On April 15th, a new middle grade fantasy, The Ninja Librarians: The Accidental Keyhand, will be shared with the world–the debut novel of author Jennifer Swann Downey. My review will be up on the blog later this week, but today, I am very happy she agreed to be interviewed on the blog! Welcome, Jennifer!


Prepare yourself—she shares some fantastic responses including where she would travel through time, her ideal library, and her love of apple cider donuts with vanilla ice cream!

Jen Swann Downey’s non-fiction pieces have appeared in New York Magazine, the Washington Post, Women’s Day, and other publjen downey pictureications. Her first middle-grade novel, THE NINJA LIBRARIANS, will be published by Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, April 1, 2014. Jen divides her time between libraries and other places, and will never stop looking for lickable wallpaper.


We had a question from the 3rd and 4th graders at Comenius School for Creative Leadership in Fort Mill, South Carolina! They asked: Where did you get the idea for the book?

How DID that idea sprout? I only have a GUESS! Which is kind of funny, right? I mean, if anyone should know, it should be me. Here is what I remember:

1. I decided I wanted to write a book. I remember clearly making the commitment before I even knew what story I wanted to tell!

2. Even though I didn’t yet know WHICH story I wanted to tell, I DID know that I wanted to tell a story to kids, and not just any kids! Not the youngest ones, and not the oldest ones, but those wonderful ones in the middle. The ones who could walk to a friend’s house alone but weren’t even thinking about a driver’s license yet.  I loved being that age. And I deeply loved the books I read at that age. And I deeply loved HOW I read books at that age. From cover to cover. Often at one sitting. Often by flashlight beneath the covers. Often when I was supposed to be doing something else. With gusto and appetite and relish. So I figured…it made sense to write a book for those aged kids.

3. Walking along one day, I imagined a cozy room with an enormous table with lots of very drippy candelabras sitting upon it that just about took up the whole room. Around the table sat people from all over the world. Real people who I had only read about it history books. People who lived all different kinds of time ago, and had written famous books, or invented toilets, or figured out why dogs barked. And these people were laughing and chatting each other up, and eating too many profiteroles, and burping, and excusing themselves, and I noticed that the walls of the room with the burping people and the enormous table were lined with doors of all shapes and sizes and designs, all jumbled up together, some literally on top of others. And I wanted to hang out with them.

So I suppose the story started with that imaginary picture. Though where that came from…..: )

If you received three opportunities to travel back in time, what three time periods would you visit?

I’m a little nervous about what I’d find, since tourist guidebooks and information about accommodations are in short supply, but I’d love to visit a neolithic village in say 7,000 BCE, and see how men and women related to each other and their children.  Renaissance Venice would call, because CANALS and ART and BRIDGES and THOSE HATS and rampant re-imaginings in progress, and I’d like to stop in on Ashoka the Great’s India  in the 3rd century BCE. (he was a fan of religious tolerance, equal treatment regardless of caste or creed, and non-violence, among other things!)

What are your top three favorite time travel books?

I’m going to count C.S. Lewis’ books as time travel books, and put them on my list. Also Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and Neil Gaiman’s “Fortunately, the Milk”.

Were there (or are there) any books you read as a young person or as an adult that you would describe as spiritual or that somehow affected your own spirituality?

Well this is awkward in a wonderful way. : ) The raw truth is, (I’m realizing right in this very moment!) that I rarely use the term “spirituality”.

I have a sister who does. We look very much alike (to the point where acquaintances often confuse us and strike up conversations with the wrong redhead) but this sister and I have very different attitudes towards the word. She fully embraces it as a useful positive term, while I tend to not employ it, and even regard it with some wariness. So to answer the question, I must, (oh how my sister would roll her eyes!) define the term for myself. Here’s how western culture seems to variously see it:

  • Oxford English Dictionary: spirituality

◦                     The quality or condition of being spiritual; attachment to or regard for things of the spirit as opposed to material or worldly interests.

