Ann Haywood Leal
Ann Haywood Leal is an elementary school teacher and the author of Also Known As Harper and A Finders-Keepers Place. She has a black belt in Tae Kwon Do and enjoys spending time with her husband, Andy, and daughters, Jessica and Holly. She lives and writes in Waterford, Connecticut.
Where did you grow up? I grew up in Auburn, Washington, a suburb just a few minutes south of Seattle.
What is your earliest memory of writing/drawing?
Truly, I don't remember ever not writing! I do recall getting in trouble once. I don't think I was even in school yet. I had a kid-size play kitchen and I had written all over the pink cardboard stove and refrigerator. (I don't write on my kitchen appliances anymore, but I still write story ideas on any available scrap of paper!) My mom ended up being really great about it, because she quickly realized how important writing was to me. She made sure I always had plenty of writing materials available. She and my dad always took the time to read everything I wrote and they saved quite a few of my stories.
What inspired you to write/illustrate your first book?
One of my first books was written when I was in about kindergarten, and it was called The Big Fight. The plot involved a huge argument with my older brother Tom. Poor Tom often appeared as the villain in my first stories.
Also Known as Harper was inspired by a number of things, including my work at my local soup kitchen. Seeing the kids standing so quietly in line with their families really hit me hard. The majority of the kids I see everyday in my job as an elementary teacher, have started out their lives with comfort and distinct advantages. But the kids at the soup kitchen have rarely known that kind of world. It got me thinking about what their lives might be like.
Shortly after I started at the soup kitchen, I saw a picture in the newspaper. Local volunteer outreach workers were trying to get an accurate head count of the homeless in our community. The man in the picture was living in the woods in an area where quite a few homeless people had made campsites. What struck me as so unusual, was the chair in which the man was sitting. It was a striped, upholstered armchair like someone might have in their living room and it was in the dirt, next to a big tree. He talked about his trailer being towed away, along with his kids' pictures. The photo of that man, with no place to put his possessions, lingered in my mind and it turned into a scene in my book where Harper comes home from school to find that she and her family have been evicted from their home and everything they own is scattered across their front lawn.
Do you use your childhood as inspiration?
I come from a long line of imaginative people. My parents were both teachers and avid readers. My mom was also a beautiful artist. We were encouraged to turn off the TV and create things. We could always use my mom's art supplies, including the "sharp scissors". My dad is a talented musician and his parents had a vaudeville act in the twenties. We were encouraged to play musical instruments and my dad always had the most wonderful music playing on his stereo. I credit him with my love of jazz. My brothers and I all carried that creativity into our adulthoods. My brother, Tom, plays guitar and bass and my brother, Tim, is a graphic designer.
As do most neighborhoods, ours had a neighborhood bully. The thing that I think made ours unique, was it was an adult, and she was someone's mother! She used to make the most horrible, biting comments to my friends and I when we were out playing. My best friend, Leslie, and I fought back in print. We'd climb up in Leslie's treehouse and write stories with the most wonderful villains, using that horrible woman as our muse. We even made up songs about her and created an entire paper doll collection based on her family. Mrs. Early, the evicting landlord in Also Known as Harper has shades of that old neighbor of mine!
What books from your childhood have most influenced your work? What about adult titles?
Adult titles would have to be To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, and Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt.
Titles from my childhood would have to be From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg, Charlotte's Web by E.B. White, and Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret by Judy Blume. I wouldn't say my writing style is really similar to that of those writers, but their beautiful writing definitely inspired me to strive to do what they had done for me-to try to give the reader that indescribable experience of disappearing into the lives of the characters.
What are your hobbies and interests besides reading and books?
I am currently training for my second degree black belt in Karate. I teach kickboxing and I play the guitar (very badly!). I love to spend time with children, especially my own. I have two daughters, Jessica and Holly. I also enjoy running with my husband, Andy, and I like to go on hikes to explore old places; broken-down buildings and houses, in particular.
Who are a couple of your favorite author/illustrators? What is it about their work that inspires and interests you?
Patricia Reilly Giff is one of my favorite writers. Her writing captures the heart and soul of a child and I enjoy reading anything she writes.
Another one of my all-time favorites is Judy Blume. I love her honesty and willingness to give kids what they want and need to read. When Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret came out, I was in around the fifth or sixth grade. Our local librarian couldn't keep it on the shelves. There was a huge reserve list for it and I remember waiting forever for my turn to read it. At the time, my mom was teaching remedial reading. She knew one of her students had it in her desk. She also knew it was going to be a while before that girl would be finished with it. So my mom stole it out of her desk for me over the weekend!
What one or two words of advice would you give for young authors/illustrators?
Keep all of your work and don't ever stop writing!