Megan McDonald (1959-)
Autobiography Feature Megan Mcdonald
Megan McDonald contributed the following autobiographical essay to SATA in 2004:
Before I was a writer, I was a reader.
I grew up in a house stuffed with books. Piled on tables, spilling off shelves, tucked into pockets, hiding under beds. I learned early never to leave home without a book.
Mom read all the great novels; Dad had a photographic memory for the history books he devoured. Mom was an academic in our eyes, with a master's degree from the University of Pittsburgh, quite unusual for a woman of her time. She'd been inspired to become a social worker after reading Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities in college.
Dad never finished eighth grade. In grade school, he was forever in trouble for playing hooky from school. But they soon discovered where to find him—he'd steal across the street to the big library under the clock tower, Allegheny Public Library, where he was surreptitiously reading Tom Sawyer and David Copperfield, one chapter at a time. Reading voraciously all his life was a way of making up for those lost years of formal education.
I, of course, wanted to be just like my four big sisters, who read "fat" books and taught me to speed-read the endings first, deeming the book worthy if the ending made me cry. I tagged along with them to the musty, dusty green Carnegie Bookmobile that rattled into the shopping center near our house once a week—my first experience with a library, where a whole world of books waited, calling me.
From Grimm's fairy tales to Jane Eyre, we read it all. As kids, we were not supposed to bring books to the dinner table. That was family time, for conversation. But we did it anyway, hiding the books in our laps under the table, because we had to know the ending. Occasionally, when my dad caught us, he'd rip out the last page of a paperback novel and hide the best part—the ending—just to tease us, torment us. We'd chase him around the house and through the yard, trying to win it back. Who doesn't have to know the ending of a good story?
At my school library, I found a biography of Virginia Dare, the first English child born in America, who was part of the mysterious Roanoke Colony, one of history's unsolved mysteries. I checked out that book over and over, week after week. That is, until I won the disapproval of Sister Robertine, the librarian. All she had to do was flare her nose at me and peek over those rimless, old-people glasses, and I knew I was in trouble. I had to give the other kids a chance to read about Virginia Dare, too.
Every year at Christmas, Mom went to Kaufman's, the big department store downtown under the clock, and bought us each a special hardback copy of a children's book, which she inscribed with her lacy handwriting. Heidi, Pollyanna, Little Women, Nancy Drew. The Steadfast Tin Soldier. The Princess Who Could Not Laugh. James Thurber's The Thirteenth Clock. Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Chronicles.
And my all-time favorite, Harriet the Spy.
When I wasn't reading, I was playing outdoors with my sisters and best friends from across the street. Our house was surrounded by woods and fields and a creek that held endless interest for exploring. We had box turtle races, picked countless blackberries during summers that seemed liked they'd never end, dined on acorns served on skunk cabbage leaves, searched for nickels my dad hid in the mossy insides of tree stumps. We went swimming and sled-riding. We caught newts and salamanders, tadpoles and frogs, pill bugs and centipedes. We sailed leaf boats and built secret hideouts.
My ironworker dad built us a playhouse—a pint-sized, barn-red replica of our own brick house, complete with glass-paned windows and a porch with awnings. I'll never forget the day he wheeled the whole thing out into the driveway … on roller skates! We made our mark, pressing our handprints into the newly cemented sidewalk leading up to the front door.
The playhouse was magical to me, the first real place to call my own. It was here that I had my first tea parties and sleepovers; here that we made up the games of Restaurant and Lady. By day, I imagined myself Laura Ingalls Wilder in her log cabin; by night, Anne Frank hiding out in her attic.
Over the years, my sisters and I left home one by one. The porch began sagging, the awnings faded. For years, that playhouse was just a spidery home to rakes and shovels. After the death of my parents, the new owners had only one request: tear down that unsightly "outbuilding." My playhouse! On the final weekend before the sale of the house, in below-freezing Pennsylvania temperatures, I stood solemnly facing the playhouse, my husband Richard and my cousin Jimmy at my side, crowbars in hand. In no time, my playhouse became a scrap heap of splintered wood, fallen shingles, and loose nails.
I saved one of those old square-headed nails. It sits on my desk, next to a jar of pencils. In that nail is a handful of childhoods, a hundred stories. In that nail is a whole heaven of memories, the place from which I write.
A deep well of childhood stories continues to shape my writing. When I'm asked, "How on earth do you remember so much stuff about your childhood?" I think of Mark Twain's response. He claims to remember everything, whether it happened or not!
But no matter what we were playing, always the dinner bell rang from the back porch, calling us home. My mom and all my sisters sat around the large circle of kitchen table, waiting for dad to come home. My dad, an ironworker, built bridges all across the city of Pittsburgh, including the Fort Duquesne Bridge (the real Bridge to Nowhere). Every ironworker had his own nickname, like Porkchop Smitty, Big Red, Gizmo, and my dad, Little Johnny, the Storyteller.
