I’ve always loved telling stories and drawing pictures to go with them, for as long as I can remember. I sent my first picture book to publishers when I was nine, but it wasn’t very good and I never heard back from anyone. I didn’t know that you were supposed to include a stamped, self-addressed envelope, so that may be part of the reason.
When did you get your first job as an illustrator?
I got my first job as an illustrator in high school when a man who was writing a book on alcoholism came to my high school art class. He was looking for a student with a good sense of humor and drawing style that could work on illustrations to lighten his text. When I got the job, I was thrilled!
How long did it take to get your next book published?
After that, it was a very long time until I got another chance at publication. It took five years of sending stories to editors, getting them rejected, revising them, sending them out again, over and over until I got my first book. I considered it a kind of graduate school, learning how to write and revise until I got good enough. I still have a shoe box full of those early rejection letters. I think someday I might paper a bathroom with them.
What kinds of things inspire you to write?
I like discovering people that have done interesting things but aren’t well known. Writing about them is always inspiring for me, whether it’s someone who flew across the English Channel like Harriet Quimby in BRAVE HARRIET or someone who struck out Babe Ruth like MIGHTY JACKIE: THE STRIKE-OUT QUEEN. Doing research for a book like that is a kind of vacation, imagining what it would be like to live at a different time, in a different place.
I also rely on my own childhood, particularly for AMELIA’S NOTEBOOK. Amelia’s a lot like me when I was a kid and the things that happen to her really happened to me (mostly). I just change small details to make better stories. I had a notebook a lot like Amelia’s and I love being able to go back and forth between words and pictures.
Has anyone ever written you a fan letter that you’d like to share?
I get a lot of fan emails and letters, but some of the ones I find the most touching are from young women, They grew up reading Amelia and felt inspired by her to write and draw, to develop their own voice and style. When they bother to write to me to tell me how I’ve touched their lives, I feel very honored.
When is your next book going to be in book stores?
I have three new books out this fall, all from different publishers and each one distinct from the others. The first is SKY HIGH; THE TRUE STORY OF MAGGIE GEE, a picture book out from Tricycle which I wrote and Carl Angel illustrated. Maggie flew with the Women’s Air Service Pilots in WWII and has been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for her work then. She’s an incredible person who went on to become a physicist, working on high-level weapons systems for the government, another job not usually open to women.
The second is THE PHARAOH’S SECRET with Abrams, my first middle-grade novel. There are a few illustrations, but it’s the first book I’ve done that’s primarily text and a much more complicated story than I’ve written before. It started at an ancient Egyptian murder mystery but became something much more personal.
The third is MAX DISASTER #3: ALIEN ERASER REVEALS THE SECRETS OF EVOLUTION, out with Candlewick. It’s the third in the MAX DISASTER series, a fun combination of comic strips, inventions, experiments, and Max’s life.