Jennifer Hamburg is an Emmy-winning children’s television writer and story editor whose work can be seen on Disney Junior, Nick Jr. PBS, Amazon, and more. She is currently Head Writer for the PBS series SUPER WHY! Her debut picture book, A Moose That Says Moo (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux) was released in 2013. Her newest book, Monkey and Duck Quack Up! (Scholastic) was released in February, 2015.
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Jennifer holds a Master’s Degree in Educational Psychology from Columbia University’s Teachers College, where she studied children’s creative and cognitive development. She lives in Austin, TX with her husband Jeremy and children Mathis, 7, and Hazel, 4, both of whom believe everything she writes was their idea.
Your career as a children’s television writer has lead you to two Emmy Awards and work with Disney Junior, Nick Jr, PBS and Amazon. How did you first get started in this field?
I had been writing children’s plays for a while, but it wasn’t until I started grad school at Teacher’s College at Columbia University that my focus turned to children’s television. My first job out of grad school was for a spinoff of the show Blues Clues as a research analyst, which I loved. But I had a huge desire to write, and I’m pretty sure I mentioned it quite a bit! When the same team began a new show called Super Why! I got my chance when they hired me as a staff writer.
What’s a day in your life look like? Can you give us a taste of what working as a TV writer is like?
I take my kids to school in the morning, then I come home and tackle all of my “deadline writing” first, which refers to scripts that usually have a week turnaround. After that, time permitting, I work on my books and other writing projects. I also often have Skype meetings or conference calls where we discuss story ideas, go over notes, etc. And between all of that, I try and do laundry, eat lunch, and watch Dr. Phil (Did I write that?! Strike from the record!) Then I pick up the kids and am with the family until the kids are asleep. I try not to work at night because my brain’s not in the best shape, but if I have a deadline, that’s when I get it done. Then I binge-watch The Good Wife until bedtime 🙂
What’s the very best part of your job? What are the biggest challenges?
The best part is easy—I get to write for a living! I don’t take that for granted for a minute. It is so much fun to sit down and create a script from scratch, come up with jokes kids will (ideally) laugh at, and maybe even teach them something while I’m at it. As a freelancer, I’m have a lot of flexibility, which is incredibly valuable to me as a mom with young kids. The biggest challenge is the ebb and flow of freelance life. I have been very lucky that my work load has been pretty consistent over the years, but there have been times when I worry about what’s next. On the flip side, I’ve had too much work at one time and I had to learn how to say “I can’t.” Not an easy word for a freelancer.
What favorite themes do you like to write about (or episodes that you’ve worked on), and why?
I love the shows that have heart. Writing for Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood is such a treat because you feel the love in every ounce of that show. Humor is always a good thing, too. I have a blast with the characters on Doc McStuffins. They each have such distinct personalities and character quirks, it’s just really fun to get them all in crazy situation and see what happens.
You’re also a children’s book writer—what differences have you found writing for TV and writing books? How did you make the transition?
Writing books is very different from writing a script. First off, it starts with the dreaded blank page. For TV, everything is worked out ahead of time, and it’s usually collaborative. By the time I’m writing the script I know just how the story is going to go. Books are wide open, and the only person who decides what to write is you. It’s very daunting. But when it works, it’s that much more satisfying. As for the transition, I always like to mention that when I wrote my first picture book, even though I was working in kids TV, I had no connections to the publishing world whatsoever! I was in the same boat as any other brand new author. So I went to the store, bought the Children’s Writers & Illustrator’s Market, picked out a few agents and publishers, and sent out my manuscript.
Do you have any recommendations on resources (websites, associations, classes, books, etc.) for a mom interested in learning more about writing for children?
For book writing, there is SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) which has local chapters all over the country. There’s also Kidscreen.com and Writeforkids.com, Writing-World.com, WritersDigest.com. All very helpful! For TV, it’s obviously advantageous to live in New York or LA. There you can find the Children’s Media Association, WGA, and many others.
What 3 tools have made your life easier this year?
My AnyDo app, our refrigerator calendar, and the introduction of chores to my kids.
How do you handle TV viewing with your own kids?
Like any other mom! I try to limit it during the week, and on weekends they usually watch in the mornings. But then I turn it off and tell them to find something else to do (unless they’re watching one of my shows…kidding!)
Did you have to make career adjustments when you became a mom? How has being a mom changed your perspective on your work?
Because I’ve always freelanced, I didn’t have to make a huge adjustment. It was more about when I felt ready to get back out there and make myself available for work. There is a certain amount of pressure that you always want to be available, because what if you miss out on something? That’s the hardest part. But I will say, my kids who are 4 and 7 are the perfect age to try out material! My poor kids are always being roped into listening to me reading my scripts. They used to be totally game all the time, but now my older one is like, “Nah, I’m busy.”
What creative activities you enjoy doing with your kids?
I like taking them out — to plays, to parks, to local events. If we are home, I’ll set up an arts and crafts station. We do not write together — I do enough of that!
Fill in the blank fun!
- If I could be a character from a tv show I’ve written, it would be: Dress up Daisy from Doc McStuffins.
- If I were stranded alone on a deserted island, 3 objects I’d want to have with me would be: My comfy sweatpants, a crossword puzzle, and some kind of dessert.
- I just got keys to a time travel space ship, I’m going straight for: The 1920’s.
- The last book I read was: The Girl on the Train.
- If I suddenly had two extra hours where I wasn’t allowed to work or do childcare, I would: Take an exhilarating walk through the beautiful Austin hills. Or watch Dr. Phil. 🙂