I was born on July 2,1937, in Bridgeport, Connecticut. My dad owned a drugstore on the east side of town (Golden’s Pharmacy) and my mom (maiden name, Frances Friedman) was a teacher who stopped teaching when she got married. She worked with my father in the drugstore and as a leader in community projects; and whenever she had the time, she painted.
I went to Beardsley Elementary School, Harding High School for one year, and Bassick High School for the last three years. I studied English and American Literature at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, and anthropology at UCLA. I worked as an editor in New York for four years.
In 1960, I married Steve Gelman and we had two children, Mitch and Jan. The kids went to public schools in New York City (P.S. 41, P.S. 3, and I.S. 70). In 1976 we moved to Los Angeles.
I began writing children’s books in 1972. I probably would never have become a writer if I hadn’t had Miss Curnias in the eighth grade. Our class put out a school newspaper called the Beardsley Press. We collected stories and poems and news items from all the other classes in the school. Miss Curnias typed them onto mimeograph stencils, and we decorated the stencils with a pin-pointed thing called a stylus. (That was before computers.) I wasn’t very good at the decorating, but Miss Curnias said I wrote good stories and poems. So, whenever we needed to fill up a page, I wrote something. That was the year I became a writer.
When I talk to other writers, they often tell me that when they were children, they wrote a lot and read all the time. I wish I had. But the truth is that I played a lot. I lived in a two-family house, just down the street from Beardsley Park. That park was a major character in my childhood. In the summer in the park, we swam in the lake and waded in the brook; we caught grasshoppers to feed to the praying mantises we had caught the day before; we rolled down the grassy hills and we trapped lightning bugs in bottles at night. There was a zoo in the park, and I collected peacock feathers by putting chewing gum on the end of a long stick, sliding the stick through the square holes in the wire fence, and then pressing the gummed tip onto the molted feathers. That was the summer.
In the fall, we piled up the leaves into giant mounds and dived into them until we were buried. In the winter we sledded, built snowmen and forts, and had spectacular snowball fights in the park. And in the spring, we roller-skated, played hide-and-seek, and climbed trees.
Today, when I’m writing books for children, the girl who leaped into piles of leaves, scared her parents by presenting them with frogs, and stomped in puddles just because they were there, is still very much a part of me. I’m over fifty now, and I’m still quite capable of leaping into leaf piles. I love the smell, the crackle, and all the memories that come to me when I’m over my head in autumn leaves.
The characters that I write about have a lot of me in them. I Went to the Zoo is about a boy who takes all the zoo animals home with him, elephants, lions, koalas, pandas, and peacocks, among others. As a child, I got to know the animals in the Beardsley Park Zoo, and I often wished that I could take them home with me. I once put an injured squirrel on my mother’s bed when she was sick, and I frequently smuggled frogs and snakes into the house and spent hours searching for them under couches and radiators. I Went to the Zoo carries those experiences into the absurd.
My favorite book, Why Can’t I Fly?, comes from the part of me that used to lie in the grass as a child and watch the birds. I still dream about flying, soaring, riding the wind. The main character in Why Can’t I Fly? is a monkey named Minnie who wants more than anything to fly. She keeps trying and trying, until finally, with the help of her friends, she does the impossible.
“The impossible” is a pretty relative thing. What is impossible for one person, may be quite possible for someone else. A lot depends on how hard you try and how capable you are of listening to the voice inside your head instead of the voices outside. Much of the time, a little flexibility and a lot of will, can make the impossible happen. But not always.
The book, Why Can’t I Fly? inspired the most touching letter I ever received. It was from a woman in Florida. She wrote that a six-year-old friend of hers named Jessica had just died of a terrible genetic disease. When Jessica was four, someone had given her a copy of Why Can’t I Fly? Jessica learned how to read from that book, and she carried it with her wherever she went. Every day she read it to her family, her friends, her nurses. Every time she read it, she would laugh, and everyone would laugh with her.
When Jessica died, the friend read the book at Jessica’s funeral. The last scene in Why Can’t I Fly? shows Minnie sitting on a sheet and being carried off into the sky by her friends. There’s a big grin on her face as she waves goodbye. Minnie’s story had become Jessica’s story as well, trying and trying and finally flying away. I wrote another book about Minnie (Leave It to Minnie) and dedicated it to Jessica’s family, “so others may laugh because Jessica did.”
I still have few possessions and no permanent home. Wherever I live, I continue to write books for young people, sometimes about the countries I visit and sometimes about universal subjects. I also try to contribute something to the people I live with, by teaching English, by sharing my own culture with them, by reading them my books, and even by cooking western foods now and then for my friends to try. Sometimes I ask questions, but mostly I learn about people by making friends, living with families, and sharing their lives. My travels have taught me something very important: there is no right and wrong way to ‘do’ life. The options are infinite.
