Out of the Box

Her parents kept her prisoner in a storage unit, but words set Jodi Jill free.

"I wanted to be involved in books," Jodi says. "I researched the process and discovered that a literary agent was the closest you could get to being an author. I felt I could do it because I loved books. And I thought if I loved books, I could sell books."

So she attended local writers' groups, posted fliers, wrote publishers. And in 1993 she formed a literary agency called Eden.

"After the garden," she says. "The beginning of something new."

John Johnston
Reading is fundamental: Jodi Jill with one of her sculptures.
John Johnston
Reading is fundamental: Jodi Jill with one of her sculptures.

By the next year, Jodi's business had begun to blossom.

She was manning the Eden Literary booth at a San Francisco book fair when a woman approached, looking perplexed. She was soft-spoken, polite, in her late fifties. Rather than sift through the books and fliers cluttering the display table as everyone else had done, the woman looked directly at Jodi. "Tell me about your literacy program," she said.

"I don't understand," Jodi replied.

The woman explained that she had a friend who couldn't read, so she had come to the book fair seeking help.

"We're a literary agency," Jodi said. "We don't have any programs."

The woman frowned. "But you can still help, can't you?"

At that moment, Jodi understood. The woman didn't have an illiterate friend; she was the one who couldn't read. "In her face," Jodi remembers, "I saw flashes of myself."

She also saw an opportunity. Book fairs were the perfect forums for advocating literacy. But instead of starting her own project -- "I'm not patient enough to teach people how to read," she says -- Jodi decided to raise money for existing literacy programs. She remembered what she'd told her squirming brother in the Loveland library: "Quit whining and read!"

All the other literacy promotions were "kind of stodgy," she recalls. "This was kind of smart-alecky, like me." She designed T-shirts carrying that smart-alecky slogan and displayed them at the next book fair, alongside brochures from local literacy projects that would receive half of the proceeds from the sale of the shirts.

"It was a hit from the first shirt," Jodi says. "I sold thirty shirts once in fourteen minutes. I was looking at my watch saying, 'Oh, my God. I didn't even think this was going to work.'"

The shirts were particularly appealing to librarians, teachers and high school students, who also wanted refrigerator magnets, tote bags and sweatshirts. "A woman in Miami was so upset after we sold out that she kept saying, 'Swap me shirts! Swap me shirts!'" Jodi recalls. "So I did. And I got a really nice flower shirt out of it."

Soon Jodi was fielding more T-shirt orders than manuscripts. In 1999 she struck a deal with John Kellow of Boulder-based BentLight Media, who agreed to license the Quit Whining and Read! name, redesign the logo and handle distribution of the merchandise.

Kellow had met Jodi through a poetry and fiction contest sponsored by the now-defunct Boulder Daily Planet, in which she'd offered to represent the winners for six months without charging a fee. She was "really honest with people and very kind in her approach to writers," Kellow says. At one point, Eden employed six people and was listed in trade publications as among the largest literary agencies in the West, with between eighty and a hundred clients. One reason for Jodi's popularity was her willingness to look at practically any manuscript.

"She always took the time to read and personally respond to all of them," Kellow says. "Whether the writing was good or not, she always gave them a personal response and direction. She amazes me. She works harder than me, and I think I work pretty hard."

Joe Bullard, a Florida man whose novel Waiting for Agnes has yet to be published, signed on with Jodi's agency after hearing about Quit Whining and Read! "Jodi is hardworking and curious, and her passion in life is reading and literature," he says. "She's been through hard times, but doesn't hold a hard heart toward anyone. I'm very glad I got to know her."

So far, Quit Whining and Read! has raised more than $40,000 for literacy programs in Colorado and California. While Kellow continues to handle the merchandise, Jodi has developed a literacy Web site (quitwhining.com), started a literacy newsletter, and made a promise to eat a paperback if 50,000 people pledge to read a book.

Through years of enthusiastic advocacy, Jodi never explained publicly why reading was so important to her. She was "extremely guarded" about her childhood, Kellow says, "overwhelmed by anxiety" that someone would discover the truth. Once, a disgruntled client threatened to tell other writers that Jodi had grown up in a shed and never attended school. Even though his work wasn't ready for publication, Jodi says, it was hard to hear such threats. She was humiliated by her past.

And then one day in Chicago, where she'd attended another book fair, Jodi finally took a good look at her fellow passengers on board the El. "Here I was around all these people, and then I realized they were just like me," she says. "We're all just people. I wasn't afraid anymore. I was tired of hiding who I am."

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