My sisters and I spun the Lazy Susan, vying for ketchup or french fries and a chance to talk. Dessert was the best part of the meal, because we knew Dad would tell us a story after eating our supper. My father could create a whole story from the shape of the peanut butter heaped on a Ritz cracker. Or he'd have us imagining fantastical worlds based on ice-cream maps—lands created from the pattern that the ice cream made from sticking to the lid of the carton.
He told stories about his own childhood, growing up in Depression-era Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Not what we called the LBS (Long Boring Stories) that we as kids weren't interested in, but the ones about the scary old one-eyed potato man that used to come around his neighborhood selling fruits and vegetables from a horse-drawn wagon. "Abba-no-potata-man!" he'd call out, and we knew an exciting adventure was sure to follow.
These oral stories later became the inspiration for The Potato Man and The Great Pumpkin Switch. The stories were funny and dangerous, from squeezing an orange in his little brother's hair (so flies would buzz around his head, and Dad could tease and call him Old Flypaper) to roller skating down hills to hitch rides on the back of cars, or stowing away in the rumble seat of an old Model-T.
All I have to do is close my eyes and remember my dad's voice, and I can still hear those kitchen table stories.
With four older sisters, I couldn't get a word in edgewise around the dinner table. I'm told I began to stutter in elementary school. My mother bought me a small spiral notebook, and I started writing everything down, in true Harriet-the-Spy fashion.
Perhaps that started me thinking like a writer. But I didn't know then that I wanted to be a writer. My foray into publishing began in the fifth grade when I saw my name in print for the first time on a story in my school newspaper. The subject: a pencil sharpener! Told from the first person point of view, it detailed a life of eating pencil shavings all day.
I still have the story. I've saved it for years and years. The reason this story in particular stands out for me, is that it not only represents the first story I had published, but my first attempt at writing that was truly mine.
When I was in grade school, my mother did all my writing for me. Not reports and homework papers (the boring stuff we had to do on our own!), but the creative writing. Stories, poems, essays, you name it.
It started innocently enough … in an effort to save time, I suspect. It was easier somehow just to write the story, than to suggest and gently guide me through the difficult mystery of the writing process.
The only problem was, my mother was a good writer. She had imagination, good grammar, and a strong sense of story. We'd spend hours sitting at the kitchen table, hashing out the details of a story together. Often I was the scribe, writing down my mother's ideas, and turning them in as my own. So I used words like philosophical and serendipity and I didn't even know their meaning. I won prizes, medals, ribbons, that weren't mine.
When I was accused of plagiarizing Paul Zindel's The Pigman, I couldn't tell the teacher that it was impossible—my mother had never read a young adult novel. She didn't even know what one was.
The real difficulty came when I was asked to write in-class assignments. I didn't have my mother in class. I broke into a sweat. I got lots of hall passes to leave class. At the nurse's office, I knew every bone in Clyde, the skeleton, because I visited the nurse so often.
It wasn't until the fifth grade that I began to be uncomfortable with this. Although I'd had a part in each story, it still didn't feel truly mine. And I'd come to rely too heavily on my mother's ideas and words, rather than my own. So I began looking for my own voice.
Then one day, I did it. There was an in-class assignment.
I didn't sweat.
I didn't throw up.
I didn't rush to memorize all the bones in Clyde the Skeleton.
My own story.
The first story ever, that was mine, not my mother's.
It was about … a pencil sharpener. From the first person point of view, of a pencil sharpener!
From there, I struck out on my own, not just personifying pencil sharpeners, but talking to katydids, solving double jeopardy murder mysteries involving twin brothers, sailing around the world as a paper doll reporter in a newspaper boat, á la Nellie Bly, or imagining what it would be like if every day was Saturday.
I still remember the feeling. The first "aha!" when I got the idea, the inspiration. The struggle that went into forming and shaping the idea into story. And the exhilaration that came with completing a piece of writing I could call my own. Mine. My own voice.
That's when I first learned the power, the magic, the goosebumpy feeling that sends shivers down your spine from a striking first sentence, a good paragraph, a moving poem, the ending of an absorbing story, a great piece of writing.
There was no stopping me now. I wrote all the time. I filled up notebooks. I wrote a new story every month for The Knight News, my elementary school paper. I won an essay contest, for which I got to dress up and have dinner with a local congressman. I got a story published in Weekly Reader, and along with it, a big fat gold medal, my most prized possession.
In eighth grade, my family began to take summer vacations to the Outer Banks in North Carolina. I had never seen the ocean before. It changed me. Imagination came to life the first time I set eyes on the sea. I couldn't help but be moved to write about it. This time it wasn't stories, but poetry. I got a blank journal for a gift, and began filling it up with new feelings. And poems. I listened to music, or the pounding of the waves, or the crickets at night, and made up lyrics to songs in my head.
