An Interview with Jolene Gutierrez

Interviewed by Ed McManis

There’s a small school campus in Denver, Colorado, shaded by trees, the quad filled with students running, reading, relaxing, and resting on one corner of the campus is an old chapel. This quaint, Hogwartian chapel has been converted into a cozy library, a safe haven for students to read, discover, explore. The librarian of this reading kingdom is Jolene Gutiérrez. 

Gutiérrez has been the librarian for Denver Academy for 29 years. In addition to loving books, reading, kids, and libraries, Gutiérrez is an author. An author of children’s books. In 2011, she self-published her first YA book, Devil May Care. A foray into the supernatural, complete with as she states, “an awkward sex scene.”  (She also loves ghosts and ghost stories.) 

Gutiérrez has gone on to publish a number of children’s books, her most recent, Too Much! An Overwhelming Day, about kids who struggle with sensory overload. The book has hit a chord out in the over-stimulated, chaotic world and has been well received. Her next book is called The Ofrenda That We Built, co-written with her daughter. It’s about family, altars, and the traditions aligned with Day of the Dead. She’s also collaborated on a book with her son, Mamiachi and Me, about an all-female mariachi band. 

Now fifty—looks 30—Gutiérrez feels like she’s just hitting her stride as an author. I had the chance to sit down in her inviting library, surrounded by books and stained glass, to talk about writing, kids, libraries, and the power and joy of books. 

Ed: How did you know you were a writer?

Jolene: The first time I remember being excited about writing was in second grade. I had a teacher, Mr. Boettcher, who really challenged us in school. Gave us hard spelling words, hard math problems. He told us, “If you write stories, I will publish them.” Which meant, he and his wife typed them up on their typewriter. And then we illustrated them. I still have one of the little booklets he made for me. But holding that book, it was the coolest feeling. Holding that piece I thought, “this is what I want to do.” 

Ed: So, early on, you had a direction.

Jolene: Yes. And today it’s really fun to share that when I present to families, or students and young kids, because they can see that connection and that it has been my entire life. 

Ed: Did you write other things in different genres? 

Jolene: I wrote poetry…took creative writing classes, wrote for contests. In college, I was in a creative writing track.

Ed: Where’d you go to school?

Jolene: Metropolitan State University and then Emporia University for my Master’s.

Ed: Where is Emporia?

Jolene: It’s in Kansas. They had a distance learning program that I completed here in Denver. 

Ed: And your Master’s is in…

Jolene: Library science. 

Ed: Who were your early writing influencers?

Jolene: I read a lot. I had my first real author connection I think around second grade. Not the Dick and Jane or Danny and the Dinosaur books. Her name was Lynn Hall, and the book was called A Horse Called Dragon. What was special about that book is that it was told from the horse’s point of view, and it was very sensory. And I felt like for the first time, I was in somebody else’s shoes—

Ed: In this case, his hooves.

Jolene: (Laughs) It was like the first time connecting with this character, the power of that. It was a transformative book. I started reading. Prior to that, I struggled with reading, with connecting to books. In fourth, fifth grade, I had a teacher who had a carousel of books, and I started reading Poe, “The Telltale Heart.” I loved that. Then, Agatha Christie, Stephen King, the darker stuff; that’s just what I liked. 

Ed: Now, you’ve picked Children’s lit as your genre. What’s the pull?

Jolene: I work with kids, I’m around this literature all day, every day. Our school is second through twelfth grade, so I have a huge range of writing styles, reading levels, genres that I’ve had to expose myself to and read. And as a teacher, I’ve seen what a difference the right book can make for kids. I write for kids because I feel you can really make a change in a kid’s life. In 2008, I started pursuing publication. 

Ed: What was your first “adult” publication?

Jolene: In 2011, I self-published a supernatural romance called, Devil May Care. I thought I’d play around with self-publication. It didn’t make me millions. (Laughs)

Ed: But you learned the process, part of the business?

Jolene: Yeah. The book was for late teens. My protagonist was 16. There’s some language in the book, a sex scene.

Ed: A sex scene? Do tell. I’m putting a star by this.

Jolene: (Laughs) It was probably my first and last young adult book. It was awkward. I haven’t read it in, ten years? 

Ed: It seems like it would be a tricky business writing sex scenes or dealing with sexuality in kids’ books or YA books. How do editors, publishers handle it?

Jolene: It definitely happens in kids’ books because it happens in real life. In today’s climate it’s even scarier as an author to think about should I include this? Should I not? People want to ban books for any reason you can think of. I don’t think that should dictate what you want to write or where your characters want the story to go, though. 

