Writer, teacher, director
by Peggy Reiter
From the March, 2013 issue
When Jacqui Robbins learned of a children's literature writing workshop at the Bank Street College of Education in New York, she phoned for information. The deadline was the next day, they said. Did she have a manuscript?
"'Of course I do,'" said Robbins, who had an idea but nothing in hand. Hours later, as she headed to a meeting on a Chicago train, she wrote the draft that got her into the workshop. There, she revised the manuscript that evolved into The New Girl ... and Me. It was published by Simon & Schuster in 2006, then reprinted in paperback by General Mills, which put copies in a million boxes of Cheerios in the United States, then translated it into Spanish and circulated it in cereal boxes in Mexico. Next, Robbins published Two of a Kind, about a girl who must choose between her best friend and bullies in the "in crowd." "All my books are like real life on the playground," she says.
Robbins, now forty-one, continues to write; she recently published a poem in the anthology Dare to Dream ... Change the World. She also teaches at Allen Creek Preschool and directs plays for the Penny Seats Theatre Company and for 826michigan, where she is president of the board. The common thread, she says, is her desire to let people know "you're not the only person who feels what you're feeling."
Robbins herself had some difficult times growing up. Her family moved from Florida to Stamford, Connecticut, when she was in second grade and to nearby Greenwich a few years later. She had difficulty making friends at Greenwich High, where Jewish students are rare, as are girls who stand five feet eleven. She stayed close to her younger sister, Alyson, now a social justice attorney in Ann Arbor. She's not entirely sure she was excluded, but sometimes that's how it felt to the shy teen: "I was the kid who would feel people weren't letting me play,
even if I had never asked."
Now Robbins draws out the children she teaches. She's "simultaneously disarming and incredibly confident," says Joe Malcoun, who serves with her on the 826 board and whose twins are in her Allen Creek class. Malcoun adds that his children change the name of every teacher character in books they read to "Mrs. Wobbins."
Robbins verbalizes what children are thinking. "You were really hoping we could go outside, but now it's raining," she might say, simultaneously helping tots understand themselves, know they are understood, and develop the vocabulary needed to express their feelings. "Teaching is making a community where everybody feels free to take risks and can learn to be their best," she says.
That's also a definition of what a good theatrical director does. Just as a Montessori-influenced teacher structures environments so kids can teach themselves, she tells actors to figure out what they're going to do in a scene and then show her. At the invitation of Ann Arbor lawyer Lauren London, Robbins co-founded Penny Seats with six other Ann Arborites who wanted to do something more professional than community theater but whose other commitments don't allow them to work in the theater full time.
Penny Seats does a musical outdoors each summer and an occasional indoor winter presentation, and so far, Robbins has directed all of them. Co-founder Roy Sexton calls her a free spirit who exhibits "whimsy and her own brand of anarchy, yet is well organized. If somebody has a thought or is goofing around and does something brilliant, she lets that in."
Robbins's current project is a staged reading of Thorstein the Staff-Struck by Penny Seats co-founder Russ Schwartz, which the company describes as an "an irreverent, richly humorous spin on a tale from the Icelandic sagas." (See Events, March 2.) "This will be a chance for audiences to see the creative process," she promises. "There will be much, much fun. And beer. And people hitting each other with broadswords."
Robbins met her husband, U-M pediatric neurologist Jim Dowling, when they appeared together in a play as undergrads at Yale. They married in 1998 and have a ten-year-old daughter and a six-year-old son. She earned a master's degree in child development from the Erikson Institute of Columbia College in Chicago in 2002, which prepared her for Allen Creek's psychoanalytic approach.
When her students have difficulty getting along, Robbins makes up stories about children in similar situations. "I found that if we were talking about [imaginary] people, they could be very thoughtful about what those children should do or say," she explains. "If it was about them, they were just worried they were in trouble."
And that's how she added "book writer" to her careers--"it's hard to find books where making friends is really hard." So Robbins was delighted when a little girl approached her after a book signing in Maine, hugging the book. "She leaned over to me and said, 'This really happens sometimes.'"
[Originally published in March, 2013.]