Biography and F.A.Q.
The short version:
Jessica Burkhart is the author of the best selling 20-book Canterwood Crest series with over 1 million copies in print in multiple languages. The first book in the Canterwood series, TAKE THE REINS, published in 2009 when Jess was 22 years old. Her other works include the four-book Unicorn Magic series and the stand alone YA novel WILD HEARTS. She also has an essay in the DEAR TEEN ME anthology.
Jess homeschooled herself for high school and began college at sixteen, then went on to earn a BA in English literature at Florida State University graduating in 2009.
Jess has been undergoing treatment for anxiety and depression since 2009. She has many young readers who write her asking for help as they struggle with their own mental illnesses.
Jess has presented at multiple conferences often as keynote speaker. She’s spoken at the Tallahassee Writers Conference, Oklahoma Writers Federation Conference, Missouri Writers Guild Conference, the Target Children’s Stage at the Decatur Book Festival and Book Expo America.
The long version:
Twenty-nine year old Jessica Burkhart (aka Jess Ashley) was born in Goodlettsville, Tennessee. By the age of ten, Jess started her own business, "Jessie's Tack Cleaning Service" to pay for horseback riding lessons. She rode daily and on occasion, wore her paddock boots to school. Boys thought they were cool. Seriously.
In eighth grade, Jess had a spinal fusion for severe scoliosis. During her recovery, she read dozens of teen magazines and thought "Ooooh! I could do that!" She learned how to write a query and sent dozens of (awful) queries to magazines. She used writing to fill the emptiness of no longer being able to ride horses.
Each query was rejected.
Jess kept at it.
She finally stopped writing about topics she thought editors wanted to read and wrote about what she loved--volunteering with the Humane Society. That article became her first acceptance.
In 2001, a year after her spinal fusion, Jess started "Str8 Spines for Shriners," a support group for kids and teens facing spine surgery at any Shriners Hospital.
Jess, still disheartened by not being able to ride, kept writing about anything BUT horses. She hated being reminded of what she couldn't do.
Jess' family moved to Florida and she focused on two things--education and writing. She started college at sixteen and had an Associate's Degree from Lake City Community College in fall 2005.
Jess kept freelancing and had over 100 pieces published in magazines such as Girls' Life, Listen and The Writer.
She transferred to Florida State University and in November 2006, during her senior year, she signed up for National Novel Writing Month. The challenge? Write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days.
The idea for a horse novel hit and wouldn't go away. Jess started to live vicariously through her horseback riding characters and fell in love with horses all over again.
On December 1, the first (BAD!) draft of Take the Reins was complete!
In January 2007, a supercool agent stumbled upon Jess' blog and asked to read her manuscript. Jess crossed her fingers and sent Take the Reins to NYC. She signed with the agent who sent Take the Reins to publishers that spring. Within 10 days, Jess had a four-book deal from Simon & Schuster's Aladdin MIX.
In April 2007, Jess graduated magna cum laude from FSU at 20 with a BA in English.
I'm a young writer and I want to get published! Advice?
I shared TONS of tips and tricks here!
Where has your writing been published?
You'll find over 100 of my articles, quizzes, short stories and more in magazines and newspapers such as: A Girls' World, AboutTeens.com, Beautiful Girl, Characters, Florida Trend's Next, FSView & Florida Flambeau, Girls' Life, Guideposts Sweet 16, Howl!, Kid Magazine Writers, Lake City Magazine, Listen, NE Chronicle, Positive Teens, Rainy Day Corner, Romance Writers Report, Teen Ink, Teen Scene, Teen Voices, Teenage Christian, The Famuan, The Next Step, The Tattoo, The Writer, Writing for Dollars, Young People's Press and Young Writer.
How did you get an agent?
In November 2006, at nineteen, I participated in National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. The goal of the contest is to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. The prize? The writer has a completed first draft of a novel. I signed up and on December 1, I had a very, very rough draft of Take the Reins.
I blogged (the entry is still in the archives) that I'd finished a novel and was going to start editing it and looking for an agent.
That month, an agent stumbled onto my blog and read my entry about my book. She sent me an e-mail and offered to read it.
I sent it and--gasp--she liked it! She signed me as a client in January 2007 and we revised the manuscript for a few months before it went on submission.
Who are your favorite authors?
I have so many lovely author friends that I couldn't choose! Hmmm...how about I list favorite authors who aren't friends?