When I was a freshman in high school, I had a most wonderful English teacher, Mrs. Nicholls. For the first time, I found someone who could illuminate literature in ways I hadn't thought of before. It was so exciting to learn to think critically and symbolically about books. I remember being homesick and spending the whole time writing an essay about Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie. When I turned in my first critical essay, my teacher said to me, "You are a real writer!" Those words meant the world to me. I soared at the thought.
I continued to take English classes with her, and form a kind of teacher-student friendship I hadn't known before. She fed me great books, from Beowulf to Jack London to Harriet Arnow's The Dollmaker. Most of all, she nurtured and encouraged me as a writer. We writers are filled with self-doubt—Mrs. Nicholls, my first mentor, helped me gain confidence and insight as a fledgling writer.
My next English teacher had us read everything from The Odyssey to Walden to Jonathan Livingston Seagull. She introduced us to a mythological way of looking at story, influenced by Joseph Campbell and the hero's journey. Suddenly, all story seemed to take on an aspect of searching, a quest.
She also played music for us, and had us write poetry to music. She loved children's books, and told us how Dr. Seuss' first book, And to Think I Saw It on Mulberry Street, had been influenced by the rhythm of the ship's engine when Seuss was aboard an ocean liner.
She read to us from Robert Frost, about the sounds of trees and happy bees; and the soft incense of the hawthorn from Keats' "Ode to a Nightingale." I was a big fan of e e cummings at the time, and loved his words like mud-luscious and puddle-wonderful.
Then she gave us a simple assignment: to write a poem about the season: spring.
I was stumped. I couldn't think of a thing to say about the season that hadn't already been said a thousand times over, and far better.
My assignment was overdue. In my frustration, I just sat and stared out my rain-spattered window and jotted down several lines about the dripping rain. I turned my paper in, certain I'd failed. Sure that I was not a writer and never would be.
To my surprise, my teacher told the class that one poem stood out among the others as an example of concrete poetry.
It turned out to be mine!
I didn't even know what concrete poetry was, but apparently I had unconsciously set down the words of my poem in the shape of the thing it was about—a raindrop. I retell this episode in my novel The Bridge to Nowhere. It stayed with me all this time, maybe because it was the first time I discovered writing as something mysterious, something other, something deep and unplanned.
I attended an all-girls Catholic high school, which is to say, there was a serious lack of boys. I had a good friend who worked at the local public library, and she told me it was a good way to make friends, and that all the "cool" guys worked there. So at fourteen, I got a job as a page, shelving books at the Northland Public Library.
At the time, in the mid-seventies, the library was an amazing place. A real cultural center for adults, with an array of story times and innovative programs for kids. I was often assigned to shelve books in the children's department, which was a lively place full of great people to work for. I had trouble shelving, because I always wanted to read the books, and became fascinated with illustrated picture books for kids.
There were four dynamic children's librarians there who really took me under wing when they noticed my interest in children's books. They encouraged me to read aloud to kids at story time, tell stories, play my guitar and sing songs, put on magic shows and plays and puppet shows for the kids. I did a whole comedy routine about a magician and her assistant that screws up all the magic tricks. We made games out of card catalogs and races out of shelving books.
I did not even realize at the time what great mentors I had. I just knew it was a world I loved being part of, from playing hide and seek after hours in the library with my friends, to writing and acting in a play about a human piñata suspended from the library ceiling, that came to life and tossed candy out to the kids. This later became fodder for Stevie's disastrous acting career in The Sisters Club.
About this time, there became known such a thing as Young Adult Literature. S. E. Hinton wrote The Outsiders, and Robert Cormier The Chocolate War. When Judy Blume wrote Forever, one of the librarians decided she wanted to hear from real young adults what they thought about all these "realistic fiction" books. So she formed a book discussion group with those of us in high school who worked at the library. We read newly published young adult literature, discussed it passionately, and got to make decisions about what the library would buy for their collection. What a thrill!
My rich experience with reading and writing and libraries up to this point led me to seek out colleges with a writing program that was not journalism, but creative writing. At the time, the only college in the country that had a major in Creative Writing was Oberlin College. To my delight, it also did not have a math requirement! It was the only place I applied to, despite protests from my high school guidance counselor, who assured me that I was wasting my time, because no student from my small parochial high school had ever been admitted to a college of this caliber before. Thankfully, I was too naïve to listen to her advice. And, based on a portfolio of my writing, I had the good fortune of being accepted into the creative writing program at Oberlin.
I loved my writing classes, where we read "like wolves eat," as writer Gary Paulsen would say. We attended poetry readings, and tried a cacophony of different forms of writing. It opened up new worlds to me, new ideas, and put me in the company of other young writers with interesting minds. I had a willing ear and a big heart, soaking up all forms of the written word. I was still writing volumes of poetry, and had to submit a portfolio to be accepted into the program.
