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December 9, 2015

Badass Ladies You Should Know: Kelly Jensen

Kate Hart
Kelly Jensen headshot
In the book world, Kelly Jensen does a little of everything. While working as a librarian in 2009, she began blogging about books at STACKED, creating a site that's now one of the most respected in kid lit. Today she also contributes to Book Riot and Size Acceptance in YA -- not to mention authoring It Happens, a book about contemporary YA, and editing Feminism For The Real World, an upcoming anthology with one of the most impressive contributor lists I've ever seen.

Most importantly, Kelly speaks up when she sees injustice, even if it means standing up to colleagues, friends, or the monolith that is publishing itself. When she heard that a book by Badass Lady Courtney Summers had been removed from a school reading list, she spearheaded an effort to get the title back into the hands of kids who need it, leading the National Coalition Against Censorship to name her a 2015 Free Speech Hero. Even when Kelly and I disagree, I'm always impressed by her incisive arguments, her dedication to her ideas -- and her willingness to return to the fray no matter how many times she gets burned.




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Kate: Describe your career(s) and/or current projects. What path(s) and passions led you there?


Kate Hart, Sarah Enni, Kirsten Hubbard, and Kelly Jensen at a blogger meetup in New Orleans
Kelly (far right) with Kate and
Badass Ladies Sarah Enni and
Kirsten Hubbard at a STACKED/
YA Highway co-hosted ALA
blogger meetup - Summer 2011
Kelly : I began my career in librarianship in 2009, after graduating with my master’s from University of Texas at Austin. I moved from Austin back to my home state of Illinois, and I worked at two libraries as a teen and reference librarian just outside of Rockford. The economy had just tanked, and the area, which was very blue collar, really opened my eyes to the power of libraries in an individual’s life. It was an outstanding job, though it didn’t quite let me do as much as I wished to do in my career. When the opportunity arose to work as a children’s librarian in a much smaller, more rural town — the one I lived in — I took it, despite having little experience working with young kids.

It was a trying job. The workplace was toxic, even though I had some great coworkers and had a group of dedicated, engaged teen patrons. I took every chance I could to do programs with them, and we talked about YA books, about school, about life and everything; it let me get away from the stuff that brought me down about the job. But…it wasn’t enough. After a vacation with my husband, I cried about having to go back, and that was when we decided I could walk away. And I did. No backup plan. Nothing.

The eight months I went without a job were hard as hell, but they were incredibly eye-opening to me about what it was I wanted to do with my life. I had a friend who said something to me then that really changed my perspective. She said that no matter what I chose to do, be it writing or editing or consulting or whatever, I could always do something that influenced teenagers in some capacity. I hadn’t thought about it that way before. To me, careers were always straight paths. You do one thing, and you do it because you love it.

But that wasn’t how MY life was turning out. I loved doing a lot of things and I loved being involved in many projects at once. Being tied to a 40-hour-a-week job behind a desk wasn’t good for my life and my needs.

I took a part-time library job, working with teens, shortly after that talk. It was a fine job, and it gave me a lot of flexibility when it came to pursuing my passions outside of the workplace. It was then I began writing my book about contemporary realistic YA fiction, where I got the chance to present at numerous book and library related conferences, and it was there when I began writing for Book Riot.

The job began wearing on me, though, and when I’d about reached breaking point, I was offered a job with Book Riot.

Here we are today! I have the perfect job, with the perfect, non-traditional work setup, and I get to do the things I’m passionate about while also pursuing a myriad of outside projects that fuel my creativity. I find so much bleed over between my work and personal joy — it’s a really nice balance.

When I’m not working, I’m writing for STACKED or working on my anthology, FEMINISM FOR THE REAL WORLD, due out in Spring 2017 from Algonquin Young Readers. This is my dream project, an anthology of essays, anecdotes, comics, and illustrations about feminism for teen girls; I’m working with incredibly gifted writers and artists, many of whom I’ve admired for a long, long time. I have two excellent, responsive, and eager editors at Algonquin, too.

