Marilyn Singer (1948-)
Personal, Awards, Honors, SidelightsCareer, Member, Writings, Autobiography Feature
Daniel S. Mead Literary Agency, New York, NY, editor, 1967; Where (magazine), New York, NY, assistant editor, 1969; New York City Public High Schools, New York, NY, teacher of English and speech, 1969-74; writer, 1974—.
Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, Authors Guild, American Library Association, Dog Writers Association of America, PEN American Center, Nature Conservancy, Staten Island Companion Dog Training Club, North American Dog Agility Council, Phi Beta Kappa, New York Zoological Society, Brooklyn Botanic Garden, American Museum of Natural History.
The Dog Who Insisted He Wasn't, illustrated by Kelly Oechsli, Dutton (New York, NY), 1976.
The Pickle Plan, illustrated by Steven Kellogg, Dutton (New York, NY), 1978.
Will You Take Me to Town on Strawberry Day?, illustrated by Trinka Hakes Noble, Harper (New York, NY), 1981.
Archer Armadillo's Secret Room, illustrated by Beth Lee Weiner, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1985.
Minnie's Yom Kippur Birthday, illustrated by Ruth Rosner, Harper (New York, NY), 1989.
Nine o'Clock Lullaby, illustrated by Frané Lessac, Harper-Collins (New York, NY), 1991.
The Golden Heart of Winter, illustrated by Robert Rayevsky, Morrow (New York, NY), 1991.
Chester the Out-of-Work Dog, illustrated by Cat Bowman Smith, Holt (New York, NY), 1992.
The Painted Fan, illustrated by Wenhai Ma, Morrow (New York, NY), 1994.
The Maiden on the Moor, illustrated by Troy Howell, Morrow (New York, NY), 1995.
In the Palace of the Ocean King, illustrated by Ted Rand, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1995.
Good Day, Good Night, illustrated by Ponder Goembel, Marshall Cavendish (New York, NY), 1998.
Solomon Sneezes, illustrated by Brian Floca, HarperFestival (New York, NY), 1999.
On the Same Day in March: A Tour of the World's Weather, illustrated by Frané Lessac, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2000.
The One and Only Me, illustrated by Nicole Rubel, HarperFestival (New York, NY), 2000.
Fred's Bed, illustrated by JoAnn Adinolfi, HarperFestival (New York, NY), 2001.
Didi and Daddy on the Promenade, illustrated by Marie-Louise Gay, Clarion (New York, NY), 2001.
Boo-Hoo, Boo-Boo!, illustrated by Elivia Savadier, HarperFestival (New York, NY), 2002.
Quiet Night, illustrated by John Manders, Clarion (New York, NY), 2002.
Block Party Today! illustrated by Stephanie Roth, Knopf (New York, NY), 2004.
Monday on the Mississippi, illustrated by Frané Lessac, Holt (New York, NY), 2005.
It Can't Hurt Forever, illustrated by Leigh Grant, Harper (New York, NY), 1978.
Tarantulas on the Brain, illustrated by Leigh Grant, Harper (New York, NY), 1982.
Lizzie Silver of Sherwood Forest (sequel to Tarantulas on the Brain), illustrated by Miriam Nerlove, Harper (New York, NY), 1986.
The Lightey Club, illustrated by Kathryn Brown, Four Winds (New York, NY), 1987.
Mitzi Meyer, Fearless Warrior Queen, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1987.
Charmed (fantasy), Atheneum (New York, NY), 1990.
Twenty Ways to Lose Your Best Friend, illustrated by Jeffrey Lindberg, Harper (New York, NY), 1990.
California Demon, Hyperion (New York, NY), 1992.
Big Wheel, Hyperion (New York, NY), 1993.
Josie to the Rescue, illustrated by S. D. Schindler, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1999.
The Circus Lunicus, Holt (New York, NY), 2000.
Turtle in July, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1989.
In My Tent, illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1992.
It's Hard to Read a Map with a Beagle on Your Lap, illustrated by Clement Oubrerie, Holt (New York, NY), 1993.
Sky Words, illustrated by Deborah K. Ray, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1994.
Family Reunion, illustrated by R. W. Alley, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1994.
Please Don't Squeeze Your Boa, Noah!, illustrated by Clement Oubrerie, Holt (New York, NY), 1995.
The Morgans Dream, illustrated by Gary Drake, Holt (New York, NY), 1995.
All That We Needed to Say: Poems about School from Tanya and Sophie, photographs by Lorna Clark, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1996.
Monster Museum, illustrated by Chris Grimly, Hyperion (New York, NY), 2001.
Footprints on the Roof: Poems about the Earth, illustrated by Meilo So, Random House (New York, NY), 2002.
The Company of Crows, illustrated by Linda Saport, Clarion (New York, NY), 2002.
How to Cross a Pond: Poems about Water, illustrated by Meilo So, Knopf (New York, NY), 2003.
Fireflies at Midnight, illustrated by Ken Robbins, Atheneum (New York, NY), 2003.
Creature Carnival, illustrated by Gris Grimley, Hyperion (New York, NY), 2004.
Central Heating: Poems about Fire and Warmth, illustrated by Meilo So, Knopf (New York, NY), 2005.
"SAM AND DAVE" MYSTERY SERIES
Leroy Is Missing, illustrated by Judy Glasser, Harper (New York, NY), 1984.
The Case of the Sabotaged School Play, illustrated by Judy Glasser, Harper (New York, NY), 1984.
A Clue in Code, illustrated by Judy Glasser, Harper (New York, NY), 1985.
The Case of the Cackling Car, illustrated by Judy Glasser, Harper (New York, NY), 1985.
The Case of the Fixed Election, illustrated by Richard Williams, Harper (New York, NY), 1989.
The Hoax on You, illustrated by Richard Williams, Harper (New York, NY), 1989.
"SAMANTHA SPAYED" MYSTERY SERIES
The Fido Frame-Up, illustrated by Andrew Glass, Warne (New York, NY), 1983.
A Nose for Trouble, illustrated by Andrew Glass, Holt (New York, NY), 1985.
Where There's a Will, There's a Wag, illustrated by Andrew Glass, Holt (New York, NY), 1986.
YOUNG ADULT FICTION
No Applause, Please, Dutton (New York, NY), 1977.
The First Few Friends, Harper (New York, NY), 1981.
The Course of True Love Never Did Run Smooth, Harper (New York, NY), 1983.
Horsemaster (fantasy), Atheneum (New York, NY), 1985.
Ghost Host, Harper (New York, NY), 1987.
Several Kinds of Silence, Harper (New York, NY), 1988.
Storm Rising, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1989.
Deal with a Ghost, Holt (New York, NY), 1997.
Stay True: Short Stories for Strong Girls, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1998.
I Believe in Water: Twelve Brushes with Religion (short stories), HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2000.
Face Relations: Eleven Stories about Seeing beyond Color (short stories), Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2004.
Make Me Over: Eleven Stories about Transforming Ourselves (short stories), Dutton (New York, NY), 2005.
(Editor and author of introduction) A History of Avant-Garde Cinema, American Federation of Arts, 1976.
(Editor and contributor) New American Filmmakers, American Federation of Arts, 1976.
The Fanatic's Ecstatic, Aromatic Guide to Onions, Garlic, Shallots and Leeks, illustrated by Marian Perry, Prentice-Hall (Englewood Cliffs, NJ), 1981.
Exotic Birds (for children), illustrated by James Needham, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1990.
A Wasp Is Not a Bee (for children), illustrated by Patrick O'Brien, Holt (New York, NY), 1995.
Bottoms Up! (for children), illustrated by Patrick O'Brien, Holt (New York, NY), 1998.
Prairie Dogs Kiss and Lobsters Wave (for children), illustrated by Normand Chartier, Holt (New York, NY), 1998.
A Dog's Gotta Do What a Dog's Gotta Do: Dogs at Work (for children), Holt (New York, NY), 2000.
A Pair of Wings (for children), illustrated by Anne Wertheim, Holiday House, 2001.
Tough Beginnings: How Baby Animals Survive (for children), illustrated by Anna Vojtech, Holt (New York, NY), 2001.
Also author of several teacher's guides, catalogs, and program notes on films and filmstrips, including Jacob Bronowski's The Ascent of Man and David Attenborough's The Tribal Eye. Past curator of "SuperFilmShow!," a series of avant-garde films selected for children. Writer of scripts for the children's television show The Electric Company. Contributor of short stories to books, including Shattered, edited by Jennifer Armstrong, Knopf; and Sport Shorts: Eight Stories about Sports, edited by Tanya Dean, Darby Creek Publishing. Contributor of poetry to books, including Food Fight, edited by Michael J. Rosen, Book of Valentine Hearts: Holiday Poetry and Oh, No! Where Are My Pants? and Other Disasters: Poems, both edited by Lee Bennett Hopkins, and to periodicals, including Yes, Archer, Encore, Corduroy, Tamesis, Storyworks, and Gyre. Writer of articles for magazines, including Click and American Kennel Club Gazette.
Marilyn Singer contributed the following autobiographical essay to SATA:
I was born because of a bet. My mother's first child was stillborn. She was scared to have another baby. My dad, on the other hand, was eager to try again. He dared my mother to pick the winning team in the Rose Bowl, 1948. She lost. Nine months later, on October 3, I showed up. This may explain why, years later, I was compelled to write a book in which the main character is a football hero.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
The first five years of my life were spent in the Bronx. Unlike most of the New Yorkers I presently know, I was actually born here. I have many fond memories of those early years in the city. I remember taking the subway downtown with my mother to Klein's department store where I'd look at pink sweaters with pearl buttons and eat sliced hard boiled eggs for lunch—very grown-up! I remember, too, a deli that sold pickles out of a barrel. The clerk always gave me one for free. I wondered what the secret was that made those pickles taste so good. In 1977 when I wrote The Pickle Plan, I asked that very same question. Although my character Rachel finds out the answer from her new friend Billy, I never have.
The apartment that my family lived in those five years was actually my grandmother's—my mother's mother. My grandfather had died before I was born, so I never got to know him. But I was lucky enough to know my grandmother well; she lived with us until I was twelve. I shared a room with her all those years. In the Bronx, we even shared the same bed in our living room.
I don't think I ever would have become a writer if it hadn't been for Grandma Frieda. Every night before I went to sleep, she would tell me a marvelous tale. Some of her stories were realistic descriptions of places she knew and things she had done in her homeland, Rumania. She could describe orchards so that I could practically hold a sparkling red apple in my hand or bite into a juicy golden pear. Other nights she told me fables. To this day I remember one about a cruel man who so abused his wife that the woman made him chop down a tree in the orchard. "It's hollow," said the husband. "Like your heart," his wife replied.
