On Balance: Parenting and Education

Passion, Tough Times and Doughnuts with Jessie Janowitz

December 04, 2020 Blue School / Jessie Janowitz Season 2 Episode 7
On Balance: Parenting and Education
Passion, Tough Times and Doughnuts with Jessie Janowitz
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode, Dawn Williams speaks with middle grade author Jessie Janowitz about her book The Doughnut Fix. The Doughnut Fix tells the story of a twelve year old and his family who suddenly move from New York City to upstate New York and how finding your passion can empower children through tough times. Jessie shares her inspiration writing the book, how it might support families going through changes now, and the joy of families reading and sharing stories together.

Visit Blue School's website to learn more about our education philosophy and how to apply. BlueSchool.org

DAWN: Welcome to On Balance, a podcast for parents created by Blue School educators. We know that even in ideal circumstances finding balance can be a challenge, and now so many of us are finding that our work, home, school, and parenting lives are more tangled than ever. We see you, and we’re here to partner with you. Blue School is an independent school in New York City that has successfully pioneered a balanced educational experience, empowering children to be creative, analytical, joyful, and compassionate. 

I’m Dawn Williams, Blue School’s Director of Enrollment, and proud parent of a Blue School graduate. Every week I will be talking to an educator, a Blue School advisory board member, or a special guest about today’s ever changing landscape, and how we can help each other find our footing. Whether you’re the parent of a toddler or a teenager or anything in between, we’re glad to be on this journey with you. Together we’ll find our way. 

Today I am so happy to be joined by Jessie Janowitz. Jessie is the author of the middle grade books The Doughnut Fix and The Doughnut King, both are Junior Library Guild selections. The Doughnut Fix was a nominee for the Nebraska Golden Sower Award, Oklahoma Sequoia Award, South Carolina Children’s Book Award, and Pennsylvania Young Readers Choice Award. Jessie, welcome to On Balance. 

JESSIE JANOWITZ: Thanks so much, I’m really happy to be here. Thank you for inviting me. 

DAWN: Of course. Maybe it’s cliche to say how much one likes and wants to hang out with people in a book, but I wanted to crawl into your books, The Doughnut Fix and The Doughnut King, and cook, and talk, and play with this family. So The Doughnut Fix centers on a family, and especially a twelve year old, who moves suddenly from Manhattan to upstate New York, and it just couldn’t feel more timely. Could you share what sparked you to write this book when you did? 

JESSIE: Sure. There were actually a lot of different things that inspired me to write the book. But in terms of I think what you’re talking about, and how it relates to today, I would have to say the 2008 financial crisis, and particularly the way it hit New York City. And seeing the ways that it impacted our kids. We don't think about the fact that something like the financial crisis, even if a kid isn’t put into a dire circumstance, is really impacted by something like that. But it does trickle down, and I felt like there weren’t a lot of books that I had seen recently that tackled a family dealing with something like a financial crisis or a loss of a job, and how kids would have to adapt in it. 

And I wanted it to be something that also was funny, wasn’t scary, could help kids process something like this in a healthy, unthreatening way. I guess in part I thought about some of the older Beverly Cleary books. I don’t know if you remember, Ramona’s dad goes back to school, and —

DAWN: Absolutely, yeah. 

JESSIE: Right? And his mom has to go back to work. And Ramona has to end up staying with her friend’s grandmother in the afternoons, and she — and her parents ask her to do this and understand that this is a way that Ramona needs to adjust during the situation. And that always stuck with me, and I really wanted kind of a modern day version of that. Specifically, there were kids who literally disappeared from my son’s third grade class in the middle of the year. 

And I would say, “Where did so and so go?” And my son would say, “Oh, they moved to Vermont to live with his grandmother for a while.” And it was clear neither my son nor these kids had been given the whole story. And so that also kind of prompted me to think about what happens when kids get kind of half the story, and how did they adjust to that. How much did they demand more information, how much do their self-preservation instincts prevent them from demanding more information because they recognize that they’re just not ready for more information. so it doesn’t surprise me that it has a feeling of kind of what’s going on today in terms of the pandemic and the financial situation that we’re in as a result of it. 

