Esther Jantzen is a former high school teacher turned author. A long-time family literacy advocate, she published Way to Go! Family Learning Journal in 2006 (now out of print) and Plus It! How to Easily Turn Everyday Activities into Learning Adventures for Kids (2009). She turned to writing fiction after a 500-mile pilgrimage sparked the idea for her first novel for pre-teens. WALK: Jamie Bacon’s Secret Mission on the Camino de Santiago (July 2020) follows the missteps, adventures, and heroism of an 11-year-old boy on a pilgrimage across Spain with his home-schooling family. You’ll find Esther on her Amazon author page.
When readers turn the last page in the book, what do you hope they take away from it?
I’ve heard from some readers that they cried (“good crying”) at the end of WALK. That pleases me. I assume they were touched by Jamie’s spunk in facing a rash of disappointments, choices, and problems — and that they felt relief and pride in his kid-like humility as he meets the moment, encounters unexpected, happy results, and earns a touch of fame. I’m guessing that the readers’ tears were tears of joy because the family is unified at the end, proud of their youngest member, and understands that the whole Camino experience had cracked him (and each of them) open to a new generous way of being.
What unique challenges did this work pose for you?
The biggest challenge for me was making what was essentially a travelogue — characters going from place to place and seeing interesting things — into a compelling narrative with suspense, tension, betrayal, wins and losses, and plenty of growth in the characters. Those are the elements that make a good story.
Who is your main character, and what will readers like most about him?
The main character in WALK is eleven-year-old Jamie Bacon — a clumsy pre-teen whose natural curiosity snaps him out of grumbling resistance and awakens his integrity, awe, leadership, and willingness to help others. He’s up against a quarrelsome older sister, a bossy mother, and a mostly absent father as he discovers that friendships and attachments are fleeting because of the nature of a pilgrimage. Readers will like Jamie’s honesty, enthusiasm, imagination, and willingness to both stand up and back down. His troubles and adventures make him learn and change and ultimately lead to him keeping his word.
How does the story’s setting impact the characters?
The setting for WALK is mighty unusual: an ancient 500-mile route of rough trails, cow paths, woodland walks, scary highways, mountain passes, and urban streets that starts in France, goes over the Pyrenees, and winds through Northern Spain to the holy city of Santiago de Compostela. This location has been known for about 1200 years as El Camino de Santiago. The setting serves almost as a character — challenging, wooing, deceiving, confusing, wowing, and educating pilgrims.
What topics explored in WALK make the book a perfect fit for the classroom?
By design, I think many elements in the book make it a valuable teaching: 1) the hero’s journey narrative structure; 2) the geography, history, references to art, architecture, European literary classics; 3) its values orientation — toward compassion, personal responsibility, honesty, forgiveness, flexibility, initiative, and service; 4) as an introduction to another culture and some of its language; 5) the depiction of a certain parenting style, showing how sibling issues might resolve and the value of allowing children to have their own experiences; and 6) how students can document an experience, work collaboratively, study independently, and more. I was a long-time classroom teacher. I wanted this book to have multiple layers so teachers can emphasize what they think is most needed. And incidentally, I think WALK can be useful for parents, perhaps as a means to inspire them to risk a bit and do more expansive things with their children. Plus, home-schooling families may enjoy many aspects of the story.
Tell us how the book came about.
The idea to write a children’s book about the Camino came to me on my first walk in 2008: I wanted to convey to my family and friends, (and especially grandkids) a sense of the fun, beauty, physical challenge, freedom, and expansion I experienced. How hard could that be, I naively (arrogantly) wondered. Well, it took twelve years before WALK appeared in print. I had to learn how to write fiction (dialog, plot, setting, theme…); learn the conventions and scope of the middle-grade novel as a genre; and become informed about the history and legends of the Camino (which I did through both reading/research and returning twice more to walk the Camino). Further, I had to grasp what real editing and cutting of 30,000 words felt like. Then I experienced the challenge of seeking and not landing a traditional publisher. Eventually I had to face all the decisions, frustrations, and costs of independent publishing. Was it worth it? Absolutely, yes! I love the result that came from my collaboration with my cover illustrator, my graphic designer, mapmaker, and others.
What was the most rewarding aspect of putting this project together?
Three things, not one, from this project were incredibly rewarding: 1) the travel and research that I did to make the book as accurate as possible; 2) what I did to bolster my knowledge of children’s lit — reading several hundred Newbery Award and Honor books; and 3) the lifestyle change that I chose (selling my home and becoming a nomadic house sitter), because I so enjoyed the freedom of the Camino. This book feels like my legacy. I have other story/novel ideas, but who knows what will become of them.
What did you learn from working with the cover illustrator for WALK?
The trick to working with a cover illustrator, I found, is to walk a line between being very clear about what you want (and that clarity is not easy to come by), and trusting or allowing the illustrator’s artistic gifts and sensibility to shape something that may be far better than what you thought you wanted.
Looking back to the beginning of your writing/publishing career, what do you know now that you wish you’d known then?
I wish I had started earlier. I’m retired now, yet I have a dynamite idea I’d like to shape into a book. But it’s a complicated concept and would require years of research. Also, there are different priorities in the world now. I feel a strong responsibility to do work toward climate solutions. Writing another novel seems like an indulgence, almost misdirected energy. So I’m on the fence about what’s next for me, although marketing WALK will be a priority for a while.
KL Wagoner (writing as Cate Macabe) is the author of This New Mountain: a memoir of AJ Jackson, private investigator, repossessor, and grandmother. Kathy posts to a speculative fiction blog at klwagoner.com and writes about memoir at ThisNewMountain.com.