Ed: It seems there’s a responsibility, a moral imperative, if you will, as an author to tell this story, to tell a true story. 

Jolene: I didn’t have to have that discussion with editors because I self-published that book. But I guess I self-censored? I would let my students and their parents know that hey, there’s a little bit of language, a sex scene. There are sex scenes in YA books all the time. In middle grade books, maybe less. 

Ed: Let’s talk about your book Too Much.

Jolene: It came out in August 2023.

Ed: And it was well received?

Jolene: Yeah, I think a lot of people connected with it. The manuscript originally was to be a board book. Those little cardboard books? But my publisher ran it as a picture book. The ages are three to seven. But I’ve read reviews and talked to adults who say, “I need this book.” That’s powerful to hear. I think this is the book I needed as a parent to better help and support my kids. And it’s probably also the book my parents needed to support me when I was little. It was me writing a book for other parents to help them understand, “Oh, that’s what’s going on with you.”

Ed: How would you succinctly describe the book? It’s about kids who—

Jolene: Kids who have sensory sensitivities. Kids who get overwhelmed—which is everybody at some point, in different settings and at different times. 

Ed: What was the research for this?

Jolene: Well, it’s a lived experience. Both for me and as a parent. And I work at a school where I’m surrounded by many students who have some type of sensory sensitivity. I also used notes from my kids’ occupational therapists and the testing that we did. I used fresh research for the back matter piece where I’m talking about the different sensory systems, and I reached out to counselors and occupational therapists to vet the material.

Ed: Did you have to pay these experts?

Jolene: No. I didn’t have to pay anybody. I just approached them and said, this is what I’m doing, I would love for you to take a look. I did give them all a book once they were published. (Laughs) And that’s typically been my experience so far in my writing journey. Even with the non-fiction book I wrote, Bionic Beasts. I’d say, here’s what I’m doing, I can acknowledge you in the book. And, you know, we don’t get paid enough to pay someone else. I do think it’s important to have sensitivity readers if needed. Bionic Beasts is about limb differences, animals with limb differences. I did approach people from the limb loss and limb difference community, asking if they would read it. Even with all the research I did for that book, there were things I missed, and terminology that I misused, and sensitivity readers caught those things. So, sensitivity readers are really important, and we should pay them. And editors, if needed. Those are different from expert support or expert interviews. 

Ed: How many books have you published?

Jolene: Oh, I’d have to talk through that, I can’t off the top of my head. Devil May Care, Mac and Cheese and the Personal Space Invader, Bionic Beasts, Stars of Latin Pop—that was four books. I was hired to write those. Shakira, J Balvin, Ozuna, and Sofia Reyes—

Ed: And here’s the big question. Are JLo and Ben gonna’ make it? 

Jolene: Of course not. (Laughs) 

Ed: And your next book is the one you wrote with your daughter?

Jolene: Yes. It’s titled The Ofrenda That We Built. 

Ed: For those not familiar, an ofrenda is—

Jolene: An altar. For Day of the Dead. Sugar skulls and pan de muerto, flowers, different things that you put out to remember family who have passed. 

Ed: What age group?

Jolene: I think it’s pre-school to seven. It’s about a family that builds an ofrenda together. 

Ed: I’m thinking of that Pixar movie?

Jolene: There’s Coco, and before that, there was Book of Life. They’re both beautiful movies. This book had a simple format but it wasn’t simple to write. It’s based on the cumulative format of This is the House That Jack Built. So, “this is the ofrenda that we built,” and they add the embroidered cloth, and they add the sugar skulls, and so on.

Ed: How was it working with your daughter, Shaian?

Jolene: It was awesome. It was a COVID project. It was my concept. We had just recently lost her uncle and then my dad. My dad died on November 1, which is the start of Día de Muertos. My grandma had also died on that same day. So there was this connection. 

Ed: This book gave you a way to hold all of that.

Jolene: Yes. Shaian was doing distance learning so was home from college, and I was distance teaching, so we were home together. I asked her, “Do you want to work with me on this?” And she did. 

Ed: Were there…artistic differences? 

Jolene: We would fight back and forth over certain words. But it wasn’t a big thing. She’d say, “yeah,” or I’d say, “I see what you’re saying.” It’s a rhyming text and rhyming and rhythm are kind of hard for me. 

Ed: Like, “There once was a girl named Jolene. All her friends said she was—”

Jolene: (Laughs) In grade school we had to write something that rhymed with our name, and all I could think of was “mean,” “queen,” and “green bean.” 

Ed: Green bean’s good. 

Jolene: So rhythm was hard for me. Shaian played viola in orchestra for years and she has a really good ear. She’d say “Mom, we’re really off here,” so that was great. 

