Monday, March 8, 2021

Jeanne Zulick Ferruolo Finds Her Brave


Kids discover their inner BRAVE in Jeanne Zulick Ferruolo’s award-winning middle grade books.

In her first novel, Ruby in the Sky, Ruby has just moved to Vermont and she tries hard to be invisible, especially after her mom is arrested. But that isn’t possible when Ahmad Saleem, a Syrian Refugee, declares he’s her best friend and when Ruby’s elderly neighbor, Abigail, reaches out to her. As Ruby’s mother’s trial date draws near, Abigail is about to be evicted. Will Ruby find the courage to speak out to protect those she loves?

Jeanne’s newest book, A Galaxy of Sea Stars, was released in February 2020. Izzy’s whole world has shifted since her dad returned from the war in Afghanistan. Her family lost their home when Dad could no longer fish and they moved into the marina that he’s running instead. Except Izzy’s mom didn’t move in with them. Izzy wants to forget all about the war, but she can’t when an Afghan family her dad knew overseas moves into the marina’s upstairs apartment. Their daughter Sitara is Izzy’s age and Izzy’s life-long friends make fun of Sitara’s hijab and refusal to eat cafeteria food. As Izzy comes to admire Sitara’s bravery, she is forced to choose between her forever friends and standing up for Sitara.  

Jeanne, I invited you to my blog because I admired your writing, but after learning more about you, I admire you so much more. Before becoming an author, you had a career as a public defender. Can you tell us what your role was? How has that experience influenced your writing?

 Hi Linda! Thank you so much for having me. I admire your writing as well! For many years I worked in both private practice as a criminal defense attorney and later as a public defender. As you know, under the Sixth Amendment, the U.S. Constitution guarantees legal representation to citizens facing incarceration. I loved working as an attorney in the Connecticut Public Defenders office because of the high standards and passion its attorneys, social workers, investigators and support staff bring to the job. I’d like to think we changed people’s lives for the better. In court I got to experience the true power of story. Telling a client’s story in a way that a judge or jury will understand best can mean the difference between freedom and incarceration. I saw firsthand how the first version told isn’t always the true one, and that that there’s another side to every story. My clients’ courage inspired the character Dahlia Hayes (Ruby’s mom) in Ruby in the Sky. I met many Dahlias in my time, and I’m a better person for knowing them!

 You’ve said that your volunteer work with the Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services was your inspiration for A Galaxy of Sea Stars. You interviewed a number of young women there and they helped you in crafting Sitara’s character. Tell us more!

 I began working with Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services ( in New Haven, Connecticut, when I was writing Ruby in the Sky. Some friends at IRIS organized a book club with young men and women refugees who read Ruby. They generously shared their experiences coming to the U.S. as refugees, advised me on the character Ahmad Saleem, and helped ensure the accuracy and authenticity of the story. When we finished that project, six young women expressed interest in working on another book. Before I even began writing A Galaxy of Sea Stars, I sat down with Hilla, Asma, Nour, Maria, Safia and Deyana and began with this question: “If you could go back to when you first came to the U.S., what would you tell your peers that would have made your transition easier.” The unanimous answer was, “Be kind. You don’t know what other people have gone through.” From there we went on to discuss their experiences leaving their homes and families and friends and coming to the U.S. Through our conversations, the character Sitara was born. We met for close to two years as the ladies read several drafts of the book and offered their expertise and advice. I was sad when the project ended because I miss seeing them so regularly, but we keep in touch. They are truly inspiring and continue to do many amazing things. If you want to learn more about these wonderful women, you can read the interview at the back of the recently released paperback version of A GALAXY OF SEA STARS!

The immigrant experience is close to your heart, since you are the granddaughter of immigrants; how did that inform your writing?

 I grew up with my grandparents’ stories of the struggles they faced as immigrants. These injustices have stayed with me, so when I see xenophobia and prejudice continue today, I feel not only compelled to speak up, but obligated to. I only hope that my books serve to elevate the already powerful voices of immigrants and refugees.

Have you drawn on other aspects of your life to create these stories?

