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The City Journals

Liberty sixth-graders talk about writing realistic death scenes with New York Times bestselling author

Jan 29, 2019 10:18AM ● By Julie Slama

Jennifer A. Nielson shows Liberty Elementary students her first book during a Skype session with the author. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

By Julie Slama|[email protected]

Jennifer A. Nielson told Liberty Elementary sixth-graders that people would think she’s a creepy person if they perused the bookshelves in her office.

“I have books on killing people,” she said. “I have a handbook of poisoning, with everything you need to know. I have how to die in the outdoors with weird ways of being killed outdoors.”

Those books, like how to make gun powder, she uses as research when she’s writing her New York Times best-selling novels, the Utah native said.

She also pins up ideas on her research wall, which she may use while writing her current novel or a future one. 

The novelist is best known primarily for young adult fiction. Her notable works include “The False Prince,” “Ascendance Trilogy,” “Behind Enemy Lines,” “The Mark of the Thief,” “A Night Divided” and the “Underworld Chronicles.”

Liberty students are familiar with her work as librarian Emilee Barnett has been reading “Mark of a Thief” to them.

“The book, ‘Mark of a Thief,’ takes place in Ancient Rome which is part of the sixth-grade social studies curriculum,” she said. “I chose this author for several reasons. As a storyteller, Jennifer Nielsen is engaging and uses strong vocabulary. As a want-to-be author myself, I’m hard to please when it comes to books. Jennifer is able to intelligently craft a story with round characters and an engaging story arc.”

While Barnett attended the same high school – Bountiful High — as Nielson, she said they weren’t friends then.

“Last year at the Teen Author Boot camp, she presented a ‘Hamilton’-themed break-out session that the teens I attended with raved about. Jennifer inspires, encourages and shares writing tips with young writers through workshops and conferences,” she said.

The same was true for Liberty students as she took the time to answer questions from what was her first book (“Elliott”) to whether a kazoo is a musical instrument? (“Anything that makes music and rhythm is an instrument,” she replied.)

Nielsen told students her favorite book she didn’t write is “Goblet of Fire,” the fourth in the Harry Potter series.

“I loved what she accomplished. She (J.K. Rowling) changed literature for kids. Many said that kids wouldn’t read a series past four books or a book more than 200 pages. She proved them wrong,” Nielsen said.

Nielsen said through reading all genres, it has influenced her own writing, citing “Hunger Games” as both futuristic and historical, Harry Potter books as fantasy and mystery, and Lord of the Rings series as romantic. 

She also uses songs to inspire stories, but when it comes to writing, usually she has a playlist without lyrics so she can concentrate.

However, much of her inspiration for characters comes from herself.

“I can hear them talk to me and I ask them questions about who they are, where they are and what they stand for. I know it sounds crazy, but I learn about them from them. I heard Gerta (in “A Night Divided”) and asked about the prison around her, where she slept and what was on the outside. She sounded like a person I wanted to meet, so I started writing,” Nielsen said.

Sixth-grader Sara Gulden said she can relate to that. As an aspiring author, she, too, hears characters talking.

“I have a creative mind, but I can hear characters talk to each other. When they do that in the middle of class, it doesn’t help me concentrate,” she said.

Sara already is writing a book about a girl who lives with her father. She meets her brother for the first time she can remember when she spends the summer with him and their mom.

“She told us that there always is an editing process and I’ve gone back and added some things and took out some words. She was inspiring. I’ve liked ‘Mark of a Thief’ and Greek mythology, but I was shocked I actually got to talk to her,” she said.

Classmate Ellie Ogden also may want to be an author, so she appreciated learning how to get started in the writing world.

“I’m writing a story about a boy and girl coming together from different worlds and how those worlds are connected,” she said. “I get inspired by artwork, but it’s good to learn that ideas can come from anywhere.”

Ellie also liked seeing her studio.

“She was very organized and had a place for everything. She has a sense of humor and is radiant about her job. You can tell she likes what she does. The best part is seeing all the books she has. I love looking at books,” she said.

Sixth-grader Ryan Lobach admits he doesn’t like reading or writing, but he appreciates Nielsen’s dedication.

“She works hard to have different strategies,” he said. “It’s pretty cool to talk to her and ask her questions.”

Classmate Katelyn Meyers said it was the first time she’s had any kind of interaction with an author. Her favorite part was learning what was on Nielsen’s bookshelf.

“I thought it was so funny she has all these death books and how to poison someone,” she said. “I understand she makes good use of them, but they might give me nightmares if they were on my bookshelf.”