Jennifer Hillen, author of the bestselling children’s book Goodnight, Nashville, is one of those fabulous Southern women who lead with charm and warmth. Incoming president of the Junior League, she’ll disarm you first with her mad social skills and then surprise you with her forthright honesty. She’s an author and mom – of 3-year-old daughter Harper – but she’s also a wicked smart CPA. She currently serves as vice president of professional development and business affairs for the National Business Officers Association, a national not-for-profit serving the independent school industry. Jen stops in at Bacon today for a wide-ranging interview on parenting, Disney princesses, favorite children’s books, and Goodnight, Nashville, among other things…
Hi Jen! I’ve loved getting to know you over the last six months and can’t wait for Bacon readers to know you as well!
You grew up in Huntsville, Alabama. Is Nashville a very different place to raise your daughter?
There are certainly similarities, especially because Nashville, in many ways, still has a small Southern town feel at times. But she is growing up in a wildly different time! The same values are there – that family, friends, learning, exploring, and adventure are key to a great childhood. I’m so grateful that Harper has most of the world at her fingertips in Nashville, thanks to our great culture around the arts, music, humanities, and so many great non-profits doing incredible work for children and their future. That said, I feel that adults these days – moms, especially – are pulled in a million different directions, so I’m constantly managing that. (As I think about it, though, I’m sure my mom was, too, and I turned out okay!)
What do you love about Nashville? Any complaints?
Part of being an IT city is that people want to move here, which means traffic and housing issues, etc. I do hope we, as a city, can work together to solve these problems, but I really shouldn’t complain in general because we live in such a special place and have to take the bad with the overwhelming good. As far as what I love – SO many things! I love the food, the people, the opportunity, the entertainment right outside our front door, and so much more.
You and Harper are visiting DisneyWorld this weekend with friends. Who’s your favorite Disney princess and why?
This is a perfect question for me right now as I’m raising the world’s biggest Disney princess fan! I absolutely loved Belle, Ariel, and Jasmine growing up. When I watch some of the Disney classics now, especially the ones I loved growing up, I cringe a bit at the themes – damsel in distress, needs knight in shining armor, etc., – but even in those stories there are some beautiful lessons if you dig deep enough and look for the friends helping friends, never losing hope, magic in the air, and good things happening to good people. I have really loved the more modern Disney that has created princesses who are enough and they are their own and others’ heroines. I love Moana and Merida (from Brave). I was also in HEAVEN that the love story in Frozen was about the true love of sisters, especially because I love my own! Now, if you ask my daughter, she would name Ariel, Belle, Cinderella, Pa-puhnzel, TinkerBell (agree!), Aurora, Snow White, Jasmine….and the list goes on. I do enjoy those beauties, too, and I have to say – if you haven’t watched Aladdin in a while, do it ASAP and enjoy the hilarity that is Robin Williams as the Genie. Some of those jokes wouldn’t slip through a G rating today.
PS – don’t tell Harper, but I’m actually going on an adult friends trip to Disney World – no kids allowed!
I know going through a divorce not long ago was hard. But I also know you have come through it with grace and are trying to model being a strong woman for your daughter. What are some challenges you’ve faced?
I over-apologize and I’m really trying to keep that in check. I love the grace and beauty of Southern women and am not saying I want to be harsh, but, if someone bumps into me, I’m trying to stop myself from immediately saying “oh, I’m so sorry!” Recently, someone was blocking my car in a heavily trafficked parking lot and I apologized to him. Oy vey. On a more serious note, I don’t want to ever apologize for who I am or what I believe, and when societal pressures mount, especially when going through the major life changes I have over the past 18 months, I’ve found this beautiful space between “I am woman, hear me roar” and “I am woman, so tell me what to do, say, and be.” I think that starts with fewer apologies.
Preach. I hope Harper learns this from you, Jen.
What do you learn from her?
Harper’s imagination is limitless, and I know there are lessons in that. Every time I visit her at school, I’m reminded that kids have such love and high regard for everyone around them, regardless of their differences. I learn from her every day and Harpie reminds me that unconditional love is a very real thing. She teaches me to slow down and not to be in such a rush all the time, although managing the guilt from that hasn’t seemed to subside no matter which way the day goes. Through Harper, I’ve remembered how fun dress-up and make believe are and there is absolutely a reason adults should play, too. Just today I learned that a tissue will dance if you put a boogie in it and if you’re looking for your cows, they’re probably at the moo-vies.
What do you hope Harper learns from you?
I hope my daughter learns kindness, strength, and resilience. She matters and she can choose her own path. It’s okay to make mistakes and you should learn from them and help others. I hope she will always be curious, brave, funny, adventurous (yet responsible!), generous, and unique. May she love with abandon and treasure her family and friends. I hope Harper knows she is part of something bigger than herself and if she can make one person’s life better at a time, she can change the world.
What is the hardest lesson you’ve learned recently?
To trust my gut and instincts more than anything and not to overthink and overanalyze every little thing. Also, I’m constantly reminded that I cannot control others’ actions or perceptions and the only person I can control or change is myself.