Grandma Frieda also spoke of ghosts that walked at night and other spirits that were abroad. She believed in those spirits—at least she did back in Rumania. I do not know whether or not I believe in them. But I do know that my grandmother made me feel that the world is magical, beautiful, always interesting, always unique. Because of her stories, I could not wait to learn how to read. If my grandma's stories were so good, how many more stories were out there for me to enjoy?
My mother encouraged this idea by reading to me regularly and often. She and my dad bought for me a large collection of "Little Golden Books," which I virtually memorized. I was also given volumes of fairy tales, my favorite stories of all. I never grew tired of hearing "Rapunzel" or "Beauty and the Beast." I still don't.
All that reading, all those stories stirred up something in me. It made me want to create my own stories and pass them on for others to enjoy.
At first they were not written stories. From age five to age twenty-five the stories I wrote were only in my head. A family friend, upon learning that I couldn't sleep one night, suggested that I make up some pleasant fantasy to send me to Dreamland. I took her advice. I don't think it worked. If anything, the exciting tales I invented kept me more awake than before. But I enjoyed myself so much that I kept at it every night. For years my bed was a ship sailing to meet pirates, a forest where Robin Hood and his Merry Men dwelled, a castle where I got to rescue the princess. (I was always the hero, never the heroine; to me, she was too boring.) Most of the fantasies I had as a child have found their way somehow into my books. Chances are, most of my new fantasies will do the same.
Now the scene shifts to 1953, the year my sister Sandi was born. The year we moved from my beloved Bronx to the suburbs—North Massapequa, Long Island. I had mixed feelings about having a sibling. On one hand, I liked the idea of a baby sister. On the other, I really enjoyed being an only child. The night my mother went into labor, I tried to stop her from going to the hospital. She and my dad finally told me they were going to the movies instead. As soon as they left, I turned to my grandmother and said, "I know they're not going to the movies. I know they're really going to have that baby." I'd figured out even before her arrival that my sister was going to horn in on my time with my parents. This may explain why I once dropped her on her head when she was a baby, an act she still teases me about.
I had mixed feelings about moving, too. I adored the city, its sights and sounds and smells. It was comfortable to me. It was home. The wail of a police siren was not threatening. It, along with the vroom and shush of traffic, the fire engine's clang, and so many other noises, were part of the city symphony. I also had friends in the Bronx. Good friends, who liked to wheel me around in a baby carriage because I was the youngest and smallest of our crowd. I would miss them.
But it turned out that I would especially miss my father. Our move to Long Island would make him into a commuter. And becoming a commuter meant having much less time for me. In the Bronx we'd spent a lot of time together. We went to playgrounds and movies and other places. But my fondest memory is his singing. Every night when I was very young Dad would sing to me the most popular songs from the Hit Parade. He brought home sheets of lyrics so every word would be right. I had a very good ear and learned to sing the songs, too. My parents, delighted with their prodigy, liked to show me off at every opportunity.
At a Catskill resort, where we spent many summers, I used to go into the auditorium and sing into a dead mike before the empty seats. One night, after some cartoons, the emcee announced there'd be a special surprise. "And now," he said, "We present Miss Marilyn Singer who will sing her favorite song, 'Give Me a Little Kiss.'"
In shock, I stood up and ran crying out of the auditorium. To this day, I still have stage fright about singing in public. And I hate cartoons!
North Massapequa had some things the Bronx didn't. Our house, a split-level, was much bigger than our apartment. I no longer had to sleep in the living room. And my grandmother and I had our own beds. My lucky sister got her own room and her own bed. There was a front lawn in North Massapequa and a backyard, too. And down the street there was an actual woods with a small, mysterious house in it. I eventually got brave enough to explore that house. I found nothing there but old newspapers, yet I was sure there was some strange story attached to the place—a story I never heard.
The best thing, though, about North Massapequa was my friend Karen. She was the same age as I and lived catty-corner on the next block. She told me, years later, that when I came up and introduced myself to her, she found me terrifying. But we soon became best friends.
Karen and I did everything together. We developed the same interests, the same crushes. We sang harmony together. We acted out all the parts from our favorite movie, West Side Story. A few years later we saw A Hard Day's Night and fell in love with the Beatles. We made up fantasies about them and pretended we were both ourselves and John, Paul, George, and Ringo. Karen liked George and Ringo. I liked John and Paul, so there wasn't any friction. The high point in our lives was when we went to their concert at Shea Stadium in 1965. We could scarcely see the group—they were all the way out at second base. And we couldn't hear them at all—the screaming was too loud. But it didn't matter. We were ecstatic to be there. To this day, the event is one I remember well. Perhaps it will find its way into one of my books.
Karen and I weren't always sweet to each other. We competed with each other, too. I got jealous over her gorgeous singing voice and ability to play the guitar, something I never mastered. She got annoyed with my need to be different, my kookiness. Yet we remained best friends until she got married, at age nineteen, in 1969. And then, sadly, we drifted apart.
But back to 1953. I had Karen. I had a backyard. I had fun. I loved school. I was thrilled to be learning to read and write. Because I was good at reading, my teacher asked me to help teach other kids, something I enjoyed doing. Because I was good at writing, she sent some of my work to a magazine. I can't remember whether or not it was published, but I do remember being excited about the idea.
At that time, what I most liked to write was poetry. It is still my favorite thing to write today. I know by heart the very first poem I ever showed anyone. Here it is:
When I was walking on the ocean floor,
there were many sights to adore.
But one sight gave me a fright.
It was a whale with a big long tail
that I simply drat.
And I went so close that with its tail,
it went spat, spat, spat.
No challenge to Will Shakespeare, but pretty good for first grade.
During the next few years, besides poems, I also began to write plays, in all of which I was the lead player. Because I was crazy about Robin Hood, I wrote a play about young Robin. In one scene, Robin was spanked by his mother off-stage. I was too embarrassed to come out rubbing my rear end, so I rubbed my arm instead. I think my audience's confused response contributed to my giving up play writing shortly thereafter. It did not, however, make me lose interest in either acting (at least for a while) or in reading and seeing other people's plays. I still love the theatre, and I use it as the basis for plots and scenes in many of my books.
It seemed in those years that my childhood would remain pretty carefree. But in 1956, I was suddenly faced with an event that proved to be rather traumatic: I underwent heart surgery to repair a patent ductus arteriosus. The defect was discovered by my pediatrician during a routine school check-up. Neither she nor any of the other doctors who examined me nor my parents told me what was wrong. My folks told me that I was going into the hospital to have some tests. For one big test I would be put to sleep. If I woke up and felt strange, it meant the doctors had found something amiss and fixed it. My parents, and the doctors, were not being malicious. They wanted to protect me from fear.
The secrecy backfired. After the operation, I had few lingering physical effects, but many emotional ones. I felt betrayed and abandoned. It took many years to sort out and deal with these feelings. In fact, it took writing a book—It Can't Hurt Forever.
A trauma of a different kind happened the following year. I had become unpopular at school. I was unstylish and unathletic. I read my poetry aloud at "Show and Tell." Kids thought I was a nerd, and they let me know it. One painful incident I recall was when a group of girls I thought were my friends started a club and refused to let me join. They actually voted against me while I was there in the room.
Throughout junior high and high school, my popularity remained in a total decline. I took solace in books. I discovered William Shakespeare, who, to this day, remains my favorite author. I kept writing poetry. I told myself that if I couldn't be popular, then at least I'd be cultured.
Karen and I were now old enough to take the train into the city by ourselves. We spent our allowances on trips to the Metropolitan and Modern Art museums. We fancied ourselves very sophisticated as we looked at jewels in Tiffany's or glass sculpture in Steuben's and very avant garde as we strolled around the West Village, purchasing oddball earrings and eating shish kebab from the street vendors, despite my mother's warnings that we'd get ptomaine poisoning. It was clear to me then that I was going to live in New York City again someday. I had to. It had been home once before, and it still was.
All the while I was getting cultured in New York, I was also checking out the boys. I wanted one of those sharp city slickers to notice me. To be honest, I wanted anyone to notice me—provided he was cute, smart, funny, and cultured as well. But the boys I liked in high school thought of me merely as a friend or a classmate—if they thought of me at all. I did not get asked to my junior prom. I spent the night throwing bottles and boxes out of the medicine cabinet into the bathtub, to my parents' great concern.
It did not seem I would go to the senior prom either. I decided in advance not to indulge in strange house-cleaning techniques again. I thought perhaps it would be better if Karen, a whole grade behind me and unlikely to be going out that night, and I made plans to go to the movies. But to my shock, Karen got asked to my prom by a senior guy I didn't know she knew.
Now I was really desperate. I couldn't sit home alone while my best friend, a junior no less, went to my senior prom. So on the senior class trip when a boy named Kenny started showing an interest in me, I decided to encourage him. I chatted with him at the Capitol Building, held hands at the Lincoln Memorial, even let him kiss me a little by the Washington Monument. When he finally asked me to the prom, I think I'd already picked out the dress (yellow and white, with daisies all over the chiffon skirt).
As for the prom itself, I had a pretty humdrum time. And after it, I felt worse. I felt I had been really dishonest, getting Kenny, whom I frankly did not give a hoot about, to spend a lot of money to take me to a fancy dress ball so I could compete with or perhaps just be with my best friend. Although in the great scheme of things, this sin was a rather small one, it stuck with me. I realized that I disliked the way girls of my generation had been taught to play tricks to get guys to like them. It was an early insight into what would become my more developed feminist beliefs.
I wanted to go away to college. Although I knew I'd miss my family and, especially, Karen, I wanted to see more of the world besides North Massapequa and New York City. Plus I believed the only serious colleges were the ones where you lived in a dorm and had to walk for miles on the campus to get to classes and the rest of the time you spent sitting on the lush lawns, reading Dostoevsky or Thomas Hardy or William Blake. But my parents said they didn't want to spend the money to send me to some sleep-away college when there was a perfectly good—and cheap—one nearby: Queens College, a branch of the City University of New York.
As a Long Island, and not a city, resident, I would have had to pay something like a few hundred dollars a semester in tuition to go there. Unless, that is, I agreed to take education courses there and swear to become a teacher. Then the tuition would be about thirty-six bucks. My mother said that teaching was a most suitable job for a young woman, and, in truth, I did like the idea of helping people learn. I was good at it, too, I thought. After all, hadn't I helped those kids back in first grade? So, in the fall of 1965, it was Queens College, here I come.
Because I had graduated high school at sixteen, having skipped a grade in elementary school, I was too young to drive for the first month of classes. This presented some problems. Queens College was nothing if not a commuter school. I was obliged to become a passenger in a car pool in which three of my former high school classmates were drivers—some of the same classmates who had been snooty to me only the year before. College equalized our positions. They may have been big tunas at Plainedge High, but at Queens College, with its seven thousand students, they—and I—were merely sardines.
