When Jennifer Hansen Rolli grew up—the youngest of five kids in Bucks County, Pa.—her mother taught piano lessons every weekday except for Wednesdays. Because on Wednesdays, she had other plans. On those sacred days, she went to New York City to take professional voice lessons, absorbing the musical nutrients she needed to feed her persistent passion for opera singing. She had a gift, and Hansen Rolli often wonders what crossed her mind each night when she put her kids to bed, whether she felt like there was another life out there for her that she never had the chance to realize.
“My mom had all these eccentric musical friends she got to know in New York. She loved it. That was her escape. She could have been this amazing opera singer, and here she was living this other life in suburbia,” Hansen Rolli says of her mother, now in her eighties. “I know she loved raising her children, but I wonder if she had wished for more.”
Maybe that’s why the 51-year-old mother of three (19-year-old Pierce, 17-year-old Greta, and 12-year-old Mia) says her worry is not accomplishing everything on her creative and professional bucket lists. “I have so many ideas,” she says. “There are so many things I want to accomplish—my fear is that I’m not going to get it done. But I don’t have time to rest on my laurels and worry about it. I fill my palette with paints and just go. That’s what I do.”
Although she’s been oil painting since her dad (a mechanical engineer with a penchant for painting) taught her as a little girl, it’s only recently that she found her desire to pursue publishing children’s books. “When my kids were little, story time was my favorite time of the day. It was a time to relax, after everything was done,” she says. “But I also loved reading the stories, looking at the illustrations. I would look at the illustrations thinking, I want to do this.”
So in her mid-40s, once her kids were older, she started creating children’s books, and she’s setting a steady pace—two books in 3 years, with a contract to illustrate another.
Off and Running
After graduating from Pennsbury High School in 1982, Hansen Rolli put herself through college, attending Kutztown University to study design and illustration. After college, she moved to New York City to work at a boutique design firm, earning $8 an hour and struggling to make it. So she jumped at the opportunity to start freelancing, creating her own firm in Philadelphia called Hansen Design.
“I was never afraid to take risks. Whether I succeeded or failed, my parents didn’t worry about it. The world was at my fingertips,” she says. “If something didn’t work out, I would just find something else to do. And I think that was instilled in me as a little kid.”
Her firm started humming, and by the time she was in her late twenties, she was able to be selective about the type of work she was doing. Hansen Design was producing marketing and packaging materials for a variety of companies, and the business was thriving. In 1994, at age 30, she married Anthony Rolli. Once they started having kids, Hansen Rolli worked to find a balance between her career and parenting because she didn’t want to sacrifice time away from her kids.
“I think it’s common that women don’t want to miss out when it comes to their kids. I could have steered the ship so that I worked full time on my career, but I just couldn’t let go of those details. I didn’t want to,” Hansen Rolli says. “And I’m glad I didn’t, because it is such a short amount of time. But it’s a double-edged sword because those are such important career years.”
Pursuing a Dream
When her youngest child, Mia, was born 12 years ago, she started painting again, which was fulfilling. It brought back memories of her father, whom she’d lose to Alzheimer’s in 2007. While she continued to paint, the itch to bring her journal of children’s book ideas to life eventually became impossible to ignore.
So Hansen Rolli began digging, searching for information and advice on how to approach writing and publishing a children’s book. She began working on a concept borne from her experiences as a parent, which grew into her first book, Just One More.
“There are so many times when the kids try to push the limits. My husband would be giving kids rides, and his back would be breaking. But they would be like ‘Just one more time,’” she says. “I thought parents would really get it. And I love books that speak to the parents as well as the kids.”
Despite her background in oil painting, she created digital illustrations to accompany the book, mainly because so many of the modern children’s books she’d seen were digital. Then she set out to find a publisher that would produce the book she wanted.
“If I was going to do this, I wanted a great publisher. Everything I read said if you self-publish, you have to get into public relations distribution, and I didn’t want to do that,” she says. “So I tried to get a publisher—I packaged the book up beautifully, and I waited the requisite 6 weeks. But I never heard anything. I called, and they told me if I hadn’t heard from them, they weren’t interested. I realized I could be an old woman before I ever got this book published.”
She went in search of an agent, and that’s where she says she ran into a bit of luck, connecting with an agency called Writer’s House, and a young agent named Stephen Barr, who was looking to build his client list. He loved Just One More, and, just like that, she was off and running.
Hansen Rolli quickly learned that while the artwork came easily to her, the writing was more challenging. Her agent helped her improve the writing of the book, explaining in more detail the anatomy and nuance of a good children’s book. She also learned the importance of creating clear themes, especially emphasizing novel and new concepts.
“You have to have a message. Overindulgence is the message of Just One More. Most ‘just one mores’ are harmless, but in today’s society there is a lot of overindulgence,” she says. “Parents write me and say that ‘just one’ is a theme in their household.”
Success Becomes Her
Hansen Rolli discovered that the process of creating and publishing a book can be glacially slow and sometimes painstaking. Even after deciding he wanted to take on Just One More, her agent worked with her for months until he felt the book was ready, but then it took another 6 months to complete the deal with Viking Children’s Books, the book’s publisher. “The editor went on my site (jenniferhansenrolli.com) and asked why I abandoned oil paint. So I went back and tried some test illustrations of the main character, Ruby, using oil paint. She loved it, and I did, too. I listened to what the publisher said and tried to take their advice.”
Just One More published in spring of 2014, but Hansen Rolli soon discovered that publication doesn’t come close to the finish line in the life of a book. She began promoting it, making appearances in schools and bookstores, which was a rewarding but taxing process. But new writers should be realistic about the investment of time and energy it takes to publish and promote their books. “Now I feel like I’ve figured out the children’s book industry to a degree,” she says. “But it taught me a lot of patience. It’s a long process.”
Soon after Just One More published, Hansen Rolli piqued interest in her next book, Claudia and Moth, about a little girl with a butterfly fixation who learns to broaden her horizons. It will be published by Viking Children’s Books in 2017. “I’ve learned you need books at all different stages if you’re going to make a living at this,” she explains.
Hansen Rolli is busy digging into her journal of ideas again and starting with a fresh canvas. While it can be daunting, it’s the thought of leaving all those ideas unexplored that worries her more. “A blank canvas is scary. But if you do it enough, you’re going to get some good ones out there,” she says. “And really, I can’t wait to get to work.”