If you could choose one word that you hope other people would use to describe you, what would it be? Okay, that’s too hard. What 3 words?
You’re right that one word is too hard because we want to be so many things to so many people! I would love for others to say about me that I’ve got LIFE FIGURED OUT… and I’d really love for that to be true.
Wow, me too.
Children’s books are deeply important to you. What are your favorites?
My favorite thing to do with Harper is read and enjoy books together. Seeing stories, words, pictures, characters, and other worlds through her eyes is reason enough (among millions) to be her mom! There’s a responsibility that comes along with this to really identify and learn the lessons in every single beautiful book we own.
Recently, I read the most fascinating and perfectly appropriate (for me) TIME magazine post by two-time Newbery award-winning author, Kate DiCamillo, who answered a beautiful question from another renowned children’s author, Matt de la Pena. He asked if it is the children’s author’s responsibility to tell the truth about some of the darker sides of existence or preserve innocence. That topic has been on my mind in real life over the past 18 months as my marriage fell apart leaving, at the time, a not-even-three-year-old girl with a totally new, unexpected, unsettled, and confusing life. How do you answer an innocent child’s very fair but surprisingly deep questions, especially when you yourself have so many unanswered questions? Using EB White’s Charlotte’s Web as the perfect illustration of this, DiCamillo poignantly wrote that he told the truth and made it bearable, even as beloved Charlotte, the spider, died. The last lines of White’s classic story:
“These autumn days will shorten and grow cold. The leaves will shake loose from the trees and fall. Christmas will come, then the snows of winter. You will live to enjoy the beauty of the frozen world, for you mean a great deal to Zuckerman and he will not harm you, ever. Winter will pass, the days will lengthen, the ice will melt in the pasture pond. The song sparrow will return and sing, the frogs will awake, the warm wind will blow again. All these sights and sounds and smells will be yours to enjoy, Wilbur — this lovely world, these precious days…”
The only answers I have for Harper’s questions (and my own) all come back to love and, as DiCamillo so beautiful said, “in loving the world, [you tell] the truth about it — its sorrow, its heartbreak, its devastating beauty. [Trust others] enough to tell them the truth, and with that truth [comes] comfort and a feeling that we were not alone.” She continued that “our job is to see and to let ourselves be seen […] our job is to love the world.” I couldn’t agree more, not only in writing, even for the youngest children’s books, but also in real life. Mix the truth in with the whimsical and find beauty and magic in the ordinary and extraordinary.
Because I’m raising a strong girl, we also love:
- She Persisted: 13 American Women Who Changed the World, by Chelsea Clinton
- Not All Princesses Dress In Pink, by Jane Yolen and Heidi E. Y. Stemple
- I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsberg Makes Her Mark, by Debbie Levy.
For kindness and to celebrate diversity:
- little blue and little yellow, by Leo Lionni
- A Sick Day by Amos McGee, by Philip C. Stead and Erin E. Stead
- We All Sing With the Same Voice, by J. Phillip Miller and Sheppard M. Greene
- Last Stop on Market Street, by Matt de la Pena
- Once Upon an Alphabet: Short Stories for All the Letters, by Oliver Jeffers (he has so many incredible, beautiful children’s books!)
- Red: A Crayon Story, by Michael Hall (also check out The Day the Crayons Quit, by Drew Daywalt)
- Her godmother recently gave Harpie The Lost Picnic by BB Cronin and even as an adult, I found myself completely enthralled with the unique colors, whimsical images, and gorgeous story.
- If You Give a Mouse a Cookie
- A Snowy Day
- Where the Wild Things Are
My own book, Goodnight, Nashville, inspires and terrifies me all at once because there is nothing like putting your own creation, words, and art out there into the world to be received and judged, but, I did it for my daughter, Harper, and for our amazing city. It’s been such an exciting, humbling, and impossible-to-describe wild ride over the past two years and I’m shocked and so proud of where my project has traveled – all over Nashville and to so many corners of the country and world either with, for, or thanks to people who love Music City.
Do you remember the moment you first imagined writing Goodnight, Nashville?
There were a couple of key moments that defined the process, for sure, but it started more abstractly as I got excited about having a child and sharing so many wonderful books with her. Then, we were given some books celebrating other special places and things and the wheels started turning as I embarked upon raising my own native Nashvillian. I always loved art and writing through my formidable years and then that piece of me had to take a back seat to starting a “practical” career, but I truly do believe there is space for practicality and creativity in life, so I knew I wanted to make something happen.
Did writing it come easily to you?
Writing it really did come pretty easily (by some complete miracle!), but, I killed myself in the editing process with over-analyzing. Luckily, I had the gracious help of some trusted advisors with a lot of different great perspectives on what makes Nashville special.
Are you working on another book?
Not yet….but, the wheels are always turning (and I may or may not have some domain names and social media handles reserved!)
I cannot thank you enough for stopping in at Bacon today, Jen! Your beautiful, loving spirit shines through this interview, as well as your courage and resilience.