I would have to answer dream—dreaming was what I did most. I dreamed of adventure and of being a girl detective. I spent hours in my grandmother’s walk-in closet, which was filled with issues of National Geographic Magazine from 1917 on. I wanted to go to the most exotic of places: India, Egypt, Siam, China, Nepal and Tibet.
The funny thing is I never lost my desire for adventure. I have toured most of these places, even giving puppet shows to thousands of street and tribal children and adults throughout southern India. I have photographs of myself in some villages that look exactly like those in the 1920s National Geographic photos I pored through in my grandmother’s closet.
At 12, I found Shakespeare. I wanted to learn to speak like Shakespeare’s characters, but I couldn’t find any friends willing to try. I was reading difficult works at home but my own spelling, handwriting and sentence construction was so bad, it is no wonder that I was earning Ds and Fs in my classes.
I have held onto a sad piece of writing from a “Girls Journal” from when I was 12 years old. Most pages of the journal remained blank, but here is an example of my writing.
What is your five-year plan (college,vacations, honors)?
I would like to be a secraray on a travel boat. I not too smart so I probly won’t get any honor But I will try.
What is your strategic plan?
Stop goffing off. Setttle down and work hard. I don’t know how I going to do it.
What are your peeves and problems?
I have an enamy named Hardie I like to leave it like that but she just hangs around making me very made I could pinch her in the knows. But I end up in the office.
(I think there are 36 errors in these few sentences. Of course, I didn’t write much as a child or teen because it was concrete evidence that I was not very smart.
In fourth grade, I did learn to read. My first books were detective novels: Nancy Drews, Hardy Boys, the Trixi Belden Series, the Dana Girls series. I am afraid to say that in trying to become girl detectives, my friend Kristin and I did some rather daring things, even becoming involved in our own mystery that included arson and murder. I was a dreamer who threw herself into adventure instigated by my reading. I still love detective stories.
In my senior year, I was not bound for graduation. I had less than a C average. However, everyone was required to take an oral communication class and in this class, I shined. I was not judged by my writing, but by my thinking and my message. I won a public speaking contest over 10,000 other speakers and was flown to Sacramento to speak to the state Legislature. I wondered, “How can I be dumb and win over so many other teens? Why didn’t one teacher see anything in me?” No one could look past the bad handwriting, terrible spelling and punctuation and simple sentence construction to avoid the red pen.
At 17, I decided to become a teacher and promised myself that I would help every student find the jewels hidden within. My counselor told me it was impossible for me to go to college, but I didn’t listen. I had a lot of catching up to do, but I ended up with several teaching credentials and an M.A. in Education. And yet, even after 10 years of college I was still not a writer.
What was your first job when you graduated from college?
I began working in the area of special education with teens in danger to themselves and others, both in a psychiatric setting and at a private school. I found that education without transformation is not possible for troubled teens. I began looking for ways that would transform the way they were thinking. I used all kinds of art and technology, but it was puppetry that captured the attention of my students. I discovered later that this is not only because puppets are fun, but because puppetry is 80 percent writing.Students could see their improvement in thinking and writing while enjoying the fulfillment of producing shows. I would have the students
write in small groups and I would write my own show as an example. The more scripts I wrote, the more I understood the connection between scriptwriting and all other kinds of writing, and the better I got at teaching writing. The better I got at teaching writing, the better writer I became.
I found art, music and writing so effective in reaching and teaching trouble kids that I was inspired to write my first book, ArtSmart, Superior Learning in the Integrated Classroom. This book was used in accompanying district-wide workshops on inclusion. I followed this book with Future in Our Hands, What Everyone Should Know About Education. I found that very few people know how education is funded and how educational policies are formed from these funding sources. Both books received Golden Leaves awards from California Polytechnic University, Pomona.
Most of my work is in the area of ecology. I believe fear does not bring about transformation, and that there is entirely too much talk about it being too late for the Earth. I think if we all increase our knowledge and our caring, we can live together with all the elements of our Earth and beyond. I take real issues and turn them into fun stories.
For example, in “The Magic in You: From Vacant Lot to Community Garden, a fairytale,” I have a boy meet a fairy who wants a garden, but he does all the thinking and all the work. It is like a true story—with a fairy thrown in. My ecology programs are performed at schools, libraries, city functions and authors’ days all over Southern California. From the stage, I teach my audience that they can do what I have done and make a difference in our world.
I am currently editing my first novel aimed at young people, “The Ghost of the Jangling Keys,” the first in a series. It is a lot of fun writing novels, and quite challenging keeping the characters and the point of view consistent yet growing over a long period of time.
You illustrated your own book. How did you get into illustration?
I wanted an illustrator for “The Magic in You,” but most illustrators advised me that the publisher would want to choose the illustrator, combining the efforts of an unknown writer like me with a known illustrator. I didn’t want someone else to choose my illustrator. Then one day it came to me. I am a photographer and a graphic designer. I took photos of my grandchildren, friends, neighborhood cat, husband and daughter. I took photos of backgrounds, combined them, and turned them into paintings.
In “Never Get Too Close to a Fish,” a first-person story told by a child, I thought it was appropriate to use the childlike drawings I had made when designing the pages. Somehow they captured the emotions of the story.
What do you most want the students to get out of your school visits?
I have several important messages I would like kids to understand. The first is that spelling, punctuation and handwriting are tools of writing; they are not writing. Thinking, telling stories and learning to express oneself in interesting ways is writing. In fact, bards and storytellers were our first authors.
I know now that I was always a writer, but I didn’t have the tools and so many of my stories went unwritten. Now, there are many ways to express your writing talents and many tools to help those with problems in spelling, punctuation and handwriting.
The second area I would like to focus on is that you can be writer at any age, especially in this Internet era.
The third area is that the brain loves to create! It is happy when it is creating. Writing is fun and makes your brain happy.
The fourth area is that writing can help get your important messages out to the public, like how to care for the Earth and the space around the earth.
Do you have a fan letter you would like to share?
Dear Ms. Torribio, I really enjoyed your songs and show. Me and my friends think your voice is beautiful. You were really nice for letting people go up and help. I hope I can read your books. I wonder how you can change a voice to another when you work with puppets. You made my school and me have a lot of fun. My mom loves the guitar, too. I play the violin with two of my friends. Sincerely, Xiomara Garcia, El Amo Elementary, Long Beach Authors Festival.
What books influenced you most?
WHITE FANG, CHRIST STOPPED AT EBOLI, NATIVE SON
Did you write as a child?
Always. At home, in school, under the blankets.
When was your first book published?
In 1967, 21 years after high school graduation.
What are the topics of your books?
Poverty, discrimination, war, the holocaust, love.
Where do you get your ideas?
From my life experiences.
Any of your books receive recognition?
Several awards, several translations, one a movie, I received awards and grants.
Do you work on more than 1 book at a time?
Currently, I am working on 4 books.
What other jobs have you had?
Steel mill, army, truck driver, union organizer, x-ray technician, professor, farmer.