Nobody knew my background at college. No longer was I "Marilyn the Unpopular." Now I could rewrite my history, if I so chose. And I most certainly could create my future. Though I had learned I would not fit into a sorority, I thought perhaps I might join a "house plan." This organization, purportedly less snobby than a sorority, chose certain girls as members. These members would have meetings at a house owned by the organization—a nice place to hang out in Queens when you didn't feel like going home. They had parties, too, where you could meet boys—house plan boys, of course. And, best of all, they put on shows—skits, really, but they were performed as part of a competition among other house plans to a packed house in the big Colden Auditorium. I was determined to ignore my stage fright and be in one of those skits—after all, I'd managed to sing the role of Gretel in our sixth-grade production of Hansel and Gretel and I was in a trio in our senior class play, Bye-Bye, Birdie. But first, I had to get into a house plan.
And I did. I was invited to join Dew Drop Inn. I was also selected to sing a duet in the annual skit, which was a combined effort with a male house plan. I believe our skit came in second. We, of course, felt we should have won. Rumor had it that the winning skit was written by Paul Simon, who had gone to Queens College, and whose brother, Eddie, was in the piece.
Although I was now a socially acceptable coed surrounded by a whole group of other socially acceptable ones, I found I did not relate particularly well to most of the girls in Dew Drop Inn. But it did not take long to meet some people I did relate to. In my History of Drama class there was a girl, even smaller and younger and smarter than I, whose hand went up every time mine did. One day we were both so eager to answer the same question, we practically answered as a duet. It made us laugh. After class, I learned that her name was Michal; she'd been born on a kibbutz in Israel, had read T. S. Eliot at age three, and was Cultured with a capital C. What I did not know was that Michal would be the most important friend I'd make at Queens College—that she would be the ringleader of our gang of New York crazies and introduce me to many memorable people, places, and things.
It was Michal who told me to read Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and Mervyn Peake's "Gormenghast" trilogy, who made me listen to Billie Holiday, Prince Igor, Carmina Burana, and the Blues Project, who insisted I taste brie cheese and kiwi fruit. Michal was the guiding force behind the daily play reading sessions in the cafeteria, as well as the regular visits to Baskin-Robbins to sample their thirty-one flavors of ice cream. Once I got my driver's license, I began to spend even more time with her. I frequently slept over at her house and dined with her talented, artistic, and sometimes difficult family.
Michal, too, could be difficult—critical and overbearing. She did not, for example, think much of my poetry, and she told me so in no uncertain terms. My creative writing professor, on the other hand, thought my poetry was pretty good, but my prose crummy. He implied that I would never make it as a writer. I was not deeply wounded by his comments. I had no plans at that time to be a writer at all. With my major in English and my minor in education, I planned to teach high school English and speech.
Although I found the classes at Queens College stimulating enough, and the commute not so terrible once I was able to drive, I was becoming increasingly tired of living at home. Like most teenagers, I felt that my parents did not want me to grow up. I began to think about taking off a year to work and explore the world. It seemed to me I couldn't travel and continue my education at the same time. But then I heard of a program that would allow me to do both. For the first time in its history, Queens College was sponsoring a junior-year-abroad program to England. England! Queen Elizabeth. Tea and crumpets. The Tower of London. John, George, Ringo, and you-know-who! I was so excited I could barely hold a pen to write the essay which, along with my grades, would send me sailing across the Atlantic.
My parents were against the idea. They did not want me to go so far away, and they did not want to pay for the trip. I told them I'd take out a loan—and I'd write them all the time to tell them I was fine. Karen, Michal, and my other friends, Dottie, Susan, Billy, and John, among them, all supported my plan. I waited anxiously to learn whether or not I would be selected to go. And finally it happened. I was called into the advisor's office and told that, yes, I had indeed been chosen to be one of the five students who would spend their junior year in England. There was, however, one catch. All of the places for students studying English literature were filled at both Reading and Leeds universities, the two host schools. There was, however, an opening at Reading in the art department, should I care to change my major.
I pondered the dilemma for a long time—five minutes. "I've always liked art history," I said, which was actually true. And so I became the first art history major from Queens College to be accepted into the new study-abroad program at Reading University.
I spent the summer working to raise money for the trip. I cashed in the bonds I'd been given by aunts and uncles when I was born. I bought film and got my Brownie camera ready to go. I packed, unpacked, and packed again. At last, on a sunny day in September, I went into Manhattan and across town to the pier where I boarded a converted freighter that would take me and many other students to Europe. My family and friends were there to see me off. We all cried. As the ship pulled away, I waved and waved. I was still waving when we passed by the Statue of Liberty and out into the open sea. "Paul McCartney, wait for me," I whispered. "I'm on my way!"
Ten days on the ocean is a long time. Although I enjoyed the voyage, what with meeting new people, dancing every night, performing in a version of The Spoon River Anthology, and acting out scenes with my shipmates from our favorite cult film, Privilege, I got tired of seeing nothing but water. So I was thrilled when we came in sight of the Isle of Man, and shortly after, docked in Southampton.
We took a bus from the harbor to London, where we were put up for a week at the London School of Economics. Every day we were treated to group tours of the city. For a while Eileen, a fellow Queens College student and Reading student-to-be, and I put up with the regimentation. Then, one day, we cut out on our own to see the infamous Tower of London, not included on any of the tours. We loved it, with its ravens and dungeons and crown jewels. It was such a romantic place. We loved, too, Westminster Abbey, with all its famous dead, and Big Ben and St. Paul's Cathedral. But we especially adored the British nightlife. We went to pubs and discos and shows. We bought miniskirts and high boots and chic hats and showed them off all over town. We were always on the look-out for well-known British rock stars, and nearly flipped when we saw one—Mike Smith, the drummer from the Dave Clark Five. Alone, I made a pilgrimage to what was supposed to be Paul McCartney's house in St. John's Wood. I sat across the street and wrote poems, which I then stuffed through his mail slot. Although my idol never appeared, I was still thrilled just to be there.
Eileen and I were thrilled, too, to learn that Reading was only thirty miles away. We planned to become a different sort of commuter. During the week most people commute to work. We, on the other hand, would commute on the weekends to London to play.
It was easy to fall in love with Reading University at first sight. It was everything my dream university was meant to be. I had my own private room in St. George's Hall, "hall" being the British word for dorm. The grounds were gorgeous—long swathes of green, with soccer fields and cricket pitches, quaint bridges and streams. The leaves were changing, too, giving the whole place a richly romantic hue.
I liked the town of Reading as well. It was not a particularly beautiful town, being best known for its Palmer Biscuit Factory and its red brick jail. But to me it was romantic. After all, Reading Gaol, as it is spelled there, had once housed Oscar Wilde, one of my favorite writers. He immortalized the place in a poem.
Eileen and I and Fran, another Queens College student, were given a few days to settle in at Reading before classes began. Eileen was not part of the official study-abroad program; she'd somehow gotten into Reading independently and secured a place as an English literature major. I, however, was locked into studying art history—or so I thought. At my very first class it became apparent that there was no such thing as an art history major. There were painting, sculpture, and graphics majors, and I was supposed to be one of those. Which might have been swell except for one thing—I could neither paint, sculpt, nor draw. There's only one way out of this, I told myself. I'm already here in England. They can't ship me back to the U.S. So here goes. With that, I marched into the office of the head of the English literature department, who oddly enough was an American, and announced to him that he had a new student. Dumbfounded, he had little choice but to accept me.
The British have a reputation for being reserved. I did not find them so. In fact, when I arrived at Reading University, I was impressed to find how friendly a lot of the students were. Lynn, Ian, Sven, and especially Jenny immediately set out to be my chums. Soon there were others—Patrick, Pat, Andy, Pauline, Jack, Mike, Iain, Roger, Sally, Roy, Riverboat, Nilou from Lebanon, Errol from the West Indies, Andrew from Wales, Melanie, whose mother turned out to be the well-known actress Deborah Kerr. Never before had I had so many friends. In the months that followed I was invited to stay with people all over Great Britain. It was an amazing way to see the country.
Not only was the atmosphere friendly at Reading, it was stimulating as well. There were always discussions going on, often till the wee hours of the morning. We talked about art and poetry and truth and beauty and life and death and sex and anything else we could think of. My room became the hub of much group philosophizing. My popularity, which had been so low in high school, reached a zenith here. The warden—the person in charge of the hall—was so annoyed with the constant gatherings in my room, she instituted a new rule—any group of more than three people constituted a party and parties could be had only by permission. We protested the rule and it was promptly eliminated.
Although 1 was popular at Reading, I had to work hard to prove myself intellectually there. The assumption seemed to be that Americans were fun and adorable, but also dumb. I was the first to be called upon to write papers that had to be presented in front of the class, to be asked to explain some fine point of literary criticism, or to analyze a difficult line in a poem. In the long run, I didn't mind. It sharpened up my writing skills and critical faculties.
While my brain was getting a workout in Great Britain, so was my heart. One of the many Ians I met at Reading became my first real boyfriend. We were friends first. During the long spring holiday (vacations there were about six weeks long at Christmas and Easter time) I stayed, among other places, with Ian and his family at their home in Bulford, a small town near Salisbury. From Ian's house we were able to walk to Stonehenge, on the Salisbury Plain. I don't think I've been to a more magical spot than that, except perhaps the Grand Canyon. Those ancient standing stones filled me with a sense of mystery and power. I wonder to this day if touching them supplied some vital element that has allowed me to write fantasies and fairy tales.
When Ian and I returned to Reading after our vacations, something between us had deepened. One night he kissed me on a bridge and our romance began. It ended only a few weeks later when he fell for someone else. I was crushed. For comfort, I went up to Norwich to visit my close friend Andrew's friend Phil, and promptly fell in love with him!
Although I might have come to England to meet Paul McCartney, Phil practically made me forget the Beatle even existed. So it was ironic that one night, at a concert in London, I brushed past someone as I was crossing the lobby to meet a friend. "Turn around," she said, "and look at whose teacup you nearly spilled." I turned and had to laugh. It was Him. Paul McC. I didn't attempt to say hello.
Phil and I were not destined to last anymore than Ian and I had been. I was going back to the States. And Phil had other girlfriends besides me. I cried miserably at the train station when we said goodbye—a scene right out of a movie. But I was crying for more than Phil. I was weeping for England, to which I was bidding a long farewell.
Returning home was an ordeal. I'd been free and independent for nearly a whole year. I'd seen the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen, the Amsterdam canals. I'd stood in Notre Dame in Paris on Christmas Eve and listened to the choir sing "Silent Night." I'd learned that the world was much larger and more complex than what I'd known in New York. I had changed. But now I was back in little old North Massapequa. For my last year at college, I would once again be living at home, expected to follow my parents' rules. We were not marching to the beat of the same drum.
