Jennifer Berne is the award-winning author of MANFISH: A STORY OF JACQUES COUSTEAU and CALVIN CAN'T FLY: THE STORY OF A BOOKWORM BIRDIE. Her most recent book is ON A BEAM OF LIGHT: A STORY OF ALBERT EINSTEIN. Jennifer grew up in New York City where she was active in dance and theater as a child. She studied art and design, and worked for Andy Warhol at "The Factory." After a successful career in advertising, Jennifer began writing for NICK JR. MAGAZINE and writing books about the subjects she loves most—our amazing universe and the people who discover its secrets. She lives in a house she designed in the rolling hills of Columbia County, NY. She and her husband spend their summers aboard their sailboat, cruising the coast of Maine. Your new book, ON A BEAM OF LIGHT, tells the story of Albert Einstein. What originally sparked your interest in him as a subject?
Some people are just superstars to me. Einstein is one of them. His combination of being one of the most curious, brilliant, imaginative people ever, with his unpretentiousness, humor and eccentricities… How could you not love that? Even more, his favorite subjects of time, space, light, motion, energy, gravity, the infinitely large and the infinitesimally small are, to me, some of the most exciting and mysterious wonders of our world and our universe.
No matter how much research and reading I did about Einstein, he continually fascinated me. Still does. Which aspects of Einstein’s personality did you most want to include in your story?
I wanted to show the path his mind took. Starting with him as a curious little child, watching that curiosity become deeper, developing into a passion to know, a quest, and then ultimately leading to the remarkable discoveries he made by following that path. I also wanted to show how imagination and creativity are key elements in his process of working out a problem and how they guided him to insights, ideas and realizations that no one had ever had before.
I hope that, from reading this book, children will realize that curiosity is enough to launch them into their life’s direction. That by following their passions, they too may discover whole new parts of our world and our universe.
The characteristics that I feel are the essence of Einstein are those that are repeated—almost like a refrain—throughout the book: wondering, thinking, figuring and imagining. Your first picture book, MANFISH, focuses on Jacques Cousteau. Like ON A BEAM OF LIGHT, it spans a large swath of Cousteau’s life. What are some of the challenges of encapsulating the lives of these well-known figures in the picture book format?
Well, obviously the greatest challenge is the small number of pages and telling the story in as few words as possible. It’s really a great exercise in writing and editing. It forces me to dig deeply and to discover what I feel is the essence of the person, the life, and the story.
The next challenge is to express that essence in a way that flows smoothly, painting a picture of the person, making every page interesting and relevant, and that is written as beautifully and lyrically as possible.
It’s not very different from writing poetry.
A children’s book author doesn’t have the luxury a writer of adult books has, to go on and on for hundreds of pages. Luckily, my years of experience in advertising—writing single-page ads and 30-second commercials—comes in very handy in the process of drilling down to the core and expressing that narrative concisely and in an interesting, entertaining manner. You’ve had a remarkable string of careers—everything from a gig at “The Factory,” Andy Warhol’s iconic studio in New York City, to one as an award-winning copywriter, whose achievements include penning the famous slogan “When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen.” So what, exactly, drew you to want to become a picture book author?
When I moved on from my advertising career, I looked for what I would do next. I knew it had to have something to do with writing, because I love the process of writing and I had been a writer for most of my life.
After working on print ads and TV commercials, I couldn’t imagine words without pictures. To me, the synergy of the two has an incredible power and magic. So I knew that whatever I did would have words and pictures.
Then I turned to the subjects I had always read about, the subjects that fascinated me the most: nature, its creatures, our planet, and our universe.
It just fell into place. Writing picture books about what I loved in a beautiful image-rich format.
Best of all, by writing picture books I get to write to the most curious, interested, appreciative, spontaneous, open-minded audience any author can write for: children.
I followed all these currents and they lead me to a wonderful place! Typically, we try to shy away from “what’s next” questions. But for someone with so many talents and interests, who has followed such an unconventional path, we can’t help ourselves: What’s next for Jennifer Berne?
Just like the people I write about, I let my interests, curiosities and passions lead me. I never really know where they will take me until it happens. Right now I’m getting so much pleasure from writing children’s books about the people and subjects that fascinate me, I can’t imagine a change at this point.
However, my husband and I will be moving up to Maine for the summer, to live aboard our sailboat and cruise the coast. So, although I will continue to write, it will be from a very different—and far more nautical—setting. Unconventional? Perhaps, slightly. But definitely fun!
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