DAWN: Right, both the financial situation and this — sort of the two worlds of being in New York and then being upstate, with being in the city and being upstate, and I know certainly connected to our family there are so many people who are living that reality of trying to find home in new places, and this book really brought that to me. That it’s hard, and that there’s beauty in it felt really true in this book. 

JESSIE: Absolutely. And the importance of family. Even when — there’s always conflict in family. It takes a lot of compromises and kindness and forgiveness and arguing to — for family. And that was also something I really wanted to show on the page. All the best things about siblings and family dynamics, and all the really complicated things too. 

DAWN: Well the sibling relationships feel so complex and loving and quirky. And I was wondering if there are ways that your life, your family, impacted the characters in these relationships. 

JESSIE: Absolutely. I think as both a kid and a parent, I’ve thought about how we get labeled as kids, or how we label or pigeonhole as parents, and I don’t mean to say that as a negative thing or something that only a few people do. I think we all do it. I think we have tendencies that other people notice, and then certain expectations develop about what we’re going to do. And I think what people forget is kids change so much, and that when we start expecting things, we start — it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy in some ways. 

Whether it’s, oh so and so loves gymnastics, and what happens when Brad wakes up and suddenly doesn’t like gymnastics and everyone expects Brad to like gymnastics, like how does he tell someone. I think — I remember playing the violin for years after I stopped getting enjoyment about — from it, because I thought it was expected. I didn’t know how to tell my parents I didn’t want to play anymore. And I don’t think my parents were doing anything wrong in terms of encouraging me. But I am interested in how those expectations impact kids’ behavior, and maybe make them reticent to try something new. 

Especially when we’re talking about — I mean, I think it can happen with only children, but I think there’s an even more complicated dynamic when you’re talking about multiple children in a household, and one child has a gift that you feel as another child in the family you are distinctly lacking. I think it makes you opt out. And that was something I wanted to show with Tris, the main character, and his relationship with Jeanine. Jeanine his younger sister is a math prodigy, and his reaction to that is whenever there’s any kind of math, like let Jeanine do it because I’m going to make mistakes and she’s not. 

And I really wanted to show in this book how Tris’s motivation to start this doughnut business, because he’s a baker and that’s the thing that gives him real pride and empowerment, that it’s through his love of that that he ends up owning something that normally he felt he couldn’t do. So he ends up wanting to do the budget for his business, because it’s his business. And he finally realizes, you know what, I’m not great at math, but this is my thing and I want to do the whole thing. 

And the other part of that is I think there’s so much pressure, in terms of what I wanted to address in the book as a parent, I feel like there is so much pressure on our kids these days to be great at everything. To be well rounded. And I think grades really reinforce that. It’s not just that we set up expectations, that we expect kids to do really well in one thing, and then they can do fine, you know? As long as they’re meeting expectations in other things. I think that’s a perfectly reasonable way to look at it. 

Like nobody is — excels at everything. We want kids to find their passion. And I think it’s really important that we let kids kind of follow what really drives them, what they’re really passionate about. Because I truly believe it is the only true path to happiness. If you’re choosing to do things because you think other people want you to do them, or because you’re looking for a gold star, or straight A’s, I believe when that framework is taken away and you’re just out there in the world, it’s very hard to find happiness. 

Whereas the kids who discover what really makes them happy, they’re going to find success anyway. If you look at any of the people who have done kind of amazing things, it came through a love of an activity or they were really driven by one thing. Kids who do amazing things are really passionate about one thing. And so I wanted to show a kid who had this one passion, and that one passion allows him to gain greater agency in other areas of his life. 

DAWN: Yeah, I actually just found what he says at the end of that chapter as he does the math, as he like does it by himself, actually as I was reading it, I thought, this is one of those really well said life lessons. “I triple checked my work, and this time I got the same answers. I knew there were probably a few wrong numbers, but they were my wrong numbers. So I was okay with them, because it meant the right ones were mine too, and that felt better than not having any wrong numbers ever would.” That idea that you’re owning your work with its imperfections, with all of the effort in it, feels very, very lovely. 

