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Children’s author ‘poster child for perseverance’

Hollidaysburg native Black Reinhardt had lifelong passion for writing, illustrating

Author Jennifer Black Reinhardt has created a host of characters for her children’s books. “I do it because picture books are an art form in themselves,” she said. Courtesy photo

For former Hollidaysburg resident Jennifer Black Reinhardt, the first months of 2021 have been momentous with the publication of her ninth and 10th children’s books.

“I feel really, really lucky to be doing exactly what I wanted to do,” she said. “I’m the poster child for perseverance. It’s never too late.”

At 57, after 30-plus years as a freelance illustrator, Black Reinhardt’s publication of “Always By My Side: A Stuffie Story” by Random House, followed by “Fishtastic! A Tale of Magic and Friendship,” by the University of Iowa Press, took different publication paths, but both are “evidence of my dream come true,” she said in telephone conversation from her adopted home of Iowa City, Iowa.

After graduating from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, she recalled carrying a huge art portfolio along the streets of New York City in search of illustration work.

“I’ve wanted to do this my entire life. I went to college for a degree in illustration with the goal to write and illustrate children’s books. That didn’t happen right away. I did everything else: greeting cards, humor calendars and illustrated other books. It’s very hard to break into.”

While sending out promotional postcards of her illustrations, she came to the attention of an art director at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt publishers who contracted her to illustrate a middle school book, “Adventures of a South Pole Pig.”

More book illustration work followed, with “Rabbi Benjamin’s Buttons,” and “The Inventor’s Secret,” and two collaborations with author Linda Sue Parks on “Yaks Yak” and “Gondra’s Treasure,” “Sometimes You Fly,” by author Katherine Applegate and others.

With that foundation and established reputation, Black Reinhardt wrote and illustrated “Blue Ethel,” “Playing Possum” and most recently, “Always By My Side.”

“I do it because picture books are an art form in themselves,” she said. “I grew up with a grandmother and mother who collected picture books. My mother worshipped picture books … and showed me how powerful a picture book — the combination of words with pictures — can inspire, motivate and affect young readers. That’s why I do it. It’s challenging and empowering to me.”

Her mother and grandmother were also artists, so it wasn’t until high school that Black Reinhardt realized that not everyone grows up with an art studio in their home. Her daughter, Eliza, is also an artist.

Her father, retired attorney Clyde Black, calls himself an art-appreciator, and described his daughter’s work as “very whimsical,” with enjoyable and positive story lines.

A retired art teacher, Barbara Wertz-Leiden of Altoona, taught Black Reinhardt in 10th grade and privately, as she was friends with the family.

“She has the most inquisitive, open mind,” Wertz-Leiden said. “She was a joy to be around because she was so creative and was like a sponge with every new art process I showed her. She just absorbed it. She loved everything about art and nature.”

Black Reinhardt’s love of nature comes through in her artwork. Wertz-Leiden said, “she incorporates nature into her watercolors and her animals are amazing. She has such attention to detail. It’s out of this world.”

Wertz-Leiden said Black Reinhardt’s personal, positive outlook infuses her storylines and characters.

“She’s refined the art of illustration,” Wertz-Leiden said. “Her positivity comes through in her lovable characters. I fell in love with the characters. And she has such attention to detail in illustrations that are so well thought out and designed. It just flows and works — like her.”

Black Reinhardt credits growing up in an art-loving, creative family and supportive teachers, including her third-grade teacher, for her success.

Her very first picture-with-words book showed a boy with long, shaggy hair covering his face.

“I wrote, ‘My brother needs a haircut,’ and my third-grade teacher Nan Snyder laughed and said I’d told a story. It felt so powerful,” Black Reinhardt said. “She treated me like I had a gift and encouraged me with my own art corner in the school art show. I still have that sign in a frame in my home art studio.”

Beginning with that first illustration — inspired by her brother’s mop of messy hair– through each of her author/illustrator credits, real life has inspired Black Reinhardt. Her sister-in-law’s cat’s white fur colored by sidewalk chalk became “Blue Ethel,” and in “Always By My Side,” the mother of two was inspired by her then-young son and his favorite stuffed dinosaur.

“Most of my inspiration comes from some truth. I remember I took a lot of poetry classes in college. One teacher told me that when I wrote from reality I was brilliant and publishable but when I was totally making things up — not so much,” she recalled laughing. “There’s definitely something to that … there’s usually a grain of truth and meaning in it for me.”

Often a span of time elapses between inspiration, story development and publication. Black Reinhardt had written the first lines of “Blue Ethel” after the real-life incident, but the book was published 15 years later.

She first drew a frozen possum and the words “Alfred was a very nervous possum. This was unfortunate for Alfred.” The doodling eventually became “Playing Possum,” a book about friendship, compassion and empathy between Alfred and Sophia, a shy, easily frightened armadillo, and how they help each other.

“That was the fastest story I ever wrote,” Black Reinhardt said. “It stayed very close to the way it was from one of the first drafts until it sold.”

“Playing Possum” is dedicated to her husband of nearly 34 years, and was written as she coped with the sudden death of her mother, Rita Black.

“I can’t think of anyone who has my back like he does. He’s always helped me get through hard times,” she said.

Additional meaning is also found in “Fishtastic.” The book’s proceeds benefit Iowa City’s Hancher Auditorium. It allowed Black Reinhardt to use her illustrating abilities and team up with friend and author Tess Weaver.

The book was inspired by nationally known artist Colette Hosmer, who created fish sculptures that were installed along the walkways of Iowa City’s Hancher Auditorium, an acclaimed performing arts center. Hancher suffered financially during the pandemic, so book sales will support the arts center. Various outreach efforts have involved the entire community. Weaver and Black Reinhardt recently judged and picked finalists in a writing contest where elementary students discussed where they find their wellspring in life.

“It’s such an honor to be a part of this project,” Black Reinhardt said. “Chuck Swanson, director of Hancher, had such a creative vision and brought in the right people to make it happen. It’s become such a community project.”

The project overcame many obstacles through the pandemic and reinforced to Black Reinhardt how important perseverance and resilience are in life.

“It takes luck and talent, but most of all, it takes persistence to get published. You have to focus on what you can control. And what you can control is your effort and persistence,” Black Reinhardt said.

The Black Reinhardt file

Name: Jennifer Black Reinhardt

Age: 57

Residence: Iowa City, Iowa

Family: Father, Clyde Black of Hollidaysburg; brother Brian, and his wife, Christina, of Hollidaysburg; husband, Joe; children: Eliza Reinhardt of Texas, and son Will of Philadelphia.

Education: Hollidaysburg Senior High Class of 1981, BFA in illustration from Carnegie Mellon University, 1985

Employment: Has worked as a freelance illustrator for more than 30 years for various advertising agencies and publishers. Currently fulfilling her dream of writing and illustrating books for children.

For more information, visit her website, JBReinhardt.com.

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