Where I've Been and Where I'm Going
I'm a Midwesterner who discovered the Pacific Northwest and never left. I'm the author of several children's books for the school market, as well as published poems and short stories. Currently I'm working toward getting my first middle-grade novel published. I teach writing workshops for children, teens, and adults on Bainbridge Island, Washington. When I'm not writing or teaching, I'm walking, bicycling, or reading the books I keep buying because I can't help myself.
Like many writers, I came to writing through reading. Richard Peck says, "We write by the light of every book we ever read." If that's true, I have many lights around me. Unlike many writers, however, I wasn't one of those kids who knew she wanted to write by the age of five.
I grew up in a working class suburb of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. My dad was a truck driver. My mom took care of the house and my sisters, brother, and me. Both my parents finished their schooling after eighth grade. We didn't have many books in the house. I inherited a few from the girl next door, including Black Beauty and Belles on Their Toes. I loved those novels, but they had other girls' names written on the inside covers. I wanted a book of my own, so one year I put that on my Christmas list. That December morning I opened Pollyanna by Eleanor H. Porter. It was the first book I didn't have to share!
Even though we didn't own many books, I was surrounded by relatives who told stories. There was always something going on in our large, extended family! We didn't have a library in my grade school, so my sisters took me to the public library. My brother and I read comics in the summer on our scratchy couch in the breezeway I didn't dream about being a writer. I had never met a writer, or anyone who knew a writer. I concluded that authors were mostly people who were dead.
In high school, I read J.D. Salinger, John Steinbeck, and Carson McCullers. In junior year we read Eugene O'Neill and I gained an appreciation of the dramatic. I fell in love with short stories and still love them. But I didn't think about writing. Not yet. That would happen much later.
On being a librarian
No one in my working-class family had gone to college. As the youngest, I was the first to take the plunge. After a couple of years at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, I transfered to the University of Minnesota. I majored in linguistics because I didn't know you could major in English. Reading was fun, not something you majored in. At the U of M, I worked at the Kerlan Collection of children's books, manuscripts, and original art. That's where I truly discovered children's books. I saw the art for Millions of Cats and Goodnight Moon. I had the first glimmers that maybe I could write, but it seemed like an impossible dream. Working at the Kerlan Collection inspired me to get my master's degree in library science. I worked as a librarian at the University of Nebraska and later at the Minneapolis Public Library. Librarianship was a safe, secure job, and I worked with a lot of great people. But I was too young to want safety and security. My husband and I decided to have an adventure and move west.
On being a bookseller
I met my husband, Steven, in Minneapolis. After we packed up our cats and our stuff and moved to Seattle, we landed on beautiful Bainbridge Island. I wanted to write, but I also needed a job. Like thousands of other readers, I was drawn to the Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, one of the best independent bookstores in the country. I became the children's book buyer and learned from the store's incredibly knowledgeable staff. My time at Elliott Bay was like getting a post-graduate degree in the book business. Plus there was plenty of free coffee. In other words, heaven! Elliott Bay is legendary for its line-up of author readings and its commitment to the printed word. It was exciting to be part of that. Later I became the head buyer at Eagle Harbor Book Company on Bainbridge Island, where I could walk or bike to work instead of doing a ferry commute. Eagle Harbor is the literary heart of the island, a true community center for readers. I became a fierce supporter of independent bookstores, and I still am.
Back when I worked at the Kerlan Collection, I dreamed about writing books for children. But when I started writing, it was for adults. My first published writing was a humor piece about riding the 21A bus route in Minneapolis. When it appeared in The Minneapolis Star and Tribune, I stared at my name in print. My writing was in the newspaper! While I was working at the Elliott Bay Book Company, I published short stories for adults in tiny literary journals like Spindrift and Mid Coaster. An idea was brewing in my head: a collection of stories about kids and a turning point in their lives involving an older person. I assumed I'd write the stories from an adult point of view. Then one day I went jogging and had an epiphany. I suddenly knew my voice was better suited to writing for kids. I raced home and began the stories from a child's POV. Since then, I haven't turned back on my dream to write for children.
When I was fourteen, I became an aunt. As I grew up and my nieces and nephews grew up, they inspired me. Besides becoming my friends, they showed me that a young audience is in a constant state of discovery. Everything is new. Everything has potential. What could be better than writing for that audience, discovering right along with them?
I began writing middle-grade stories and novels that taught me craft. A few of those are in drawers. I sent out my work and got rejections. And rejections and rejections. A lot of rejections! I started to get rejections with notes on them like, "Try us again." Positive letters from editors spurred me on. I wrote several books--fiction and nonfiction--for the school market. My true love was fiction, but I discovered that nonfiction was fun. I researched the life of Ruby Bridges and learned how subway cars are sunk in the ocean to become artificial reefs. I liked knowing that kids all across the country were reading my books.
I kept working on my middle-grade fiction. Middle-grade is my favorite age to write about, the turning point between being a child and becoming a teen. When I found out about the M.F.A. program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I knew I wanted to be surrounded by smart people who wrote, discussed, lived, and breathed children's books. My advisors helped me reach a new level in my writing. Sharon Darrow led me through emotion boot camp. Marion Dane Bauer got me to dig deeper. David Gifaldi taught me about the "wobbly" process of writing a novel. Sarah Ellis imparted humor. These writers, along with my classmates and other VCFA faculty, gave me the support writers need on their journey--a journey we take with the characters inside our heads.
In high school, our guidance counselor told me I had two options: teacher or nurse. Naturally I balked at both. So it was a huge surprise when I came to teaching through the back door and discovered that I loved it.
When I worked at Eagle Harbor Book Company, I started to meet with a young writers' group on Saturday mornings. After I left Eagle Harbor to spend more time writing, I wanted to continue working with young writers. I found a home for my Young Writers' workshops through the Bainbridge Island Metro Park & Recreation District, which has an amazing array of cultural events. My workshops for kids expanded to include classes for teens and adults, too.
I love teaching writing to kids and adults because I learn from them. Every single class I teach, I hear something from my students that makes me look at the world differently. It may be a word, a sentence, a phrase, a comment, a drawing, or an entire story. Something in my thinking shifts, I have an "aha" moment, and I want to run home and write.
On learning a language
Mówię po polsku. "I speak Polish." At least I'm trying. For the past few years I've tackled Polish verbs, nouns, the conditional mood, and the complicated grammar because I love learning a new language. I meet with my Polish conversation group in person and on Skype. It's fun to stumble through sentences and understand what someone is saying. Learning a language creates new pathways in my brain. It's like a secret code I get to decipher.
Learning a country's language gives me insights into the culture. It makes me sympathetic to others. It helps me understand how other people think. For a writer, isn't that what we do with our characters?
Garrison Keillor said, "Cats are intended to teach us that not everything in nature has a purpose."
I disagree. Our cats, Max and Zoey, have a purpose. They sleep and laze around while I write. I only have to glance at them to feel calm. How can I get too worried that my writing is horrible when so much relaxing is going on around me?
On Yellow Pencils
Check out my kid-friendly blog, Yellow Pencils, where you'll find writing activities and topics to spark your imagination!