How did you become a writer?
I wrote my first books when I was seven years old in the second grade, and I haven’t stopped since. Shortly after I learned how to write straight enough to keep the words in a line on the page, I wrote and illustrated books then bound them myself, sewing the spines with yarn. When I was about ten I asked my mother to drive me an hour away to a children’s book writing workshop at Villanova College in Philadelphia, offered by Jan and Stan Berenstain, authors of The Berenstain Bears books. The classroom was filled with college students and housewives hoping to be writers, and a smattering of actual published authors. I was by far the youngest there, but I loved meeting writers and learning about the craft. When asked “what do you want to be when you grow up?” I always answered “I want to be a writer who lives in New York City and has a white kitten named snowball.” I’ve never lived in New York City or owned a cat, but the rest of the dream has come true!
What do you like most about writing children’s books? How does it compare to the other writing you do?
Children’s writing is like rock climbing in Colorado or scuba diving in Hawaii– as fun as it is demanding. Anything can happen when I sit down to write; that’s exhilarating and freeing and sometimes a bit scary. You aren’t boxed in by facts or chronology, and can follow your imagination. But you have to be able to tell your story in a very brief format. Children’s picture books are 14 double page spreads, no exceptions, no cheating, so it is a very disciplined form of writing. Each word counts. After wrestling with each word and careful pruning, the writing then goes to the artist, whose pictures have to play against your words, adding harmony to your melody. Ironically the books are quite short, but production is long. You Are My I Love You, You Are My Miracle, Sleep, Baby, Sleep, You Are My Wish, You Are My Wonder each took over four years from writing to published book. If the book is a hit, it is very shelf-stable, outlasting the day’s headlines as a favorite on the bookshelf for years and many readings.
That’s very different from the adult nonfiction books I write, on themes from terrorism to globalization and ethics. These books can be hundreds of pages long (whereas one thousand words is long for a children’s picture book). But theme and method are very limited. You are restricted to your research, to reporting what has happened more than imagining what could happen. While the research and writing may take years, production takes less than six months, since events start dating the book as soon as you set down your pen.
If it weren’t for the children’s writing, I probably would not be able to continue to write and teach on such heavy topics as war, refugees, and trafficking in women and children. While there are some bright spots in international affairs, there is a lot of bad news to deliver. Thirty thousand children a day die from hunger and disease. I shudder whenever I get a phone call for a CNN media appearance, because it means that something terrible has happened somewhere in the world, innocent people are dead and they are looking for someone to explain the bad news. It can wear you out. Children’s writing helps restore the balance, and reminds me of the hope and wonder in life. I also occasionally get to write a story with a happy ending.
Where did you get the idea and/or inspiration for You Are My I Love You?
I was driving in to teach at the University one morning, half awake, and I couldn’t listen to one more minute of the news. I clicked off the radio, and was thinking about the beautiful kids I worked with at the Sursum Corda housing projects in Washington, DC. One in six children in America lives in poverty, and thousands of them live just blocks from the U.S. Capitol Building. They are raised mostly by single moms or grandmothers and aunts, who are working hard to put food on the table, and are short on time and money. The parents feel badly that they cannot afford Christmas gifts or the trendy sneaker or video game for their kids, but what their kids really want is their time. The same was true for the upper income children I served as a child care provider, who were starved for their busy parents’ time and attention. All these kids lit up whenever we spent time doing the simple things, walking outside, reading, baking. As I was thinking all this, on autopilot through Washington traffic, there appeared this lovely verse in my head: “I am your parent; you are my child. I am your quiet place, you are my wild.” I got to the University parking lot and stayed in my car scribbling against the car dashboard. Students gave me odd looks streaming past on their way to class, but I wanted to capture the magic song that was playing in my head about the ying/ yang of the adult/ child relationship, the parent providing stability and constant love, the child bringing mischief and wonder. Later I worked, reworked and refined it, and the book became a hit.
What about for You Are My Miracle?
All children are miracles; some more than others. I suffered miscarriages and problems during pregnancy, so having children truly felt miraculous. Growing up in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, the Christmas City, I was drawn to writing a Christmas book, and my editor Michael Green encouraged a sequel to You Are My I Love You. The new life of a child is a miracle that we are privileged to be part of, and what better time to reflect on that wonder than Christmas? The holidays can be stressful, especially in a recession; everywhere we are bombarded with the message that if we love our families we will buy them lots of stuff. Yet how many times does a child have more fun playing with the box and wrapping than whatever came inside? My happiest childhood Christmas memories are not of gifts but of simple time spent together, activities we share now with our children: baking cookies, singing carols, decorating and making a mess. Our garbage dumps show we are drowning in stuff. Yet the growth of the simplicity movement, and of Christian groups trying to return to the meaning of the season, show that there are also people who agree with Dr. Seuss that Christmas “doesn’t come in a store. Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.”
How did Sleep, Baby, Sleep come about?