My professor, the head of the Creative Writing Department, called me into his office for a personal, oneon-one conference. He took all of the poetry from my portfolio, held it up, and said, "See this? Go home and rip up all the poems you've ever written."
My heart sank. I was completely crushed. In that moment, it became clear. I wasn't a writer after all.
Then he said prophetically, "You, Megan, are a prose writer."
I was stunned. I didn't know what to think. I left his office and went back to my room and cried.
Then, I have to confess, I looked up prose in the dictionary. To my horror, The American Heritage Dictionary, in its attempt to distinguish narrative from poetry, defined prose as "writing or speech that is ordinary or matter-of-fact, without embellishment."
Is this what I was destined to write? Ordinary, commonplace, everyday writing?
I didn't know then about the extraordinary that can be found in the ordinary. In my own everyday life. And I was so discouraged, so deflated, so defeated, I dropped out of the writing program. I stayed in college, but decided to pursue something else as my major. Philosophy, history, the sciences. There was a whole world waiting out there for me.
I took acting classes, art history, Japanese culture, women's studies. It was all new to me. And while it seems like I strayed far from writing, I stayed close to poetry and literature, the things that mattered most. I was destined to be an English major.
When my advisor learned of my interest in Children's Literature, she directed me to a graduate program at Simmons College that took Children's Literature very seriously, and awarded a master's degree in the subject. I took a year off from Oberlin, moved to Boston, and took courses in the graduate studies program there, for which I received undergraduate college credit. I was on my way now to designing my own individual major in Children's Literature.
On returning to Oberlin, I was fortunate enough to study with a brilliant woman, Kathie Linehan, who was head of the English Department. She worked with me on several independent studies to complete a Children's Literature major. While my friends struggled through Trollope, I was weeping in my dorm room over The Bridge to Terabithia. While my friends wrote long papers for their winter term projects, I got hired on by the Children's Book Shop in Brookline Village to set up a series of author events for the store. I spent my days talking to Marc Brown and Uri Shulevitz on the phone!
And serendipitously, through my studies with Kathie Linehan, I came to find out the happy coincidence that her mother was Zena Sutherland, the revered author of my first textbook in Children's Literature, Children and Books, and a well-known professor and critic of children's books at the University of Chicago. That was the beginning of a lifelong friendship with Zena, who to me was a giant in the field of children's literature.
During college, my summers were spent working, trying to save enough money for the next semester. After freshman year, I worked as a chambermaid at a small inn on Martha's Vineyard so I could be near the ocean. Making beds and emptying other people's trash does not seem like a training ground for a writer, but it proved to be rich in experience of a different kind. I hitchhiked to work every day, picked up by a variety of characters—Mr. Convertible, the Poodle Lady, the Professor. I had tea each morning with the owner of the inn, a woman with "spider veins" whose claim to fame was that she was the only "extra" in the movie Jaws who wore pants at the beach. My imagination began to be peopled by a collection of kooky characters that seemed to be straight out of novels.
All the rest of my friends were waiting tables at restaurants, making lots of tips and meeting interesting people. But for me, the mundane work of housecleaning actually left lots of room for reflection and imagination. I made up a game of sorts, a challenge to keep my imagination alive. For each room I'd go in to clean, I'd try to create a character in my mind's eye from what was visible of that person in the room. A pink toothbrush, polka-dot socks, a suitcase full of Band-Aids. (Nurse? Traveling Band-Aid salesperson? Fear of falling?) These became character traits that suggested fictional people to me.
My favorite room at the inn was an attic with steeply sloping ceilings, window seats, old quilts and the smell of cedar. On the bed, someone had left a diary. I didn't open it, but I was tempted. Instead, I imagined and began writing a story in installments about a girl who lives in a house full of history, and finds a diary of a girl from another century. It gave me the dream of someday writing the kind of book that I had loved as a girl. A book about an orphan like Sara Crewe, who survives the evil Miss Minchin solely through having a rich imagination. A book full of history and mystery, like my own Shadows in the Glasshouse, or bold adventure, like All the Stars in the Sky, my novel in the "Dear America" series.
One summer I was a tour guide at the Museum of Transportation in Boston, where I conducted tours through a small museum full of vintage cars, trucks, and fire engines. Another summer, a park ranger, complete with Smokey the Bear hat. My sister had worked as a park ranger for the National Park Service, and from her I learned that it was possible to earn good money while experiencing a beautiful part of the country. She had been to the gold rushes of Alaska, the wilds of northern Minnesota, the petrified forests of Arizona. She had even lived in a lighthouse on one of the remote Apostle Islands.
I filled out pages and pages of applications and checked off Colorado as my first choice. I had visions of living next to the snow-capped peaks of the Rocky Mountains under crisp clear-blue skies. I was thrilled when I was accepted for a summer job. As soon as school was out, I headed west on a train for what seemed like days and days.