One thing I can say about my career and creative pursuits at this point in the game is that nothing matters more than the people who get you and get what you’re about. I’ve had plenty of negative voices in my life but what they think doesn’t matter. What matters is that at the end of the day, I go to bed feeling good about the things I achieved that day. And for the last couple of years, I’ve been able to feel that way without question. It might not be traditional, it might not have been what I thought I knew, but it’s absolutely right for me.


Kelly Jensen as a young ballerina
Portrait of the Artist
As A Young Badass
Kate: Do you have any creative outlets? How do they influence/affect your main work (if at all)?

Kelly : I’ve always been a creative-minded person. But it’s never been quite the same thing — when I was younger, I was convinced I’d grow up to be a dancer. I took ballet lessons for a few years, which was sort of accidental. I wasn’t old enough to take jazz yet, so ballet filled the time. But I ended up enjoying ballet so much that when I was old enough to do jazz, I ended up quitting before the classes ended because I didn’t like it as much.

When I got a little older, music became a passion for me. I began with the french horn, which is a beautiful looking instrument, but it’s…not particularly enjoyable to listen to or to play. After a year of lugging around an instrument as big as me, I switched to flute. I loved flute and thought that was my calling. Until high school, where I didn’t get into our school’s very competitive marching band. I didn’t care about playing in an auditorium, and because there were so many flautists, I offered to take up a different instrument to round out the band: tenor saxophone.

I didn’t like it. It was easy enough to learn, but the tenor was as big as I was, and marching with it just didn’t work. Half-way through high school I quit band and after more seriously pursing writing — through journalism class, through editing the school paper, through publishing and writing poetry quite seriously with the school’s literary journal — I thought perhaps song writing would be my calling.

It ended up not happening that way in college, though I pursued poetry very seriously there. I published in our school’s lit journal a few times, earning a pretty prestigious award for my poetry my freshman year and my junior year. It ended up being journalism and editing the school’s paper, though, that I fell in love with.

Knowing journalism was “dying,” I went into libraries as a way to do some similar things to journalism: working with people and stories.

The rest is, as they say, history though, because there are places like Book Riot that combine my love of books, reading, and writing in one place. I have my dream job and am doing my dream work of creating there and in my free time.

Kelly's poetry in her college lit journal
STACKED is really a creative outlet for me, though I’ve found things like Tumblr and Instagram to be surprisingly valuable for me creatively. I think part of it is that on those two social media sites, I can really “take in” the work other people are sharing and I can mull it over or think about it in ways that allow me to pull from it what I need in the space I need to do it. It’s not like, say, Twitter, which is really about the instant, two-way dynamic. I love that, but it drains me much more than it inspires me.

My current pursuits are in writing primarily about girls and girls’ stories, feminism, and about body positivity. It took me a long time to be comfortable with these things personally, and when I think about all of the teen girls I’ve worked with in my career as a teen librarian, I realize what passion I had FOR working with them and listening to their stories and letting them tell me about their amazing lives and passions. Being in a position as an adult to have some sort of influence on teen girls is incredible.

I try to write something every day, though I do split up my time a bit so that there are a couple of days per week dedicated entirely to writing for work. A lot of writing for me happens in my head, rather than on screen. It took me a long time to realize this was still legitimate, important work.
I had a professor in college — easily the best professor I ever had — who took me out to coffee once just to talk. She’d read an article I wrote about time management and demands upon students in the newspaper, and we got to talking about being creative and how, in order to reach peak “flow,” you have to let yourself have hours upon hours of staring out a window sometimes. Allowing yourself permission to sit and stare or sit and be unproductive is difficult to do, but it’s such an invaluable part of the process. It’s not lost time; it’s dedicated time.

It’s weird, but I think about her and that conversation every time I pursue a new project, and I remember to build in adequate quiet time. Often, suppressing the urges I get during that quiet time makes the time when I have to produce so much more enjoyable.

Off-line, and in private, I do a lot of creative things for me, and I don’t settle for one activity for long periods of time. I’ll paint for a few weeks, then I’ll cross stitch for a few weeks, I’ll pull out a mandolin for a bit and strum at it. I don’t write poetry like I used to, but because I get to write so many other things, I’m okay with that. It’s not a thing I need in my life — right now.



Kate: What's your biggest challenge?

Kelly : Myself. I know myself really well, and I am great at budgeting my energy for the things I do every day. But I get so stymied about the bigger picture of things — I feel like sometimes I get a glimpse of what that future project might look like, but then I get overwhelmed thinking about the road to get there. I know I can DO it, but I suffer from anxiety that regularly tells me that it won’t happen or that it’s going to be tough or that I’m not good enough.

Over the last year or so, I’ve been working on quieting that voice, though. I got help for my anxiety and depression, and I’m lucky to have the sort of support systems in my life that I do, who know me and know what my “patterns” are. Sometimes I can’t see where I am in the greater picture, and being reminded that the ground is beneath my feet is all I need to keep going forward.



Kelly Jensen playing french horn
Kelly playing French horn
Kate: Tell us about a time that you bounced back from failure.


Kelly : I don’t know so much if I can think of a specific time I felt like I bounced back from failure, but I can think of plenty of examples of times when I realized that I was not living my life for myself, but rather, for an image of the person I thought people wanted to see.

It took me a long time to figure out who I was in college, in part because I really appreciate close, intimate relationships with people, rather than seeking out groups of people. And in a lot of respects, it makes me come off as cold or prickly or uninviting. But I went to a tiny college, where so many demands were made of us at the beginning to “get involved” and “make a lot of friends quickly.” Being told to keep our dorm room doors open all the time for those chance encounters actually made me really uncomfortable. . . and I realize it made me put on a face about who I was that wasn’t true. Learning to allow myself the freedom to shut that door and go out when I am ready to go out, and not when I feel like I should go out, made a huge difference to me.

Like with creative pursuits, I found myself in and out of different groups and clubs in college. I took part in a social group (like a sorority) for a while, but I realized it wasn’t my thing and even though I was president, I chose to quit. I was heavily active in the Green Party on campus for a bit, then just stopped when I realized maybe it wasn’t quite who I was.

The person I was was the person writing poetry, in private, in the quiet of my dorm room about love and sex and about the lines between friendship and infatuation. The person I was was the person in the newspaper office at 1 am on Monday nights, editing away at the next edition with just a few other people around me.

Realizing I have no control over how other people saw me made me understand that I didn’t care what they thought. It’s my life and I’m living it for me and me alone.



Kate: What's the best compliment you've ever gotten?


Kelly : The best compliment I’ve ever received is a strange one, but it’s one that has stuck with me and reflects a lot of why I am comfortable and secure in who I am as a person.

The summer between my sophomore and junior years of college, I lived in an un-air conditioned dorm room, without any kitchen to use, and without internet access, at Northwestern University. I was a teaching assistant for the summer for middle and early high schoolers who were taking enrichment courses. Only a few of us “got” to live in these dorms that summer, and one of them was my boss at the program.

Because it was always so hot and because my room was at the end of the hallway and because it was a virtual desert there, I left the door open whenever I was in to keep air circulating. One night, my boss wandered by to borrow something from me. When I lent her whatever it was, she said that she always loved coming by my room because it always felt so relaxing and peaceful. That being in my space was pleasant.

It’s a small thing but it stuck with me for years and years — how often does someone tell you that your space, the one you make yours to reflect the you-ness of you is a great place to be?



Kate: Did you have any defining moments that galvanized your understanding of and/or commitment to feminism? How does it inform/inspire your work?


Kelly : I’ve always been a feminist, but I never used the word to describe myself or my beliefs until I was in my 20s.

In college, I was surround by loud, impassioned women who “did feminist things” all the time. They wrote editorials about how a local women’s health clinic lied to women who found themselves pregnant; they wrote about how important Planned Parenthood was; they regularly talked about great women who inspired them and how we didn’t do enough to stand up for women who’d been assaulted or otherwise victimized on campus and off.

I wasn’t that girl. I didn’t think I could be that girl because my passion is and always has been so much quieter. Feminists were loud and outspoken. I…was not.

There was a girl I admired wildly in college. She was a few years older than me, but we’d had a few classes together because she, too, was a writer. And she was an incredible poet; her work, to this day, makes me cry because it’s so good. She was also loud, outspoken, and at times, beautifully outlandish — she and her roommate, one afternoon, donned 80s-style workout gear and ran through the campus Commons talking about how fat girls like them were fucking beautiful rockstars and no one could ever stop them.

One night my sophomore year, she was at a party with a ton of other people — her sorority sisters — and she sent back a mutual friend of ours to drag me out from my dorm to the party. Because she insisted on talking to me right then and there. It was out of my nature to do anything like that, but I went. That night, screwdrivers in our hands, she told me about how much she admired me, how much she saw that I had going for me, and how much she couldn’t wait to see what I’d achieve. It hit me then that feminism wasn’t one thing or one size fits all.

I was incredibly feminist. I took scads of feminist classes in college, ranging from a psychology of women course to an entire course on emotions, feminist-leaning lit courses to history classes where I wrote lengthy papers about the role women played in everything from Chicago history to small-town, midwest porch culture. I absolutely loved spending time with other smart, achieving women, and I loved being there for them and with them through good times and bad.

My poetry then was feminist, full of moments about girls kissing other girls without shame, about girls kissing boys because they felt like it, about girls waking up after a night of passionate romance and sex and feeling damn good about themselves and their choices. I wrote my senior psychology thesis about gender and friendship — and I think it was then where it all sort of clicked.

As I got older, my understanding of feminism got bigger and bigger, especially as I befriended more women who called themselves feminists and who made feminist art. The more exposure I got to different people, the more I also began to understand how there’s no such thing as feminism without intersectionality.

And frankly, life’s boring when it’s all white. I know that story. I’m here to listen to and understand other stories.



Kelly Jensen and Laurie Halse Anderson at Book Riot Live
Kelly and legendary YA author Laurie
Halse Anderson at Book Riot Live
Kate: What are the best ways to support other women?

Kelly : Believe them and trust in them.

When a girl tells me something, my first instinct is to believe what they’re telling me and trust that it’s the truth.

It took me a long time to do this, but when I look back at the times I failed other women, it’s because I didn’t do these two simple and important things.

I had a friend in high school who came out to me. We were out shopping, and when we were about to get out of the car, she started crying and told me that she and her girlfriend had just broken up. In that moment, I didn’t know what to do because I’d never once been in that situation before, and my response was not good — I didn’t believe that they’d broken up because I didn’t believe they were together because I didn’t trust that she knew she was bisexual. It was easier for me to instead get selfish and defensive and standoffish and ignore the root of it all together. I didn’t believe her, and I couldn’t be there for her in the way she wanted me to be.

No one tells you their big things unless they believe you’ll trust them and believe them. I didn’t in that moment, and it pains me to this day that I failed another woman, one who had been a good friend, that way.

Always believe other women and girls. Trust that they’re telling you things that are true and trust when they bring you their heart and their vulnerability, they’re hoping you offer the same thing back to them.

I tell my close friends how much I believe them, how much I believe in them, and how much I trust and love them on the regular. I don’t always have to agree with them, but what matters is that they know no matter what the truth of their own life is, that I’m going to love them and believe that is what they need to do for them.

And I’m lucky to have spectacular women in my life who do the same for me.


Kate: What is your advice to aspiring badasses?


Kelly : Do your thing and do it with your whole heart. Let yourself make mistakes, screw up, and ignore the advice you don’t like or don’t think fits your life. But also, let your heart and your mind listen to advice from those who know you, who love you, and who respect that YOU will eventually figure it all out.

Listening and being present are two of the most important things in the world, and they take on a ton of different forms and appearances. They will get you everywhere you want to go.

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Kelly Jensen is a former librarian turned writer/editor who, after stints in Iowa and Central Texas, lives outside Chicago. She’s been blogging with one of her former grad school classmates, Kimberly Francisco, at STACKED since April 2009. FEMINISM FOR THE REAL WORLD, an anthology of feminist essays and art she's editing, will be published by Algonquin Young Readers in Spring 2017 and she was recently named a free speech hero by the National Coalition Against Censorship.

stackedbooks.org  //  bookriot.com  // sizeacceptanceinya.tumblr.com
website  //  tumblr  //  twitter


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