JESSIE: I think it’s so important. I mean, I really — I wrote this for my kids, for all kids. I think kids would say that they kind of know that, but I think it’s really, really hard to live it. It’s hard to make mistakes, it’s hard to own your mistakes. But without owning your mistakes you can’t own the good stuff either. 

DAWN: Yeah, so the book is about these wonderful people, and then it’s also very much about place. And you have these two places, this like great love for New York City and the foods of our city, and eggs and onions at Barney Greengrass, and hot dogs at Katz, and then so much love for this upstate world, this new world, that the children really are sure they're not going to love and then fall in love with. How were you thinking about balancing those places? And I’m also sort of wondering if you have any thoughts about how families can think about balancing those places right now. 

JESSIE: Oh yeah, I mean we’re dealing with a lot of balancing those places now too. And I think part of it is showing kids how each place has their — its own particular gifts. And creating avenues for them to explore those things on their own. I think in some ways for New York City kids, being out of an urban environment, especially at the age of twelve, where kids are beginning to explore on their own and have this freedom, it’s hard outside of an urban environment because that freedom is taken away. 

And I think kids are mourning, you know, even in the city they’re really mourning this freedom that has been ripped away from them. So I think any opportunity to give kids some freedom is good to the extent that it can happen. But I think also we talk a lot about kind of respecting people, respecting diversity, and respecting different choices of ways to live. But we don’t talk much about rural communities, and how a lot of these rural communities are disappearing. And that is something that I think we need to educate our kids about. And I think they need to find a way to embrace the parts of our country that aren’t filled with cities. I think that’s really important. So in some ways this was also a, hey look at upstate New York, and all these rural agricultural communities that are disappearing. There are some amazing things there, and we should all try to go and rediscover them. 

DAWN: Yeah, it’s so clear that you trust children. They cook and they have big passions, and they work on them. And they are seen and known by their parents and other sort of supportive and quirky adults in their community. But they have real purpose and work of their own. And your first book even ends with, I think you call it a cheat sheet on starting your own business. Can you share some of your thinking about the capabilities of children, about how we can as parents support and scaffold or get out of the way? 

JESSIE: I think a lot of it actually has to do with respecting imagination. Because these first efforts of kids to create something completely independent of what — some structure that we provide for them is by giving them an invitation to invent whatever they want. And not questioning it, buying into it. I feel like the first efforts at creating something completely new comes out of imaginative play. 

And I think that parents who get down on the floor with really young kids, and buy into it, and don’t judge it, whether it’s a kid at the playground saying, you know, this is an ice cream factory, like what kind of ice cream would you like, and immediately buying into that, they’re creating their own reality. They’re experimenting, they’re role playing, they’re trying things on. And how we respond to them in that moment is enormous. And I think that the imaginative play, if we’re responsive to it, if we create kind of like ways for them to make it more real, whether it’s supporting them with gifts that are — fake money, like I remember I got like a silly pad of fake money, fake checks. Or we would go to the bank. I probably shouldn’t — we don’t do this anymore, but I used to go to the bank and fill out forms, you know, for the bank that have like — were in triplicate, and oh my god, like my kids love that. They could create all kinds of stuff out of that. 

And then they use that as a jumping off point to create their own things. Like for example, they — my kids created a library in our house, and there was — you could check out books, and there was a whole like system where they had created library cards. So I think in terms of supporting them, a lot of it is how do we encourage imaginative play. And how do we step back and not give either too much encouragement or too much — or any discouragement. I think what happens a lot is kids get addicted to praise or grades or gold stars, and the way kids learn what they love is when they’re not getting any of that. 

Am I doing this just because I love it, or am I doing this because somebody says good job? Like we all have part of us in ourselves that wants to do something because somebody else says good job. But as we all know, like life — we don’t get good job all the time. And I think the real challenge to set kids on the road to happiness and success is to help them to discover the thing that they keep trying at even when it’s really hard. Even when nobody is saying good job. 

