November 12, 2014

Volunteer of the Month: Q&A with Jane O’Connor


Jane and Nola have been reading together each week for four years.

Jane O’Connor is not only the bestselling children’s book author of the Fancy Nancy series—she’s also one of Read Ahead’s longest-serving volunteers, with over ten years of experience as a reading mentor. In addition to being the author of more than 80 books for children and two adult novels (Dangerous Admissions and Almost True Confessions), she helps bring new writing to students as Vice President and Editor-at-Large at Penguin Books for Young Readers. We talked with Jane about her passion for reading and writing earlier this month and how she hopes to instill this same love in children today.

You’re incredibly passionate about reading and writing. Who read to you as a child?
Primarily my mother—she loved to read long, tragic, romantic poems to me and my sister, along with Dickens and the unabridged Pinocchio. She read to us past the age where we could read ourselves and that was something that I did with my own children. Reading aloud was just something very pleasurable and special that I shared with my mom and that own kids remember fondly.

Jane O’Connor as a fancy five-year-old.

Jane O’Connor as a fancy five-year-old.

What inspired you to volunteer with Read Ahead?
Reading and books are a very important part of my life. My whole career has been devoted to trying in every possible way to make kids lifelong readers; to see reading as pleasure. That’s the purpose of Read Ahead. I’m not necessarily there to teach a Nola how to spell better. I’m there to share and enjoy books with her.

Tell us about your relationship with Nola, the Read Ahead student with whom you’ve been reading for four years.
When Nola started in the program in Kindergarten, she wasn’t reading at all. I remember being blown away when she came back from summer vacation for first grade and all of a sudden, she was reading. I’ve seen her develop into a wonderful reader and I love it. We still take turns reading to each other, but I especially love it when she reads to me. She’s a very dramatic reader—she takes on different voices for characters and I always tell her she is a much more entertaining reader than I am.

I actually made Nola a minor character in my Nancy Clancy, my chapter book series about Nancy as a third-grader.

As a writer, editor, parent, and volunteer, why do you think Read Ahead’s work is so critical at this time?
There are so many more ways to read a book right now. But nothing beats the personal, one-on-one exchange of sitting with a young child and reading a book together. Because when you share a book, it’s more than just reading the words and looking at the pictures. You’re really giving a gift—you’re giving something that you love to somebody else.

What is a book that changed your life?
I’d have to say Madeline. I loved how spunky she was. That she looked like the other 11 girls in two straight lines, but she was very different. I realize that most of the books I’ve written—and certainly Fancy Nancy­—are all about spunky girls. Girls who break out of the mold.

What inspired you to create Fancy Nancy?
One night I was making dinner and the name Fancy Nancy flew into my head. After dinner, I sat down and wrote the beginning and end of the first book. I knew right away that I wanted the character to love life in all its fanciest ways. But she wasn’t going to be a rich, entitled kind of girl. It was going to be a do-it-yourself kind of fancy. I wanted to explore how kids can create their own fantasy of what’s fabulous. It isn’t just how you dress or the way your room is decorated. Fanciness is using five-dollar words and throwing in bits of French and drinking milk with your pinky up.

What kinds of interactions do you have with fans of Fancy Nancy?
I get wonderful letters from kids. They take great pleasure in using multisyllabic words in their letters. Parents and teachers will tell me that that’s what got them so attached to the books—the playfulness with language and just the love of words.