Jane O'Connor, GOOD JOB, GEORGE!

Jane O'Connor, GOOD JOB, GEORGE!

Zibby is joined by children’s book editor and author of the Fancy Nancy series, Jane O’Connor, to talk about her latest picture book, Good Job, George! The two connect over their shared editor and discuss how Jane’s granddaughter inspired her new series, why there may be a crossover between her George and Nancy stories, and the variety of projects she is working on next.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Jane. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your latest book, Good Job, George!

Jane O’Connor: Thanks, Zibby, so much for inviting me. It’s really nice to see you. It’s been a while.

Zibby: It has been a while. For people listening, this is so crazy. When I had my one and only, it turned out, meeting at Penguin Random House with Margaret Anastas, my editor for Princess Charming who was just on our Zoom saying hi to us both, I was sitting in her office. Were you there right when I got there?

Jane: I think I was.

Zibby: I think you were too.

Jane: Besides being a writer, I’m an editor at Penguin Random House, so I don’t just stalk the offices.

Zibby: You were there. She introduced us. I was so excited because I was like, oh, my gosh, I’ve read every Fancy Nancy in the world to my daughter. Seriously, she was obsessed, my older daughter. Then we realized that your son was good friends with my brother, who of course, I’ve known forever, which is crazy. He could’ve mentioned to me that that’s who you were.

Jane: Many connections.

Zibby: Many connections. That’s very exciting. Before we talk about Good Job, George!, your latest picture book, can you back up and just explain how you became — were you an editor first? Were you a children’s book author first? What is your whole trajectory? How did we get here?

Jane: It’s been a long trajectory. I was an editor first. I’ve been an editor in children’s book publishing forever. For a while, I was reviewing books as well between jobs. I was doing some reviewing for The Times Sunday Book Review. The more books I read, the more I wanted to try and write one. The first book that I wrote was a young middle-grade novel called Yours Till Niagara Falls, Abby about a girl who goes to summer camp and is miserably homesick and was very much patterned on nine-year-old Jane. I never went to being a full-time writer. I really enjoyed editing. I did both. Then I was publisher of the mass market imprints at Penguin children’s books for about ten years. I was really wanting to write more. I asked, and they let me go part time and go back to just editing, not being a publisher. That was when I started writing Fancy Nancy. Fancy Nancy was the first picture book I ever wrote. I also wrote the first adult novel that I ever wrote. It’s been now twenty years that I’ve been part time. I get to do both things, which is a great combo.

Zibby: That’s amazing. I just love that. How did you come up with the idea for Fancy Nancy and then now George? Where do these characters come from in your consciousness, if you can even answer that question?

Jane: I can. As Zibby half-mentioned, I have sons. I have two huge grown men but no little girls to play dress-up with or have tea parties with. One night, I was making dinner for my family. All of a sudden, the name Fancy Nancy flew in my head. I got kind of the beginning of it and the end. It was the middle that took me a while. I am not a fancy person. I was not a big doll lover or playing with — but I liked to dress up. Every Sunday when I was five, my grandmother and my great-aunts used to come to visit. I would come galumphing out in a pair of my mom’s high heels and a tutu, dripping jewelry. I thought I looked glamorous. That was the kernel for the idea. I never imagined it would become such a big part of my life. It was loads of fun, and especially going to bookstores where these little divas would show up. It was great. Then almost four years ago, my older son and his wife had a daughter, my first and she might be my only grandchild, but finally a girl in my life. What I noticed was that even when she was five weeks old and she was trying just to smile, it was like, good job. Everything got reinforcement. It was always, good job. As she got older and we’d go to the playground, that’s all I was hearing. Good job. I liked it because I think it makes kids feel important, that they’re doing something worthwhile, whether it’s swatting at a mobile or learning to dress themselves. Every little step is an accomplishment. That’s really where the idea came from. George in Good Job, George! is very proud of himself for everything he can do, but he gets a little carried away and sometimes tries to help when it’s not called for or you’re not really listening to what your mom and dad have told you. It can wind up where you’re in a big mess. That’s sort of the trajectory of Good Job, George!

