Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Evanston, IL, just outside of Chicago. I lived right across the street from Lake Michigan, and still consider that body of water my true home.
What is your earliest memory of writing/drawing?
I taught myself to read when I was three, and started writing poetry when I was four, so words have always been at the center of my life. My first poem was “Little Wind”:
Blow, little wind,
Blow the trees, little wind,
Blow the seas, little wind,
Blow me until I am free, little wind
I think I’ve always known that writing could be a source of freedom, that creativity blows through us like a wind and can make us soar.
What inspired you to write/illustrate your first book?
I wrote--and illustrated--what I considered my first “novel” (although it was only around 20 pages long) when I was eight years old. It was called The Secret World and was very influenced by The Secret Garden, one of my favorite books at the time. My teacher had the book spiral bound, and she placed it in the school library. I was so excited to have my own entry in the card catalog; it was my first taste of being a published writer.
I was always writing stories as a child. I can remember lying on my stomach on the living room carpet and making lists of stories I wanted to write in crayon on the cardboard that came home with my dad’s dry-cleaned shirts. Even just writing the titles down filled me with a sense of possibility and wonder.
Do you use your childhood as inspiration?
Constantly! In some ways, I remember my childhood more clearly than I remember things that happened five years ago. It was such a time of discovery and exploration and play—everything was so vivid and alive.
What books from your childhood have most influenced your work?
I loved books about writers when I was young—Harriet the Spy and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn were among my early favorites. Both of them reminded me to pay close attention to the world around me. And when I was even younger, I loved the picture book Just Only John by Jack Kent. It was about a little boy who buys a penny magic spell, not knowing what its effects will be; it turns out that any time someone calls him something—“my little man” or “bunny”, for example, he turns into that thing. It showed me how powerful words can be, how they can change you down to your very molecular structure. I suppose it’s not a surprise that Mina in My Life with the Lincolns likes to write, and decides to create The Lincoln Log, a newsletter for her dad’s store. I actually wrote and sold subscriptions to Neighborhood News, a little local newsletter, when I was around her age.
What are your hobbies and interests besides reading and books?
I love to dance and ice skate; I’m also a big fan of food (I’ve been vegetarian since I was 16), and have just started to get into gardening. It’s important to me to live as sustainable and conscious a life as possible (and to have fun in the process—I don’t ever want to take myself too seriously). I’ve been an activist since I was young and keep looking for ways to make the world a better place.
Who are a couple of your favorite author/illustrators? What is it about their work that inspires and interests you?
I love Barbara Kingsolver; she does a beautiful job of combining art and social responsibility in her writing. It is very meaningful to me that my first novel, The Book of Dead Birds, won the prize she created, The Bellwether Prize for Fiction in Support of a Literature of Social Change. A couple of my other favorite writers, Toni Morrison and Maxine Hong Kingston, were the judges that year. All of them use language in such a beautiful and powerful way, and continue to be real role models for me.
What one or two words of advice would you give for young authors/illustrators?
Read and write as much as you can. Write about the things that make you feel deeply—things that make you sad, things that make you angry, things that make you so happy, you feel like you’re going to explode with joy. Write with all your senses—write about what you can see and hear and smell and taste and touch in the world around you. Have fun with writing—words are your toy box; they’re wonderful to play with!