I really led a charmed childhood unfettered by the restrictions of suburban life today. At three years old I would pick blueberries in the woods under the guard of older children who were probably seven years old. When we moved to Oceanside, NY on Long Island, I would explore the neighborhood at the age of four with my two year old sister in tow. A cluster of shrubs was our jungle and our dogwood tree was a split level house. No adults were in sight to douse the fire of our imaginations. When the weather brought us inside, I loved to draw. My grandfather worked at a book bindery so there were always piles of paper waiting to be covered with my pictures. I would often put on shows starring my sisters in an arched doorway between the living room and dining room. Backstage was a space between a buffet and a wall. I also loved to read. I owned very few books but trips to the local library were frequent. I read through the whole Nancy Drew and bobbsey twins series. I loved the Ramona books and remember being especially entranced by Madeleine L'Engle's A WRINKLE IN TIME.
Did you write stories when you were growing up?
Yes - I “published” a neighborhood newspaper, wrote and illustrated a chapter book, created a cartoon strip and wrote lots of poems. When I was 9 years old I wrote a poem called “A Trip to Dreamland” which is eerily parallel to my latest book THE GOODNIGHT TRAIN. I advise all my school and library audiences to save all of their creative work.
What inspired you to write your first picture book?
Unbeknownst to me at the time, my picture book career began many years ago when my 18 month old son yelled out, “Big Trucks”” from the back seat of the car. From that moment on my young son was obsessed with construction. We spent many mornings on the side of the road watching tractor scrapers, excavators - all doing their work. I read my son every book published on this subject. I soon became quite the expert on the finer points of construction equipment. At that time, I could not find an ABC book on construction. Just for the fun of it I decided to write the book I couldn't find. As I loved rhyming picture books as a child, I couldn't imagine writing a picture book that did not rhyme. I set out to write an ABC picture book about construction that also told a story.
How did this book get published?
Once B IS FOR BULLDOZER was finished, I had no idea what to do with my manuscript. At the time I had never even heard of SCBWI. A personal tragedy re-united me with an old friend in Santa Monica who was an agent for a cartoonist. One day we had lunch and I brought my book idea to her. She liked it and faxed it an agent she knew in New York. Before I could drive back to my home in Westlake Village, the agent had left me a message that she wanted to represent me. I got an agent in less than an hour! Five months later Harcourt offered to publish my book.
The road to final publication of B IS FOR BULLDOZER was neither quick nor smooth. I submitted my book with my own sketches and one finished illustration. For 15 years I worked as a free lance illustrator and designer. I have an MFA in Painting from Stanford University. I surely thought I was qualified to illustrate my own book. Wrong! Truthfully it was sort of a relief not to have to draw and paint bulldozers. Since I did not have the narrative experience of a book illustrator and was a first time author, Harcourt decided to try to pair me with a known illustrator. As a result it took over two years to find the right illustrator. I also worked with 3 different editors. I think I re-wrote the 222 word manuscript over 100 times.
How did you get the idea for SHIVER ME LETTERS?
After B IS FOR BULLDOZER was published, I decided to try to write another ABC book featuring pirates. Once again I didn't want to do the typical “A is for apple” ABC book. I was playing with pirate language in my early drafts and realized the pirate expression “Aaargh!” sounds like the letter “R.” This provided a wonderful jumping off point for a crew of pirates who only had an R and needed to find the rest of the alphabet.
What is your favorite comment from a reviewer?
One reviewer called my bedtime story THE GOODNIGHT TRAIN “hypnagogic!” I didn't know what that word meant so I grabbed a dictionary and found out it meant “causing sleep.” With any other book that would have been an insult!
What is the best part about being a children's author?
I love being able to meet my listeners and readers at bookstores, libraries and schools. I am especially happy when a parent tells me their child wants to hear my book again and again. The repeatability of the picture book is my favorite part of the genre.