 My books are drawn from every aspect of my life. From growing up in a rural town as the granddaughter of immigrants, to handfeeding chickadees with our elderly neighbor, to being a shy kid who liked to hide behind her bangs, to worrying about losing friends when moving to a regional school. I am lucky that my mother saved all the journals I kept since I was a kid. Before I start each new book, I re-read them to remember how life felt for 10-year-old Jeannie. Then, I do my best to bring these emotions into my stories.

 You live in Connecticut, but Ruby in the Sky is set in Vermont and A Galaxy of Sea Stars is set in Rhode Island. Do you have a special connection to these states?

 My family and I spend a lot of time in both states. Although my books are set in fictional towns— Fortin, Vermont is inspired by Chester and Cavendish, and Seabury, Rhode Island is based on Charlestown and South Kingstown. Everything my characters do in my books—snowshoeing, boating, even measuring the pond—are based on things I’ve done. I’m so grateful for every second I get to spend in these beautiful locations!

Why are you drawn to writing about girls who struggle to find courage?

Probably because it has never been something that has come easy for me. In my books, I like to remind kids that courage might come in lots of different shapes and sizes, but it’s inside each one of us. The important thing is to find your own kind of brave.

What has your writing journey been like? Were you able to publish the first book you wrote? What was your revision process? How long did it take you to find an agent? Have you been helped by being part of a writing community?

I’ll try to give you the Reader’s Digest condensed version of a long answer! The first book I wrote was called Listening in the Snow, and no, it will never be published. I struggled to write that book and in fact quit writing altogether over its demise. But I think as artists, we can’t stay away from the things we love, so when I was ready, I eventually put pen to paper and began all over again with the line, “Sometimes people disappear…” which became the first words to Ruby in the Sky. As our good friend Lynda Mullaly Hunt has said, “the people who get published are the ones who don’t give up.” Lynda’s words really stuck with me and inspired me to persist. I eventually met my agent, the wonderful Stacey Glick, with Dystel Goderich and Bourret, through PitchWars. Stacey sold Ruby to my editor Janine O’Malley, at Farrar Straus Giroux/Macmillan. I’ve gone on to do two more books with FSG and (fingers crossed) will do many more! Of course, the writing community is instrumental in any writer’s success. I can confidently say that I would have never been published without the help the many friends I’ve met through NE-SCBWI!

(To access the phenomenal community that the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators offers, go to )

You did a lot of hands-on research for both your books. What were some of the things you did?

If it happens in my books, I’ve done it, witnessed it, or both! I’ve snowshoed, got my boat license, experienced a middle school news production, measured Charlestown Pond with a knotted string and fishing weight, drove a boat through the breachway, and enjoyed a melmastiyĆ¢ feast. For my next book, Each of Us a Universe, I learned to rock climb (the steep stuff!) with ropes and a belay device, and even scaled a rock face at Smugglers’ Notch, Vermont. This kind of “active research” is my very favorite part of each book!

You’ve also taught English in Slovakia and worked on Capitol Hill. Did either of these experiences plant seeds for future stories? What can we expect from you in the future?

Working on Capitol Hill showed me the power of the spoken word. I was lucky enough to witness many powerful and persuasive speeches on behalf of issues I care deeply about such as poverty, homelessness, equality and justice. I had the privilege of working for U.S. Congressman Sam Gejdenson (D-CT) who fought for these things and was one of the first members of Congress to push for Universal Healthcare legislation. That experience constantly reminds me of the importance of speaking up and fighting for issues you care about.

 My next book comes out on February 1, 2022, and is titled Each of Us a Universe. It is about Calliope Scott (12), who, after her mother becomes sick with cancer, sets out with her new friend, Rosine Kanambe (12), to scale the impossibly tall Mt. Meteorite to find the magic she believes will heal her family.

I’m also currently working on a historical fiction set in Communist Czechoslovakia, inspired from my experience teaching English there.

Thank you so much for being my guest. I’m so glad that I had this opportunity to get to know you better and I can't wait to read Each of Us a Universe. To find out more about Jeanne Zulick Ferruolo and her books, visit

Thank you, Linda!

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