The United States had a new drumbeat too. It was now August 1968. During my absence, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated. There was unrest on all the college campuses about the Vietnam War. Equality for women and minorities were burning issues. Scarcely a week or so after my return, protesters were beaten and arrested at the Democratic Convention in Chicago. The bloody pictures were all over the TV. I had not been very politically or socially involved before I left for Great Britain. But it would not be too long before I would become quite involved indeed.
Once I got over moping, that is. My friends tried to help me. They had changed, too. And how! Michal had been singing with a bluegrass band before I went away. Now she was into rock—and all the wild behavior that went with being in a rock band. Dottie and Susan were going along for the ride, and soon, so was I. Although I never went quite as crazy, I had my fling too, including becoming a "Group Lady" by dating the bass player in her band. Michal liked him as well. Our rivalry was one of the things that eventually undermined our friendship.
By the spring of 1969 I felt that I was leading a double life. By day I was a mild-mannered student teacher. By night I was a rock musician's babe. But I was about to graduate college, so some decisions had to be made. I applied to graduate schools in both the U.S. and Great Britain and was accepted by most of them. I told my parents I was not going to commencement because I did not believe in the ceremony and in my college's conservative values any longer. They were not pleased. But they were glad that I was at least graduating, cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa at that.
Summer was fast approaching, and I still did not know where I'd be in the fall. Then a friend of mine from Queens, coincidentally another Karen, suggested that she and I get our teaching licenses, apply for jobs with the board of education, and go to graduate school at night at New York University. The college offered an unusual masters program in communications called Media Ecology, which sounded good. Karen also said we could get an apartment together in the city. The City! My home! That was it. The answer I'd been looking for. I'd spend July and August house-hunting, and by Labor Day I'd be a Manhattanite.
Michal, who had dropped out of Queens, already had an apartment in New York. I thought it would be great if Karen and I found one near her—and we did, on Twenty-seventh Street. I got my teaching license, too, and was assigned to a high school in Queens—an easy trip from North Massapequa by car, a pain from the city by public transportation. But no matter, I was prepared to hack it for the sake of my own place.
Before I became a serious working girl, however, I felt I needed one last hurrah. It came in the form of an historic event—Woodstock.
I think it was Dottie who noticed the ad in the paper for this huge music festival to take place upstate. It was Michal, of course, who determined that we all had to go. So we sent for tickets, booked a motel room, and soon, on a steamy day in August, the four of us—Dottie, Susan, Michal, and I—piled into Dottie's Volkswagen and headed for the Catskills.
The trip was supposed to take about two hours. It took around seven. There was a huge jam-up that stretched for miles along the route to Yasgur's farm, where the festival was actually being held. We finally ditched the car, got out and walked some fourteen miles or so, I seem to recall. When we finally arrived, it was nighttime. We watched Tim Hardin and other acts perform. But we were dog-tired. We had no tents, no food. The motel at which we had reservations turned out to be miles and miles away. Reluctantly we trudged back to Dottie's car and there we spent the night. The next day we debated as to whether or not to go back to the festival. We finally decided to drive to the motel and sleep.
Even though my experience of Woodstock was a shortened one, I am still tickled to have been there, and even more amused by the awe on peoples' faces when I tell them I was. It really was my last adolescent fling. I wouldn't have missed it for the world.
Karen, my roommate, had a strong political bent. She was much more radical than I. As yet I had never been on a peace march. But in the fall of 1969, I went to Moratorium Day in New York City to protest the Vietnam War. A few months later I went with Karen and another friend, Jane, to a march in Washington, D.C. I began to feel a real sense of purpose and social commitment to this and other causes.
I was also committed to teaching. I wanted to inspire my students, to make literature come alive for them, to make school a pleasure and not a chore. If I had to cry my eyes out while reading Dylan Thomas's poem "Fern Hill" so they'd see how beautiful it was or stage a fake purse-snatching incident to teach them something about accurate reporting, I'd do it. I did in fact use teaching techniques which were then considered avant-garde. I also engaged my students in active political discussions, and did not hide my own leanings. I was stimulating, enthusiastic, and arrogant. My students, for the most part, liked me. The school administrators often did not. My teaching career—four full years in all—had many pleasurable moments and quite a few difficult ones. In the end I grew tired of fighting the system. I don't know if I had stuck it out longer whether or not the system would have gotten tired of fighting me.
I never believed I'd get married. I hadn't had good luck with the male sex so far. And I wasn't sure I believed in marriage anyway. So in February 1970, when the handsome salesman who'd helped me find a Kenny Rankin record asked me out for tea, little did I suspect that he'd end up becoming my husband.
Steve Aronson, born one year later than I in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, had come to New York to become an actor. He'd been in a lot of school plays and several professional productions as well. I liked him but wasn't sure he liked me. When we left the coffee shop, he walked quickly ahead of me, in a hurry to get back to work. Oh well, I thought, chalk off this one; Then suddenly, with dramatic flair, he whirled around and said, "I must see you again! How about tonight?" "Okay," I agreed, rather amused.
Steve's work schedule was weird—three until midnight at the store. I was now teaching at a school in Manhattan, which meant I didn't have to get up quite as early to get to work. So instead of being totally dead in the morning, I'd only be half dead. I waited excitedly that evening for Steve to arrive. He never did. That might have spelled the end of our romance if he hadn't called a few days later to ask where I'd been.
"Where was I? Where were you?"
"In the lobby," he said. "The doorman rang your bell, but no one answered."
"Huh?" I said. "What apartment did he ring?"
"But I live in 5F."
It was then we discovered there was another M. Singer living in the same building.
We made a new date, and this time we both kept it. We spent the evening discussing the feminist aspects of Hedda Gabler. It was great! A year and a half later, while we were vacationing in England, visiting my Reading chums Andrew and Sheena, we decided to get married.
It had been a joking suggestion from me. But Steve took it seriously. Although he was only twenty-one, he had been ready to get married for months. I was so scared that I picked a fight the night before the wedding. It didn't matter. We got married anyway. We wrote to our families and friends back home. They were surprised, but pleased. Steve's mother thought we had been very creative.
Marrying Steve was one of the best decisions I ever made. For the twenty years we have been together, Steve has been my best friend—and my toughest, though kindest, critic. Without his support and encouragement I very much doubt that I would have had the nerve to quit teaching in June 1973 and become a writer.
Our first apartment was on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Steve and I had decided early on that we did not want to have children. But I wanted to have pets, specifically a dog. Steve did not like dogs. He did, however, like birds. He had owned a pet pigeon, which unfortunately had flown away. We got another one—a fancy type of pigeon called a Nun. Pretty soon we decided that Eglantine, as she was called, needed a mate. We were thrilled when she laid eggs and had chicks. We liked it so much we got a few more pairs of pigeons. Before we knew it, there were birds all over our tiny apartment. And all because I wanted a dog!
Meanwhile, Steve read Konrad Lorenz's book Man Meets Dog, and suddenly, he wanted a dog too! We decided to get a female German shepherd, whom we named Saskia. We took her and a pigeon named Roo with us when we drove ten thousand miles across the country and back in the summer of 1972. When we returned from our cross-country trip we found a second dog and named him Konrad, in honor of Mr. Lorenz. Our place was bursting, but we weren't finished collecting pets yet. To the lot we already had, we added a chinchilla, a very soft and cuddly little rodent. Because we were also becoming ardent bird watchers, going so far as to buy our first car in order to take birding trips, we had to buy the crow that we saw in the local (and peculiar) pet shop. We named him Forshamatallie, a made-up kid word of Steve's. He was not happy in our apartment, and some acquaintances took him to Florida. Quoth, our second crow, fared better. He had a grand time poking holes in the walls, stealing jewelry and stuffing it, as well as bits of hamburger, into the woodwork.
By 1973, not only were we overcrowded, but we felt endangered as well. There had been several fires in our building, and although we had not been hurt, we were worried for ourselves and our animals. We went apartment hunting and found a spacious duplex in an old brownstone in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn. Park Slope had not yet become the fashionable neighborhood it is today, so we could still afford the rent. Best of all, the apartment came with a backyard. We could move our pigeons and Quoth outside.
The birds liked the yard fine. We kept the pigeons until 1985, when we gave them to a neighbor with a coop. As for Quoth, we gave him free rein of the place. He liked to fly around and come back to his cage at night. Every morning he woke up the neighborhood by yelling "Hello" at the top of his lungs. He also liked to tease the neighborhood dogs. He'd stand just out of reach of their jaws and bark at them. I thought he was a riot. He liked me, too. He would let me scratch him under the chin. Quoth wasn't fond of Steve, though. He'd tilt his head to let Steve scratch him, then bite him. We wondered if he'd stick around with us forever. But on my birthday, a few years after we moved to Brooklyn, a flock of crows came into the yard and Quoth left with them, never to return. I was sad. But I felt he had to make his choice. He was a wild animal after all, and not really a pet.
The year we moved and I quit teaching, Steve, who'd long since given up on being an actor, was working as the director of the film department of the American Federation of Arts. He had started out there only a few years before as a film cleaner, a job he got to help bring in money while he went to NYU Film School. I took some of his classes with him at NYU as part of my masters program, including one in screenplay writing taught by Terry Southern, a well-known screenwriter and novelist. Steve and I wrote a screenplay together, but we never sold it to the movies.
At AFA Steve was responsible for the packaging and distribution of many avant-garde films and films on art. When I decided to leave teaching, I didn't quite know what I was going to do. Steve hired me to write film program notes and catalogues. He also introduced me to other film distributors who paid me for the same services. In addition, I was asked to write teaching guides on film and filmstrips.
I enjoyed doing this work for a while. It was not high-paying, but it was fun to watch the films and do the research. I learned quite a lot about all sorts of topics—from the history of women artists to the history of science. Among other things, I wrote guides on Jacob Bronowski's The Ascent of Man, several films in the Nova series, and David Attenborough's The Tribal Eye, all shown on PBS. I also edited and wrote the introduction to A History of American Avant-Garde Cinema, published in 1976 by AFA. I learned to appreciate these films, so different from the narrative ones we usually see in a movie theatre. My education and interest in these works culminated in 1980 when I got to curate a traveling avant-garde film exhibition for children for AFA titled SuperFilmShow!
But I was not entirely satisfied with the kind of writing I was doing. It was always for someone else. It did not seem to belong to me. I wondered if perhaps I should be writing magazine articles instead of, or along with, my film writing—how-to kinds of articles or factual pieces on subjects that interested me. When I was a kid I had once started a piece about how to keep cool in summer. "Wear a light-weight nightgown. Use a cooling skin cream" were some of my brilliant tips. Perhaps I could come up with something like that now. I had also collected recipes as a child. Maybe I could turn those into an article. There was one catch—I hated to cook.
