The same publisher that introduced the Harry Potter and Hunger Games series of books to U.S. readers has released a first novel by Tiffin University graduate Jennifer Howard. Howard, who writes under the pen name of J. J. Howard, earned her Master of Humanities (MH) degree from TU in 2011. That Time I Joined The Circus, published in hardback in April 2013, has received glowing reviews, and Howard has already finished work on three other young adult novels.
The book began as an assignment for a course taught by Dr. Vincent Moore in fall 2009. Howard later expanded the novel and used it as her thesis, which she successfully defended in February 2011. In the traditional publishing world, writers rarely submit their work directly to editors and publishers. Most editors won’t even consider a novel unless it’s represented by an agent, but Howard decided to try anyway, and submitted her book to Aimee Friedman, an editor at Scholastic. There was a six-month wait until she heard back from Friedman, who expressed interest in Howard’s novel and offered notes on how she could improve her work. Howard continued to revise, and her book was accepted for publication by Scholastic in July 2012. After her success, Howard signed with an agent, Suzie Townsend at New Leaf Literary and Media in New York.
That Time I Joined the Circus book summary
A music-obsessed, slightly snarky New York City girl, Lexi is on her own. After making a huge mistake, and facing a terrible tragedy, Lexi has no choice but to track down her long-absent mother. Rumor has it that Lexi’s mom is somewhere in Florida with a traveling circus.
When Lexi arrives at her new, three-ring reality, her mom isn’t there, but her destiny might be. Surrounded by tigers, elephants, and trapeze artists, Lexi finds some surprising friends and an even more surprising chance at true love. She even lucks into a spot as the circus’s fortune teller, reading tarot cards and making predictions. But then Lexi’s ex-best friend from home shows up, and suddenly it’s Lexi’s own future that’s thrown into question.
Jen Howard grew up in York, PA, and attended Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English. “I wasn’t quite sure what to do with my major,” she recalls. “I knew I needed to work some before I could afford grad school. Somewhat reluctantly, I signed up for the Pennsylvania State teaching certificate program. I like to say I was accidentally good at teaching, and I was also surprised that I kind of liked it. I decided to teach for a little while. At some point, a little while turned into 15 years.”
She is currently still teaching at Lake Mary Preparatory School in Lake Mary, FL, where she has students in AP English, English I, Media Studies, and Humanities.
When Jen decided to go back to school to earn her graduate degree, she knew she needed a university that offered a flexible schedule and online programs. “I can’t claim full credit for choosing Tiffin University,” she says. “My best friend, Nikki Morrell, found Tiffin and she started the MH program a semester before me. I was a bit nervous at first that the Humanities major might be too general, and I thought about holding out for a program in English. I’d thought about an MFA in creative writing as well. But Nikki’s classes sounded so interesting, and there just weren’t programs available in English or writing that didn’t require partial residency and/or expensive travel. As a teacher, travel can unfortunately be kind of a deal breaker. It requires the two things we don’t really ever have enough of: time and money.”
She says that she immediately knew she had made the right decision with TU. “Once I began the program, I really enjoyed my classes. I enrolled in all the courses with Professor Moore that I could, and enjoyed them all. Of course, the novel class was my favorite. One of my other favorite courses was Documentary Film with Professor Lee Fearnside. That class turned me into a fan of documentary film, and has directly influenced my teaching, since I have developed a Media Studies Elective at the high school where I teach. We do a big unit on documentary film.”
Howard adds, “It turned out that the wider focus of the Tiffin University MH program became a real benefit, because I was exposed to some new disciplines that I never would have explored taking only literature classes. I have also found a position teaching college online, and the people who interviewed me really liked the fact that my degree was in Humanities, so that I can teach a lot of different subjects.”
She calls her professor Vince Moore “an incredible mentor.”
Moore agreed to work with Howard as her thesis advisor. “He called my work-in-progress a sort of female, modern The Catcher in the Rye. Through the two writing classes I took with Vince, one on short story, and one on the novel, I learned a lot about writing. Actually, I really learned things I thought I already knew. I knew the rule about ‘show being better than tell,’ of course – I am an English teacher. But until the work- shop setting of those classes, I don’t think I really got it in a way that allowed me to be really critical of my own work.”
Howard says Moore gave his novel class the option of writing a 50,000 word novel over the course of the semester, or completing it all in one big sprint in November, as a rabbit-like participant in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). NaNoWriMo is an annual, internet-based creative writing project that takes place every Nov. 1-30. Howard says she initially opted to work on a novel over the course of a semester, but ended up writing all but three pages of her book that November.
The next phase for the novel was to revise the work significantly, because I elected to continue the work as my creative thesis. “I added about 15,000 words to the piece at that point, and did extensive editing,” she says.
In speaking about Tiffin University, Howard says she has nothing but good things to say.
“I really enjoyed my time at TU. The classes were interesting, the work was challenging, and despite the fact that the courses were all online, there was still somewhat of a sense of community. I think Vince Moore really fosters that in the MH program. I feel like if I had showed up at some point on campus he would have been, ‘Hey, come have a cup of coffee, this is where we hang out in Tiffin,’” she remarks. “The program was small enough that you would have classes with a lot of familiar names. I am still Facebook friends with a lot of the people I went through the program with. That sense of community is really amazing, given that a lot of us never met in person. I think the Tiffin University MH program is a great fit for a lot of people.”
In addition to writing and teaching, Howard says she also enjoys making jewelry, reading, and has recently discovered blogging. “I have always had stories chasing around in my head, so even before I knew that I wanted to be a writer, I loved books and stories. I am also a huge pop culture fanatic. I love movies, television, and music,” Howard remarks.
“Music has always been really important to me, and it’s still a big part of my writing life. The first thing I do to get a new project started is to make a long playlist, which I listen to as I write. I am excited to share my playlists as my books come out,” she says. “I’ve got links on my website to Ping and Spotify so that people can listen along with me.”
Readers can visit Howard at www.jjhowardbooks.com
That Time I Joined The Circus is available wherever books are sold, as well as online through Amazon.