Where were you born?
I was born in Cape Fear Hospital in Wilmington, North Carolina. It was a stormy night and my mother’s doctor feared lightning would strike one of the many bobby pins in her curler-filled hair. It makes me laugh thinking about it. My family lived in Wilmington because my dad was stationed at a military base there. When my dad returned from Vietnam, my family moved back to West Virginia—the place I think of when people ask me “Where are you from?” My European and Cherokee ancestors have lived in the West Virginia/North Carolina/Virginia area for hundreds and hundreds of years. Here is a picture of me as a child. What a snazzy dresser I was!
Where do you live now?
Since 1995 I have lived in New York City. I live near Times Square and love it. There is a famous quote from W. Somerset Maugham that describes how I feel about the city: “Sometimes a man hits upon a place to which he mysteriously feels that he belongs. Here is the home he sought, and he will settle amid scenes that he has never seen before, among men he has never known, as though they were familiar to him from his birth. Here at last he finds rest.”
Where did you go to school?
I received my undergraduate degree from Bowling Green State University in Ohio (Go Falcons!) and my graduate degree from Harvard University (the oldest college in the United States). Here are some pictures of me cheerleading in college. I hope I catch her!
What did you do after you graduated?
After getting my degree to become a teacher, I moved to Ecuador to teach at an international school. I later returned to the United States and taught in Ohio and Maryland before attending graduate school at Harvard. It was there that I did an internship at an educational publishing house and remained in publishing for over twenty years. However, I continued to work in the classroom. For over eight years I adopted two schools in the lower eastside of Manhattan where I taught and conducted research. My philosophy was that I couldn’t create great materials for teachers and students unless I was in schools with teachers and students every week. My job was to find problems teachers faced and devise creative ways to solve them through my instructional materials. I love making teachers’ lives easier and their instruction more effective. Here is a picture of me working with some students for a video I was in.
What did you do in publishing?
I wrote and edited reading textbooks for elementary schools. My greatest joy has been teaching children to read. Reading is a gift that changes a person’s life forever and can never be taken away. Some of my grandparents never learned to read, so I grew up seeing all the challenges a person faces when he or she can’t read. I also wrote books for kids for the reading programs I worked on. I wrote a ton of phonics readers and leveled books, as well as books to help teachers in their classrooms. My most recent job was as Vice President and Editorial Director at Macmillan/McGraw-Hill, a publishing company in New York City. I also worked for Scholastic (New York), Open Court (Chicago), and Houghton Mifflin (Boston).
Do you have any hobbies?
I am addicted to traveling. I have lived all over the United States as well as South America (Ecuador) and the Middle East (Israel). I have traveled to countries such as Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Brazil, Japan, Taiwan, China, Korea, Israel, Egypt, Jordan, England, Wales, Scotland, France, Germany, Poland, Switzerland, Austria, Spain, Italy, Iceland, Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Vatican City, Hong Kong, Macau, Philippines, Malaysia, Belgium, the Bahamas, and Greece. I hope to travel to even more countries in the future. I also like to ride horses (my dad trained horses when I was growing up) and go hang-gliding. There is no better feeling than floating in the air like a bird.
What do you like to write?
I like to write stories that entertain my readers, especially stories that make them laugh. I also like to write about people from rural or southern places because that is where I am originally from. I grew up never seeing people like me in the books I read; I want to make sure that children today don’t have that problem.
Why do you write?
Because I have to. It is like breathing to me.
Do you have a motto?
I do. I have two, in fact. When I sign my books, I always write “Make a difference.” I think no matter what we do in life we should try to make a difference in the lives of the people around us through our kind words and deeds. My other motto is “Never look back.” When we concentrate too heavily on the bad things in our past—such as feeling hurt or angry towards people—it freezes us in the past. To move forward and live happy, successful lives we have to let go and stop looking back.
Do you have kids?
No, I have never been lucky enough to have any children of my own. But I have had loads of wonderful students and kid readers. They make me smile every day.
What advice do you give to kids who want to be writers?
Read a lot. You learn how to create a great story from authors who do it well. Study the techniques they use—the ones you like—then try them out in your writing. Also, tell your stories in your unique way. Try to avoid sentences and phrases you have read before. Don’t hold back. Be brave and break the rules.