Zibby: I wonder if I say good job enough. I hope I do. I don’t know that that’s one of my go-to phrases with my kids.

Jane: Your kids are probably too old, I would imagine.

Zibby: Yeah. Although, actually, my daughter who’s almost fifteen was like, “I made my bed.” I guess I was like, “Good job.” Finally, I wanted to say. That’s funny. It’s true, there is this whole culture of praise now. It’s also, you can’t praise people too much. Then you have to praise something specific. We can’t say, you’re such a good artist. It has to be like, you tried really hard at that painting. I love the effort you put into this.

Jane: Positive reinforcement despite talent or not.

Zibby: Yes, crazy. Is Nancy ever going to meet George in this fictious world?

Jane: It’s funny. My agent said to me, “You know, Nancy’s younger sister, JoJo, almost looks the way the artist has portrayed George.” He said, “They look like they’d be friends.” I’ve never thought of having a crosscurrent like that, to be honest.

Zibby: You never know. They could be cousins.

Jane: You don’t know, yeah. I’ve written a second book about George that’s called George to the Rescue that takes place in a playground where, again, he’s sometimes coming to the rescue where no rescue is needed. As you know, Zibby, we have the same wonderful editor, Margaret Anastas. It is great fun to edit and work on a book with her. That’s one of the things I really enjoy as a writer, is just batting ideas back and forth once you have a manuscript to try and make it better. She is super helpful and creative that way. I’m sure you’ve found the same thing.

Zibby: She is. She’s amazing. I am such a huge Margaret Anastas fan. I told her, I was like, “I feel like you need your name on this book, on the front. I feel like we did it together.” She’s like, “No, this is what an editor does.” Okay, great. You being an editor also, you can put that hat on at the same time. It’s almost like your book has two editors right out the gate.

Jane: That can be a problem sometimes. You can start overediting yourself if you’re a writer who’s also an editor. I definitely found that with the first book for grown-ups that I wrote. I must have rewritten the first fifty pages a zillion times. I was driving myself nuts.

Zibby: Tell me more about that book.

Jane: Actually, this brings up another connection we have. My kids went to a school in New York. It was a really good school academically. It put a lot of pressure on kids, and especially getting into college. After my younger son got into college, I suddenly got the idea of writing a mystery where the college counselor winds up murdered at the school.

Zibby: So you were really happy about the college placement?

Jane: I was, but it was this sense of relief and never having to think about it ever again. The book is called Dangerous Admission. The main character is a copyeditor who’s always correcting, mentally, other people’s grammar. Actually, the kind of mistake that a copyeditor would pick up solves the mystery.

Zibby: Love it. Are you going to go back to novels for grown-ups, as you put it?

Jane: I wrote a second one. Now I’m working on a book. I went to Smith a million years ago. Most of the book takes place in 1965 with girls who are very good friends their freshman year, have a huge blowup, stop being friends. Then it’s the same group of characters fifty-something years later going back for their fiftieth reunion.

Zibby: I love that. Amazing. It’s almost like The Big Chill-ish. Did you watch that movie?

Jane: Yeah.

Zibby: That was only a weekend. That sounds great. What was it like developing Fancy Nancy into a show and the fact that you created this character one day and now it’s had this huge lifespan?

Jane: Disney was just fabulous to work for. At the very beginning, they consulted with both the illustrator, Robin Preiss Glasser, of all the Fancy Nancy books and me. Once they got down the basics of the show and how they saw it progressing and what directions they wanted to go in, we really had very little input. They knew what they were doing. I don’t know how to write a TV show or produce it. Except at the beginning, there wasn’t much involvement. They also were writing their own books that were based on episodes of the TV show. I was not working on those either. I got to know the writers and the producers and the main director of the show quite well. They were just wonderful.

Zibby: Wow, how exciting. Is this where you thought your life would go?

Jane: You mean children’s books?

Zibby: Just your whole life. When you were a little girl, did you hope it would go this way? Would you have had any clue?

