Children's book author Jen Calonita visited fourth, fifth, and sixth grades recently to talk about her "secrets of the trade" and how she became a writer even though she disliked reading as a child. Her latest release, The Retake, revolves around Zoe, a sixth grader who discovers a time travel app on her phone.
"This is my twenty-ninth book – I can't believe it!" said Ms. Calonita. "I had to count them all this week. Don't think it comes easy; it's a process."
In fourth grade, Ms. Calonita was a reluctant reader who dreaded reading aloud in class. "I tripped up my words," she said. "I worried that my classmates would laugh if I mispronounced a word."
Then her teacher suggested reading about topics that interested her, like funny adventure stories, instead of picking titles her friends selected. When she found Judy Blume's Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, it was lights out. "I thought it was hilarious, the best book ever," she said. "I wanted all her books about Peter and Fudge. Once I branched out, I started to enjoy reading, and I didn't look at the clock anymore."
As she read more, she wrote more. Then an illustrator, Steven Kellogg, visited her class and signed her copy of his book, Molly Moves Out. "It was the first time that I thought about what it would be like to be an author," she said. In high school, she wrote hand-written chapter books, but gave up because the process proved too difficult.
After graduating from Boston College, she became a magazine editor for Teen People, and met celebrities, like Justin Timberlake, Pink, and Dwayne Johnson, also known as The Rock. That's when an idea for her first book hit.
"I wondered what it would be like to be The Rock on a day off when you don't want anyone to bother you when you run out for milk," she said. "Then I thought of a 12-year-old version of The Rock, who was in a movie and had to do homework and had an invitation to a birthday party but was going on the Tonight Show." This became the seed for her first title, Secrets of My Hollywood Life.
"Ideas come out of your own life, write about something you're passionate about," she said. One of her series, Twisted Tales, stemmed from her love of Disney and fairytales. In Mirror, Mirror – the 2020 Teen Choice Book Award Winner – she set out to answer the question: What if the Evil Queen poisoned the prince instead of Snow White?
Ms. Calonita's stories include four ingredients in her secret sauce for success. Engaging characters, an exciting premise, juicy conflict, and the ultimate villain. Always, her goal is to make the reader keep turning the page.
Along with her GSB visit, Ms. Calonita is following in the footsteps of the author and illustrator who inspired her as a young girl. All GSB students on the Zoom call will receive signed book plates for her newest release, The Retake.
She left the talk with inspiring advice to our budding authors. "If you enjoy writing, keep at it!" she said. "You never know where it's going to lead!