Jenkins’ third book about these singular pals is Toys Come Home, its events occurring before those in Toys Go Out and Toy Dance Party. The new book offers young readers insights into what happened to Sheep’s ear and how Stingray came to find her place on the high bed with fluffy pillows.
Discover other buddy stories for chapter-book readers.
You’ve written widely and for a variety of ages. What are the pleasures and challenges of writing books for this younger audience?
I don’t think of the writing as very different. The length is shorter, but as you can tell, I’m not modifying my vocabulary, just trying to write honestly about complex feelings people have, though in this case, I’m assigning those feelings to animals. Fear of rejection, ambition, jealousy, working on a creative project together—I explore human complexities whether I’m writing for little people or for big.
I split my time writing for teens and kids. I find that the different forms keep me on my toes. So I don’t settle too comfortably into a feeling of “now I know how to do my job.” I find the variety’s much more terrifying and more interesting and more likely to produce good work.
I read in your bio that your father is a playwright. How do you think that might influence your work?
I spent a lot of time sitting in the back of theaters watching plays and rehearsals from an early age. I watched things take shape…essentially through writing, rewriting, delivering lines differently, and I learned that staging a show is a lot like revising a manuscript—a lot of small changes in pacing and intonation add up to a very different result. I am a heavy, heavy reviser.
In your acknowledgements, you say that illustrator Paul O. Zelinksy draws your characters exactly the way they appear in your imagination, “only better.” Can you tell me a little about your collaboration?
A lot of times illustrators and writers never meet. But after the first Toys book was published, Paul Zelinsky and I toured together and became good friends. We worked together on school presentations, and we live near each other and volunteer at the same public school. So now I’ve been to his studio; for the second book, there’s a rubber shark, and though the other animals come from my imagination, I own that shark…actually. She lived at his place for a while so he could draw her.
So for the second two books, I saw a few advance sketches, but I don’t have too much to say. He’s phenomenal at what he does. Paul is a very astute storyteller as well as artist. I just wish there were more pictures!
In a biographical essay, you described your writing process as holing up in a small office with two aging cats. Is that still the same?
No, that’s changed. I have an enormous office now and, sadly, only one cat. I moved on up in that respect. But I also work a lot in coffee shops. There are endless opportunities to do other kids of work at my house…forms to fill out, mess to pick up, always something. I do get out into coffee shops just to demarcate the line between work and home time. Sometimes I meet writer friends, work opposite them. There’s someone writing a novel across the table—I better get it together!
Do you find it hard to get the voice of a stuffed animal, say Stingray, right?
The stingray is not such an unusual character for me. A lot of my characters are like her, hyper-verbal and prone to letting their imaginations run wild…that’s true of my teen and animal characters alike. Sometimes it can be hard for me to find the voice and hard to get book going until I do, but in terms of these three main characters, these guys were pretty organically coming from aspects from my own personality.
I do lots of school visits and ask students who their favorite characters are. I say, Stingray’s my favorite, who else picked her? But no one besides me ever likes her best! I tell the kids Stingray’s like me—a bossy-boots know-it-all who wants to be the one who always knows what’s going on. Over time, I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut…but I let that side of me come out with Stingray, turn it up to 11 and really max it up!