Popcorn in the brain. Ideas are popping and images are streaming through my brain. I know that if I don’t get up (ugh, really, 3 am?) and write them down, I won’t have a clue in the morning what they were. All those brilliant ideas, gone! I like to read a chapter from my current work just before I go to bed. The thoughts stir up new ideas, sometimes even solutions to problems. Of course sometimes I look at what I’ve written in the middle of the night and there are no treasures, just stale popcorn. Sometimes there are some real jewels, like finding the magic ring in a box of Cracker Jacks.
What is your proudest career moment?
Two very happy moments—from this past year. I was asked to read from Cowboy Up! Ride the Navajo Rodeo at the Poetry Roundup session of the Texas Library Conference. Me, a poet? Watching kids race horses around barrels, throw a lasso from on top a galloping horse to snag a dodging calf’s back hoof—now that’s poetry. My favorite is watching the “mutton busting” three– and four–year-olds ride a bucking sheep. That was the inspiration for my favorite poem. When I shared this poem with about 200 librarians at their Texas conference, they all kindly stood up and pretended to ride along. Librarians are heroic. They got right on that imaginary sheep, held one hand up high, and grabbed tight onto a fistful of wool.
My happiest career moments happen when I’m with students, especially the responses I’ve received from Navajo school children. During author visits they give me a big smile and say, “You wrote Navajo Year? That is my favorite book.” The very best moment of all occurred while reading from Cowboy Up! Ride the Navajo Rodeo to a classroom of second-graders at Many Farms Elementary. This little guy wearing a too-big tee shirt, jeans, and cowboy boots, looked at me, grinned, and raised his hand. Then he said, “I am in your book.”
Less than 1% of the books published for children are by or about contemporary American Indians. Childhood is short; children grow up fast. All children need to see themselves in books, now.
In what Olympic sport would you like to win a gold medal?
Equestrian! I have imagined competing on the combined equestrian event which includes dressage, cross-country, and jumping. As a child I wished for, begged for, even plotted for getting a horse of my own. No luck. But as soon as I was grown up and living in the country with room for a horse, I bought a horse, a strong beautiful, calm golden palomino, Natchee. My next dream was to be become a “real rider,” which meant not being scared of the horse. I wanted to be able to walk out into a pasture through wild waving grass, catch my horse with just a rope halter, slip on a bridle, and ride. Fast. Leap over ditches and splash through creeks. And I did. Once I even jumped over a picnic table! Natchee and I were riding in the Olympics.
What’s the bravest thing you’ve ever done?
Swim with sharks. As part of my research for Warriors in the Crossfire, I needed to paddle my kayak over the reef, leave the safe calm lagoon behind, and head to the open ocean. I loved snorkeling in the lagoon. I could see bottom—white sand 30 or 40 feet below with fish of all colors nibbling on coral heads. But in the open ocean, when I looked down, there was blue that continued until it became black. That alone sent shivers up my back. But my main character in Warriors jumps out of his outrigger to save the life of his friend. They had been hunting turtle in the open ocean and, meanwhile, a shark had begun hunting them.
So I paddled out. I put on mask and snorkel and slipped overboard. The rise and fall of the waves made me a bit nauseated. I was so scared my heart was pounding, and I was still holding on to the side of the kayak. I needed to let go and drift around a bit. Every shadow and shift of light under the sea’s surface looked like the silhouette of some kind of hungry sea creature. I kicked away from the kayak and then I saw them. Beneath me. The sleek backs of three reef sharks! I watched them circle around and then one shark slowly come directly at me. There was no time to haul myself back into the kayak. If I could have walked on water, I would have. The shark was so close I couldn’t think, I automatically did what I’d been taught in those boring diving lessons. I fisted my hand and punched him in the nose. He turned and disappeared. Would he return? With my arms pummeling like a crazed wind mill, I swam to the kayak, without breathing, without caring how much I was splashing. I pulled myself up over the side expecting to feel teeth chomp through my legs. Finally all of me was in the kayak. My whole body was shaking but I paddled back over the reef and straight to shore. I lay on the warm wet sand, closed my eyes, felt the safe, hot sun.
What’s the first book you remember reading?
Bugs and Insects, the World Book Encyclopedia, and comic books. I grew up in a rural farm area of Illinois. We did not have a library or a bookstore. My parents valued education and the first step was learning to read. My older brother could read and I was determined to read, too. But there wasn’t much available. My parents bought a set of World Book and Childcraft Encyclopedias. My dad was a basketball coach and the team earned extra money to pay for “away” tournaments by collecting newspapers for recycling. Dad drove a pick-up truck and my brother and I got to help load tied-up stacks of newspapers into the back of the truck. Our payment was when we unloaded the stacks, we could search through the piles of newspapers for discarded comic books.
I read one book of the encyclopedia at a time, alternating with Bugs and Insects, and comic books. For many years that was my summer reading!
WOW! The shark story is amazing! Way to go, Amiga!
Harder than facing sharks is figuring out cyber “stuff.” I hope you receive this reply, Maureen. Let’s swim with the sharks together.
Definitely scary stuff! You’re brave!
You give me credit for bravery, Liza, but I think it was more foolishness. Imagine, the Saipan young boys would paddle out past the lagoon, catch a sea turtle, hold on and swim with the turtles. I think my bravest act continues to be facing that blank page, hushing the editor in my head, and writing.
The way you performed your poems at Sylvia Vardell’s TLA Poetry Round Up was SO MUCH FUN – I still remember the JOY of it! You definitely brought “rodeo spirit” into our convention center room and I’ll bet the 200+ librarians in the audience will remember it forever. Looking forward to presenting with you at the PLA conference in Denver in April 2016! (and I hope that you can stop by the NCTE session in Minneapolis where Sylvia and I will be talking about Poetry & Movement – and sharing your poems!)
Janet and Sylvia, your are the poetry magicians, truly, bringing poets together with teachers, librarians and children, with the most wonderful spirit. Thank you.
Yes, I agree with Janet– sharing COWBOY UP at the TLA Poetry Round Up was a highlight and you get everyone involved! It’s an important book that offers us a glimpse of contemporary Native Americans doing things they love and it’s also tons of FUN!
Thank you, Sylvia, and because of your work — and passion — poetry is becoming part of every day, from the kitchen to the classroom .… and beyond. Just ask Darth Vader!
I hope you share your readings at the next spellbinders in November. That little taste was excellent.
What a great story about swimming with sharks, Nancy! And I loved hearing you share COWBOY UP at the Arizona Library Association conference several years ago! Thank you for helping kids to find themselves in books.