  • Wiktionary – spirituality

◦                     Concern for that which is unseen and intangible, as opposed to physical or mundane.

◦                     Appreciation for religious values.

  • Medical – National Cancer Institute – spirituality

◦                     Having to do with deep, often religious, feelings and beliefs, including a person’s sense of peace, purpose, connection to others, and beliefs about the meaning of life

(Thank you for these definitions, Neil Greenburg (http://notes.utk.edu/bio/unistudy.nsf/935c0d855156f9e08525738a006f2417/bdc83cd10e58d14a852573b00072525d?OpenDocument))

Looking for my own life reflected in those definition, I have to sift carefully, rejecting some of it because at core I don’t tend to see the physical as mundane, and the intangible as a “more” real, separate, important or opposed sphere. I see the “physical” and the “intangible” as of a piece. Secondly, I’m neither an atheist nor a “believer” in any particular human-created conception of “God”  The existence or non-existence of a thing called “God” is simply not of burning importance to me. In point of fact, I’m suspicious about both the human desire to have gods and all the ways in which that can go so terribly wrong. I left my childhood and its semi-regular attendance at Catholic Churches with the distinct feeling that God might be a real jerk. A combination show-off, bully, and narcissist who forces less powerful beings to appease him in order to survive. I’m sure others drew very different conclusions from their childhood immersions in and brushes with religions, but that was mine.

So I suppose my “spirituality” sort of begins and ends with beliefs about how we humans should treat one another, other living things, and the natural world right here right now. Compassion, ethics, human rights. I figure if any Goddy being worthy of the name DOES exist, he/she/it would be fabulously compassionate, and wouldn’t give a rat’s heiny if I “believed” in him/her/it, or what I thought of him/her/it and be much more concerned about how I was treating those around me.

Phew okay, what was the question? ; )  Oh, yes!  Books that affected my own spirituality as defined:  As a child? A Wrinkle in Time, The Chronicles of Prydain, Huckleberry Finn, Animal Farm, The Diary of Anne Frank, and many books that had at their core a quest for justice, the weak standing up against the strong, often in the form of a child standing up to a domineering, spirit-crushing, self-serving adult (I should say at this juncture that I love my parents very much!). Perhaps it was my explicit awareness as a child of the Holocaust, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Viet Nam War that made these kinds of stories especially compelling to me. I think I felt bolstered and strengthened by these books.and able to cope with the a world in which so much suffering took place.  As an adult? The Wisdom of No Escape by Pema Chodron, Ishmael by Daniel Quinn, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, The Autobiography of Emma Goldman, The Chalice and the Blade by Riane Eisler, The Education of Henry Adams, and so many more!

If you could design your own library what it would look like?

About like Petrarch’s Library ; )

We at the blog love donuts, and we notice that donuts are being served at one of your future events. What is your favorite kind of donut?

Well, there aren’t many donuts I’d kick out of bed for eating crackers. They all have their chewy gooey, crumbly, dusty, yeasty, glaz-ed charms. In fact, my husband and I like donuts so much, we uh….started a family donut-making business (Carpe Donut). We make apple-cider donuts, served hot, and sometimes sliced in half and stuffed with vanilla ice-cream.  THOSE are my true favorites!

I would love to try one of those apple cider donuts right about now…they sound fabulous!

What character from what book would you like to have tea/coffee with and why?

I’ll have a different answer tomorrow of course, but today I’d like to take a long walk in the 1930s English countryside road with Topaz from Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle with a picnic basket full of egg-salad sandwiches, strawberries and a thermos of coffee. I’d like to hear more about how she, the nature-loving sometime less than fully clothed nocturnal wanderer and very young step-mother, felt about the life she was leading, and the rest of her family.

Topaz would be so much fun to have a picnic with!

Thank you, Jennifer, for answering all our questions–we love The Ninja Librarians and can’t wait for its release day on April 15th!

What Katie Read

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