The idea for Jennifer Holm's novel Our Only May Amelia (HarperCollins) emerged from a Christmas present. Six years ago, while unpacking an old suitcase in her grandmother's house, Holm's Aunt Elizabeth found a diary kept by Holm's grand-aunt Alice Amelia Holm when she was a teenager in the early 1900s, living in what is now the state of Washington. Elizabeth typed and circulated the diary as a present to family members a few months later at Christmastime. To Holm's surprise, the diary "wasn't any different from what I would have written when I was that age. It got me thinking what it would be like to grow up as I did with brothers but out in the middle of nowhere in a wilderness at a very exciting time."

Holm, 31, already knew well the setting for what ended up as her debut in children's books, the story of a 12-year-old tomboy with six brothers set in the same time and place captured in the young diarist's record. In the 1870s her Finnish great-grandfather carved one of the first farms into the densely wooded area known as Little Finland, where My Only May Amelia takes place. Although her father, a pediatrician, moved her family from Washington to Audubon, Pa., he loved to tell tales of his childhood adventures, and Holm and her four brothers spent every summer visiting relatives and exploring the creeks and rivers along the Nasel River.

A graduate of Dickinson College, now employed as a commercial producer for the ad agency Ogilvy & Mather in New York City, Holm worked as hard on researching how to structure a narrative as she did researching the history of Washington. She took advantage of her then boyfriend's (they are now married) long hours as a computer programmer to establish a disciplined research and writing schedule. She came home each day for a jog around her Brooklyn neighborhood and then worked on her novel. She gathered information from local historical societies, interviewed family members, and combed her families' oral histories for details of Finnish food, Chinook Indians, logging camps, seafarers and the distinctive characters who formed her cast. When she re-read one of her father's favorite stories in one of the oral histories about Lucy May, her grandfather's notoriously talkative cousin, Holm immediately recognized her spunky heroine.

While some complain about the increasingly competitive and impersonal nature of publishing, Holm raves about the attention she received. Inspired by the young narrator in Kaye Gibbons's Charms for the Easy Life, Holm initially targeted an adult audience for her novel. However, an encouraging rejection from a literary agency suggested she consider children's books. Holm's friend Jill Siegel, a book publicist, passed the manuscript to Dell editors Jackie Cantor and Mitch Solomon, who echoed this recommendation and wrote a detailed letter on finding an agent. Siegel put Holm in touch with Jill Grinberg of Scovil Chichak Galen, who agreed to represent the book and submitted the manuscript to children's publishers. Thrilled at her first nibble from a publishing house, Holm urged Grinberg to accept it, but Grinberg commenced a mini-bidding war that drove Harper's price up 12 times the original offer. "It was wild, like a Hollywood story," Holm remembers.

Holm's editor Ginee Seo "was fabulous," Holm notes, saying that Seo nurtured the manuscript with lengthy letters of suggestions and comments. "May didn't change at all," she says. "But I had originally written the book in diary format and we made it more active. The biggest change was strengthening all the brothers to give each one a well-defined character. I knew in my head that Matti is this way and Isahiah is like this, but it needed to be clearer to the reader."

Speaking at her former elementary school in Audubon proved even more rewarding than seeing bound copies in stores, according to Holm. "They brought my old teachers out of retirement and placed a copy of my book in the library." And the comments from eager readers surprised Holm. "I read the chapter 'How to be a Proper Young Lady,' and one girl laughed and cried out, 'May's not a proper young lady!'"

Holm's second novel, Boston Jane, which is scheduled for publication by HarperCollins next spring, features a 15-year-old girl who travels to Washington in the 1850s to marry her betrothed, but must fend for herself on the frontier when she discovers he has disappeared. Holm enjoyed writing the adventure, but says, "I think you may only have one May in you. For this book I had to plot each chapter. With May, I just sat down and I wrote it--it was like a movie unfolding. And there was so much of me in May."