When I stepped off the train, I was not in the mountains, but in the desert! La Junta, Colorado. The National Historic Site of Bent's Old Fort, an old trading post on the Santa Fe Trail. There, as part of their living history program, I impersonated Charlotte Green, the fort's cook. This meant baking pies in outdoor adobe ovens in 110 degree summer heat, melting tallow into candles, shooting a flintlock rifle at a rendezvous of mountain men, sleeping on a buffalo robe under the stars. Acting a part, or play-acting a role, is another unexpected training ground for a writer. You have to imagine yourself to be somebody else from another time period—how they look, think, dress, talk, walk. All the ingredients for creating strong characters in fiction.
To my surprise, it turned out to be living, experiencing a variety of people and settings, that was making me a writer, more than formal writing classes had in college. Smelling the ocean, hitchhiking for the first time, living on an island, working as a maid, a first love, a broken heart—these are the things that began to shape me as a writer.
After finishing college, I had no idea what to do with my life, so I applied to the Park Service once again for a seasonal job as a park ranger/tour guide. This time I found myself working on Jamestown Island, the site of the settlement of the first colonists in 1607. I was living in nearby Williamsburg, VA, where I had a tiny house so close to the historic district that people would often peer into the windows to see if it was a colonial inhabitance. For the first time, I had my own place, a tiny house with a garden and a typewriter and good friends across the street. I chopped my own wood, heated with a woodstove, and made my own bread. I lived near the ocean, where I took countless swims and walks along the shore and trips to the Outer Banks beaches of my youth.
I loved the history surrounding me, that sense of stepping back in time, into the past. Passing fields of cotton on the way to the store. Walking the dog on an old road that led to a plantation. The ring of the blacksmith on my way to work. Passing by women in mob caps and men in tricorn hats and breeches.
By day, I led tours instructing visitors about the ruins of the original fort, or told stories about Pocahontas and Powhatan, or the first colonists drinking pumpkin beer and bowling in the streets. I couldn't get enough of the history. The historian at Jamestown led me through basements full of seventeenth-century artifacts, which fascinated me and had me contemplating becoming a museum curator. She invited me to work on a project transcribing actual letters written by George Washington. What a thrill!
My job, however, was a seasonal, temporary one. By Christmas, I had to find work. So I headed for the nearest bookstore. At Scribner's, I got my first real bona-fide full-time job for eight-thousand dollars a year plus benefits. I thought I was rich. To be surrounded by so many books, and get paid for it!
I climbed upstairs to the children's department every chance I got, getting lost in The Great Gilly Hopkins and Dicey's Song.
And I soon discovered that there lived practically in my backyard, my most admired writer of books for children, Katherine Paterson. Every time she gave a talk locally, at a bookstore, library, or conference, I was in the audience. I soaked up every word she had to say about writing, read every essay she wrote on the topic, read every book she'd written.
Around this time, my sister Michele moved to Norfolk, Virginia. She was a photographer and had just landed a job on the Virginian-Pilot. Then one day, she was sent on assignment to photograph the winner of the National Book Award. Her assignment was to take pictures of none other than my heroine, Katherine Paterson! While on assignment, my sister told Katherine that I was her biggest fan. She joked about how jealous I would be that my sister got to meet her and come to her house. By the end of the photo session, Katherine Paterson had invited me to dinner! To say that meeting her in person was such a thrill is an understatement. It changed my life.
Writing was still a dream to me. And I was young and hadn't lived nearly as much as Katherine had by the time she started writing novels for kids. I went from admiring her work, to admiring her as a person. Here was a real person, with kids and a dog and a husband who played pool with me. A person who scribbled in notebooks and made a living as a writer.
Katherine, in her own wise way, made me feel like there was a writer inside me, just waiting to find voice. She taught me that you can't wait for inspiration or you'll never write. You can't wait for the muse to speak. You can't wait for the right time, or you'll never find time. You just have to sit down and do it. Day by day. Word by word. Bone by bone, as in my book The Bone Keeper. "Bird by bird," as Anne Lamott so eloquently put it (in her book by the same title).
From the bookstore, I went on to work at the Williamsburg Public Library. I wasn't a certified librarian, and was sure I wasn't qualified for the job in the Children's Department. In the last question of my interview, I was asked, "What is your favorite children's book of all time?" I blurted out Tuck Everlasting, and the director shrieked, "Mine, too!" I got the job. Thank you, Natalie Babbitt.
I now had a toe in the water in the world of libraries. And I was immediately at home in the Children's Department, where I put on programs for kids of all ages. I told stories, read aloud at story times, played my guitar and sang songs, learned finger rhymes. I discovered a real love and passion for oral storytelling. I'd always had an ear for the told story, since my father's kitchen table stories. So I auditioned to appear in my first public storytelling festival, with a Joseph Jacobs tale I'd heard told by Eleanor Owens, a librarian I had studied with back at Oberlin. It was called "Master of All Masters" and had tons of wordplay and a zany ending that strings nonsense words together in a blizzard of sound. It was delicious.