In 1973 when I was jobless, I did come up with some proposals for magazine articles, but I did not have much success. I had better luck sending around some of my poems. Several of them got published in small magazines such as Yes, Encore, and Corduroy. Unfortunately, these publications paid only in copies, not in cash. I was prepared to be a poet, but not a starving one.
Then in the fall of 1974 came a major turning point in my life. I was sitting in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, where, along with the movies, I now spent a lot of my days. I had a pad of paper and a pen with me, in case I wanted to write a new poem. Instead, to my surprise, I began to write a story featuring talking insect characters I had made up eighteen years before when I was eight. I used to go into my parents' bathroom with a flashlight and shine it on the ceiling. The beam of light became Lightey the Lightning Bug. I had conversations with Lightey, supplying the dialogue and plot. "Marilyn, are you all right in there?" my parents would ask when they heard me. "I'm fine," I'd reply. "I'm just talking to Lightey." My parents would go away, smiling, thinking how cute it was that I had an imaginary playmate. But I knew Lightey wasn't imaginary. I knew he was a flashlight beam on the ceiling.
It was strange to me that once again Lightey, and his friends Twinky the Monarch Butterfly, Franny the Firefly, Morris the Earthworm, Nick the Fly with the Eye for News, Ms. Mantis, and others had turned up again—and me, without my flashlight! But I finished the story—and had a good time doing it. Then I brought it home and read it to Steve. "It's good," he told me. "It's funny. Write some more."
So I did. I wrote five more, to be exact, in quick succession. Then I got a list of children's book publishers, and sent the stories off to some of them. I also found out about and joined a workshop for unpublished children's writers at Bank Street College in Manhattan. At the workshop we read our stories aloud and were critiqued by the members of the group. The leader, a much published writer named Betty Boegehold, was very helpful and kind to me. She would continue to be so for many years until her death.
The publishers I approached all turned down my Lightey stories, which have since became part of my published novel The Lightey Club. But I was not discouraged. I had heard that it took a long time to get a book accepted, and I told myself I had to be patient, something I am still not good at being. I kept writing other stories. In that first batch, all featuring animals as main characters, there was one about a dog named Konrad who didn't believe he was a dog. I sent that one around too. One day, I received a letter from Ann Durell at E. P. Dutton telling me that she wanted to publish my story. As I could not draw, she would find an artist to illustrate it. That would take a little time, and the book, titled The Dog Who Insisted He Wasn't, came out in 1976.
I barely got through reading the letter before I let out a scream. A book! A published book! I was about to become an author! A children's author! How extraordinary! How fine! I had a new career. One that might make me, if not rich, at least a little bit wealthier, if not famous, at least a little better known. It was perfect. It was right. The path before me was clear now, clear and easy—as long as I kept watching out for the thorns.
In those heady early days, it seemed that books were just flowing out of me. I wrote more animal stories and then started my first novel. It had quite a few autobiographical bits to it, although the plot was made up. It was about a friendship between two Long Island girls that is threatened when the mother of one of them tries to push her daughter into show business. The central characters were based on myself and my childhood friend Karen, and other people we knew, including my grandmother. I called it No Applause, Please, and I had a swell time writing it.
I followed the novel with another picture book, The Pickle Plan. "Nobody cares about me," it began. "I think about a lot of things. Like why my dog's nose is always cold and mine isn't. Or why some flowers smell good and others don't. And why Billy Michaels has pickles every day in his lunch box, but I never do. But nobody is interested. Nobody at all." Those were definitely feelings I had had as a child (and sometimes as an adult), and I was delighted to be able to articulate them. Once again I enjoyed the process of writing. I enjoyed it even more when Ann Durell accepted both The Pickle Plan and No Applause, Please for publication.
I was riding high—and ready to tackle something more difficult. And what could be more difficult than a novel based on my heart surgery. I considered writing the story just as it had happened to me, warts and all. But then it occurred to me that I might feel better, could heal my emotional wounds, if I changed the story—if I "rewrote my history," as it were. So I decided that unlike me, my main character Ellie would be told just about everything that was going to happen to her in advance by her parents and the doctors. The one thing they would not tell her about was the catheterization—a nasty procedure which I had not had. When she learns about that from a troubled fellow patient, she throws a fit and tells off her parents and the doctors, just as I wish I'd been able to do.
It Can't Hurt Forever, as I called the novel, was both difficult and exhilarating to write. I looked forward to my editor's favorable response. To my surprise and dismay, she did not like the book. For the first time since I had started publishing children's books, I had to look for a different editor. I remembered Liz Gordon of Harper and Row, whom I had met at a writers conference, and I sent her the manuscript. She asked for quite a few revisions. I had not had to do so much revising before, and it gave me a taste of what I would often have to do in the future. But I did the work, and Liz agreed to publish the book. It worked out well for both of us. We began a long-running professional relationship, and the book sold very well. It was published in three languages besides English and won the 1983 Maud Hart Love-lace Award, voted on by the children of Minnesota.
Around the time that It Can't Hurt Forever was accepted for publication, Steve and I decided to buy a house. We wanted to stay in Brooklyn, but we also did not want to spend a lot of money, or buy a building that needed a lot of work. By a wonderful stroke of luck, a house went up for sale just four doors down from our apartment. The place needed almost no work, the cost (with a loan and a mortgage we acquired) was fair. We bought it and moved our animals one more time. By now we had a bunch of chinchillas and a third dog, Yosha. He and Konrad hated each other and had to live on separate floors. It was not the most pleasant of situations, but we loved them both and did not want to part with either one.
Our cats began to appear around this time too. The first three we adopted as pets were named Mink, Mulberry, and Catherine Purr. Catherine is still with us today, along with Freckle, Madonna, and Bubba, all of whom were born in our yard, as well as Ebony and November, whom we took in from elsewhere.
My dogs inspired several of my books. There was The Dog Who Insisted He Wasn't, of course, and then there was a mystery series. I'd always been a mystery fan. I gobbled up detective stories like potato chips. I thought it would be funny to write a novel featuring a tough girl dog detective named Samantha Spayed, a parody of Dashiell Hammett's tough guy detective Sam Spade. I called the book, which I actually finished before It Can't Hurt Forever, The Fido Frame-Up and thought it was quite funny. However, neither Liz nor Ann did. I sent the manuscript around to what may have been ten or fifteen publishers before Meredith Charpentier at Frederick Warne agreed to publish it. Meredith left the company before the book came out, and her assistant Jon Lanman took over the editing. When he too left to go to Holt, Rinehart and Winston, he asked me to write two more mysteries for that company: A Nose for Trouble and Where There's a Will, There's a Wag.
The "Samantha Spayed" mysteries were fun, but tricky to write. They needed good strong plots, stories that had to be worked out in advance. I was used to just starting a book and seeing where it led. For my mysteries, I had to learn how to outline.
There was quite a long period of time between the completion of The Fido Frame-Up and its publication. The lull between the completion of It Can't Hurt Forever and my next novel The First Few Friends, was shorter, but more exasperating. After all of that unrestrained outpouring of prose, I was experiencing that well-known phenomenon "writer's block." I did continue to write teachers guides, film catalogues, and filmstrips to earn some money. I was also asked by George Griffin, a filmmaker friend of mine, if I'd like to do some scripts for the TV show The Electric Company. He would do the animation. "Sure!" I agreed. The scripts were designed to teach spelling and pronunciation. One of them, about words that included "tt," was a song lyric: "Could you set an Irish setter? Could you help him read a letter? Would you bet that he'd get better? You say no. I disagree. It suits him to a 'T' and 'T'. . ." My friend Alan Bellink wrote the music. I got to sing the song on the soundtrack, which meant I had to record it in a recording studio. That was a unique—and scary—experience. It took me hours to learn how to sing on key to live music with earphones on my head. But I must confess that I enjoyed it.
Despite pleasant diversions such as that one, I was getting extremely itchy about writing another book. Liz was very helpful about it. She called me into her office and asked me what I had in mind for my next work. "Well," I stammered, "I was sort of, kind of thinking about doing a book based on my homecoming from my junior year abroad in England, when my friend Michal was in a band and I got involved with the bass player...."
"Terrific!" said Liz. "Go write it."
The First Few Friends was one of my more difficult, and ultimately satisfying, books. There was so much to say about life in the late 1960s. I drew a lot on my own experiences, but I made up characters and events, too. That is what writing fiction, as opposed to autobiography, is about. The novel got terrific reviews—and hardly sold at all. It was, after all, about controversial subject matter—sex, drugs, rock-and-roll, the Vietnam War, Black activism, women's rights, interracial romance—and many libraries and schools would not touch it. To me, that has always been a great disappointment, because it is a particular favorite among my own books.
Around the time I finished The First Few Friends, in the spring of 1980, during the week that I was presenting SuperFilmShow! at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, my dog Konrad died. He was not very old, but he had been ill for a while, and his death was a heart-wrenching experience. Two months later to the day he died, a beagle puppy leaped through our living room window on the first floor and ended up staying for eight years. We named him Eubie. He was lively and endearing, and, unfortunately, he hated Yosha as much as Yosha hated him. Once again our two male dogs had to live on separate floors.
Eubie, Yosha, and Saskia have all since passed away. We now have one female dog, a big, sweet "Brooklyn shepherd" named Yinny. Steve and I have decided that we will always have a dog, but we will never again have two feuding males in the same house.
Eubie and my other dogs helped me deal with Konrad's death. So did my work. The First Few Friends chopped through my writer's block. After it I wrote a picture book titled Will You Take Me to Town on Strawberry Day?, a song with a "Hey nonny, nonny-o!" refrain. I was also asked by an editor at Prentice-Hall to do a book on everything you ever wanted to know about the allium family—garlic, leeks, onions, shallots, and such. Because I have long been interested in herbs, their history and medicinal uses in particular, I jumped at the chance. The Fanatic's Ecstatic Aromatic Guide to Onions, Garlic, Shallots, and Leeks was my first nonfiction book and I had a lot of fun doing the research, which took me all over town—from the Brooklyn and Bronx Botanic Gardens to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The "Garlic" book, as I nicknamed it, included a number of recipes. At last I was able to use my old recipe-collecting habits for a real purpose. But since I had still not learned the joy of cooking, I asked other people to test out the recipes. Then I got to sample the results, a happy arrangement. One of the cooks—and recipe suppliers—was my upstairs neighbor and good friend Mary Ottiger. One of the things I did in return for her help was to take care of her family's pet tarantula, Elizabeth R. The spider ate crickets, but because she did not eat often, I never had to feed her. However, I did have to reach into her cage and take out, moisten, and replace the sponge from which she got her water. Eventually I got brave enough to pet her.
My experience with Elizabeth R was the inspiration for my next novel, Tarantulas on the Brain, which is about a girl named Lizzie Silver who wants a pet tarantula more than anything in the world—and will do almost anything to get one. Tarantulas on the Brain (Steve thought up the title—he's excellent at naming things) was the first novel I wrote which was not largely autobiographical. Although Lizzie and I share certain traits in common—notably the habit of getting obsessed with things—her story is not mine. I was delighted to realize I could write stories which were entirely made up. It opened up all sorts of new possibilities for my work.
