Jennifer Hamburg, author of the picture book A Moose That Says Moo and creator of Dramatic Fanatic mystery theater parties for kids, also writes for children's television. I've always wondered how shows like Super Why! and Little Einsteins are created, so I just had to interview Jennifer. Learn more about her exciting career at www.jenniferhamburg.com.
How did you land your first job writing for children's television?
I always knew I wanted to work in children’s television. I went to grad school to study Educational Psychology, and after I graduated I was hired as a research analyst for a Blue's Clues spin-off called Blue's Room. They knew I was interested in writing (because I kept reminding them!), and after my contract was up they asked me to stay on as an assistant writer. I was so lucky to have that opportunity. It was a short contract but in that time I really got to see the ins and outs of how a TV script was written (plus, it led to many more wonderful opportunities with the same group of people). After that, I started contacting other production companies and sending around samples. I had previously had a book of children’s plays published, so I used that as my sample for a while. I worked for a couple of different shows right off the bat, and it kind of went from there!
What is the process like writing scripts?
Every show is different. For some we'd do a roundtable where we’d brainstorm ideas together and then each walk away with specific script assignments. Other times a show would send me a treatment (a summary of the episode) and a deadline, and that was it. Sometimes I would spend lots of time at the production offices and was very involved; for other shows, I never met the producers in person. The time frames also vary depending on the project. Generally, two weeks is typical for writing a script and maybe one week for a revision. Sometimes I’m asked how long I need, and other times I’m given the date and time to have it in!
What's the biggest challenge writing for children's television?
Each show has a specific tone, feel, style of humor, etc. My job as a writer is to take my writer “personality” and fit it into the particular show I’m writing for. It’s harder than it sounds! Writers are obviously creative, and it’s natural to want to write scripts that show off your creativity – but it’s not always right for that particular show. It takes a lot of self-editing. Also, lots of the preschool shows I write for also have a curriculum with specific lesson plans for each episode. I need to be able to integrate the learning moments into the story, which can be tricky.
What's your favorite part of the job?
Well, I love the whole process! I like diving into a new script and going over and over it until it sounds just right. And then most of the time I have to rewrite the whole thing again ☺ But I think of it as a creative exercise. Some writers don’t like getting notes and rewriting; they can get defensive. But I look at it like this: The creators of the show have a specific idea of how they want the show to be, and whether I agree with their ideas or not, it’s my job to make it work for them. It’s their show! When I have a show I’ll write it the way I want.
One last thing: Tell me about A Moose That Says Moo!
A Moose That Says Moo was originally called A Moose Doesn’t Moo. Totally the opposite! It was basically about all of the things animals don’t do, which I thought was kind of funny. My husband gave me the idea. We were in a camping store when my son was a baby, and there was this giant stuffed moose. My husband was playing around and said to our son, “This is a moose. But a moose doesn’t moo.” And I said, “Hey, that’s funny!” So I wrote the book that week (yes, that quickly!) and sent it out to about five literary agents. One of them called me soon after and offered to represent me.
What we found, however, was that the story needed something more, more of an arc. So I played with it a bit and turned it into a “What if…” kind of story, where a kid imagines a zoo in her backyard – it’s still nonsensical and silly but it’s more active. And we sold it! (well, she sold it) It comes out next year, 2012.