I went on to work as a children's librarian in the neighboring town of Newport News, where I continued my work with children and learned how to develop a collection of books for the library. Here, I met friend and mentor Therese Bigelow at a neighboring library. Over time, she urged me to go to library school and get a master's in library science. At the time, Virginia did not have an accredited library school, so I asked Therese if she could recommend where I might go to become a librarian. One of the names she recommended was to study with Maggie Kimmel at the University of Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh! My hometown! I'd left home almost ten years ago.
I applied to several universities, but I'll never forget the day I received a call at work while on the desk from Maggie Kimmel herself. She told me the great news that I'd received a full scholarship to come to the University of Pittsburgh to study with her. In that instant, I knew I was headed home.
I moved to a tiny apartment by the railroad tracks, within walking distance of the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Library and Information Science. I took classes from rare books to reference, but it was clear I was destined to be a children's librarian.
While in graduate school working on my M.L.S., I made a wonderful friend, Richard Haynes, who was also studying at the University of Pittsburgh. I didn't know then that we would fall in love and be married almost ten years later. But knowing him made me want to remain in the Pittsburgh area after I graduated.
I soon accepted a position at the "awe-inspiring" library of my youth, the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, working under the guidance of one of the greats in my field, Amy Kellman. I could not have asked for a better mentor. Amy is one of the most well-read individuals in the field, and with her, all my instincts as a children's librarian were shaped and under her influence I grew into being a good children's librarian.
I had worked my way through graduate school as a bookseller at Pinocchio Bookstore in Pittsburgh, again mentored by the store's impressive owner, Marilyn Hollinshead. Marilyn was creative, a thinker and visionary, and was successful at operating one of the first independent bookstores dedicated solely with books and events for children, as well as being a founder of American Booksellers for Children. Besides being an incisive reader, she was a writer, and started a critique group for local aspiring writers, none of whom were published. Yet.
It was only a matter of time. Every member of her group went on to become published and flourish in the field of children's book publishing. Because I was still young and just in the infancy of my career as a children's librarian, I wasn't a member of Marilyn's writers/critique group, but I was friends with several of the writers and I was certainly always hanging around, keeping one eye on what the group was doing, and waiting breathlessly, as they were, through the sometimes painful process of submitting manuscripts and suffering rejections.
One by one, as each writer celebrated the acceptance of a first book, something changed in me. I'd never really believed it was possible to get published. I'd heard all the stories. Slush piles. Form letters. Mountains of rejection. The difficulty of simply trying to get your book read by an editor.
Now I knew it was possible. I'd seen it happen first hand, to people I knew. The dream was getting closer. It was right there, in my own small circle.
Then one of life's surprises came my way, in the form of a letter I got in my paycheck from the library. The letter said that the library was struggling financially, and they were going to have to lay people off from their jobs. It invited anyone who would like to take a leave of absence to do so.
I realized that if I was ever going to write, I needed time. Uninterrupted time. Time without the demands and stresses of a full-time job. At the risk of losing my job for good, I took the letter as a sign. An invitation. A calling.
As I look back on it, it sounds pretty crazy, to think I was going to quit my job and write a children's book. But quitting my job turned out to be one of the best things I ever did. I had just the story in mind to write, and now I had the time to write it.
It was a story I had been telling aloud at the library for preschool story time. A story I told with puppets. A story about a hermit crab and a big fish that chases it. My sister had given me these beautiful handmade puppets from a local children's theater. One was a hermit crab, and one a rainbow-scaled fish. I looked for any existing story or book I might use to tell a tale with these two characters. At the time, I couldn't find anything in print about a hermit crab, so I made one up!
It was all about a hermit crab searching for a new home. He tries a rock, a tin can, a bucket, an old shoe, etc. I brought along props for all the possible homes, and I told the story aloud with lots of sounds, inviting the kids in the audience to join in with me and make the scritch-scratch sounds of the hermit crab. They loved it, and after the story time was over, the parents all came up to me and questioned why I hadn't put the book about the hermit crab out on display for them to check out and take home. Of course, there was no book! I had to tell them that the story was made up in my imagination.
A light bulb went off. A seed was planted. I already knew firsthand that the story, with its repetitive refrain of sounds, and the inherent suspense created by a big fish that wanted to eat the tiny hermit crab, was a natural with children and parents alike.
He stepped along the shore, by the sea, in the sand, scritch-scratch, scritch-scratch.
This was an oral story begging to become a book, with illustrations to go along with the visual images the story created. All I had to do now was put pen to paper.
