(see also: For the Press)
Becoming a Writer
I have been making up stories ever since I was a little girl. I lived on a dirt road in Vermont with few other children nearby. I didn’t have a television until I was much older, and my brother wasn’t born until I was four, so I had to make my own entertainment. I invented an imaginary friend who climbed in my window every night. I also made up stories about my stuffed animals, giving them silly names and personalities. They seemed as real to me as the characters in my novels do now.
Books and stories were always important in my family. While my parents read to me, I pored over the words, but I couldn’t figure out how to read them. One day when I was about four years old, my mother and I were out driving. We came to a stop sign. I remember, very clearly, that I suddenly understood that those four white letters - S-T-O-P - made a word I knew. I could read!
One Sunday morning soon after that, I lay in bed studying “Little Lulu,” my favorite comic strip. Somehow, the letters became more than just squiggly black lines. They made sounds, and the sounds turned into words, like “POW!” and “EEK!” I felt as if a big light bulb had just lit up over my head, just as it did for Little Lulu when she got a new idea. Now, whenever I was lonely and had no one to play with, I could disappear into books.
I started to write my first stories when I was in second grade. I folded construction paper and stapled the pages into small, hand-size books. Each page had a picture with words to go with it. I was very proud of my stories, and liked to read them at night, under the covers with a flashlight, when I was supposed to be asleep.
By the time I was eight or nine, my brother, Tom, and I created an imaginary kingdom with our stuffed animals. We had kings, queens, courtiers, soldiers, cooks, fools, and trouble-makers. Tom came up with inventive names (such as a cross rabbit named Aloyisious Brick-Bat-Bun). I liked to write about their adventures in a notebook.
My parents encouraged all this play-acting and storytelling. My mother was very tolerant of our games, which usually left animals and wooden blocks strewn across the floor.
At night, my father drew pictures of our stuffed animals and we made up stories to go with them.
Our parents read to us all the way through childhood. When I was fourteen, I was very sick with the measles. I had to stay in bed with the shades drawn and the lights out. Worst of all, I wasn’t allowed to read! I passed my days listening to serialized stories on the radio. (I never guessed that someday I would write a story that would be serialized in the newspapers.) I waited in my dark room until evening, when my mother pulled a chair into my closet, turned on the light, and read The Witch of Blackbird Pond. Her voice came to me through a crack in the door. I listened with my eyes closed, creating pictures in my mind to go with the story.
On Sunday nights, my family enjoyed a “make your own” supper. We ate sandwiches in the living room while my father read from his favorite collection of James Thurber stories. Sometimes, he laughed so hard he couldn’t go on. Tears ran down his cheeks and he passed the book over to my mother so she could finish the chapter. I learned that books and words had power.
I kept writing stories and poems of my own. Even when my eighth grade English teacher encouraged me to be a writer, my dream was to be an actor. Ever since I was young, I had been playing dress-up with my best friend Sally. We paraded up and down in my grandmother’s high-heeled shoes and slinky flapper dresses from the 1920s. As we grew older, we invented characters and put them into plays. We always had the starring roles. I acted in plays in junior high and high school, and went to theater school the summer before college. I also taught drama at a summer camp. Although I never became an actor, my work in theater turned out to be great preparation for writing novels. For each part, I had to imagine what it was like to live inside someone else’s skin—just as I do now when I invent characters for stories.
During my junior year at Sarah Lawrence College, I studied with a wonderful writing teacher named Harvey Swados. He sent us on strange, exciting assignments in New York City. We went to the fish market at dawn and watched the boats come in. We sat on hard benches in Night Court, where people who had been arrested lined up before the judge at 2 A.M. We wandered all over the city, taking notes on conversations and soaking up smells, textures, and tastes. Afterward, we wrote stories about what we had seen and heard. From that class, I learned that some of the best writing comes from experience, and that you can pick up great dialogue from eavesdropping!
I also studied education in college, and ran my first writing workshop for children. After I graduated, I worked in special education in Washington, D.C., then lived in England and wrote a book about some of their most exciting schools. When I moved to Vermont, I started my own pre-school, using some of the teaching ideas I had seen in England. My sons, Derek and Ethan, were born, and I carried on my family’s tradition of reading aloud. As we devoured the Arthur Ransome series and the Ramona books, or laughed over Tintin comics, I started to wonder: Could I do this? Could I write a story for children?
One summer, I drove from Vermont to California with my family, visiting sites on the original Oregon Trail, as well as places described by Laura Ingalls Wilder in her Little House series. I read everything I could find about the gold rush and the Oregon Trail. Most of the stories were told from a man’s point of view. What was that westward journey like for children, and for girls and women? I began writing a diary about a young woman’s experience on a wagon train headed to California. Slowly, the diary became a novel, and the main character changed from a young woman to a teenager. I was creating my first book for young people.
West Against the Wind was published in 1987 and I have been writing for young readers ever since. I have taught writing to students of all ages, from kindergarten to graduate school. Since 2007, I have been a faculty member at Hamline University’s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program, where I am privileged to work with talented students as they master the craft of writing for young people.
About My Family
My sons, Derek and Ethan, have always helped me with my books. Derek is a scientist who helped me to explain the geology of the California gold rush to young readers. Ethan is an artist who has taught me a lot about design and illustration. They are married to wonderful women and we now have four grandchildren, who are a delight. My husband, John Straus, is a pediatrician who reads all my drafts and sometimes helps me come up with ideas for stories. We live in Massachusetts and Vermont where we enjoy gardening, music, theatre, traveling, art museums, and—of course—baseball and the Boston Red Sox!
My husband and I are lucky to live in both a vibrant city and a small town in Vermont where we see lots of wildlife, including deer, foxes, coyotes, wild turkeys, moose—even black bears! We love the quiet of the forest, the views of the mountains, and the many birds that visit our feeder. In our gardens, we grow vegetables, flowers, and native plants that attract bees, butterflies, and other pollinators. I have recently joined the “Friends of Bees” committee in our town. Bees and other pollinators are essential to the food we eat and need our protection, as do monarch butterflies.
Like many others, my husband and I are concerned about our environment, and the challenges we face due to climate change. I am a member of Mothers Out Front, and of 350.org, two groups focused on a sustainable climate future. I am currently working on two books about endangered sea turtles, creatures with fascinating life cycles.
When I speak to young people, I am always interested to hear about their interests in nature and the environment. If you or your friends belong to an interesting environmental organization, visit farmers’markets, have started a butterfly garden or joined a community garden in your neighborhood, let me know!