Ed: Are you in a writing network?

Jolene: There’s an organization, SCBWI (The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). It’s an international organization. There’s a Rocky Mountain chapter. Denise Vega, she’s the reason I started writing seriously, and she was co-regional advisor of our local SCBWI chapter when I joined. Denise had a group of us sitting in a circle and she asked, “Do you consider yourself a writer?” And I said, “Yeah, I haven’t written anything lately but I want to—” And she said, “Well, what are you waiting for?” And her asking that question…I had stuff going on, I had a friend dying of breast cancer…and I realized, life isn’t forever, I can’t sit around thinking, “Maybe someday.” And Denise kind of took me under her wing. She’s really the reason, and she’s the person who welcomed me. The whole kid lit community is welcoming, too. 

Ed: While it seems welcoming, isn’t there a cutthroat part of it? 

Jolene: It really isn’t. I mean, there are jerks everywhere. But in this industry, most people are so supportive. When I wrote Devil May Care, I had another author read it. I didn’t know the industry standard at the time was to pay for the reading. She read it, made suggestions, never asked for pay. She could have said, “I usually charge X amount.” The hard part of this industry is how long it takes to get published. I joined SCBWI in 2008, and Mac and Cheese and the Personal Space Invader was published in 2018, so ten years.  

Ed: I’ve found, running in writers’ circles, gatherings, parties, in seems an inordinate number of people are writing a children’s book. Do you know a lot of folks who are writing one? 

Jolene: Yeah, or more often I hear, “I’ve always wanted to write one. Can you help me?” And people think that I can convince my editor or my agent to publish their book, and that’s just not the reality. Your agent has to love your work. They have to get it because they have to pitch it to everyone. They have to be the biggest cheerleader in the world for your writing. I understand that now; I didn’t when I first started. 

Ed: How did you get your agent?

Jolene: I started querying agents soon after 2008. Some people keep count of how many rejections—I don’t. I find that discouraging. There were lots and lots of rejections over the years. Then, I got that book published in 2018 and I thought, now I’ll get an agent, but the publication didn’t really matter that much to agents. But I was getting closer—agents asking for fulls and for other pieces of my work. And then the agent I eventually signed with, Kaitlyn Sanchez, had been a critiquer of my work. When she became an agent, she said, “You should submit to me.” I waited because I wasn’t sure if that was ethically the right thing to do, but we talked and decided it didn’t cross any lines. And when I submitted to her, she took her time reading through my work to make sure she connected with it like she had when we were critique partners. Luckily, she did. She works so hard to get my books out there. She’s awesome. 

Ed: What do you make on a book?

Jolene: (Laughs) Hypothetically, an average picture book might earn an author a ten thousand dollar advance. The agent takes 15%. The publisher usually pays the advance in three different portions depending on the edits you’ve made, and picture books take two or three years to come out, so you couldn’t make a living on one picture book alone.

Ed: So, who’s making a living in the industry?

Jolene: Everybody gets a little bit. I think artists make more money? If I were an author-illustrator I’d be making more for sure. Longer works make more, like a middle grade novel. People don’t usually talk about it so it’s hard to know. I have to have multiple works in progress, then maybe royalties will kick in. It’s a long-term commitment. 

Ed: Who’s your publisher?

Jolene: It depends. For Too Much it’s Abrams. 

Ed: Does your contract include sign-offs for animation, movies, and so on?

Jolene: Yes, all of that. I get a percentage of all rights for audiobooks, ebooks, movies, foreign rights. Abrams’ foreign rights department has sold rights for Too Much! in seven different languages, so I’ll get a piece of that. Writing is a full-time job but it doesn’t pay a living wage. At least at this point in my career.

Ed: Do you see yourself continuing in this career?

Jolene: Yes. I always gave myself permission to stop if it stopped bringing joy. As long as there’s a story that I’m driven to tell or inspired to share, then I will continue. If it ever gets to the point where it doesn’t bring me joy—

Ed: What brings you the most joy?

Jolene: The act of creating, and sometimes you feel you connected to something bigger than you. That is really beautiful. Connecting with readers, connecting with kids is really special too. 

Ed: Now, you’ve worked at Denver Academy, for 25 plus years? I know this school is a specialized school for, I’m not sure how you say it today, neurodiverse learners? Kids who struggle with dyslexia, attention issues, kids on the spectrum. As a librarian, how do you get kids with dyslexia to read or enjoy reading? 