The summer of 1988 in Pittsburgh was hot, hot, hot. We were in the middle of a drought, a record-breaking heat wave. I was happy to be away from the nearly 100-year-old Carnegie Library building that had no air conditioning and windows that had been painted shut eons ago. To stave off the heat, I borrowed a tiny one room air-conditioner from my parents. Feeling as cramped as a hermit crab that has outgrown its shell, I holed up in a walk-in closet in my apartment that I had transformed into a studio, coming out for the occasional tuna fish sandwich.
Looking back, that closet was my artist's garret. My room of one's own. A room without a view.
As fellow Pittsburgher Annie Dillard says, "One wants a room without a view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark."
In the middle of working on the third draft, a friend of mine, another aspiring writer, invited me to a small island off the coast of Maine for a getaway writing vacation. The promise of cool ocean breezes had me packing my bags and stuffing my folders full of drafts into my suitcase.
Every day, we'd trek through pine-carpeted, leaf-dappled forest out to the ocean. Here, we each found a rock, a craggy cormorant-dotted boulder, where we scribbled away all morning in our notebooks, writing and rewriting, warmed by the sun.
Then we'd picnic on a rock and read to each other from our days' work.
My friend, Kathy Waugh, was working on a screenplay, and I found it invaluable to have the encouragement and insightful feedback of a friend and writer I respected so much. It spurred me on as much as the salt air and the magical elfin villages we discovered on our hikes through the forest.
The island was the perfect setting. Not only had I left the heat behind, but I had left behind car payments, rent, bills, shopping for groceries, phone calls. The one-thousand-and-one day-to-day interruptions that start out as distractions and so easily become the excuses not to write.
It was synchronistic that around this time, I attended the Fall Festival of Children's Books at Carnegie Library, an annual event that celebrated children's literature and its writers. At the event, a panel of editors spoke.
Richard Jackson was one of those editors. He was speaking at the conference with one of his writers, Cynthia Rylant. Rylant gave a poignant talk, about her early struggle as a writer, and how she nearly abandoned her own voice, were it not for her editor, Richard Jackson.
Dick Jackson most likely won't remember his own words, but I do. They're imprinted in me, like every one of those skeleton bones that gave me comfort.
It was about, of all things, voice. It was about telling a good story, an honest story—being true to yourself, taking risks … and above all, finding your own voice.
Sitting in that dark audience, listening to Dick's voice, I started to hear my own voice.
So—I worked up all the courage in me, and went to talk with Richard Jackson himself. In the middle of our conversation, he peered at me quizzically, maybe even a tad suspiciously, and asked a simple question.
"Are you a writer?"
The stutterer in me could not speak. I broke out in a sweat. Somehow, the pencil-sharpener girl whispered yes.
And Dick invited me to send him something—anything—I had written.
I ran home and sharpened a bunch of pencils.
Eventually, I did send him a book about a hermit crab, even though it took two years (to come out of my own shell) and lots of U. S. mail mishaps for Is This a House for Hermit Crab? to find its way, landing in Richard Jackson's lap.
In that early version, Hermit Crab did all the talking. (We all know how editors feel about talking animals!) Dick wrote me a letter. A genuine, not-an-e-mail, not-a-post-it note, letter. The letter said, I know you are a storyteller. Would it be possible? Do you think? Might we hear—instead of Crab—your storyteller voice? Your voice.
That was the beginning.
Having an editor interested in my work made all the difference. I've always been a person who has more ideas than I have time to write. But believing it can happen, knowing there's a person out there who believes in you as a writer, helps enormously with one's self-doubt as a writer.
The writer Joan Didion says of her editor:
What editors do for writers is mysterious and does not, contrary to general belief, have much to do with titles and sentences and changes. The relationship between a writer and editor is much subtler and deeper than that, at once so elusive and so radical that it seems almost parental: the editor is the person who gives the writer the idea of himself, the idea of herself, the image of self that enables the writer to sit down alone and do it.
Or, as one first grader put it, after hearing me give a talk about the writing process: "So the story starts out real, real bad. Then along comes this guy with a red pencil. And it gets real, real good."
The "guy with the red pencil" told me he wanted to see anything else I'd written. I got to work immediately on The Potato Man, based on those kitchen table stories my dad had told me about the scary old one-eyed huckster of his youth, growing up in Depression-era Pittsburgh. My tale featured the refrain "Abba-nopotata-man!" that dad had so often cried out to draw us into his stories.
By the time I had written a handful of picture books, I submitted a somewhat autobiographical picture book called The Bridge to Nowhere to my editor, about a young girl who grew up with the wonder of the feat of building bridges, because of her dad, who was a bridge builder.
The story was only four pages long, but my editor immediately recognized that there was more here than met the eye, and encouraged me to think about the hidden potential in the story. In other words, he encouraged me to write a novel. My first novel!