Lizzie Silver made a second appearance four years later in Lizzie Silver of Sherwood Forest. In this novel Lizzie is obsessed with Robin Hood, one of my childhood idols. To be near her hero she gets a job at the Medieval Faire. For research, I went several times to the Renaissance Fair in Sterling Forest, New York, where actors perform jousts and juggling and scenes from Robin Hood's life. I had a grand old time. In the book, Lizzie is also trying to learn to play the harp. So another part of my research involved visiting a harpist and discovering how the instrument is played and taught. I enjoyed doing that as well. In fact, I would have to say that most of the time doing research for my books has been fun and rewarding. I think I often select topics I know little about in order to make myself do research and learn something new.
On July 31, 1981, Steve and I celebrated our tenth wedding anniversary. It should have been a joyous occasion. But that very week Steve had lost his job, so we were not as spirited as we should have been. Steve's job loss pretty much spelled the end of my film writing work. It also meant lean times for several years while he reoriented himself, teaching himself bookkeeping and getting a series of jobs in financial management. Today he works as a comptroller for a local restaurant/bakery/catering concern called the New Prospect.
Although the period of time when Steve was out of work was a difficult one for us, I was fortunate in that I had many ideas for books and I was starting to make a bit of a name for myself. Two of the books I worked on were based on dreams that I had. In one dream, I was best friends with Paul Simon, the singer/songwriter. We both liked two other people and made a pact that we would help each other win their hearts. Then Paul and I decided we really loved each other, and the dream ended with our passionate embrace. When I woke up, I knew I had the basis for a book. I combined my dream with my love of Shakespeare and acting, in this case a school production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, and the result was The Course of True Love Never Did Run Smooth. This novel won an American Library Association Best Book award in 1983.
The Course of True Love. . . was an easy book to write. Horsemaster was not. It too was based on a dream I had. This one was about a girl and a flying horse. The dream haunted me and I knew I wanted to turn it into a fantasy novel, but I had never written a fantasy before—and after my difficulties with Horsemaster, it's a wonder that I ever did again. I believe I worked on at least three versions of the book, and had them turned down by many publishers until Jean Karl at Atheneum finally accepted the last version, a number of years after I wrote it.
Throughout the early to mid-1980s I wrote quite a few other books as well, including my "Sam and Dave" mysteries, featuring the twin detectives Sam and Dave Bean, who were suggested by a friend of mine named Steve Parton; Archer Armadillo's Secret Room, a picture book about an armadillo who has to move to a new home and misses his old one so much that he runs away; The Lightey Club, which included my early Lightey stories; Mitzi Meyer, Fearless Warrior Queen, a novel about a timid girl who learns to be brave; and Ghost Host, a comic and spooky ghost story with a football hero protagonist. Despite the circumstances of my birth, I still knew very little about football. So when it came time to write Ghost Host, I got a lot of my friends to instruct me in the finer points of the game. They did a great job, but to this day I remain a baseball fan instead.
In 1987, after having written this host of nonautobiographical books, I knew it was time to tackle another autobiographical novel, this one based on one of the saddest events in my life—my grandmother's illness and death. My grandmother had been a diabetic. As a result she had developed gangrene and had to have a leg amputated. The operation, the trauma, so unsettled her that she began to have delusions. Among other things she believed that she had been a great ballerina in her youth. She also offered to show the stump of her leg to friends of mine who came to visit. I hated to see my once-vital grandmother deteriorate. And because I shared a room with her, I had no place in my house to escape from what was to a sensitive twelve-year-old a disturbing and depressing experience.
It Can't Hurt Forever had taught me that writing about a wound will help heal it. I did not, however, realize just how deep this particular wound was. Several Kinds of Silence was, I believe, the hardest of all of my books to write. It forced me to dig up all sorts of thoughts and feelings and memories I did not want to examine. It made me wonder if I really wanted to be a writer.
What helped me get through the book were the Eastern studies I'd been undertaking for some time: yoga, T'ai Chi, Taoist meditation, Zen poetry. I decided that Franny, my main character, would be attracted to things Eastern, too. When she gets a job at a florist's, she begins to develop an interest in ikebana, Japanese flower arranging, which I began to study myself in order to understand and depict it accurately. She also falls in love with the florist's grandson, a Japanese-American boy named Ren. Her attempts to keep their relationship a secret from her bigoted father and deal with her grandmother's illness cause her to break down—and then break through her silence, her need to be the good girl of the house.
The book's central romance, which was not autobiographical, lightened my task a bit. So did the decision to have the grandmother recover her wits at the book's end and not die, which would have made it much too painful. As it was, writing Several Kinds of Silence was painful enough.
Around the time I was working on this novel, I was interviewed by a reporter from New York Newsday. After the interview we got to talking about birthdays and I mentioned that mine sometimes fell on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, a serious holiday. "It happened once when I was a kid, and it was the worst birthday I ever had," I told her. "I couldn't have a party or a cake or anything." "What a great idea for a children's book!" she exclaimed.
A light bulb went off in my head. Shortly thereafter I wrote Minnie's Yom Kippur Birthday about a little girl whose special birthday turns out to be much different than she expected. It was an autobiographical picture book in a much lighter vein than my other autobiographical books, and it gave me a well-needed respite from the weightiness of my previous work.
My next two "Sam and Dave" mysteries, the fifth and sixth in the series, also gave me a break. But nothing was as pleasurable as the collection of poems I wrote. They were animal poems—one for each month, each in the voice of a different creature, or what I thought that creature might sound like if it could speak English. I named the collection Turtle in July. Judy Whipple at Macmillan published it, with Jerry Pinkney as the illustrator. He did a magnificent job. The book, my first published group of poems, was highly praised. It was selected as one of the Best Illustrated Children's Books of 1989 by the New York Times and cited as one of the best children's books of that year by Time magazine. Of all of my books, I think this one was the most pleasant to write. I got to do what I love most—write poetry—and get paid for it too!
Since I had finally recovered from the emotional exhaustion I felt as a result of writing Several Kinds of Silence, in the summer of 1988 I was thinking about writing another young adult novel. One day when I was having lunch with Brenda Bowen, who was then my editor at Scholastic, I asked, "What can I write for you next?"
"How about a book about a seventeen-year-old boy who falls in love with a witch?" she suggested.
"Uh-oh," I gasped. "I had that idea last week." Twilight Zone time! I had no choice now. I had to write the book.
Storm Rising was actually inspired by a bad movie—Class. In the movie, a young man has an affair with his roommate's mother. The film annoyed me. Most films I'd seen and books I'd read dealing with younger men and older women annoyed me. They were sleazy and sexist, with the woman as the vamp and the boy as the wimpy innocent. I wanted to write a younger man/older woman romance with real, likable characters. I thought it would be interesting to give the woman supernormal powers as well. I felt that psychic ability is also treated cheaply in films and books, especially in women, and I wanted to change that view.
I think I spent more time developing the characters and story in Storm Rising than in any of my other books, and I feel it is my best-written novel to date.
After Storm Rising, I turned once again to my lighter side. Twenty Ways to Lose Your Best Friend is a middle-grade novel based on an incident that happened to me in third grade. We were putting on a class play. One of my friends and another girl named Marguerite had both tried out for the part of the Good Fairy. The rest of us were supposed to vote for whom we thought was best for the part. My friend was dreadful; Marguerite was superb. My dilemma was which one to vote for. I ended up picking Marguerite. To this day I think it was the right decision, but it was one that caused me grief. I worried that my friend would find out and be furious. She never did. But Emma's friend in Twenty Ways to Lose Your Best Friend does, and Emma has to try to figure out how to win her back.
From the personal ethical dilemma I explored in Twenty Ways to Lose Your Best Friend I moved to larger moral issues of good versus evil in my fantasy novel Charmed. Charmed was every bit as difficult to write as my other fantasy, Horsemaster. I had to rewrite it several times. If Storm Rising was inspired by a bad movie, Charmed was inspired by a good TV series: Star Trek. I had not been much of a science fiction fan until I started watching that show, and I did not start watching it until well into the late 1 980s. Star Trek made me realize I could write a book in which the characters, not all of them human, could jump from world to world, from century to century. It was a liberating—and occasionally frustrating—experience.
I finished writing Charmed at the end of 1989. From then until now I have taken a break from writing novels. But I have not taken a break from writing. I've written two non Star Trek fiction books on my favorite animals, birds and dogs, (Exotic Birds and Dogs); a picture book called Nine o'Clock Lullaby, about the world's time zones; another titled Out-of-Work Dog, about a sheepdog that loses his job; three fairy tales, The Golden Heart of Winter, Maiden on the Moor, and In the Palace of the Ocean King, all picture books; two collections of poetry, In My Tent and Sky Words; and my first short story, a feminist fairy tale called "The Magic Bow," for an anthology of short stories for young adults titled Rooms of Our Own.
It may sound as if my life is all work and no play, but that isn't true. Steve and I find time to travel. Our favorite place to go these days is Sanibel Island in Florida, a beautiful, peaceful place where we can swim and walk and bird-watch and look at the dolphins swimming in the gulf. We go to the theatre and movies a lot, too, and we both spend a lot of time reading and patting our pets. We're having a pretty good time.
People often ask me why I write so many different kinds of things. I tell them it's because I have so many different parts to my personality, and each part has a different way of expressing itself. I tell them too that I like to challenge myself so that I'll never be bored. People also ask me why I write books for children and young adults, rather than grownups. I've given them a lot of answers such as: 1) Kids are interesting to write about and for; 2) If you understand the child in yourself, you can understand the grown-up better. I want to understand myself better; 3) There's nothing else I know how to do. All of these answers are basically true. But now I think the truest, most honest answer I can give is that I write books for children and young adults because I like to.
Obviously, I don't like my work all the time. Sometimes, as I've shown in this essay, I can't stand it. But there isn't any other job I want to do more in the world than write books. I think I've been really lucky so far to have a career I like. I plan to go on being lucky.
Marilyn Singer contributed the following update to SATA in 2005:
So, here I am, more than a decade later, still a writer, still married to Steve Aronson (who is now the CFO of the Third Street Music School in Manhattan), still living in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and, despite the fact that I've had a lot of losses in these past years, still considering myself lucky. First the bad news....
When last we met, I said that Steve and I decided we always wanted to have a dog in our lives. At that time our canine friend was Yinny, a lovable "Brooklyn shepherd." She was a dear pal, happy to travel, to sit in the middle of the living room when we had a party, to be wherever we were. In October, 1992, she was diagnosed with lymphoma and she died the next month. Steve and I were heartbroken—so depressed in fact that we started to fight with each other. We realized we needed another pooch—and right away. Although we'd taken in many mixed breeds over the years, Steve decided this time he wanted a standard poodle. I called the National Poodle Club and found a good breeder, and that's how Easy came into our lives.