DAWN: Totally. So the business starting cheat sheet that you do, I wonder what the feedback has been. Have you heard from children about some of their businesses that have been inspired by this book?

JESSIE: Yeah, I’ve had some really incredible interaction with kids. So some of it has been live at events where I’ve done a start your own business, kind of Shark Tank event where I have — 

DAWN: So cool. 

JESSIE: So on my website, jessiejanowitz.com, you can download a start your own business activity pack, and it has like a case study of a girl’s business who is starting a slime business, and a boy who wants to start a pet sitting business. And then it has blank forms so that you can figure out what your motto is, what your hook is. It talks about, how do you find what kind of business you want to do, and the importance of starting with something you’re passionate about. 

And so I’ve been able to work with kids through actual live events, which has been amazing. And one really interesting thing that has come out of that is that kids have identified skills that they want to acquire because those skills are necessary to start a business that they want to start. So I’ll just give you an example, like one girl came up with this incredible idea. It was an ice cream truck app that you would be able to look and identify where the closest ice cream truck to you was. And I thought — 

DAWN: That’s so cool. So cool. 

JESSIE: Yeah, I thought that was — I thought that was such a great idea. and so we were talking about it, and I was trying to help her think it through, because one of the — in terms of the work sheets, it says, well what are you going to need for this business. Like she was going to need to learn some basic coding. And that’s the other thing that I think is great about starting your own business, is we learn what skills are useful, like what do you need to know how to do for this business. And that was something, I think she had never thought about coding before, and that was something now she was considering. 

So yeah, I’ve had incredible experiences. And then in terms of the actual businesses, I was contacted by a boy who I ended up Zooming with, because I was so blown away by how much he resembled the main character. And then I ended up connecting him with NPR, and he ended up being interviewed by them. 

He’s an amazing kid. He lives in Alabama, and he contacted me because he said basically, “I am Tris.” And it’s true, his father was — spoke French, his father — which the kids in the book, their dad speaks French, was raised speaking French. And this kid loves baking. And he had started his own pie business. 


JESSIE: Yes, yes. And he had already gotten certain — he’d had to get certified, like from — health wise to sell stuff. His parents drove him to do deliveries. And he paid his parents for the like — right? So that he had actually really thought about the difference between revenue and profit, because he had to pay his parents for mileage that they drove in order to deliver his pies. And so yeah, that was really incredible, and his business sounds amazing. So that was also really fun, to see kids who are — 

DAWN: That’s super cool. 

JESSIE: Yeah, it was really great. It was really great. 

DAWN: I’m thinking a lot about your readers, and how when you write for this age group, you must be thinking both about children and parents. That some children I’m sure are reading your books independently, but some are having the books read to them. I wonder if that impacts your writing. I wonder sort of how you think about that relationship between children and parents and books. 

JESSIE: Absolutely. So it was really important to me that this book was a good family read aloud. 

DAWN: It feels like such a good family read aloud. I feel like I was telling my husband, this was a book that we would have read out loud hundreds of times to our child when our child was younger. It feels like one of those books that you want to say out loud, and you want to hear again. 

JESSIE: Part of that is the language, and I — as I wrote, I read it aloud. And I read it to my kids aloud, chapter by chapter, so that I could tell where they were laughing and where they weren’t. And so that was really beneficial. But I think something I talk about a lot to parents and to librarians, teachers, is especially today when reading for pleasure is down, the power of the first person voice to pull kids. When you have a first person voice that feels like — I mean, like Catcher in the Rye is coming to mind, where you feel like that someone is talking directly to you, and that was when I was thinking about how I wanted the structure of this book, and how I wanted to create like an intimacy between the character and the reader, I really wanted the reader to feel like the character was confessing, was reaching out to the reader, was relying on the reader, and confiding in the reader. Because I think that that creates a trust that pulls the reader in. 

