Jacqueline West took many roads before landing in the world of children's literature, but she always loved stories with talking animals and magical worlds. While growing up, she was captivated by the work of A.A. Milne, Roald Dahl, Lewis Carroll, and Kenneth Grahame. She now finds herself in their company with the publication of her first novel, The Shadows (Dial).
"I always read a weird and wide variety of authors and books growing up," says West. "I now love Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, Michael Chabon, and Annie Dillard, among others. I like to be broad-minded in my reading."
As an undergraduate, West majored in voice performance at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire. She continued to pursue music in graduate school, where she added a minor in English. "I left graduate school, because I was very unhappy, to pursue an English teaching certificate," she recalls. "The crowds and pressure that came with voice performance were too much."
West then became a high school English teacher, adding it to her varied résumé, which also includes dinner theater actress, waitress, and barista. She is thrilled to now be living in the small town of Redwing, Minn., and to be putting all of her energy into writing. "Writing full-time is absolutely my dream come true," she says.
In The Shadows, the quirky Dunwoodys and their 11-year-old daughter, Olive, move into an old Victorian house. Exploring the house, Olive discovers that she can enter the house's paintings. With the help of a boy inside one of those paintings, she learns that the paintings are but one of the house's dark secrets.
"The idea for my book started with the setting," West recalls. "There was a crumbling old mansion in my hometown that I used to ride by on the school bus. The house fascinated me, and I wondered what kind of people might live in it. That led me to the idea of Olive's eccentric, intelligent family."
Once the book was completed, West sent a few query letters out, and it took a few years to find her agent, Chris Richman at Upstart Crow Literary. "I was so sure that this was never going to happen," says West. "Once I found [him], things happened incredibly fast. Even though the book was initially very short, Chris had some great ideas and publishers were immediately interested."
They decided on Jessica Garrison at Dial, and together West and Garrison fine-tuned the details and found places to add material. "Jess had so many in-depth suggestions," West says. "We worked on character development, plot arc, and right away she suggested making this into a series. I was surprised that people wanted to publish one! But maybe subconsciously I was planning for a series."
At the time the book got picked up by Dial, West was teaching high school, but when she learned that the series would demand one book per year, she quit to focus on writing. "It didn't feel like a decision to write a children's book," West recalls. "I was writing all kinds of things, including some graphic novels that never became anything, and once I finished The Shadows, I was just hoping that it would have a wider audience than my family."
In the sequel, readers can look forward to a new major character (a human friend for Olive) as well as an object in the house that is pivotal to the plot. Also, a character from the first book, who Olive thinks she knows well, has kept some big secrets. An outline for the next couple of books has been prepared, and West is enthusiastically working on new material not tied to the series (including a middle-grade fantasy novel and a young adult book). She tends to work on a lot of projects at once and reads five or six books at a time in order to avoid "getting stuck or being completely lost."
"What I love about writing is that the days when it's going well, I've time-traveled," the author says. "I look up at the clock and it's so much later than I thought, and I have visited a different world and been different people. Writing allows you to have more than one life."