Student Spotlight: Jennifer Sulkowski
This Student Spotlight features Jennifer Sulkowski, who is pursuing her PhD in Public Health with a focus on community outreach and education. Fluent in Swahili and interested in the role of literacy and education on local health in developing countries, Jennifer saw a way to create social change in Eastern African by writing a book for children that would reflect their lives and experiences. Her book, A Pony Named Napoleon, was published in July 2013, and all of the proceeds and royalties go directly to Joy Beginners School in Nairobi.
What inspired you to write A Pony Named Napoleon?
In Michigan, I live and work on a horse farm that is also home to many abandoned and abused animals, including a zebra (who makes his debut in the book). I really admire the animals—they’ve been through so much and have no reason to trust humans or each other, but they do. It is amazing to watch them play and be free and forget about what once hurt them, so I end up taking lots of pictures of them playing together in the pastures or enjoying the comfort and safety of the warm barn at night.
My other home is Kenya, where my lovely Kenyan family lives and works to keep Joy Beginners School running in Kangemi Slums, which is outside of Nairobi. My Kenyan family and my students are why I wrote the book. When I got back from a trip to Kenya this past May, I realized Joy Beginners School needed help, and I was determined to come up with some sort of way to help the students. I wasn’t comfortable asking people for money, so I had the idea to write a book that could raise money for the school, if I found a publisher. I selected what I thought were the most interesting photos of the farm animals, and I knitted them together with a fairytale about friendship, acceptance, and bullying. I was excited about the real pictures because I hoped kids would see that fairy tales can be real, and I tried to write a story with a universal message, so that my Kenyan students could relate to it just as well as my little nephew here in the United States.
Tell us about how the book came to be.
I thought I would write the book and if no publishers were interested, I would just go to Kinko's and make 330 copies. If nothing more, the children would have their own makeshift storybook sent to them. But that's not what happened. An indie publisher, Inkwater Press, was interested in my book and published A Pony Named Napoleon with some requested revisions.
What is your writing process?
To be honest, my writing process is a bit all over the place. I wrote A Pony Named Napoleon in two nights, including the time it took to factor in the revisions requested by the publisher. I have another children’s book I am hoping to get published within the next few months. The publisher has approved it, but I have yet to find an illustrator for all the animals in the story, so if there are any talented Walden artists out there, I’d love to hear from and collaborate with you! That book also only took me a night or two to write. However, I have a young adult novel that I’ve been working on for years! It’s nowhere close to being done. I do keep various journals and logs and a blog and I have lots of scraps of paper with notes and ideas that I jot down when I see something interesting or meet someone interesting, so if I’d just sit down and put all of those together, my novel might be finished, too!
Do you have a favorite strategy or resource that you use to help strengthen your writing?
The Walden Writing Center! But it’s also important just to write, and practice. And read, too. I love reading storybooks and old novels (used bookstores are like Wonderland!) because then I’m reminded about what’s really possible in writing…which is anything. If you can dream it, you can write it. Sometimes, you need to get lost in someone else’s writing before you’re brave and bold enough to create your own.
What aspect of writing do you find the most challenging?
The editing process is incredibly painful for me because I am always over the word count/page limit. I confuse thoroughness with redundancy. Peer review is essential for polished writing, but even the most constructive of criticisms can be tough to take sometimes. I think that’s okay because it just means that you’ve written what you love (or rather, you love what you’ve written), but you have to be flexible and be willing to make changes so that it’s polished and presentable to the rest of the world. Truly, it’s a sign of respect to your audience, and when I think about it that way, criticism is easier to take. Sometimes, though, I still have to sleep on it for a night (or two!) before swallowing my pride and fixing what desperately needs to be fixed.
How would you compare writing scholarly papers to writing a book for children?
In my experience, both types of writing require you to know your audience and what you are trying to accomplish with your writing, given that audience. I think peer review and working with editors are essential for any type of writing.
There is more freedom in creative writing, especially for children, because anything is possible, and you don’t have to spend any time convincing kids of that. That makes for a neat space to tell a story. Scholarly writing is more rigid, of course, and you usually have to be objective and follow a specific format. When I was in Boston this past week for Walden’s APHA professional conference residency, however, I learned that there are different formats for delivering scientific messages. For example, some presenters told stories or showed video clips, instead of using PowerPoint slides, and the audience walked away from those sessions giving rave reviews because they were effectively different.
Do you have any advice or words of wisdom for fellow students interested in writing for social change?
The biggest lesson I’ve learned at Walden is to “think outside the box,” especially when you’re trying to make a difference or start something new.
One of the best lines of advice I’ve ever received was from a Cornell philosophy professor who always told us to “sin boldly.” He told us to be bold in our writing and our ideas, even if it meant we’d have to break a few…or a lot…of rules. It wakes people up and it changes their thinking, which usually sparks inspiration, and then in this way, you’ve created social change.