Jolene: That’s all connection too. Helping them to feel safe is the first thing. This chapel, this space, having it be a welcoming, nurturing space is important. Then helping them understand that there are a variety of ways to read. Sometimes advocating for them with their parents to help the parents understand that audiobooks are books. Graphic novels are also books. And then, just finding things they’re interested in. 

So many kids have their walls up. “No, I don’t like to read.” Fine, but what are your favorite movies? What do you like to do? What are you interested in? And then I find books that meet those interests. Series are important so, if they like a book, they know what the next one is and they don’t have the anxiety of “I don’t know what comes next.” Verse novels, stories with a lot of white space on the page. The book flows more quickly. I love verse novels. And Choose Your Own Adventure. They feel like they’re cheating and they can flip back and forth.

Ed: So, some kind of novelty in the format.

Jolene: Right. A book with a page filled with small font is overwhelming. Long books are overwhelming. 

Ed: In my workshop days, one description for those pages were “expository lumps.”

Jolene: Right. As a reader, you need a break. 

Ed: If tomorrow you were suddenly the Czar of Education, what would you do?

Jolene: I would stop book bans. I would pay teachers fairly. Do I have an unlimited budget?

Ed: Oh yeah. You’re the Czar. 

Jolene: Ok. I would help show that there are a variety of ways to learn and that there are different types of intelligences. I would try to help kids feel nurtured and seen. What I see at this school, and you saw it in your career, when kids finally find that thing they’re good at and they’re celebrated for it, their self-confidence grows and then they feel like they’re able to do other things too. Celebrating their gifts and not making them feel like they’re missing something if they struggle. 

Ed: Fair pay for teachers…this is a constant complaint. Why doesn’t that happen? 

Jolene: I don’t know. What does our society value? Entertainment? Sports? 

Ed: It’s difficult to teach today.

Jolene: And the job is getting harder and harder to fill. And the kids more than ever need good teachers. 

Ed: So, this assault on the libraries? What’s that all about? 

Jolene: I feel like we see different people come out of the woodwork at different times. Politically, when there are different people in power. I think it’s a kind of control. Some of these book challenges and book bans come from people who don’t even live in that district, or don’t have kids in that school district. It’s all about trying to do what they think is right, I guess. But I can’t wrap my head around wanting to take resources away from a community space. When I share information about book bans with students, they get freaked out. “You’re taking these books away?” No, I’m showing you and explaining which books are being challenged across the country. Harry Potter for magic, Roald Dahl for rudeness, or whatever. And we’ll talk about it. Does that make sense? I’ll ask them. We’re taking this book off the shelf and away from everyone because someone doesn’t like this book.

Ed: What’s an argument to counter that?

Jolene: If you don’t like it, don’t check it out. I tell my students, always, if you encounter anything problematic in a book, if there’s language, if there’s a sex scene written by Ms. Gutiérrez (Laughs), if it makes you feel uncomfortable, close the book and bring it back. You don’t have to read it; it’s your choice. 

Ed: Don’t check it out seems like a good answer. Why does that not work for some of these people?

Jolene: I think that some of these people feel like these books are literally like pornography. They’ve used those words. They feel like they’re protecting young readers. But really, they’re taking choice away from everyone. They don’t need to be gatekeepers. Kids are smart enough to know. I’ve had kids bring me books and say, “I didn’t like the language in this book.” They have brains. And they can make their own choices. 

Ed: Do you think it would help to have disclaimers on books? “You might get triggered by” and so on?

Jolene: I’ve seen books with trigger warnings. “This book contains suicide” or “this book contains rape.” I have seen that. For YA, if I were writing that again, I might do that. But it’s a slippery slope.

Ed: Right. As a writer, you’re conflicted by, “Ok, I guess I’m gonna’ tell you up front Old Yeller’s gonna’ die.” Well, that’s kind of the whole story. Life, death, loss. 

Jolene: Yes! We’re trying to be sensitive to everyone and everything. In doing that, we’re taking books off of the shelves, the books that kids need to read. We know books save lives. And we know they make a difference. And for kids to not be able to see themselves in a book, especially kids who are struggling with mental health or identity, if they don’t see themselves represented elsewhere, they might not be here tomorrow. So, I don’t agree with taking books off the shelves. I 100% support choice. And I support family choice. If parents call and say, “I don’t want my child reading Stephen King,” I fully support that. 

Ed: Well, that’s their loss. 

Jolene: (Laughs) Right, but it’s their choice. And I applaud parents who are involved. Just don’t take Stephen King away from everyone.

Ed: Thanks for your time, and best of luck with your next books.

About the interviewer: Ed McManis is a writer, editor, publisher, erstwhile head of school, and retired point guard. He holds the outdoor free throw record at Camp Santa Maria: 67 in a row.