Handsome and smart, Easy turned out to be more than a pet—he became my partner in canine obedience, a sport which involves a series of exercises that demonstrate the dog's ability to follow the handler's directions. Each performance is scored by a judge. Learning these exercises requires a lot of practice. For years Easy and I took classes and then entered trials. Although he never scored really high, he won two titles: Companion Dog and Companion Dog Excellent. Twice he even took first prize (granted there were not many dogs entered in either show) and I have the ribbons, as well as a pewter plate and a glass vase (such are the typical obedience show prizes) to prove it.
When Easy turned seven, we were still doing obedience (and failing to get a third title), and we began studying an up-and-coming sport: agility. Shown on Animal Planet and other channels, agility is an obstacle course for dogs. The pooches vault over jumps, run through tunnels, race over a seesaw and a dog walk, leap through a tire swing, and negotiate other equipment. Most dogs love agility because they are rewarded constantly with treats and praise. Easy loved some of it. He was afraid of the A-frame, a tall pair of connected ramps standing over five feet at the apex, and he was an odd jumper, stopping and gathering himself up just before leaping over each bar. Still, at nine, he was improving, and I was thinking about entering him in trials. Then, quite suddenly, in 2002, he died of a nasty disorder called bloat.
If I thought Yinny's death was shattering, this was worse. Easy and I had worked so hard and spent so much time together. It is no insult to his memory (nor was it to Yinny's) that Steve and I quickly got another dog to heal our broken hearts, a standard poodle from the same breeder. His name is Oggi ("o-jee") and he's the funniest animal I've ever met. He's proven to be brilliant at agility and a real party animal. As Yinny did, Oggi loves to travel and has flown or driven with us to Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan and Connecticut. When we visited stops along the Mississippi River for a book I was researching, he came along. Hence, I've dedicated Monday on the Mississippi (Holt, 2005) to "Oggi, Poodle of the Mississippi." If he could, he'd say thank you—as it is, he barks whenever he wants something. It is his one flaw, though I'm sure he wouldn't consider it such.
During these past years, several cats have come and gone, including Catherine, Bubba, Madonna, Freckle, Ebony, and November. We have just one kitty these days, August. She has always liked dogs, and Oggi is no exception. No matter how much he jumps on her and grabs her neck in play, she still puts up with him. We also have three birds, all rescues: two domestic doves and a starling named Darling. Steve found Darling in the gutter where she'd fallen from a nest. In the United States it is legal to keep these birds because they're not an indigenous species. That's a good thing because it would have been difficult to release Darling—she thinks we're her flock. She will take food from my fingers and she also imitates human speech quite well. Her favorite phrases are "Hi, sweet pea," "Pretty bird," and "I love you," as well as several others. Steve has been trying to teach her to say, "You're so right!" but so far, no dice.
The most difficult losses of the past decade have been my human family members. My sister Sandi died in 1998 after a two-and-a-half year battle with cancer. She was a difficult person (she might have said the same thing about me) and although we loved each other, we did not always get along. We had very different views of the world. Still, I miss her. Her illness took a toll on me, Steve, our nephew Asher, and my parents. Not only was it emotionally trying, but physically demanding—we had to clean out her house. This grueling project turned out to be the first of two such nightmares.
A year after Sandi passed away, my father died. My mother followed him in 2002, a year already made painful by Easy's demise. Asher, Steve and I, with the help of quite a few friends and relatives, had to empty and sell my childhood home in North Massapequa. There were many memories there. I found old elementary and high school tests I'd taken, reports and poems I'd written, my mom's engagement ring, scads of my father's playing cards, and boxes and boxes of photographs. Some of these were touching—especially the pictures of my mother as a young woman attending a cousin's wedding. I'd always been close with my mother. We spoke on the phone every day. She was a real character—always fussing over her cat's food, my dad's diet, and the latest news stories, and proudly telling strangers she still had her own teeth. She had great taste in movies and Steve and I came up with a rating system for her, the "Shirleys"—"Four Shirleys" was a great film, one we had to see. She drove me nuts—and I miss her most of all. She was the link not just to my past, but a whole world gone by: the Bronx, where I lived till age five; the early development of Long Island suburbia; the Yiddish language; old musical comedies; Jewish cookery; etc.
My mother died on September 12, a few hours past the one-year anniversary no one in New York City—or the whole country—is likely to forget. When I talk about personal losses, I have to put them in the larger context of 9/11: loss of life, loss of innocence, loss of freedom and privacy. Right after that shocking event, I wondered whether I wanted to continue to live in NYC. The answer remains a resounding yes. Just a few days after the catastrophe, I got on the subway from Brooklyn and went into Manhattan. I needed to fight fear. I needed to walk the sidewalks with other New Yorkers, to talk to my friends and neighbors about our grief and our adoration of this amazing city. But—did I need to write about this calamity? In fact, have I turned my personal losses into poetry or fiction? The answer to those questions is no.
When my sister was dying, several well-meaning friends suggested that I write a short story, a novel, or a screenplay about it. They felt that it would be healing to do so. The truth is I don't particularly like writing about death. I have always allowed myself to grieve; I don't hide from my emotions. But I've come to realize that I don't find writing about such deep sadness to be cathartic—at least not at this point in my life. Years before, in Several Kinds of Silence I dealt with my grandmother's diabetes, leg amputation, and subsequent dementia. As I've described, it was a tough and not particularly enjoyable book to write. I felt no need to go through that type of experience again. What I do find therapeutic is to write works that celebrate nature and ones that make me laugh. I feel that comedy can be quite serious, as well as funny. I also believe that the best comedy has real heart. Happy endings often move me more than sad ones.
So let me now talk about happy news.... I've already mentioned Oggi and our other pets. There are some inanimate "companions" in our household now, too: computers—two of them, in fact. When I wrote my original essay, I had only a dedicated word processor, the first I'd ever owned. Like most writers, I wonder how I functioned without my cybernetic friend. I still write mostly with a pen on yellow legal pads so I can be mobile. But for editing and for e-mail, a computer can't be beat! And as for the Internet, I love it! I don't just surf the Web—I dive in. It's one of the best research tools in the world. It's also fabulous for playing games. I met one of my friends, Ed Sheppard, antiques dealer and trivia expert, through "Amazing Trivia." Ed wrote many of the questions and edited all the rest of them. One night he hosted "Win Ed Sheppard's Money." I was proud to take first place—and $25!
The Internet is truly great for meeting like-minded people. In 1994, I discovered a community of children's writers—David Lubar, Dian Curtis Regan, Anne Le Mieux and Roland Smith among them—who held a weekly chat on America Online. I was a regular attendee and, from 1997, when Anne and Roland retired, until 2001, I hosted the chat, along with co-host Chuck Galey, greeters Donna O'Donnell Figurski and Sue Avon (the current hosts), and logger Joan Holub. Each week we interviewed guests, discussed topics such as creating believable characters, censorship, how to write picture books, etc., or had open chats in which attendees could ask whatever writing questions they wanted. As a result, I learned how to be a good interviewer and I met many authors and illustrators whom I admired, including Jane Yolen, Lee Bennett Hopkins, Nancy Garden, Rob Thomas, Sharon Creech, Katherine Paterson, Jon Scieszka, Chris Raschka, Robert Lipsyte, Suzanne Fisher Staples, Vivian Vande Velde, and the late great Virginia Hamilton, Joan Lowery Nixon, Paul Zindel and Paula Danziger, among others. This helped prepare me to moderate panels at the American Library Association Conference and other conventions and gave me access to writers with whom I'd eventually work.
Thanks to the Internet I was also able to communicate more easily and quickly with fellow judges and facilitators when I was called upon to judge a number of book awards—the SCBWI's Golden Kite, the Mystery Writers of America's Edgars (for which I was chair of the young adult category in 1999), and the Dog Writers Association of America's Best Children's Book award. For the Golden Kite, I read over seven hundred books. I didn't get to write much during that period, but being a judge was a great experience: I received a lot of free books, got to see the spectrum of what was published in 1993, and met writer/anthologist/educator Michael Cart, former director of the Beverly Hills Library and my mentor. Nowadays Michael is one of my most reliable critics. He's as honest, though not as blunt, as Steve.
All this new technology has helped increase my productivity, as well. Since 1992, I've had over forty books published, more than half of my bibliography. My work has followed some familiar paths and also gone in new directions. Years ago, I wrote a short story titled "The Magic Bow" that was to be published by Henry Holt in an anthology titled Rooms of Our Own. I was thrilled because it was my first short story. Well, Rooms of Our Own never happened. Something better did.
For a variety of reasons, the book was cancelled. Among these was the fact that Brenda Bowen, the editor-in-chief at Holt whose idea it had been, had returned to Scholastic. She told the contributors we could keep the money and sell our stories elsewhere. I had a different idea. I asked Brenda if I could take over the book, finding more stories and editing them myself, as well as including my own fairy tale. To my delight, Brenda said yes. Suddenly, I had a new job: freelance editor! The result was my first anthology, Stay True: Short Stories for Strong Girls, featuring stories by M. E. Kerr, Norma Fox Mazer, Rita Williams-Garcia, Marion de Booy Wentzien, Andrea Davis Pinkney, Anne Mazer, Marian Flandrick Bray, Peni R. Griffin, Jennifer Armstrong, and C. Drew Lamm. I'd met some of these writers as result of the AOL chat and the writers' boards and I was excited to work with them. The book got good reviews and was selected as a Young Adult Library Services Association Popular Paperback for Young Adults in 2000 and one of the New York Public Library's "Best Books for the Teen Age in 1998."
Although it was a lot of work, I really enjoyed the editing experience—so much in fact that I was eager to produce more anthologies, and on challenging themes. I like dealing with tough issues, the ones people find difficult to discuss. So, my second anthology, I Believe in Water: Twelve Brushes with Religion, tackled the subject of faith and was runner-up for Publishers Weekly Best Religious Books of 2000, as well as one of the New York Public Library's "Best Books for the Teen Age, 2000;" my third, Face Relations: Eleven Stories about Seeing beyond Color, took on the topic of race relations. I am currently finishing up my fourth anthology, Make Me Over: Eleven Original Stories about Transforming Ourselves. In addition to the Stay True contributors, I've had the privilege to work with all of these outstanding authors: Jess Mowry, Virginia Euwer Wolff, Gregory Maguire, Kyoko Mori, René Saldaña, Jr., Naomi Shihab Nye, Joseph Bruchac, Jacqueline Woodson, Norma Howe, Nancy Springer, Joyce Carol Thomas, Terry Trueman, Ellen Wittlinger, Marina Budhos, Evelyn Coleman, Joyce Sweeney, Sherri Winston, and Margaret Peterson Haddix. Editing these stories has made me understand the time and effort my editors have put into helping me better my own writing.
