As a child, Jennifer Ward wrote and illustrated her own books - starring the family pets - but she never dreamed she could grow up and do it for real.

Then, when she was teaching at Los Ranchitos Elementary School in the Sunnyside Unified School District, an author came to speak to her class.

"I was so excited," Ward recalled during a phone interview from her Edwardsville, Ill., home. "I think I was more excited than the kids."

The visit got Ward, 49, thinking maybe she should give writing a try. She'd already been making her own books to teach different concepts to her students. "It didn't occur to me to actually submit them to a publisher," said Ward, who graduated from the University of Arizona and lived in Tucson from 1985 until 2008. "I was just doing it for fun."

Now she does it for fun and a living.

The award-winning children's author (her website is is one of the featured writers at the fifth annual Tucson Festival of Books March 9-10. Her festival appearances are sandwiched in between visits to schools across town, so her 10-day trip leaves little time for stopping by some of her favorite haunts, like Tohono Chul Park.

The state holds a special place in her heart. "I'm indebted to Arizona," said Ward, who credits librarians and teachers here for launching her writing career.

Ward - who relocated with her daughter, now a college sophomore, to southern Illinois to be closer to her elderly parents - lets nature be her inspiration. Her first published book, "Way Out in the Desert" (Cooper Square Publishing, $15.95), with T.J. Marsh and Kenneth J. Spengler, put a Sonoran Desert spin on "Over in the Meadow." Her backyards, while she lived here, were always havens for critters. In fact, her Oro Valley backyard was a nationally certified wildlife habitat featured on the Animal Planet program "Backyard Habitat." A motion-activated camera, a gift from Ward's boyfriend, lets her watch the deer, possums, squirrels, raccoons and even coyotes that wander across her four-acre property in Edwardsville.

Ward's newest book "What Will Hatch?" (Bloomsbury/Walker Books, $12.99), debuts in two days and explores what kind of critters will come out of different eggs.

"What continues to amaze me in today's day of technology," Ward said, "is the enthusiasm kids have for traditional books."

If you Go

• What: Fifth annual Tucson Festival of Books.

• When: 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. March 9-10.

• Where: University of Arizona campus. Attendance and parking are free.

• What: About 450 authors, book discussions, workshops and literary activities for the entire family.

• Sponsors: The UA and the Arizona Daily Star. The University of Arizona Medical Center is the presenting sponsor. Net proceeds will promote literacy in Southern Arizona through the Tucson Festival of Books Foundation, a nonprofit organization.

• Bookmark it: Go to for more information. You can sign up to follow the festival through email newsletters.

• Social media: Follow the festival on Facebook at and go to to follow on Twitter.

• Mobile: Apps are also available for iPhone, Android devices and Kindle Fire.

• Plan it out: The best way to see the authors and participate in the workshops and other activities is to make a plan. Check the March 3 Star, which will feature a pull-out section that details the event and includes a map.

Five other children/teen authors and Illustrators to see

• Robert Lawrence Stine, better known as R.L. Stine, is the recipient of this year's TFOB Founders Award, which recognizes the lifetime achievement of an outstanding festival participant. He's perhaps best known for his Goosebumps series, but also has written several adult novels.

• Alan Armstrong, the Newbery Honor-winning author, wrote a book about youngsters interested in space exploration called "Racing the Moon" (Random House Books for Young Readers, $16.99). He did research here in Tucson with the University of Arizona's Peter Smith, the Phoenix Mars Mission leader. The two will present a session on their collaboration, said Kathy G. Short, who chairs the festival's children and teen author committee.

• Illustrator Jerry Pinkney has won several Caldecott Honor Medals, including one for "The Lion & the Mouse," his wordless take on Aesop's classic fable. "People don't always think about the fact that we have these outstanding illustrators," Short said.

• Vaunda Micheaux Nelson's "No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux," received the 2012 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for fiction. It's a fictionalized account of her great uncle, who opened a bookstore in Harlem. Her "Bad News for Outlaws" received the Coretta Scott King Award.

• Local writer Levi Fallavollita, 12, received a lot of attention for his anti-bullying book "The Good the Bad and the Bullies." He'll offer a youth's perspective on self-publishing.

Next Sunday in Home + Life

The Tucson Festival of Books is the catalyst for a powerful science and literacy interaction.

Contact Kristen Cook at or 573-4194.