Bio for Kids - About Rita Golden Gelman (adapted
from SOMETHING ABOUT THE AUTHOR, Volume 84.)
I was born on July 2,1937, in Bridgeport, Connecticut. My dad owned a
drugstore on the east side of town (Goldenís 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 childrenís books in 1972. I probably would never have
become a writer if I hadnít 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 wasnít
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 Iím 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. Iím
over fifty now, and Iím still quite capable of leaping into leaf piles. I
love the smell, the crackle, and all the memories that come to me when Iím
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 motherís
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 Canít 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 Canít 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
"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 Canít 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 Canít 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
When Jessica died, the friend read the book at Jessicaís funeral. The
last scene in Why Canít I Fly? shows Minnie sitting on a sheet and
being carried off into the sky by her friends. Thereís a big grin on her
face as she waves goodbye. Minnieís story had become Jessicaís story as
well, trying and trying and finally flying away. I wrote another book about
Minnie (Leave It to Minnie) and dedicated it to Jessicaís 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 Ďdoí life. The options are infinite.
One of the questions Iím often asked is where I get my ideas. Itís not
an easy question to answer. I never know when Iím going to meet an idea that
will become a book. One day I received a call from a friend who owned a
Swensenís 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 fatherís drugstore Ė
making sundaes and ice cream sodas, serving up milkshakes and banana splits. I
couldnít 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.
Iíve written a number of books about food . . . I like to cook and I love
to eat. In one book Minnie canít 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 wasnít 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 canít stop talking and singing. Then they
give him away.
Iíve 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 UFOís and ESP, about the country of
Nicaragua, and the islands and animals of the Galapagos. Iíve written a lot
of other books about animals: pandas, koalas, monkeys, sea creatures, and
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 didnít 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, Iím always asked what itís like being an
author. Obviously, itís different for different authors. I like the fact
that I donít 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 Iím 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 weíre
the same as everyone else. Anyone can be a writer. It does help if thereís a
Miss Curnias around to give you encouragement. Who knows? If Iíd 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 donít 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 Iím writing, I
feel as though Iím 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, Iím exhausted, even though I havenít moved out of my chair.
(Thatís 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, youíll 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 Iíve 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
There are books, though, that I canít write with someone else. They can
only come from me. Itís 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 Iíve written, Iím surprised. Sometimes I
feel as though Iím reading someone elseís words. Itís as though the
words came from some inner place and skipped right over my awareness. At times
like that, being a writer is fantastic. Itís magical. At times like that, I
canít imagine being anything else.