I have always liked words, pictures, and books. I started out eating a
few. Perhaps someone said, "Here, read this," and I misunderstood and
thought they said, "Here, eat this." I knew nothing more about books
than your little brother or sister, or perhaps you did as a baby. I
wasn't born a writer. Like most young children, I started off turning
the pages, wrinkling, and unfortunately, eating some of the first books
I encountered. Later my interests expanded.
When I was four and a half years old, my family took one of our first
long trips. We drove down the east coast to Florida. Somewhere along
the way, we passed an alligator farm. My parents thought I would like
to have my picture taken with the alligators. You can see the look on
my face as I noticed what big teeth they had. I didn't particularly like
way they were smiling. I thought they might make me their lunch, or at
least dessert. Fortunately they had just eaten. This was among the
adventures that influenced my writing and illustrating.
My parents were generally very thoughtful about keeping me safe.
This seemed to be one of their few lapses of judgment in that regard.
DO NOT MESS WITH ALLIGATORS. DO NOT MESS WITH ANYTHING THAT HAS BIG
As I learned to read, I went to the library as often as I could to find
books that would take me on new journeys. I also continued exploring
the outdoor world. I once got stuck in quicksand in the wilds of
Baltimore. I had a variety of pets— frogs, cats, dogs, and found
injured animals such as birds and rabbits that I would try to nurse back
to health. At one time I had thirteen box turtles, all named "Bobby"
since they looked so similar. The number of turtles in the outdoor pen
climbed and fell, but they all dug—sometimes individually, then en
masse, escaping by tunneling under the pen fence and teaching me that
even turtles have surprises to offer. My own scientific pursuits did not
escape then, just took new paths.
There were a number of great storytellers in my family. One of my
grandmothers told me amazing stories about her childhood, which along
with our close relationship echoed through the books ABUELA and ISLA. My
father would make up stories with fantastic characters. "I Fry'em
Fine," a character in my first book, PRETZELS, grew out of one of the
stories he had told. My mother encouraged my drawing, providing
materials and mostly putting up with the paint I spilled on the floor. A
grandfather occasionally sent me letters, each with a similar bird he
had drawn. He did not fancy himself an "artist," but he showed me that
words and pictures can be an exciting part of anyone's life. A high
school art teacher, "Ms. J," helped further that belief as she
reawakened her students' creativity.
As I grew older, I worked at a variety of jobs—carpenter, photographer,
longshoreman, agricultural worker, teacher, and enjoyed aspects of each,
particularly the diversity of what I was able to learn and the people I
met. Whenever possible, I traveled to lands I had read about before.
All the while, I continued on my own to draw, write, and be interested
in books. So at about age thirty, I decided that it would be great fun
to put those interests together and make children's picture books.
I have now been enjoying writing, drawing,
and making books for many years, with more than thirty published titles.
Working on each new book is exciting for me. I've found a wide range of
subjects and experiences surfacing in my work, from interests in science
to high-flying adventures, from the usually unseen—trees growing, to the
unlikely to be seen—flying grandmother and granddaughter. I believe
that everyone has stories to tell. I've enjoyed visiting children in
hundreds of schools around the country, helping them find their own
stories. Part of writing and illustrating is like being a detective,
with senses as alert as possible, always on the lookout for new ideas
and pieces that help put the whole story together.
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