I’ve been writing books for children for 38 years and have published 150 books in every category from picture books to biographies, middle grade novels to board books, easy readers to nonfiction. I have an MFA in writing for children from Vermont College, and an MA in children’s literature from Hollins University. I teach in Hollins University’s graduate program in children’s literature.
I’m a ninth generation Virginian on both sides, and many of my books are set in my native state. My husband and I live in Fredericksburg, Virginia, with our two cats, Faulkner and Edison. I love cats but seem to wind up with the worst ones! Both of these rescues are food-obsessed, raiding the cupboards and trash cans, and even stealing bread from the toaster. I always have my current reading book and a notebook with me. I read everywhere, even in the movie theater!
Reading was everything to me and still is. I was not an early reader—didn’t “crack the code” until second grade. But when I did, I never stopped. Like most true readers, I read cereal boxes, comic books, newspapers left in the bathroom, my older sister’s textbooks. Reading was a way to escape into another world.
When I ran out of things to read (our school library was tiny), I began to write my own stories. I wrote for fun, but also as a form of escape, this time into the world inside my head.
Discovering my sister’s Trixie Belden mystery book, left behind when she got married, was a highlight. I was home sick from school that day, and I’d made a reading fort with a card table and bedspread. I had no library books, so I explored my mother’s small bookcase of Doubleday Book Club selections. Panther’s Moon sounded promising, but it wasn’t about panthers at all. Then I found a girl’s book, Trixie Belden and the Mysterious Visitor. I took it into my reading fort and I was gone . . .
This 1961 book is a contemporary mystery/fantasy/adventure story set in Concord, Massachuse tts, where Louisa May Alcott, Henry David Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson lived. This book literally changed my life. I was gently exposed to the teachings of Thoreau and Emerson, whose works I explored when I was older. Also, I had to be married on Valentine’s Day because of that book. The “Bride of Snow” chapter is about a Valentine’s Day wedding that never happened, and a dress made of snowflake lace that was never worn. So romantic!
I’m a morning person, so I get up around 6:00. I feed the cats, Faulkner and Edison, take care of morning chores, then go to Jazzercise. Most days I take two classes back to back. After two solid hours of dancing, I stop at the library on the way home to browse or research. I work all afternoon and into the evening. I work every single day, including Christmas and my birthday.
I started writing stories in second grade, when I was seven. By the time I was in sixth grade, I was writing “books.” I also liked to draw. Reading, writing, drawing—that was my life. In high school, I was still reading children’s books. Why? Because they are the best books! When my sophomore English teacher assigned us a book review project, I decided to write reviews of my favorite children’s books. I worried what my teacher would think—everyone else was reviewing grown-up books. She called me up to her desk after I turned in my assignment. I was afraid she was going to send me back to elementary school! Instead, she told me I was going to be a writer of children’s books. This was an actual job? From that moment on, I became a serious children’s writer.
This is not to say that getting published was easy, because it wasn’t. At fifteen, I had a lot to learn. I made tons of mistakes, but I kept writing and submitting. I had nothing to lose and writing for children was all I ever wanted to do. If I won the lottery tomorrow, I’d still write.
Wow—this is a tough question! Because I write so many different kinds of children’s books, my process is different for each one. My picture book process is slow. I “sit” on a picture book idea for a long time, letting it develop in my head. This can take weeks or years. When I’m ready to begin writing, I take a stack of loose-leaf paper to a room that is not my office (where the computers live), usually the dining room. I write by longhand, slowly, often advancing my story only a few lines each day. Once the first draft is written, I type it on the computer, print it, and begin editing. Draft after draft after draft. Picture books are short—people are surprised how long it takes to write a story of so few words.
I use the same process for writing easy readers, only I write by hand in a spiral notebook. My easy readers use rhythm and rhyme. For some reason, a notebook is easier for me to work out short stanzas.
Nonfiction requires a different process. First, I begin researching. This can take a few months or several years, depending on the project. I compile notes in binders. I buy books that I need to refer to often. I travel to various sites to do primary research. Writing the nonfiction story is another long, slow process. I write carefully, trying to find the story while keeping the facts accurate. I revise and revise and revise.
Two books I’m most excited about won’t be out for a few years. The first is about Thomas Jefferson and his strong interest in science as shown through his obsession with one animal. From start to finish, this book took me three and a half years. It will be out in 2020. Also coming out, though I don’t know the date, is a picture book biography on Margaret Wise Brown. From start to finish, this book took fifteen years to complete. Yes, you read that right.
My popular easy reader series that began with Pumpkin Day, continued with Apple Picking Day, and most recently, Snow Day, will add two more titles: Garden Day and Beach Day. Another forthcoming easy reader is Go, Go, Tractors!