I adore anything by Kate Brian, Libba Bray, Stephenie Meyer, Sara Gruen, Maureen Johnson, Sara Shepard, Becca Fitzpatrick, Wendy Toliver and Alyson Noel.
Tough call between Twilight series, Moulin Rouge and Mean Girls. I heart them!
Where have you lived?
Tennessee, Virginia, Florida, Kentucky, Illinois and New York.
Things you can't live without?
Lip gloss. (It's everywhere. I, um, even have a lip gloss box beside my laptop.) Books. Kittens. Pink pens. Cozy sweaters. Coffee Mate. iPhone.
As mentioned in my bio, I was diagnosed with scoliosis (curvature of the spine) at eight years old. I wore a hard plastic back brace for what started out as a few hours a day and soon grew to wearing it 24/7. I was in an incredible amount of pain and was made fun of for wearing a brace to school. Well, I stopped the teasing (at least to my face!) when I got up in front of my 5th grade class and explained my condition and that sitting at my desk or on the floor hurt my back. I lifted up my sweater, took off the brace and showed it to everyone.
By the time I was thirteen, I was having heart palpitations and trouble breathing. I had a large hump on the right side of my back. I was so embarrassed that I wore sweaters and hoodies even in the summer.
At a school mandated physical, the nurse said I needed to see a doctor. The doctor visit turned into a "You need to see a spinal specialist. Immediately." I learned that I needed a spinal fusion: two titanium rods would be screwed into my spine with twelve or fourteen screws. A rib would also be removed, ground up, and used to fuse the rods to my spine.
The problem? The spinal fusion that I needed cost more than $150,000. There was no way my family could afford that.
By a kind of miracle, someone told us about Shriners Hospital for Children. We were living in Tennessee and there wasn't one nearby. So, we moved to central Illinois to be close to Shriners in St. Louis, Missouri. It was a forty minute drive from my home to the hospital.
Doctors took x-rays and quickly assessed that I needed life saving surgery. My spine had twisted into an "S" and was pressing on my heart and lungs. The first image is one of my x-ray before surgery. It was taken around October 2000. My curves, as you can see, were 37, 88, 64, and 5 degrees.
It was the worst case the hospital had ever seen. (Just the words you want to hear, right?)
Surgery was scheduled for six weeks after my initial consult. My surgical team debated back and forth if I needed to first under go wearing a "halo" and going through traction. That meant: surgeons would drill screws into my skill and attach a metal circle around my head. They would attach that to a rope-type system that would have weights. I would never be able to lie down, instead I would spend months sitting up in a chair as the weights pulled on my skull and spine--the goal to straighten the severest of curves before surgery. It also meant months in the hospital.
To prepare, I started donating my own blood for the surgery every week. Some weeks, I was anemic and I had to take iron supplements.
A few days before surgery, my surgeon, Dr. Lawrence Lenke, called. He said that he thought I could skip traction and proceed with the spinal fusion. The risk of paralysis was significantly higher from skipping the traction, but the chance to skip having to go through that awful process was worth the risk to me.
I entered the hospital and had a nine hour surgery. During my stay in the ICU, one of my lungs, so battered from the pressure of my spine, collapsed. Doctors were unsuccessful in re-inflating my lung and I was transferred via ambulance to Children's Hospital in St. Louis. There, a team fixed my lung and I went back to Shriners for the remainder of my two week stay. I was there longer than most who have this procedure because I could barely move my right arm or right leg. I told no one because I was scared that I would have to stay in the hospital longer. But the doctors wouldn't release me until I walked the full length of a hallway in front of them.
I pulled strength from I don't even know where and began working on walking. The length of my hospital stay was now in my hands--I had to get walking!
On Thanksgiving Day in 2006, I walked the hallway for my doctors.
And then I went home.
A year later, this is what my spine looked like:
Kind of amazing, if I do say so myself. :) The hump on my back disappeared and now my right side is only slightly raised. All of my friends say that no one notices but me. I have zero back pain and though there are things I can't do, like riding horses, I can do so much more. The numbness in my arm and legs went away by, oh, 97 percent. I still have patches on my skin that are numb, but I don't even notice anymore.
If you have scoliosis, please know that you're not alone. It can be a very scary diagnosis, but many, many cases don't require surgery. Mine was extreme.
I have tried to give back to Shriners in any way that I can. They forever changed my life and I am beyond grateful.
I often speak about my scoliosis experience, so if you have an upcoming conference and are looking for a speaker about this topic, please feel free to contact me.