Released a few weeks ago, Jasmine A. Stirling’s “A Most Clever Girl: How Jane Austen Discovered Her Voice” is different from your typical biography of the beloved authoress. It is a picture book with beautiful illustrations and text written with young readers in mind. Stirling, who will be speaking at this year’s JASP, spoke with us about her work.
You have written a biography of Jane Austen’s life for children and their families to read. What inspired this project?
When I set out to write this book, I chose Jane Austen because I admire her life and her work, and because I believe she is one of the most misunderstood women in history. Jane Austen was far from being the prim, prudish, “dear Aunt Jane” depicted by her brother Henry and her nephew Edward in their biographies of the author. She is also far from being an author of swoony romances, as we are sometimes led to believe.
These discrepancies between the popular image of Austen and the real Jane Austen gripped me. I wanted to help young people understand Austen the rebel, Austen the humorist, and Austen the artist, so that when they encountered her work later on, they might better be able to fully appreciate and enjoy it.
However, as I delved into my research, it became clear that Jane Austen was a perfect subject for a children’s book about creativity and persistence, because her upbringing, life struggles, and triumphs tell us a great deal about what a writer needs in order to fully master her craft. Of course, I still hope that “A Most Clever Girl” will help kids relate to the real Jane Austen and encourage them to pick up her novels when they get a little older.
In your book, you suggest that although Jane’s wit makes her novels fun, it’s her wisdom that makes them good. That’s a very deep insight. Tell us how you came to that conclusion.
I think Austen’s unique combination of wit and wisdom, realism and fantasy, make her irresistible to readers. Personally, I find Austen’s philosophical reverence for balance refreshing, and I think it is one of the reasons we keep coming back to her work.
For example, while the Romantics in Georgian England held that finding a life partner should be driven by one’s most passionate feelings, and the traditionalists insisted that wealth and status govern one’s assessment of a potential mate, Austen championed a classical, Aristotelian philosophy of balance between emotion and reason when choosing a partner for life. The successful coming of age of an Austen heroine hinges on her learning to discern the true nature of a suitor, not simply the appearance he projects. It also often requires that she look beyond her emotional impulses and fall in love with a man’s character and temperament — as in the case of Marianne Dashwood and Elizabeth Bennet, who are initially attracted to handsome, romantic rakes. Finally, an Austen heroine only matures when she learns to temper the extreme aspects of her own character — whether that be an excessive imagination, a tendency to judge others too quickly, a sharp and insensitive tongue, an inability to express one’s deepest feelings — or an inability to hold one’s deepest feelings in check. Because Austen is a master at creating distinct characters and helping us identify deeply with them, we all too quickly see ourselves in her heroines, and hopefully, become more balanced ourselves after watching them stumble, fall, recover, and learn from their failings.
How did you research your book? And what was the hardest part of taking the information and presenting it as a children’s book?
My process was extensive. I read widely on Austen — both primary and secondary sources — for two years before I wrote a single word. Then, I sat down and wrote a draft of the book in less than an hour. Of course, it was mediocre. It was my first attempt at creative writing as an adult. I was a beginner.
Over the next 10 months, I worked for hours each week rewriting and revising the manuscript based on feedback from dozens of people: writers, kids, freelance editors, and agents. I continued to refer to and pull things from primary and secondary sources as I went. Ultimately, I rewrote or revised my initial draft more than 60 times. The final story was unrecognizable when compared with the first draft. One of the things that I think is unique about “A Most Clever Girl” among children’s books is it’s liberal use of and reliance on primary sources. Austen’s letters are used to describe details of her life in three spreads. Actual examples from her juvenilia are referenced right at the beginning of the book. Quotes from her novels are sprinkled liberally throughout the text (in italics) to describe Austen’s own creative journey. Every detail, from what young Jane is reading in the second spread to what she thought about her how brother James cut up his turkey, is grounded in a primary source and laid out on an accurate timeline.
One of the most challenging aspects of writing this book was figuring out how to explain the literary significance of what Jane Austen did — pioneer her witty realist style, rich with social commentary and moral imperatives — to very young people who have no idea what literature was like in Regency England and have scant understanding of what a writer’s voice is all about.
The pictures are beautiful. Can you talk about your collaboration with the illustrator, Vesper Stamper?
