Where were you born? Where did you grow up?
I was born in New York City and lived in an apartment building called “The House of Joyful Living.” On the roof there was an outdoor shower, a goldfish pond, some potted trees, a handball court and a hawk’s eye view of the tall buildings around us—even the Empire State Building. With parents all to myself, it seemed that I lived in paradise. Then my two sisters, Iris and Wendy, were born and we moved to a larger apartment in Brooklyn—no goldfish pond, but from the six-story roof, I could see the Statue of Liberty lifting its torch to me, and the tall, gray smokestack of the nearby Pilgrim Laundry.
When I was nine, my parents bought a wooden puzzle map of the U.S. and tried to show my sisters and me where we would be moving. They couldn’t, because the tiniest piece had dropped out and was missing—Rhode Island. In Rhode Island, we finally had a house of our own with a small backyard where we planted, it seemed, one of everything—peas, tomatoes, cucumber, pepper, eggplant, and flowers of all kinds. Here again, it seemed that I lived in paradise, and, lucky me—at last I had a room of my own!
Is it really true that you were shy?
I was so shy that . . . I often practiced saying things like, “so nice to meet you,” in front of the mirror. Sometimes I crossed the street to avoid someone I was dying to talk to. It was even hard for me to go to the library because I was too scared to talk to the librarian. I was a lot like Curly Jess in my book, Captain Snap and the Children of Vinegar Lane. I’m still shy, but these days people can’t always tell.
Do you have any children? What does your husband do?
I have one son who is grown up and married now. He is both a novelist and a Professor of English Literature and Film. (His wife is also a Professor!) My husband too is a professor—of English and Dramatic Literature. He too is a writer, but he writes plays and lyrics to songs. Because all three of us love books and writing so much, we always called our house, “The House of Words".
Why do you write books for children?
Inside, I still feel like a child. In fact, I often feel like I’m only pretending to be a grown-up and that, if I’m not careful, the real grown-ups will find me out. So, it’s much less of a stretch for me to write about how children feel than it is for me to write about how adults feel.
What do you like about being a writer?
So many things. . . Like Selig in The Boy Who Loved Words, I love words! I love the sound and meaning of them and I love using new ones I’ve just discovered. As a writer, it’s my job to work and play with words, and to make discoveries while I’m working and playing. I love the delicious way certain words sound when they rub up against one another. I love the subtle and special meanings they have. As a writer, I also make discoveries about myself. Often I don’t know how I feel about something, until I’ve read what I’ve written. I love the strength of words and how powerful I feel when I use them well. Like Eva in Nothing Ever Happens on 90th Street, I find that I can alter reality, just by asking, “what if?’ and making up a new story. What do I love about being a writer? How when I use words well they become stories--stories with the power to make people feel.
Where do you get ideas?
Everywhere. Writers are spies—eavesdropping on conversations, carefully observing the details of what someone is wearing, always noticing how the wrinkles under that old woman’s eyes look—like old lace, or maybe like a spider’s web? I love noticing how something smells and tastes, and then jotting it all down in a notebook. I spend a lot of time daydreaming, using my imagination, being curious about people, life, and the world, and trying to make up answers to the questions I have about everything. I am always wondering how things would be if (only) . . . ? That’s what starts my stories going. It’s how I got the idea for ALL ABOUT GRANDMAS. I spent a lot of time observing grandmas and their grandchildren. Then I wrote a story about their love for each other.
Your books are very different from one another—is there anything that connects them?
People have pointed out that many of my books are about children who use their imagination and do things in their own original way—that’s certainly true of Selig in The Boy Who Loved Words, of Eva in Nothing Ever Happens on 90th Street and of Luisa in Mama, I’ll Give You The World. It’s also true of Hannah and Amanda in F is For Freedom and of many of the characters in my other books. I feel very strongly that it is vital for children to hold onto their imagination and think for themselves. With so many screens to watch these days—television, computer, movies, cell phones—there are too many times when we forget to think for ourselves. We run the risk of losing our own ideas and weakening our imagination. Imagination needs to be nourished and nurtured. I hope that, in some small way, my books encourage children to use and enjoy their imaginations.
Is it true that you do a lot of rewriting?
Yes! Often there are as many as 30 drafts. I always say, writing is a bit like sculpting in clay. You mold, you twist, you shave a bit off here, add a bit there. Sometimes you flatten it all out and then start all over again. I love rewriting. I feel prouder and prouder of myself as I rewrite, because my story gets better.
What’s your secret about writing?
It’s one I learned from my husband who is also a writer—write every day—even if it’s only for a short while. Don’t wait for inspiration. Just do it regularly, like a job. Even if you’re writing junk, just get something down on paper. Then, the magic happens. In between, when you think you’re not writing—when you’re cleaning up, or playing, or seemingly not paying attention, good ideas are hatching and they’re ready to pop out on paper the next day when you sit down to write again.
What amazes you about writing?
What are your hobbies?
Gardening (I’m terrible at it!), tennis (I’m not great at it), cross-country skiing (I’m okay at it), drawing (I’m surprisingly good at it), daydreaming (I’m great at it!).
What do you hope children will get from your books?
Pleasure, escape, and a sense of wonder at the wonderful things that exist in this world. I hope that they will be inspired to use their own imaginations to tell their own stories—their fictional stories, and, their non-fictional stories! I hope too that my love for, and appreciation of, language—it’s power and beauty—is contagious.