“I am part of all that I have met.”
– Tennyson –
Many years ago, I read Tennyson’s words:
“I am part of all that I have met,” and I can honestly say that all of my life’s experiences have become the core of who I am now. Today, as I continue to celebrate my debut picture book, The Donkey’s Song, I thought that I’d tell you a bit more about who I am and why.
Who Is Jacki Kellum and Why?
I currently live in the beautiful, rolling Ozark Mountains, in a town that is about 30 miles south of Branson, Missouri.
My house is also about 40 miles north of Hawks Bill Crag, where the opening of the movie Tuck Everlasting was filmed.
But I grew up in a tiny, cotton-patch town in Southeast Missouri. The land there is flat.
When I was a child, I was surrounded for miles by cotton fields, cotton gins, and the dark, rich soil that the Mississippi River had deposited there in earlier years. Because my hometown is in the flood zone of the Mississippi River, the soil there is so very rich that hardly any of it is wasted on trees. Occasionally, you might see a narrow line of vegetation, crossing the terrain, but that would probably be on the banks of one of the small creek-like waterways that had long ago been dug there to catch the river, should it flood again.
Collectively, the waterways around my home were called The Floodways. Individually, each of the bodies of water had one of the following more creative names: 1 Ditch, 2 Ditch, 3 Ditch, etc. That is the honest truth. During the 1950s and 1960s, there wasn’t a lot of effusiveness or ornamentation about Southeast Missouri, but it was enough. In fact, it was more than enough. The truth be known, I’d give anything to get back to the Gideon of my childhood again, but that playground is gone for me in every way but that of my mind.
My childhood was determined by Cotton, and my calendar was punctuated by the various stages of its growth cycle. The winter was slow and quiet. Spring was an awakening, and summer was a time of growth. During the fall, the roads were lined with wagons lined in ant-like procession, going to and coming from the gins. Living became the everyday humming of the harvesting of cotton.
In the area where I grew up, school started back in July and then paused for 6 weeks in September, so that the kids could pick the cotton. I picked cotton for several years during my youth.
The river ebbed and flowed, and the air was filled with gossamer-like lint, floating from the cotton gins. Like a spider’s work, it attached itself to trees, poles, and other things nearby. Gauzy and ghostly, the lint-webs were warning us, hinting what would come. You see, while Cotton flourished, his people flowered, too. At that time, Cotton was the King–But Time took his throne.
Fortunately, my memory of childhood is still very sharp. One thing I recall is that when I was a child, life was rather immobile. We had cars, but there was very little jumping behind the wheel and darting here and there. My diminutive hometown was actually fairly self-sufficient and at that time, there was virtually no need to commute far beyond the borders of the town’s limits. That, in itself, added to the quietness and simplicity of my childhood.
I had supportive parents and grandparents who literally did without to see that I had all that I needed.
My dad was a cartoonist, and I grew up surrounded by his cartooning books and by watching him create. I attribute some of my picture book illustrations to my childhood, living with a dad who was a cartoonist.’
My mother was a writer-at-heart, and some of her magazine articles were published in the 1950s and 1960s. I have also been influenced by my mother’s interest in writing.
My grandmother was an avid gardener and quilter.
Jacki Kellum Garden August 2015
Jacki Kellum Garden May 2019
I am also an avid gardener, and my gardens are my sanctuary. Flowers are my favorite things to paint.
Even though I grew up in a small, rural town, I had the same fabulous English teacher both in the 7th grade and in the 10th grade. On the first day of my year in 7th grade, I walked down my gravel road and into Miss King’s class. She scribed on the blackboard: “Hitch Your Wagon to a Star” – Ralph Waldo Emerson – with that challenge, Miss King changed my life. She taught me how to write, and she introduced me to William Blake, who was an English Romantic writer and illustrator and whose work, The Songs of Innocence and Experience, focused on the vulnerability of children.
In college, I wrote my first master’s thesis about William Blake. That is when I determined that I would one day both write for children, and I would paint about childhood and its vulnerabilities.
Boy with Curls – Jacki Kellum Drawing in Red Chalk
In graduate school, I studied English [writing] and art [painting] at the University of Mississippi. Later, I studied information technology at Rutgers.
My earliest training in painting was as an abstract expressionist.
Sunset – Jacki Kellum Abstract
In abstract expressionism, I discovered a way to paint with bravura and to paint emotionally–in a painterly way. Everything about me is expressionistic.
You still see remnants of my training as an abstract expressionist in my brushstrokes, even when my approach is essentially not abstract.
