Ballard Writers Collective Blog
A Profile of Jan Dalrymple
Webmaster’s note: This is part of an ongoing series in which Ballard Writers profile other Ballard Writers.
Jan Dalrymple, the author of The Story of Hanukkah Howie, was an architecture student at the University of Washington when three unusual talents emerged that would carry her through her life.
One was the ability to function without sleep (or caffeine) for days on end. To complete an architecture class project, she once stayed up for 72 hours straight. The project was to “formulate several permutations, each one predicated on its predecessor.” Confused about the meaning of the assignment, Jan went to her prof for clarification. He said he had intended for students to do just as Jan had done; he had purposely obfuscated the problem to provoke students to seek him out for further instructions. But Jan turned out to be the only student in her class who did, demonstrating her tenacity and ability to communicate with “clients.”
When she learned the precise nature of the problem, she found it a thrilling challenge, one that helped propel her to switch from architecture into the field she has thrived in for more than four decades. “We had to come up with a three-dimensional shape that would continue infinitely, as you grouped them together, in both two and three dimensions. To me that was a fascinating thing to be able to do because I ended up being a commercial space planner, which is really solving puzzles.”
Although she is (mostly) retired from that career, she is anything but idle. She still does pro bono work for non-profits, sits on the board of the Northwest Center for Creative Aging, is a former board member of Cancer Lifeline, and was part of the building committee for Wellspring Family Services. Her sense of public duty and service is a legacy, she says, from her older brother, Alan, who died 40 years ago, at 29, from cancer. “He’s had a tremendous influence on my life, a humanitarian influence. He was amazing. He lived his whole life doing for others. That was his primary thing. When he went into the Peace Corps, he didn’t feel like he could have done enough, because people needed so much. He cared so much about other people. So whatever I can do for other people, I will.”
Her brother may have had another, unintended influence on her as well: a discomfort with writing.
“I’ve always enjoyed telling stories, but when it comes to putting them down with actual words on paper it has never been an easy thing for me. I’m too critical of what I see, it seems too dry, it doesn’t seem interesting enough, it doesn’t seem to flow well.”
When Alan was a student at Stanford in the early 1960s, Jan wrote to him once. “He sent the letter back to me, all red-lined and corrected. From that point on–I got good grades in school, in language arts classes–I never felt confident that I would achieve much with writing.”
So how did she end up being the author of a children’s book? It started as a gift.
Jan’s family is Jewish, but her husband of 41 years, Bob, is not. At Hanukkah celebrations, Bob’s impish sense of humor would come out. Calling himself Hanukah Harry, he would assume the job of gift deliverer. After Jan’s father died, she and Bob decided to create an illustrated story and give it to the family as a Hanukkah gift. That’s when the idea popped into her head of a main character whose hair spikes into weird, candle-like shapes every December, one for each candle of the menorah. Bob, also an architect, has a gift for drawing. He illustrated Jan’s text, they had the book bound, and gave it to family members. Jan switched out the name Howie for Harry because an internet search revealed that someone else had already usurped that name, in case they later decided to publish a book for public consumption.
Though she adored the book, Jan wasn’t entirely happy with the way she had told the story. A few years later, she happened to be watching Bill Moyers interview John Lithgow, the actor, who had written a children’s book inspired by the clever, rhyming poetry of Ogden Nash. A light went off in Jan’s head. She could see a solution to the puzzle of how to better tell the story, by enlisting Nash as a muse. As she began using rhyme in playful ways, and freeing herself to make up words like “unstrange,” the story started to flow in ways she could not have predicted.
“It was really fascinating. A word would appear that rhymed and it just took the story in a different direction.”
When she finished the draft, she presented it to her granddaughter, who was 12 at the time, to get her reaction. Jan asked her to read it aloud. “It was magic. She loved it. Suddenly I realized that the story was something that kids could really relate to.”
Jan thinks that one of the story’s virtues is the power of rhyme. “Kids know what the next word is going to be, and there’s no question they can become engaged in it at a much earlier age because they can find the words more easily.”
Jan and Bob reworked their original Hanukkah gift into a polished, professional book and self-published it through Peanut Butter Publishing of Seattle.”It was kind of a lark to do it. We got amazing response from a group of Jewish librarians at a conference. One gal walked over to the table and said, ‘Finally a story about Hanukkah that doesn’t have an old lady with gray hair cooking latkas.”
Others who have read the book say that it sends a strong message to children about accepting their individuality, no matter how strange. It speaks to “kids who are being taunted or harassed or put down. Howie’s hair was something he was trying to hide, and he was afraid of bullying, of what others would think. So he hid his problem. In the end he found out it was good thing, that his hair meant that he had a reason to be.”
Jan has already written the sequel, but says she will wait to see how well the first book does before she publishes it.
As Jan and I talk, her cell phone rings inside her pocket. She pulls the phone out to check briefly who the caller is. It’s her daughter-in-law, the wife of her only child, named R.E. She hesitates a moment before deciding not to answer and let her leave a message. Jan tells me she is actively involved in the raising of her three grandchildren, who bring her great joy. As soon as our interview is over, Jan calls her back to see if there is anything she can do to lend a hand.