One of the questions I’m often asked is where I get my ideas. It’s not an easy question to answer. I never know when I’m going to meet an idea that will become a book. One day I received a call from a friend who owned a Swensen’s ice cream store. She was in a panic because all her workers had called in sick. Could I help? Absolutely. I was very excited. When I was a teenager, I had worked at the soda fountain in my father’s drugstore – making sundaes and ice cream sodas, serving up milkshakes and banana splits. I couldn’t wait to once again scoop and squirt and dribble syrups over ice cream. But it turned out that my friend wanted me in the kitchen.
She stood me at a long counter that was covered with stacks of turkey and chicken and tomatoes and lettuce and tuna fish salad. The stacks were divided by pieces of waxed paper so that the sandwich maker, me, would give just the right amount of filling. On the wall above the counter were the lists of sandwiches and their ingredients. I spent the next five hours staring at the piles and letting my imagination wander. The next day I began writing The Biggest Sandwich Ever, about a sandwich the size of a house. I wanted to get more and more absurd as the sandwich got higher and higher. I remember sitting one day with my editor and seriously discussing which was more ridiculous: squirting catsup out of a fire hose or dropping pickles from an airplane. I love the discussions I get to have when I write silly books.
I’ve written a number of books about food . . . I like to cook and I love to eat. In one book Minnie can’t stop eating spaghetti (More Spaghetti, I Say!). “I love it. I love it. I love it. I do,” she says. So do I. My most recent food book is about pizza (Pizza Pat).
I wrote another book called Hey, Kid! After taking a five-hour bus trip with my six-year-old daughter. For the entire trip she sang and talked, talked and sang. It was as though she was running on one of those never-ending batteries; there wasn’t a silent moment. By the end of the trip, I was ready to give her away. Instead, I wrote about Sam, a lovable, friendly, wispy character who is probably still dropping in on unsuspecting people who adore him until they discover that he can’t stop talking and singing. Then they give him away.
I’ve written a lot of nonfiction books, usually about things I want to study. Writing a nonfiction book about a subject is a lot like taking a mini course. You have to read tons of books, talk to experts, and develop your own opinions. I have written about UFO’s and ESP, about the country of Nicaragua, and the islands and animals of the Galapagos. I’ve written a lot of other books about animals: pandas, koalas, monkeys, sea creatures, and dinosaurs.
I wrote one book called, Fabulous Animal Facts That Hardly Anybody Knows. What a lot of fun I had doing that one. I just sat in the library on the floor in front of the animal shelves and read. Every time I found myself saying, “I didn’t know that!,” I wrote it down. I filled several notebooks. When I was ready to do a thirty-two-page picture book, I chose the facts that were the most fun.
When I visit classrooms, I’m always asked what it’s like being an author. Obviously, it’s different for different authors. I like the fact that I don’t have to go into an office and work regular hours, and that I can sit around barefoot, in sweat pants and a T-shirt while I work. And I like saying that I’m a writer when people ask me what I do.
A lot of people think being a writer is something extraordinary. “Oh, my God,” said one fourth-grade girl when I visited her class, “she touched my shoulder!” But anyone who knows writers will tell you that we’re the same as everyone else. Anyone can be a writer. It does help if there’s a Miss Curnias around to give you encouragement. Who knows? If I’d been assigned to the other eighth-grade class, I might have become a teacher or a social worker or even a zookeeper!
Because most people don’t know that writers are ordinary people, being one gets you “Oh, really!,” which is a lot better than “Oh, how nice.” The main problem with being a writer is that you have to write. That means, most of the time, sitting in a room by yourself and putting words into a computer or onto paper. Every once in a while, when I’m writing, I feel as though I’m flying or dancing or skiing down a mountain. The words just keep flowing out, and I fill with music and joy and passion.
But most of the time, writing is just hard work. I go over everything I write hundreds of times. I want every word to be perfect. I try to say things as simply and clearly as possible, and I make thousands of changes before I send it off to an editor. I read every line out loud dozens of times to hear if it has an easy rhythm, to see if the sounds go well together, to hear if the sentences are the right length. Sometimes, after I have been writing for several hours, I’m exhausted, even though I haven’t moved out of my chair. (That’s a little bit misleading. The fact is that I usually get up every fifteen or twenty minutes and walk around.)
Now for someone like me, who loves talking and being with people, writing is a strange profession. But if you look at my list of books, you’ll see that I have collaborated on lots of them. I like what happens when two heads work together. I worked on most of my science books with my friend, Susan Buxbaum. We have fun doing it. Susan does the research and explains everything to me. Then, I do the writing. I wrote the Which Way and Secret Door series with Nancy Lamb Austin. And I’ve worked with others as well. I like collaborating. When Nancy and I wrote together, we laughed a lot; and we always began our working sessions with about half an hour of talking, discussing world events, family problems, and friends. Only then were we ready to work.
There are books, though, that I can’t write with someone else. They can only come from me. It’s in writing those books that the “flying” sometimes occurs. Every once in a while, I sit for hours (but it feels like minutes) without getting up, without even being aware that time is passing. And later, when I read over what I’ve written, I’m surprised. Sometimes I feel as though I’m reading someone else’s words. It’s as though the words came from some inner place and skipped right over my awareness. At times like that, being a writer is fantastic. It’s magical. At times like that, I can’t imagine being anything else.