I was born in 1957 and grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, the oldest child and only daughter of Charles, a surgeon, and Lillian, a housewife. They read to me a lot (Winnie the Pooh, Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, Arabian Nights, The Borrowers), until I could read to myself. I was the kind of kid who knew that ‘gray’ could be spelled with an ‘a” or an ‘e,’ who could recite the names of the presidents in order if only anyone would ask, which no one did. In my day, you didn’t try out for soccer when you were four or learn German in kindergarten. You went to school, where you followed rules, memorized poems, made sure your lower-case letters didn’t go over the dotted line, and watched film strips that, in my memory, often featured a combine and enormous fields of wheat.
At age one, I already loved books.
I loved everything about school except recess, which I didn’t hate, exactly, but which made me very nervous. I knew that alliances were forged, enemies whispered about, and reputations made or
irreversibly damaged on the playground. It was where the action was. No one cared about knowing the presidents. Here, you were graded on other things: whether you could do a backwards flip on the parallel bar, how long you could jump rope before tripping, the ease with which you could sink a basket, the contents of your lunchbox. (A roast beef sandwich was cooler than peanut butter, and if you were a girl, you got extra points if your mother cut the crusts off the bread, thereby conferring upon you an aura of daintiness and princess-like femininity.) The playground was where I first learned about friendship and loyalty, goodness and deceit. It was where I first started watching other people.
We moved three times while I was growing up, and the effect was to enhance my sense of always being a little bit on the outside. This wasn’t a bad thing, really, as it meant that I had to pay extra attention to what people said and did, the clothes they wore, the lunches they ate. (By fifth grade, lunchboxes were out of fashion; the cool kids ate hot food in the cafeteria.) It was all horribly confusing. Fortunately,
there was always the delicious, familiar comfort of books (Harriet the Spy, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, All-Of-A-Kind Family, Cheaper by the Dozen). I began to write stories, pounding them out on my father’s ancient Underwood. (For those of you under thirty, that’s a typewriter.) I fantasized about being a real writer when I grew up. I would live in a garret. I would drive a red sports car and own a monkey.
By the time I was in high school, I had pretty much given up on the whole writer thing. I was too busy talking on the phone and fretting obsessively about my appearance. (I wore glasses and had dark hair, alone in a sea of eagle-eyed blondes.) In my spare time, I made life-long friends and kept reading (To Kill a Mockingbird, Gone with the Wind, The Member of the Wedding, The Forsyte Saga, and, with a kind of fascinated horror, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden). I didn’t think much about having a career. Adulthood was another continent, read about but too inaccessible to seem real.
I traveled across the country to go to Bryn Mawr, a women’s college just outside of Philadelphia. More books (Chaucer, Austen, Dickens, Hardy, Flaubert, Racine, Dickenson, Stevens, Auden, Wolfe, Gide), read in dorms whose decaying Gothic splendor was unlike anything I had ever seen in the wilds of suburban California. During my senior year, I took a creative writing class. I wrote a story called “Summer on Goose Island.” It was truly terrible and, judging by the class critique, left me with little
reason to think that I might aspire to a literary life.
I married a boy who went to a neighboring college, moved back to the Bay Area, received a graduate degree in business from UC Berkeley, and worked in a bank. Something was wrong, but I didn’t know what. It was only after my son was born and I began to read to him that I started to look at books in a different way. I started to wonder if I could write one. Tentatively I began to try.
Some twenty-four years and sixteen books later, I am glad I followed my heart. I don’t have young children at home to inspire me anymore:
my 6’3” son lives in Los Angeles and no longer asks me how long someone can see after his head is cut off, and my 20-year-old daughter texted me two days ago from New Zealand to inform me that she had just bungee-jumped off a bridge. But I still read books (John Updike, Mona Simpson, Philip Roth, Alice Munro) and still think that the act of creating them is at once daunting and magical and sublime. I feel
privileged beyond words to be someone who gets to say she is a writer for children.
Now I live a block from the beach with my life partner, Robert, who encourages me to ride my bike and stop worrying. When I’m not writing, I like to work out, drink really good decaf, watch old movies, and search my kids’ Facebook pages to find out what they’re doing. And, of course, read. At any given time, I have a stack of books on my bedside table (currently, Alice Munro’s Something
I’ve Been Meaning To Tell You, Alice McDermott’s After This, The Stories of Mary Gordon, and David Sedaris’s Me Talk Pretty One Day). I can’t imagine my life without books. I can’t imagine what I would have done if writing them hadn’t panned out.