When Jennifer Ward reads a children’s book, it’s more like a performance, full of dramatic lines, facial expressions and even sound effects.
The former teacher particularly enjoys reading her own books, such as “There was an Old Martian who Swallowed the Moon” (Two Lions, $16.99), released last month. She is raring to take it on the road to schools and libraries.
“I have a passion for children’s books,” Jennifer said. “It’s fun to share a passion. I read children’s books to adults, too — when they’ll listen.”
Jennifer, 51, has kept a low profile since moving back to Edwardsville eight years ago to be closer to her parents. But she is a big name in children’s literature with more than 800,000 copies of her 21 books in print.
Several have won prestigious awards, and many have been translated into other languages. Some teach children to count. Others are just silly.
“She’s mostly known for her nature-inspired picture books, but she also has written parenting books,” said her California-based literary agent Stefanie Von Borstel. “‘I Love Dirt!’ has been wildly popular. It gives specific activities to help parents connect their children with nature.”
Jennifer recently returned from a ribbon-cutting in Arizona, where Buckeye Public Library’s new Coyote Branch modeled its children’s reading room off her book “There was a Coyote who Swallowed a Flea (2007).”
The city’s mayor bought 260 copies to give to families. Jennifer and illustrator Steve Gray signed autographs for four hours.
“That has been my favorite children’s book since it was published,” said Library Manager Jana White. “The graphics, the story — it’s just so cheery. And it really reflects the West, where we are. When I found out my grandson was being born, that’s the first book I bought him.”
Jennifer’s books are available for $9 to $14.50 from booksellers on amazon.com.
Jennifer and her four sisters grew up in Southern California and Edwardsville. Their father, Paul Sultan, taught economics at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. Mother Charlene was a lab technician who dabbled in painting.
Jennifer started writing books as a child, complete with illustrations of her dogs or horses, on stapled notebook pages.
“She always had an imagination,” said Charlene, 83. “In one of her books, our two dogs and the neighbor’s dogs went swimming, and the female had on a polka-dot bikini. Then they went to Vanzo’s (tavern). That was the old Vanzo’s. It was really funny.”
Today, Jennifer credits her parents with focusing on the big picture, not her spelling or punctuation errors. She thinks such negativity would have caused her to quit writing.
Paul and Charlene must have had a premonition about their daughter’s future as an author, judging by what Paul wrote when he gave her a copy of “Carl’s Christmas” by Alexandra Day.
“Your mother and I see in this book the prototype for your own artistic creativity — a love for life’s children and animals, too,” he wrote. “We want to share your volumes in years ahead.”
Jennifer graduated from Edwardsville High School in 1981 and earned a teaching degree at University of Arizona. She ended up staying in Tucson, working as an elementary school teacher for 12 years.
Jennifer always wanted to write a children’s book, but it was a school visit by author Byrd Baylor that lit her fire.
“I was so excited because I had never met an author before,” she said. “I watched her give a presentation to my class in the library, and I was just in awe. I thought, ‘This is what I want to do.’”
Jennifer wrote her first book, “Way Out in the Desert” (co-authored with a friend, T.J. Walsh), to the tune of the classic children’s song “Over in the Meadow” in 1998. She checked out a library book with instructions on how to type a manuscript, compose a cover letter and send them to publishing companies.
“I did that over the summer,” she said. “By the time school started, I was contacted by a publisher who said, ‘We want to publish your book.’ So I didn’t get any rejections right off the bat.”
“Way Out in the Desert” was followed by “Somewhere in the Ocean” (2000), “Over in the Garden” (2002) and “Way Up in the Arctic” (2007), all to the same tune.
Jennifer retired from teaching to concentrate on her literary career. Some of her most notable awards include the International Reading Association/Children’s Book Council Children’s Choice Award, Giverny Award for Best Non-Fiction Picture Book and Teacher’s Choice Award.
She also won the Judy Goddard Award from Libraries Limited for her body of work and contribution to Southwestern children’s literature.
“Her last book, ‘Mama Built a Little Nest’ (2014), has been very successful,” Stefanie said. “It won several awards.”
It takes years for Jennifer’s books to go from concept to hardback. After she turns in her manuscript, publishers must give illustrators, marketers and printers time to do their work.
Jennifer writes on her laptop in the kitchen or family room, often listening to classical, alternative or ’70s music. Most completed manuscripts are three or fewer double-spaced, typed pages.
“I spend months tweaking and revising,” Jennifer said. “Every word is so weighted (and most books feature rhymes). I never send my publisher a first draft. I let it sit and come back and read it with fresh eyes.”
Jennifer is engaged to Charlie Fowler, a fellow Edwardsville High graduate who works as a risk manager for a construction company. She has one child, 22-year-old daughter Kelly Ward, who attends SIUE.
Their large home sits at the end of a cul-de-sac, backed by woods. It’s accented with artwork and natural objects, such as driftwood and rocks. Jennifer’s model horse collection from childhood lines the top of bookshelves in her office.
She’s excited about spring, as it will allow her to get back to her hobbies of walking, jogging, camping, canoeing, hiking, gardening, bird-watching, taking photos and playing with her two dogs.
“She’s just a sweet, considerate, helpful person,” her mother said. “And I’m proud of her authorship of all those books. I wish she would illustrate a book. She’s a very good artist.”