Jane: I don’t think I had any goals as a child other than to win the next Monopoly game or something. I was not, in college, an ambitious person at all. I fell into my career, really. It was at a time when a lot of jobs were just low-hanging fruit. If you wanted to get into publishing and you were in New York, you could do it. Now it’s much different. I would have needed to be much more goal-oriented if I wanted to get into publishing now.

Zibby: This whole thing has been a bit of an accident.

Jane: Circuitous, let’s say.

Zibby: Circuitous, yes. I love that. Has there been anything from meeting all these young fancy girls and, hopefully, boys — although, I don’t know if you’ve gotten to meet as many — that you’ve taken away and been surprised by or that’s informed your next book?

Jane: With my granddaughter, just being in the playground and watching, there was one little boy in the playground she most often goes to. He was the kind who was sort of in everybody’s business and trying to make sure everybody was doing what they were supposed to be. There were times with Fancy Nancy when I would — I can remember being at one book conference. There was a little girl who had her doll with her. Her doll — it wasn’t that huge a coincidence — was wearing the same outfit as another doll. All of a sudden, I thought, oh, I’ve never done a book about dolls and maybe dolls getting mixed up and ending up with the wrong owner. Other times, there were ideas that popped up. Mainly, it was just how funny the kids were at events and what they would say to you. There was one little girl. It was down South. It was in Oxford, Mississippi, in a bookstore. When she came to get her book signed, she whispered in my ear, “I like to call my underpants my privacy shorts.” I thought, well, that’s fancy. There were just always comments like that.

Zibby: I bet. The doll, wasn’t it Marabelle Lavinia Chandelier or something?

Jane: Oh, yeah, Marabelle Lavinia Chandelier.

Zibby: Chandelier, yes. Oh, my gosh, we read that one so many times. It’s so funny. What would your advice be for aspiring children’s book authors?

Jane: I would say if you want to write a picture book, read as many picture books of the kind of picture book you would like to write yourself. See how the story is structured. I’m not the kind of editor or writer who really would ever be good at doing a mood-piece book. I like something with a beginning, a middle, an end, a real story. What I always do is I page out a manuscript when I’ve got a whole rough copy of it and see if something is happening from page to page. If it’s not, if it’s just talking heads, you don’t have a picture book. You need action. You almost can think of spreads as being like chapters where often, something is left a little hanging. Then you turn the page, and you find out what happened. I would read a lot. Most picture books are thirty-two pages and start on page four/five. Just see if you can lay out what you’ve written. Does it add up to a thirty-two-page picture book? The other thing I would advise is not to get too message-heavy. You want a story to have meaning, but I don’t think there are many children who like to get preached to. I’ve come across an awful lot of books, manuscripts in my career where they’re really a message, and a pretty obvious message. You want meaning through what happens to a character. The character is the most important thing, and what happens to that character. That will have meaning, but it should be in the background where you’re reading to find out what happens next, if that makes sense.

Zibby: It does. That’s good advice. Last question. What are some of the books that you’ve worked on as an editor?

Jane: Now I mostly work on a series that I created about, I think it’s almost twenty-two ago. They’re biographies for kids seven to eleven. The series originally was called Who Was? It still is called Who Was? but we added on What Was? books and Where Is? books. Each one, they have black-and-white illustrations. They’re 112 pages. Again, they’re strong on narrative, not just reeling off the facts of a person’s life or what happened at the Battle of Gettysburg, but a strong narrative pull to keep readers wanting to find out what happens next. There are now three hundred books in the series.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Of course, I know the series. Wow, that’s exciting. Amazing. Jane, thank you. This is really exciting. When I was on the floor all those years that I wasn’t working and I was at home and reading the Fancy Nancys a thousand times a day, the idea that off now in the future ten years later I’d get a chance to interview you, it’s pretty exciting.

Jane: It was wonderful to talk to you. Again, I’m very happy for you with Princess Charming. I’m sure it’s the first of many to come.

Zibby: Thank you. Thank you so much. From your mouth to Margaret’s ears. I’ll see you at our event soon.

Jane: Buh-bye. Thanks.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Jane O'Connor, GOOD JOB, GEORGE!

GOOD JOB, GEORGE! by Jane O’Connor

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