in the transportation aspect of the book—just because they are boys—they’re looking for Goldbug.
When we put this together I threw out the idea, where is Milo? Is he hiding behind the bush, is he over by that meadow, is he down the river, is he in the boat? Working with the illustrator, we decided to put Milo in different spots so each time the child turns the page, they can not only read about a place, they can also try to find Milo.
I also like Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are. It was a real classic; it was a big one. And I enjoyed reading that to the kids. I also liked Miss Spider’s Tea Party by David Kirk. It’s beautifully illustrated, it’s a fun story. There is one I remember from when I was a kid. I tried to find this for you, but I can’t. I believe the book was called Eric and Matilda, and it was about two swans. That I remember reading a lot as a kid and I got older and read different kinds of books. I used to read Ellery Queen, books about a boy whose father was a detective, but the boy would help his father solve the crimes. I remember plowing through a lot of those.
[CW] I haven’t read the swan one, but when I was a kid I remember The Very Hungry Caterpillar.
[CJ] Yeah, that’s a great book. And it goes on generation after generation. So that’s what you start kids on. They can’t really read, but they appreciate the picture book.
[CW] Your book mixes animals and the history of Georgia. How did you balance them both to appeal to the youngest age group of your audience?
[CJ] The book is more about geography than history. It includes elements of history in it, so different places have a historical base in them. But, when you say “A is for Atlanta the capital of the city,” that’s just designated for what’s the capital of the state. Or “A is for Amicalola.” Well, why do we need to know that? Because it’s a really beautiful waterfall. So really, the geography is the most important aspect of it and if there’s been a historical element in the rhyming the couplet, then so be it.
What do children tend to like? They tend to like animals and what is the state bird? Well it’s the brown thrasher. We decided to come up with two birds, a boy and girl. They can fly around the state and they’ll introduce you to the state butterfly, the state freshwater fish, the state saltwater fish, the state mammal, and so forth. And all the state animals make appearances in different sections in the book, so that’s the fun and engaging part of it.
When I worked with the illustrator and the Press, we storyboarded. Augusta is known for what: the masters golf tournament. So we decided to put the birds on a golf course. And they have golf clubs and they have golf shoes and they have caps on. When we get to Dahlonega, what is Dahlonega known for: the site of the first gold rush. So now the birds have miner’s hats and picks and they’re going out there and searching for gold. We’ve had fun taking the animals and kind of anthropomorphizing them, and putting them to do things they wouldn’t, thing they can’t do. When we get to Lake Lanier for example, they’re zippin’ around on jet skis. That’d be fun for kids. So we were trying to figure out how to take these animals and put them in a way that young readers will say “I want to look at a picture of a bird riding on a jet ski, that would be kind of fun.”
[CW] What tips can you give to aspiring children’s books authors?
[CJ] I’ve been thinking about this book for a long time. Somebody reminded me that it was even longer than I’d remembered. But that’s all that I was doing, all that I was thinking about. Once I started writing it down, it became much easier. If I set aside time on a regular basis, to just start writing things, then that makes it so much easier. For me, especially the first time I wrote it down, it’s not perfect. It’s not the way it’s going to end up, but it’s there. It’s something for me to work with, so I think that’s the most important thing for me. I think that’s the most important thing for any aspiring author; you have to start producing text. Once you start producing text, then you’ve got something to work with and build on, and it won’t take too long before you realize you’ve got a book.
Once I’d covered all the letters of the alphabet and plugged in what I thought were the most significant places that would fit in with the way the book is laid out, I submitted it to the Press and started working with the editors. They gave me some great feedback and changed some of the language, we added some places that weren’t initially a part of what I was doing, and we took some out. Once I had enough text to share with somebody, then I could get feedback and that helped me shape it in different ways. To me, the most important thing is to just get started and start putting some stuff down.
[CW] I like that answer; “just get started.” That’s one of my problems with my writing. It’s there, but it’s not out there.
[CJ] I think one of the mistakes some people make is they talk about what they’re going to do. I prefer not to talk about it so much as I prefer to keep it to myself until I’m actually producing something. Then, once I’ve produced enough to share, then I’m willing to put it out there. If I spend all my time talking about it, I won’t have that pent-up energy, that desire to put it together and get it out there. That’s what works for me.
[CW] Was there something interesting you learned about Georgia after writing the book that you didn’t already know?
[CJ] I didn’t know there was a Zebulon or Quitman. Or that the water tower in Folkston had a big alligator on it. I’ve learned about places that I didn’t know about. As I said, I’ve lived here a long time and I’ve visited a lot of places. I set up a formula for the book and realized “what do I want to do with the letter J or K?” J, Jekyll Island, I know Jekyll Island. I used to vacation there every summer with the boys. It’s a terrific place. I knew some things but other things I had to learn. That’s part of the excitement.
It’s also built up a desire to go visit some of these places. I did not realize how nice a town Dublin is, but I had read about it in an article about the best small Southern towns you didn’t know about. I read it and pulled up the town website and looked at what the city wanted to say about itself. In the process of doing research and putting things together, I learned a lot about this state. Even though I live here, there’s still many places I need to visit.
[CW] Which location in the book is your favorite and why?
[CJ] I don’t think I have a favorite location. What I can say is the way this book got started, was as I’ve said, I’d been thinking about doing a children’s book for a while, and the premise of this book came when I was driving back from the Atlanta airport.
I live north of Atlanta, so I always have to drive through the city. When you come around the connector, you take a bend, and then the city skyline is there. I was driving one time, and it just hit me: A is for Atlanta, the capital city, bright lights in the night make it shiny and pretty. Once I had that one, I knew what the book was going to look like. So in a sense, Atlanta will always be special to me because that’s what got the whole thing started.
I’ve lived and worked in Dahlonega many years now; I’m obviously very attached to it. I used to vacation in Jekyll. I’ve visited Savannah. I’ve been to Valdosta and Rome. All sorts of place around the state, so I don’t have one particular favorite as much as I really enjoy the people who live here and what the state offers.