In addition, I've discovered that I actually like writing short stories, though I still find the form both delicate and demanding. Besides contributing to my own anthologies, I am now writing short stories for other editors' collections. One more thing I learned from compiling anthologies is that I wouldn't care to undertake them without my trusty computer—it's so much faster and easier to solicit stories and make editorial suggestions via e-mail.
Short stories and anthologies have been a real departure for me. Since the early nineties, poetry and nonfiction have represented a change of a different sort. Poetry has always been my favorite thing to write. I was elated when my first collection of poems, Turtle in July, was published back in 1989. I hoped it would lead to the publication of more poetry. I didn't dare to expect that poetry would eventually represent approximately a quarter of my published books and lead to my conducting workshops, being on panels, writing articles, and hosting events, all dealing with verse.
As far as my poetry books go, they range from thoughtful to downright silly. Some of my better-selling works are in the latter category, e.g. Monster Museum and Creature Carnival, which I'm delighted to say was named a Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award Honor Book. Both of these were illustrated by the superb artist Gris Grimly, whom I got to meet at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books in 2004. I was delighted when I learned he'd been worried that I'd turn out to be a fuddy-duddy and, instead, I was just as wacky (if not wackier) than he was.
What things have inspired me to write poems? All kinds of stuff! A dream about a necklace led to The Morgans Dream. A gathering of my husband's large assortment of siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins was the basis for Family Reunion. Living across the street from an elementary school gave me the idea for All We Needed to Say: Poems about School from Tanya and Sophie. Our dear departed Eubie was my muse for It's Hard to Read a Map with a Beagle on Your Lap (Holt, 1993) and our long-gone pet crow Quoth for The Company of Crows. Other pets inspired Please Don't Squeeze Your Boa, Noah!.
The natural world has always been a rich source of inspiration, and in 1998, Steve and I were fortunate enough to get closer to nature: we bought a vacation house in northwest Connecticut. This rural area is studded with parks, preserves, fields, and horse farms. Our property has a small pond and a brook running through it. We can sit there peacefully and watch bluebirds nesting, a great blue heron fishing, a garter snake sunning, dragonflies laying eggs, deer nibbling grass, and foxes traversing the woods. We can take a long leisurely walk or a vigorous hike, a short swim or a canoe trip. Our bookshelf sports a huge collection of animal and plant guides and we're always trying to identify this butterfly, that wildflower. I have made friends with the horses that live up the road. One in particular, Fitzie, likes to sniff my breath and nibble my hair. I'd never had much to do with horses before, but now I've grown to love—though not ride—them.
When we bought the house, my friends said, "Oh, you'll have a nice, quiet place to write!" My reply was, "I don't go there to write—I go there to relax!" The truth is I do write there—but only poetry. I credit Connecticut with providing stimulation for four collections: Footprints on the Roof: Poems about the Earth; How to Cross a Pond: Poems about Water; and Central Heating: Poems about Fire and Warmth, all published by Knopf; and Fireflies at Midnight, a companion to Turtle in July. Writing poetry is relaxing for me, in a way that prose is not. It uses a different part of my brain, I think. I wonder if we read poetry with a different part of our brains, too. When we are kids, most of us really like poetry—the rhythms, the images, the wordplay. As we get older, some of us continue to like it, but others don't, perhaps falling prey to how badly it has been taught in schools or to the idea that verse is not cool. It is my mission not just to write poems, but to help folks remember how much they actually enjoy this amazing genre. To that end, I've taken on another new role—cohosting Poetry Blasts.
Barbara Genco, head of collection development for the Brooklyn Public Library and former president of the American Library Association's Association of Library Services for Children (ALSC), has been a friend of mine for years. We would often meet in the Central Library cafeteria and talk about the need to promote poetry. In 2003, along with Michael Cart, I organized and participated in a panel discussion on poetry at the ALA conference. It went well, but it wasn't enough. Barbara and I realized that to love poetry you have to hear poetry. So we came up with a plan. We would propose the first annual Poetry Blast for the conference. For two hours, fifteen poets would read their work. Barbara and I would take turns introducing the writers, and I would read some of my poems, as well.
Though we ran considerably over our allotted time, the first Poetry Blast, held in June 2004, was a resounding success! Not only will we be doing it again this June (and, we hope, every year hereafter), but it has spawned Blasts at other conferences. I co-hosted this event in 2005 with Angus Killick, director of school and library marketing for Hyperion, at the International Reading Association convention in San Antonio; at the ALA conference in Chicago, with Barbara Genco; and at a local elementary school. I'd like to see these readings proliferate all around the country. What a boost that would be for poets—and for readers!
Another neglected genre is nature nonfiction. Since 1992, I have written six articles for Click magazine, six nonfiction books, and several other lyrical works about the natural world on topics ranging from wings (A Pair of Wings) and taxonomy (A Wasp Is Not a Bee) to how animals greet one another (Prairie Dogs Kiss and Lobsters Wave, Holt, 1998) and how baby animals survive (Tough Beginnings) to the fascinating things creatures can do with their rear ends (Bottoms Up!). In the next few years, Holiday House will publish my work about eggs. I am currently working on a book for Darby Creek about smelly plants and animals, as well as finishing up one on heroic cats for Holt (I've already done one on working dogs for that company, A Dog's Gotta Do What a Dog's Gotta Do).
When we are young, we have a sense of wonder about the universe. Some of us are fortunate enough to retain this enthusiasm into adulthood. Although libraries and schools seem to like nature books, bookstores do not—and these days publishers are concerned with what sells in bookstores. Still, if enough children are exposed to good nature books and if their sense of wonder is encouraged, perhaps they will transfer this enthusiasm to their parents and eventually to their own children. To promote these books, in 2003 I again chose to organize and host a panel at ALA, featuring top nature writers Seymour Simon, Jean Craighead George, and Dorothy Hinshaw Patent. I was also asked to write an article on the subject for School Library Journal. So far, I have not seen an increase in nonfiction publishing among the larger publishers, but some of the smaller houses, such as Darby Creek and Charlesbridge, have taken up the slack.
A side note—one of the delights of writing nonfiction is the research (and the great party conversations that result: Do you know how prairie dogs greet one another? What's the largest, smelliest flower in the world? What animal has a "make-up" gland on its rump?). And one of the delights of research is talking to experts all over the world by mail, online, and on the phone. So far, I've had the pleasure of speaking with such brilliant scientists as entomologists Louis Sorkin and Eric Quinter and ornithologists Allison Andors, Jackie Weicker, and Mary LeCroy, all at the American Museum of Natural History, NYC; ichthyologist Paul Sieswerda at the New York Aquarium; sea cucumber and walrus experts Dr. Scott Smiley and Dr. Sue Hills, respectively, in Alaska, and poultry man Barry Koffler in upstate New York, among others. I also want to salute writers/biologists Roland Smith and Dorothy Hin-shaw Patent for fact-checking my work.
As I've said before, I like writing in different genres because it keeps me from being bored—and also because different "stories" require different ways of telling. Besides writing poetry, nonfiction and short fiction, I have continued to write novels and picture books, many of them humorous. HarperCollins had a marvelous imprint called "Growing Tree" for babies and toddlers. Under the guidance of editor Simone Kaplan, I created four picture books (Solomon Sneezes, 1999; The One and Only Me, Fred's Bed, and Boo Hoo Boo-Boo)—and learned a lot about writing for the very young. I have also combined my love of nature and poetry in several lyrical picture books: Good Day, Good Night, Quiet Night, and On the Same Day in March, a trip through the world's weather and a companion to Nine o'Clock Lullaby. Those last two books have been quite popular and are used not only in elementary schools, but in colleges. They were illustrated by the excellent artist Frané Lessac. Monday on the Mississippi is our third collaboration. We hope it too will be featured in someone's geography class.
Other picture books of mine feature original fairy tales, stories about animals (e.g. Chester, the Out-of-Work Dog) or about Brooklyn. Didi and Daddy on the Promenade features a stroll down a Brooklyn Heights' landmark, the Promenade, which overlooks lower Manhattan. Steve and I like to take visitors to New York there. The view is spectacular. One poignant element of this book is that it shows the World Trade Towers. To me that makes it particularly precious.
Block Party Today! is a salute to the fabulous block parties Steve and I used to organize here on Berkeley Place, events full of food, games, and fun. This book was my second to be reviewed in the New York Times (the first was Turtle in July) and I got to read it, as well as Didi and Daddy, on stage last summer in front of Brooklyn's Borough Hall to a lunchtime audience. Marty Markowitz, the Brooklyn borough president, has given me a certificate naming me "Brooklyn's Children's Author Extraordinaire."
In reality, I am surrounded by truly extraordinary authors and artists. My neighborhood, Park Slope, has become a haven for those who write and illustrate children's books, and that, in my opinion, is a lovely development.
Since Charmed, I have also written a number of novels for children and teens. Big Wheel and Josie to the Rescue both feature spunky protagonists, respectively the top dog in his neighborhood (based on Steve when he was a kid!) and the good kid trying to help raise money when she learns there'll be a new baby in her family. The main character in Deal with a Ghost is a bad girl who steals other girls' boyfriends. This spooky, funny, and romantic young adult novel was nominated for an Edgar award. California Demon, about an imp that gets out of a bottle and wreaks havoc in L.A., was optioned by Walt Disney Pictures. It was never made into a film, but the option money allowed us to buy that second computer.
The Circus Lunicus is a twisted Cinderella (Cinderfella?) story about a boy, his nasty stepmother and step-brothers, and a traveling circus from outer space. It has been translated into German and I wish I could read it in that language to see if anything's been changed. (One of the main characters in Charmed is named Bastable; when the book was translated into Danish, he became Nobilis. To this day I don't know why.) At present I have been focusing on poetry, nonfiction, and anthologies, but I'm looking forward to returning to longer fiction. I'm hearing stories saying, "We're novels! Write us! Write us now!"
In the coming years, I intend to keep writing and advocating for poetry and other genres. I hope to do agility trials with Oggi, to attend more conferences, to travel, to enjoy my many friends and family members, and to hang out with Steve in Connecticut, watching birds and letting Fitzie nibble my hair. Oh—and I will also continue to add things to my Web site, another "recent" development. Steve designed it and I maintain it. So, please visit www.marilynsinger.net.
Yes, I really do like this technological age we're in. I even own a cell phone—though for the life of me I can't remember the number.
- Muff Singer (1942-2005) Biography - OBITUARY NOTICE—
- Marilyn Singer (1948-) - Personal
- Marilyn Singer (1948-) - Awards, Honors
- Marilyn Singer (1948-) - Sidelights
- Other Free Encyclopedias