Experiences worth a pretty `Penny'

Children's author Jennifer Holm revels in Newbery Honor for story inspired by her mother


March 25, 2007|By Carolyn Peirce | Carolyn Peirce,Sun Reporter

As a child, on the rare occasions when she wasn't reading, Jennifer Holm could be found roughhousing with her four brothers, playing tag on the family farm in Audubon, Pa., climbing trees or challenging them to spitting contests. Books were a favorite pastime, broadening her horizons, captivating her imagination, offering escape from reality. But in the end, it was the time she spent with her family that fueled her art.

Holm, a children's writer, has drawn upon those family experiences again and again to inspire her professionally. This year, the 38-year-old was awarded a John Newbery Honor, a prestigious children's literature prize, for her 2006 novel Penny From Heaven. In 2000, her first novel, Our Only May Amelia, also was awarded the honor.

Each year, the Association for Library Service to Children gives the medal to one winner and honors several close competitors. This year's top prize went to Susan Patron for The Higher Power of Lucky; Holm was one of three authors to receive an honor.

"The honor is simply a way to designate other books that are truly distinguished as well," says Diane Foote, who is the association's executive director. "It's too hard to choose just one because of the wealth of good children's books."

On a late-winter afternoon, Holm lounges on the sofa with her hand across the impressive girth of a black cat named Princess Leia. "My husband named her," Holm laughs, "We share a love of Star Wars." (Holm and her husband, Jonathan Hamel, danced to the theme from the Star Wars cantina scene at their wedding.)

Relaxing in her Fallston home, the author, who is expecting her second child, takes a break from overseeing her 3-year-old son, Will. It took Holm three years - during which she grappled with the sleepless nights and crowded days of early motherhood - to complete Penny From Heaven.

The coming-of-age story tells of a 12-year-old tomboy who has grand plans of spending the summer of 1953 swimming with her cousin and listening to Dodgers' games. But her mother's fear of polio puts the swimming pool off limits, and a broken arm (injured in the wringer of the washing machine) lands Penny in the hospital.

Holm's protagonist is modeled on her own mother, Beverly Ann Holm, who is nicknamed Penny. The author incorporated into her tale bits and pieces from her mother's stories about her Italian-American family. "These were always things we talked about; we just never thought other people would find them interesting," says Beverly Ann Holm.

Although her mother inspired the novel, Holm also infused her character with autobiographical touches. "I feel like I'm a perpetual 12-year-old because I liked being that age. I hated becoming a teenager," Holm says. Growing up in another era, however, was something about which Holm knew little; to tell Penny's story, she needed to learn about the 1950s.

Kneeling before an overstuffed bookshelf, she reveals her sources: the pink pages of a guide to '50s fashion filled with the pictures that inspired Penny's wardrobe (including the outfit she wears on the book's cover).

And Holm also pulls from the shelves recordings of the once-popular Fibber McGee and Molly radio show, remarking upon her newfound appreciation for the word "swell." The shows helped her understand "how they talked and what they talked about," she says. Holm also consulted the 1953 World Series on DVD.

"It's hard to write for kids because you have to think like them," says her mother. "She does. She spends so much time with them and they like her. ... She's the kind of person who, when she comes into a room, a light goes on. She just lights it up."

At 29, Holm wrote her first novel, Our Only May Amelia. The book was translated into several languages, including Finnish and Chinese, and staged by the Seattle Children's Theatre.

That book (HarperCollins Children's Books, 1999) relays the adventures of 12-year-old May Amelia Jackson, a pioneer girl. Set in Washington state during the late 1890s, it describes a young girl whose tomboyish hobbies surpass even Penny's.

The novel was Holm's first attempt at writing about her family and proved so successful she used the same model for Penny From Heaven. The characters of Our Only May Amelia are fictitious, but Holm was inspired by her father's Finnish pioneer family after reading photocopies of a great-aunt's diary from the 1800s.

As she thumbed through copies of the century-old writings, "I realized kids were pretty much the same 100 years ago - they just had different things they were grappling with," Holm says. "I transplanted my tomboy-self into the 1800s," and May Amelia Jackson was born.

At this point, Holm was just getting started. In 2001, she quit her job as a broadcast producer for TV commercials and music videos in New York to focus on her writing, producing novels such as The Stink Files, a story about an international cat of mystery (inspired by feline family member Princess Leia).

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