31 Days of Authors: A Conversation with Jennifer New

Teen Read Week is officially October 16th through 22nd, but here at The Hub, we’re celebrating all month long with 31 Days of Authors. On each day in October, we’ll bring you author interviews and profiles and reflections on what YALSA-recognized books have meant to us.

Author Jennifer New’s teen nonfiction book about the life of photojournalist Dan Eldon called Dan Eldon: Safari as a Way of Life just came out October 11. It is an adaptation of her 2001 adult book Dan Eldon: The Art of Life and is every bit as inspiring as the adult version. It recounts Dan’s life as a photojournalist. He was killed at age 22 by an angry mob while on assignment in Somalia in 1993. Dan was known for his beautifully illustrated journals full of collages made up of snapshots, handwritten letters, found objects, sketches and scribbled comments all strikingly woven together. In these journals, Dan, born in London to an American mother and British father, takes the reader through his life from age 7 in Nairobi, Kenya, through his adventures traveling around Africa and many other countries, getting to know the people everywhere he went. His unabashed curiosity and interest in others, as well as his interest in social causes and his philosophy of charity towards all, makes his life unique and an inspiration to others. The teen version also includes some of Dan’s previously unpublished artwork.

Today, we bring you an interview with Jennifer.

What was it about Dan that made you want to initially write about him?

I had seen a book about him called The Journey is the Destination: the Journals of Dan Eldon compiled by his mother Kathy. It had little text but it was filled with Dan’s amazing artwork. At the time, I was writing curriculum and I developed curriculum using Dan as the focal point. He was an artist and photojournalist who traveled all over. While I was working on that project, the publisher (Chronicle Books) decided to do a biography on him and asked me to write the book.

What do you think teens will get from this book?

Dan was a remarkable person. He did so much. I fear with Dan there’s the tendency for people to say, I can’t do that, he (Dan) had money, etc. But, if Dan had lived in Nebraska, he still would have done interesting things.It’s more about the perspective on the world – how you approach the world than where you are. Dan could take a blah day when all his friends were bored and make it into an adventure.  She recounted Dan’s adventure in Los Angeles when he and his friends went to a biker bar where everyone was mainly wearing black leather and many of Dan’s friends were scared. Dan went inside alone but soon came out with all the leather clad guys and everyone was friendly; they invited everyone in and all had a good time. Dan’s belief was that, “It’s about the attitude that the journey is the destination that is the key thing.

I also think teens will see that Dan was human and not a perfect person. He could be stubborn and jealous and he didn’t have good luck when it came to romantic relationships. Dan had his imperfections. He was prone to depression and he was dyslexic.

She said she was fascinated by Dan’s artwork and realized that his journals show that he’s an unreliable narrator. Dan told bald lies in his work and you can’t always take what he said as fact. (His style was to cover objects over and over on his collages so that the original objects disappear.)

What are the differences between your adult book and this one for teens?

I had to decide how to tell the story a little lighter in this version than the adult version with more emphasis on Dan’s childhood story such as when he went to summer camp. I whittled the text to less then half of the first one. It is half-way between the first book and the second. It’s pretty text heavy even though there are a lot of illustrations. It’s slightly lighter on its emphasis on the amount of time Dan spent in Somalia. The teen book concentrates on what’s happened since he died; the effects on his family and what his friends have done. It’s been a decade between the two books. The second one has time to show the impact he had on people and what people he has inspired have done since then.

I interviewed about 100 people for the first book but for the second book I didn’t interview very many people unless I had a question or needed to verify something.

Jennifer said that the trade edition of the teen version has a lot of added interactive features not found in her adult book that are extremely visually appealing for teens including an iron on transfer, poster, sticker, and postcards with perforated edges that can be torn out.  Both the trade and library editions also have a page that looks like a school newspaper, Dan’s Student Transport Aid journal and numerous deluxe photo spreads.

Was his family ever afraid for him?

Dan was only technically a photojournalist in Somalia. At the time he was in Somalia, it was easy to get into Somalia. He met a photographer from The Nation (Kenya’s leading newspaper) and they traveled into Somalia together. Before that Dan had been doing photography for magazines in Nairobi. Toward the end in Somalia his mom said it (the situation) was beginning to scare her. Dan wasn’t stupid; there were times when he didn’t go to things in Somalia that were dangerous.

Dan’s family has a website about him, and other books mention Dan, but Jennifer’s book is one of the few biographies about him, besides his mother’s. Lots of journalists writing about events in Somalia in 1993 mention Dan and there have been 3 documentaries about him, including Dan’s sister Amy’s documentary Dying to Tell the Story, but hers was about war correspondents and their work, and not just about him. Jennifer said there’s a 15 minute short film with the same title as his sister’s book “Dying to Tell the Story” about him too. National Geographic has also done a program on him that tells his story and also covered what his friends are doing now. One of his friends that you might have heard of is Christopher Nolan, director of The Dark Knight,  Batman Begins, etc.

After reading the book and talking with Jennifer, I was inspired to look for more information about Dan online and I found out that his life has inspired an apparel line, TOMS Shoes honored him as part of their Spring collection last March and there’s been talk for a number of years of doing a biographical film about him starring Daniel Radcliffe. I can’t wait for that!

— Sharon Rawlins, currently finishing When She Woke by Hillary Jordan and soon to start A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness