Janni Lee Simner, AB ’89, AB ’89
by Michelle Merlin, Arts & Sciences Class of ’12
Janni Lee Simner, AB ’89, AB ’89, made a promise to herself when she was 15: She would never forget that she was real.
“I could tell the adults around me didn’t understand that my life was as real as theirs,” Simner says. “I had this sense I was going to forget something as an adult. But at least I was going to remember that my life was real and everything I felt was real.”
Today, she still remembers what it felt like to be 15, and she acknowledges that children and young adults have feelings, too, in her books.
Simner, the author of Bones of Faerie (Random House, 2010) and Thief Eyes (Random House, 2011), primarily writes fantasy and has published several short stories and seven books. Faerie Winter (Random House, 2011), the sequel to her most popular book Bones of Faerie, came out in April 2011. She is completing the third and final book in the series. Her books focus on adventure and bravery, are tinged with history, and are inspired by the places Simner loves: Tucson, Ariz.; St. Louis; and Iceland.
Although Simner has written some short stories for adults, her work is geared more toward young adults and children.
“It made more sense to me to write with magic than without it — it was always how my brain worked,” she says. “I think in fantasy you get things about being human. Fantasy talks about honor, truth and courage in a way that takes them seriously, and I think that’s valuable out in the world too.”
“The idea that I might be writing things that are a haven for someone else is just huge.” —Janni Lee Simner
For Simner, fantasy books were a way to escape a real world in which she was bullied throughout elementary and middle school.
“Fantasy books can be a haven, especially since I was the misfit kid,” she says. “It was definitely a place to get courage.”
As a child, Simner says she never quite fit in, but she was always writing. In second grade, she filled a book with her own poetry. She still has notebooks filled with short stories she wrote in middle school.
After majoring in biology and in English & American literature at WUSTL, Simner continued to write when she graduated. She worked for Washington University’s Publications Office [now University Marketing & Design] during the day and wrote stories by night. Even now, Simner will occasionally write for the university’s publications.
Throughout her childhood, however, her stories were all fantasy, something she thinks adults should value more.
“Parents get caught up in whether their kid is learning enough, but no adult would read only for educational purposes,” Simner says. “Children and teen readers are just looking for a book they’ll enjoy reading, just like adults do. This ties into seeing kids and young adults as human beings too.”
Even though Simner and her husband, Larry Hammer, AB ’89, BS ’89, don’t have children at their home in Tucson, Simner interacts with children on a regular basis. In the past, she led a Girl Scout troop for eight years. Currently, she volunteers with the Owl & Panther Project, which is designed to help refugee families deal with trauma through the arts.
Fans love Simner’s books. She was especially happy to help one child who loved her Phantom Rider series — three books about a 12-year-old girl who gets whisked into a world of magic. One day, Simner received an email from a man saying that his foster daughter loved the books so much she asked him to replace the main character’s name with her own. When the girl was assigned a permanent home, Simner made sure the third book was waiting for her when she arrived.
“The idea that I might be writing things that are a haven for someone else is just huge,” Simner says. “I feel as if I’m paying back all those writers who gave me a place to go and showed me that I wasn’t that weird — that there were other people like me, and I would find them. In a lot of fantasy, you get a sense that no matter how dark it gets, there’s a light behind it all.”
Michelle Merlin, Arts & Sciences Class of ’12, was a writing intern in University Marketing & Design in summer 2011.