Blue Neck Scarf – Jaci Kellum Mixed Media Painting Created March 2, 2021.
Janis Joplin – Jacki Kellum Watercolor
Allow me to return to my early childhood for a moment. When I was a child, I had limited access to picture books. One of the few picture books that I remember from my childhood is the 1950s version of Chicken Little.
But one of my first teaching jobs was at a rather elite Episcopal Day School in Mississippi, and they had a fabulous library that was brimming with picture books. I literally took home every one of that school’s picture books and read them over and over and over. That is how my foundation began in picture books.
For my birthday one year, that elementary school librarian gave me my first very own picture book, Liza Lou and the Yeller Belly Swamp. I was 30 years old, and that was almost half a century ago. When you hear my accent, you will better understand why she made that choice. As I have already said, I grew up in a cotton patch near the Mississippi River–I grew up in my own yeller belly swamp. Today, I am trying to finish my own picture book about my memories of growing up near the Mississippi River. I began this piece at least 10 years ago:
“There’s a brief, enchanted moment as the moonlight turns to day,
When the bullfrogs hoop and holler, and the gator lets them play.”
While I was living in Mississippi, I began writing picture books, and Highlights for Children Magazine awarded me both a scholarship and a grant to study with them in New York and at their home teaching farm Boyds Mills.
The year of my last visit with Highlights, my house in Mississippi burned [in too many ways, my sky has been falling all my life], and for reasons too numerous to record, I shuttled myself and my youngest child off to live on the New Jersey Shore where, as crazy as it might seem, this old artist from the swamp was offered a job as Children’s Librarian. That was another miracle. While I was there, I was also a children’s book reviewer for the State of New Jersey. Today, I discovered a video about multiculturalism that I made while I was a children’s librarian and storyteller in Linwood, NJ:
Here’s a nougat that you might find especially interesting:
I grew up in the deep South, and I am 4 years older than Ruby Bridges.
And I started college at Ole Miss 6 years after the military had to protect James Meredith so that he could attend college there.
In spite of the rampant racism of my southern heritage, I can honestly say that I have always embraced multiculturalism.
New Jersey is a lifetime away from my childhood, where I grew up in the Southern Baptist Church. I had one of those mothers who made sure that I never missed Sunday School and/or church. While I am probably not a true Southern Baptist now, the stories of the Bible are completely ingrained in my mind.
“Sleepy but strong, I clip-clopped along…..”
– Jacki Kellum – The Donkey’s Song
—–Illustrated by Sydney Hanson
Although I have written several picture books now, the manuscript for my debut picture book, The Donkey’s Song, is unique in that it literally wrote itself. The Donkey’s Song is the story of the Donkey who carried Mary to Bethlehem. I wrote that story from the donkey’s perspective, which I imagined might have been true. But the facts of the nativity remain loyal to the Bible stories that I heard as a child. Because I knew the nativity story so very well, I had no need to research it, and after I began writing, the words simply tumbled into place, and that is also one of the miracles that became part of my writing this magical book.
Many years ago, I was offered a great piece of advice: Paint What You Know. I would dare say that the same thing is true for writing. When you understand and know something deeply, you don’t have to think when you create about it. It simply pours itself out.
In the following post, I talk about how the text of The Donkey’s Song flowed, as I wrote it. I also echo Frances Gilbert, VP, and Editor in Chief at Doubleday for Young Readers:
Until the past few years, I have continuously worked several jobs simultaneously, and I have had little time to seriously pursue either my writing or my art. But almost three years ago, I began trying to finish some of my picture book manuscripts and to seek publication for them. In February of 2020, Frances Gilbert, Vice President and Editor in Cheif at Doubleday for Young Readers, purchased my debut picture book A Donkey’s Song. That picture book is ready for pre-order now at Random House Children’s Books, which is a division of Penguin Random House– the #1 Publisher in the world.
My life is a lesson in serendipity. Today, Facebook reminded me that a few years ago, I shared the poster above. And today, as I am humbled to have reached one of my life’s goals, I must admit that I had previously almost given up on the idea that I’d ever be a published author. I’ll be 72 when The Donkey’s Song hits the bookstores. And again, that is a miracle.
In the following post, I talk about some of the miracles that came together to allow me to achieve my goal:
One of my dreams has come true, and one more time, I can say that it is because I am part of all that I have met. In just a few months, all of us will be able to hold The Donkey’s Song in our hands, and along with everyone else who reads our new book, I’ll fall in love again with the Donkey who carried Mary to Bethlehem and who, in a stable with straw, witnessed the miracle of the birth of Baby Jesus.