I think that especially nowadays with the incredible intensity and immediacy of visual content, when there’s a third person voice, and the reader feels very distanced from what’s going on in the page, it’s very easy for the readers to put the book down. As opposed to, hey you, I’m talking to you, and you need to listen to my story. There’s this relationship that develops, and I think we talk too much I think to kids about genre when we’re trying to find out what kind of books grab them. And not enough about like how the structure of a book may facilitate their connection to the story. 

And when I talk to kids, and I introduce them to this idea, so many of them end up saying, “Oh yeah, I actually really do like books where the character is talking to me. Huh, like maybe that’s what I should be looking for.” And because it’s often not like what you realize is it really isn’t the genre that makes the difference. Like kids try to make it the genre, because that’s how we have been trained to ask questions. Do you like mysteries, do you like historical fiction. But in reality, that’s not what it is that hooks us, it’s something else. 

DAWN: That’s so true. Your books are full of readers, like the characters are readers, they talk to each other about books. And they are using books for all different kinds of things. There’s like — what is it — it’s not businesses for dummies, starting a business for dummies, but — 

JESSIE: Oh yeah. 

DAWN: And then there’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, your book very much makes me want to re-read The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. I wonder if there are favorite books that you have that you might want to recommend to our listeners and their families. 

JESSIE: Absolutely. Absolutely. So I love The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner, and I don’t know whether your listeners know about her, but she was a kindergarten teacher and her goal was to write a book, a chapter book, that had a real story with kind of emotion in it and adventure, but that actually was told with really basic language. And so for beginning readers, for those kids ready to move on to chapter books, it is such an incredibly satisfying experience to read that book. Because for many kids it’s the first time where they’re like, I am reading a real chapter book that has a real story. But as a family, we listen to The Boxcar Children on audiobooks too, because the other thing that’s great about that book is that it’s kids with real agency living on their own. Kind of making decisions for themselves. So I think that’s an amazing book. 

I love the Ivy and Bean series also for younger kids. Beginning readers. It’s so hard to write books for kids just beginning those chapter books. It’s so hard to write a book that is appropriate vocabulary wise, I feel like for early readers, but that also feels like a real story and doesn’t feel like it’s talking down to the reader. And I think the Ivy and Bean books do an incredible job of that.

In terms of slightly older middle grade, I don’t know if your listeners know Gennifer Choldenko, but she has a book called Al Capone Does My Shirts, and she has a tremendous sense of humor. It’s an amazing male character who feels responsible for his sister, who is neurodiverse. And he takes on a lot of responsibility, and is a totally believable, very funny character. Al Capone Does My Shirts is one of my favorites. 

DAWN: I have never read this book. I am so excited, thank you. 

JESSIE: Oh my gosh, it’s fantastic. And the audiobook is also really good.

DAWN: Awesome.

JESSIE: And When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, I just love, partially because I feel like it really — Rebecca Stead grew up in New York City at the same time I did. And it feels like the New York I know. So from a personal standpoint, I really love it. And then Counting by Sevens by Holly Goldberg Sloan, which is a pretty sophisticated read, it’s an upper middle grade book. But what I love about that book is the expanding notion of family that is included there. And a book that is both heartbreaking and humorous. It’s really excellent if you haven’t read that one too, I can’t recommend it highly enough. But you’ll need tissues, I promise. 

DAWN: Okay, thank you. I really thank you for the recommendations. And thank you so much for spending this time with us, it’s been such, such a delight to hear you talk about your book. 

JESSIE: Oh, it’s my pleasure. It was great talking to you. 

DAWN: If you share Blue School’s vision of a balanced approach to learning and living so that children can be courageous and innovative thinkers, please take a moment to subscribe and listen in on our weekly discussions. You can also follow us on Instagram and Facebook @BlueSchoolNYC, or visit BlueSchool.org for more in-depth content. We’re sending support and strength to you and your loved ones as you endeavor to create balance. 

If you’re listening to On Balance and are curious to learn more about joining our community at Blue School, please join us at any of the upcoming events including virtual open houses, where you’ll get to hear from our school leaders, have a glimpse into the buildings that comprise our campus, and take a deep dive into the beliefs and values that comprise the foundation of our school. Just visit BlueSchool.org to register.