In traditional picture book publishing, the editor selects the illustrator and the editor works with the illustrator. My editor at Bloomsbury, Allison Moore, was gracious in including me at every stage of the process: from selecting the illustrator to developing the pagination, spreads, and final artwork. I gave my input to Allison, who also received input from members of the in-house team at Bloomsbury, and she decided what and how to pass along my thoughts to Vesper. Getting an esteemed illustrator like Vesper Stamper to do a book isn’t a given just because an editor wants her to do the project. Allison pitched the manuscript to Vesper’s agent. Vesper had a number of projects from which to select when mine came across her desk. I was fortunate that Vesper is a Janeite and loved the manuscript, and agreed to take on the project. I love that Vesper Stamper visited the sites that she illustrated for the book on an in-depth research trip to the U.K. Her work emphasizes the three-dimensional portrait of Austen I worked hard to evoke in my writing. Vesper's Austen sparkles with mischief and wit. At the same time, her illustrations are gorgeous and lush and tap into that escapism that I think make Austen such a delight for grownups to read. In short, I couldn’t be more thrilled and honored that Vesper agreed to take on this project.
Picture books are a great way to help children interact with literature. Do you have any ideas for activities parents and teachers could do with children when reading your book?
I heartily advocate that parents and teachers make a day of it when introducing “A Most Clever Girl” to young people. Have a Jane Austen tea party, create the Jane Austen paper dolls, which I give away as a free download to anyone who purchases the book, or color these Jane Austen bookmarks. If you have older kids, watch “Clueless,” the new “Emma,” or any of your favorite adaptations together. Talk about “A Most Clever Girl,” read the backmatter, and then talk about creativity, persistence, women’s rights in Georgian England and women’s rights today. Talk about why you like Jane Austen, and what her work means to you.
Also, I wrote this article about teaching writer’s voice to children, which is a great place to start for teachers or parents doing writing workshops with children.
We started communicating when you asked me what my favorite book was as a child. What was your favorite book as a child and how has it influenced your writing style? I was raised by a young single mom who struggled mightily to make ends meet. But my mom was also a poet and a writer, and we had lots of literature, poetry, and word games at home. By age 3 I was dictating a daily poem to my mom. By about 4, I was reading independently and tearing my way through the local library. I loved many books as a child, but “Charlotte’s Web” was my first love. I don’t know if it has impacted my writing style, but I’ve been a vegetarian for about 30 years, so it might have changed how I think about animals.
Your website (jasmineastirling.com) indicates that you are working on a book about the suffrage movement. What can you tell us about that project?
To create the next stage of feminism, we need to retell the stories of the past. I’m working on a YA narrative nonfiction book titled “We Demand an Equal Voice: Carrie Chapman Catt and Votes for Women.” Carrie Chapman Catt may have done more for women’s rights than anyone in U.S. history, and yet so few of us know anything about her. Catt took the tools of capitalism and applied them to one of the most unglamorous, vilified movements in history, transforming it into a fashionable trend that exhilarated and liberated women just by getting them involved. She was, like many of her peers, also unofficially married to a woman, who led the fight right alongside her. Her story — the sweep and depth of it — is incredible. She personally swayed President Wilson to the cause, and commanded an army of 2 million women with ease. She was formidable, strategic, relentless, and complicated. I’m honored to be able to tell her story.
“A Clever Girl” just came out! How did you celebrate its release?
I went on a 40+ stop virtual book tour! I did dozens of interviews, blog posts, podcasts, live events, and wrote several articles on a variety of Austen-related topics. It was a whirlwind, and great fun.
The Jane Austen Summer Program will be virtual this year, as you know, what can we expect from your presentation and what do you hope we take away from your book? For JASP, I will be talking about the underpinnings of my book — the primary sources I used, the difficult decisions I made when interpreting scholarly biographies, and the story structure to which my final narrative adheres. It turns out that my book follows “the heroine’s journey” story structure — a structure repeated across hundreds of legends and myths about women over centuries and across cultures — so I will be talking about that, for example.
I’ll also be talking about the picture book development process more broadly: how a book like this is acquired, produced and designed. And I’ll be answering questions, of course! Thank you for the opportunity to present at JASP and to do this interview! I am honored and excited to participate.
Stirling will discuss her book during elevenses, from 12:15–1:15 p.m. June 17.