Rocking our babies back to sleep in the wee hours of the night, I began this lullaby with the soothing rhythm of the old Mother Goose rhyme, “Sleep, baby, sleep, down where the woodbines creep.” In the adaptive tradition of Mother Goose, I changed the verse because our oldest child didn’t like the original Mother Goose. In her words, it “creeped her out. And just what is a woodbine anyway?” I also didn’t want to encourage children simply to be meek and mild as sheep, but wanted to portray their courage, curiosity, and wonder, as they explore and expand their worlds. Our baby baas and neighs along with all of Maria van Lieshout’s beautiful illustrations.
What was your inspiration for You Are My Wish?
When our first baby was born, my mother-in-law said something very wise, that each child comes into the world as their own unique person, and our jobs as grandparents and parents are to get to know who that person is, and then to help that child grow into the best person they can be. I was reflecting on this in church one Sunday morning, when the beginnings of You Are My Wish came tumbling out of my imagination. I’d heard from plenty of grandparents who loved You Are My I Love You, You Are My Miracle, and Sleep, Baby, Sleep, but wanted to know when I would write a book for them. Grandparents today (aging baby boomers) are more active and involved in their grandchildren’s lives than ever before, so I wanted to write a book celebrating the simple joys of gardening, picnics, childrens story books, and shared naps.
What led to You Are My Wonders?
It’s for teachers. Books take on lives of their own. I’ve been amazed at all the creative ways the You Are My books have been used: from weddings, funerals, hospital ministries and religious services, to 50th anniversary gifts, gifts for baptism, fathers day presents, bedtime storys, and childrens story books. But I was surprised at this link to learning, that You Are My I Love You was in use in national teacher training seminars. Teachers are asked to substitute “teacher” for the word “parent,” and to think about the relationship they inculcate with their students. I wanted to better capture the spirit of that relationship with this book.
Does your childhood show up in your picture books?
Absolutely, although my supposed status as a “grown up” hasn’t cured me of blowing dandelion wishes or stomping in puddles. As the child of an educator and a homemaker, we never had much money growing up, but we enjoyed lots of fun that was free, the kinds of activities that make their way into my books. Many people are surprised to learn that my first children’s books were written before I had children. But if you can’t really remember what it felt like to be under four feet tall, you probably shouldn’t be writing for children. Ursula Nordstrom, a famous children’s book editor who edited Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are and Little Bear (among other classics), put it well. People asked how she could edit children’s books as she did not have children of her own, and she always replied that she was once a child, and had not forgotten a thing.
What makes you and Satomi Ichikawa such a great team?
Satomi and I both collect dolls and toys. I think it shows neither of us have really grown up, we both are children at heart, and love to play and retain a child’s perspective in our work. Satomi’s work is fresh, warm and engaging. When my editor Michael Green and I were considering perspective artists, there were lots of good folks to choose from, but none that really clicked. We both had the same reaction to Satomi’s work– she’s a terrific artist and this is a wonderful fit.
When you’re not writing, how do you spend your time?
With my young children Maria, Ricky, and Ava, and my husband Rich. We are blessed to live on the Chesapeake Bay, and love to spend time on the beach, gathering shells or wading in the waves, riding bikes and checking out the herons, osprey and ducks. I play guitar and Rich and the kids play harmonica and percussion, and we sing, sometimes together and on key. We are avid readers of everything from The Washington Post to Dr. Seuss. We like to cook, especially if chocolate or seafood is involved. We travel for work, but try to make some of it family time, and try to visit family along the way in Florida, Colorado, Hawaii, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and New York. Before babies we used to ski, scuba dive, rock climb and hike. These days we try to catch up on lost sleep whenever possible.
What were some of your favorite books when you were growing up?
I was (and still am) an avid and equal opportunity reader. I read my way through the public libraries, from A.A. Milne to Charlotte Zolotov. As a dark complected Italian-Irish American, I adored Don Freedman’s Corduroy books and everything by Ezra Jack Keats. Growing up in white neighborhoods where I was teased for being a “wop,” I appreciated seeing pictures of kids who looked more like me. I loved Sesame Street and its spin-off books, The Berenstain Bears books by local authors Jan and Stan Berenstain, Maurice Sendak, Dr. Seuss, Judy Blume, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Katherine Paterson, Richard Peck, Ray Bradbury, John Knowles, and Madeleine L’Engle. John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway were favorites for high school book reports, for obvious reasons.
What’s your recipe for success as a writer?
You have to be brave, brave enough to put some precious part of yourself out for all to see and love or leave. You also have to love writing, know how to do it, and practice every day. It’s very unfashionable to say, but email, instant messaging, and blogs have allowed bad writing habits to flourish and multiply like mold. Good writing starts with the essential elements, subjects and verbs that shake hands and agree, punctuation that knows how to direct the traffic of a sentence. From there you need a passion for your stories that will sustain you through the fourth rewrite. And you must believe in yourself and your books (especially when inevitable rejection comes your way), and practice dogged persistence. I say dogged, because you have to dig in, chew on your work and not let go like a dog on a bone. Persistence is mandatory; slobbering is optional.