Frequently Asked Questions
When I visit kids in classrooms, I always leave time for a discussion. Here are some questions that come up again and again:
What did you read when you were a kid? I mostly read fiction, but I read a lot of it – from Nancy Drew to every single Oz book ( had my great uncle's first editions with the beautiful illustrations), from the classics to what people often call "junky" books. (I don't believe in junky books; I just think there are good and bad books in every category.) My favorites included everything from Bartholomew and the Oobleck by Dr. Seuss to Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. My parents always left the hall light on so my brother and I could find our way to the bathroom (and not be scared at night). It threw a chunk of light into my room, perfect for sneak-reading.
Did you know you wanted to be a writer when you were a kid? I didn't really think about it, back then. I was much more interested in being a ballerina. I recently found a poem that I wrote in third grade that my mom had cut out to save from the school magazine. Poor Mom! She must have wondered why I put her head and a guillotine in the same sentence. Looking back, I do too! Generally I was a good student so I got good grades. Then when I was in twelfth grade and I got a D on an English paper, I was astonished. Nothing like that had ever happened to me. I went to talk to the teacher. "It's a bad paper," she said. "It doesn't say anything and it's disorganized. If you want, I will teach you what to do. You can rewrite it as many times as you need to get an A." I am forever grateful to that teacher. She taught me that writing involves two major steps. First, figure out what you want to say. Then, find the right words to say it.
So why did you become a writer? Truthfully, I hated my job as a social worker. It's a fine profession, but not for me. I just fell into writing. It was only years later that I realized it was a good match.
Which of your books is your favorite? This is an impossible question because I like different ones for different reasons. I like Unseen Rainbows, Silent Songs because it was my first (and I love the title). Ultimate Field Trip 1 took me to the Amazon. The Truth About Poop made lots of people learn about history and science while laughing all the while. On This Spot? I'm proud of that one, pure and simple. How Do You Burp in Space? And Other Tips Every Space Tourist Needs, which came out in 2013, is a beaut. Sometimes the book you're working on becomes your favorite. I certainly love my newest book, The First Step: How One Girl Put Segregation on Trial that is out in January 2016. It's a very important story that took place in my city, Boston, and was beautifully illustrated by E. B. Lewis.
What was your favorite animal when you were in the Amazon? There were so many. Some you like because they are really cool looking like the morpho butterfly. Others because they do such amazing stuff. Leaf-cutter ants , for example, haul chunks of leaves back to their nests so they can grow the fungus on it that they eat for food. But my favorite? I did get attached to a baby capybara – in more ways than one. I was sitting on a bench with my hand hanging down at my side. Meanwhile, this hungry capybara was looking for his mom. He saw my fingers, got confused, and latched on. Once I calmed down – and, got my hand back – I started to like him.
Why don't you illustrate your own books? If you ever saw one of my drawings, you wouldn't have to ask. Also I'm lucky, I get to work with such great illustrators as Elwood H. Smith, David Slonim, and Michael Slack. My next book is going to be illustrated by one of my very favorites–E.B. Lewis.
Is Michael Doolittle (the photographer I often work with) related to Dr. Dolittle? Mike has a few doctors in his family but none of them is that famous doctor who is the main character of several novels. I have caught Mike muttering to some of the animals he is trying to photograph but they rarely seem to listen, let alone respond. To answer another frequently asked question, Mike and I are not married – to each other, at least. We just work together a lot. We also work on separate projects as well.
You go on so many trips to research your books. Why aren't there pictures of you in them When I go to the Arctic or the Amazon to write a book, I think my job is being the author. I'm not really a part of the story and don't belong in it. But, who says there isn't a picture of me from time to time? Here, for example, is my ear modeling a Shuttle earring from Ultimate Field Trip 5: Blasting Off to Space Academy.
Do you ever take your own kids to all these places? When I'm on one of those trips, I am busy interviewing people, taking notes, working to help get pictures and other things. It is a full-time job; it would be hard to be a mom too. Nowadays my kids, Matthew and Jake, are old enough to have lives–and jobs–of their own. But when I still wrote a lot of magazine articles, I could sometimes bring them along. Matthew and I swam with the dolphins in Florida. And Jake came with me when I wrote an article about Hersheypark, in Hershey, Pennsylvania.
What's the best part of being a writer? The answer really depends upon the day. Sometimes it's feeling proud about the way I managed to express something. Sometimes, it's having kids tell me they've read a book and liked it. Other times, it's that I'm my own boss and I can work in my pajamas.
Do you have any advice for kids who want to become writers? Sure. Read a lot – then read some more. Think a lot – then think some more. While you're thinking, find something you are really interested in. It could be how scared you felt when your grandmother died. Or maybe what it would be like to be a character with real thoughts and feelings trapped inside a video game. When your subject is important to you, it shows in your writing. And imagine a lot – then, imagine some more. Use all your senses to describe your subject. What does the situation look like? Sound like? Smell like? Even, taste like? If you include all these things, your writing will come alive.