I had just started doing author visits and was at a small school that serves a high-risk population of students from preschool through eighth grade. I started with the little ones, and it went well. I had this. Then a group of TALL sixth through eighth graders sauntered in. They slumped in their seats and looked away.
My picture book Emma’s Question (my only published book at that time) is officially for ages 4 to 7, but someone had told me it didn’t matter because everyone liked to hear stories. I wished that someone was there. I introduced myself and started reading—though it did not seem like a good idea. When I was a few pages in, I glanced up. The body language had changed. Students sat taller. They looked up. When I was finished I read from The Great Gilly Hopkins and The London Eye Mystery—books that, like Emma’s Question, deal with difficult topics. I talked about how the students could write about their own lives.
When I finished, one of the boys walked up and said in a quiet voice, “I want to be an author when I grow up.” I think that was my proudest moment—or at least my most grateful.
When I was about six, my grandma made matching nightgowns for my two sisters, my cousin and myself. They had a white background with pink flowers. (At least I think they were pink; the photo of us, lined up by height, is black and white.) I do remember the feel of the fabric—thick cotton flannel—not the fake-fuzzy polyester of store-bought pajamas. Most of all I remember the sense of belonging and security that comes from matching pajamas. Last year one of my sisters bought us matching pajamas. It still works.
What’s the bravest thing you’ve ever done?
I began telling people I was trying to write books for children. When I was writing in secret, I could quit if it was too hard or just didn’t work out. But once people knew, I felt accountable. One day I found a to-do list written by my then 9-year-old daughter. One of the items was Encourage Mom to get a book published. This was years before my first book was published—at a time I was tempted to quit. But what could I do? I kept going. Telling someone you’re pursuing a long-shot dream isn’t the same kind of brave as skydiving or picking up a snake (which I did once and will never do again). But sometimes it feels just as scary.
I remember my grandpa reading a Little Golden Book—The Cow in the Silo by Patricia Goodell—to my sisters and me every time we visited. The book is long out of print, and probably never received any awards. But I loved it. Maybe that’s because my grandpa, a quiet farmer from northern Minnesota, took time from his fieldwork and chores to read it again and again and again. And maybe because, in the end, Mrs. O’Crady solves the problem of the stuck cow by covering her in Crisco and pushing her through the door. Brilliant. And probably the best use of Crisco ever.
What TV show can’t you turn off?
I don’t know whether I should admit this, but it’s Gilmore Girls. I love the cast of quirky characters, each of them distinct and full of enough contradictions and imperfections to make them loveable and believable in a really weird way. I also enjoy the strange pop culture references and the speedy-quick dialogue. I once read that the scripts ran about 77–78 pages, compared to 50–55 pages for a typical show with the same running time. I think about picture book writers like myself struggling to write shorter and shorter manuscripts and wonder whether we could apply the Gilmore Girls trick (or something like it). Maybe tiny type?