The bridge itself was a real place, and an actual bridge in downtown Pittsburgh that my dad had worked on, now called the Fort Duquesne Bridge. Anyone who grew up in Pittsburgh remembers the bridge, and will always think of it as the Bridge to Nowhere. The bridge was incomplete, three-quarters of the way finished, when they ran out of money and stopped work on the last expanse that would connect the bridge up to the other side. For almost ten years, the bridge sat unfinished, looking strangely eerie stretching across the river, out into the middle of the Allegheny, with nowhere to go.
It became famous, because of a story that headlined the newspapers in the early sixties, about a man who drove off the bridge one late night in a beat-up old station wagon. His car was going so fast, it flew through the air, across the river, and landed on the opposite river bank.
I had known the story since I was a kid, and been fascinated with its "truth is stranger than fiction" aspect. I dug into all the old newspaper accounts of the incident, looking not only for concrete details but a reason why. It remains an unsolved mystery to this day. The perfect story for a writer. I could make up reasons for my own character in the story, the troubled father of a twelve year old girl.
As the story began to take shape, I realized the true-life incident that the book hinged on would have to come at the end. So I wrote the book backwards, working on the ending first.
The novel was beginning to take shape, but I had little time to work on it, and I didn't even own a computer at the time. It started as just a lot of unwieldy pages scribbled in a notebook. I also had little time to write, as I was back at my full-time job at the Carnegie Library.
I edited and honed a single, dramatic chapter of the novel, and daringly submitted it to a fiction contest sponsored by the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and Judy Blume. To my surprise and absolute delight, I won the Judy Blume Award for Contemporary Fiction. I was able to use the cash prize to purchase my first computer, and a little time off.
When I was well into the novel, an unexpected opportunity came my way. I heard of a position as a children's librarian in Minneapolis, MN, where my sister lived. Here, I could work part time, and make the same salary as I did working full time at my job in Pittsburgh.
I applied for the job and soon found myself packing my bags and heading for Minnesota in the middle of January. I arrived to sixteen-below-zero freezing temperatures. Everyone thought I was nuts. Ice glittered on the Mississippi River, a stone's throw from my apartment. But I had my ice skates and a stockpile of hot chocolate. And the company of my sister only a few miles away. What better way to write a novel than to hole up inside a toasty little room with my desk, notebook and computer, watching fingers of ice drip from the roofline, and frost paint itself on all the windows?
I now had a few days of the week just for writing. At the library, I met a friend who I'd been at Oberlin with, a fellow writer, and we became fast friends and writing partners. I wrote all week, and every Sunday morning we would meet at the Gem in Uptown, an unusual little diner that made the most incredible gingerbread pancakes. Over our pancakes, we'd read our writing. I tried to bring a new chapter each week or so, and chapter by chapter, my first novel became a rough draft.
At the time, I had no idea that the rough draft was not the hardest part. I had my first real introduction to rewriting. I'd heard it from Katherine Paterson many times, that the hard work really came about in the rewrite. Now I knew it firsthand.
I cut the first forty pages, threw out whole chapters, threw out beginning after beginning, started again. In the middle of the novel, I changed the voice from first person to third person. I read books to try to figure out how other writers did it.
Even working only part time, it took me nearly four years to complete.
I felt like I'd moved to Alaska, the Antarctic, the North Pole. It was so cold, even the mice did not want to live outside. I could hear them squeaking in the walls, making tiny kissing sounds. One day, my first mouse appeared in the house. She kept making nests out of my Cheerio boxes, and I would find them in unwanted places, like my silverware drawer in the kitchen.
My sister's advice was to catch the mouse in a live trap and let it go outside. I caught the mouse the first night, and let her go in the back yard. The next day, she was back in the silverware drawer. I caught the mouse again the next night. Every time I caught the mouse, I let her go further and further away from the house, in the backyard. But every night, she made her way back.
Finally, I got smart. I had to catch the mouse and let her go somewhere farther away. Somewhere like St. Paul. Somewhere like my sister's house, which just happened to be in St. Paul! No way would a mouse be able to find its way back to Minneapolis from St. Paul.
I caught the mouse again in the "box" and put it in the car. When I got to my sister's house, I crept around to the back and let the mouse go in my sister's back yard.
At last! That was the end of the mouse!
Until about a week later, when my sister called to tell me that all of a sudden, out of the blue, she had a mouse in her house! What a coincidence that she had a mouse in her house, just like I'd had.
Too bad I started laughing. I think I gave myself away. Because not long after that day, a mouse appeared back in my kitchen drawer. The same day my sister had been to visit me!
I think we passed that mouse back and forth all winter, from Minneapolis to St. Paul. Finally spring came, and the mouse stayed outdoors for a while.
I did not forget the story of the Minneapolis mouse. Later, it would become a book called Tundra Mouse, a sort of city mouse, country mouse story which I set in Alaska but based on my remembrance of those long Minnesota winters.
A few years later, just after we'd had a blizzard on May 5(!) I vowed not to spend another winter in Minnesota. A friend and colleague that I went to library school with contacted me out of the blue. She was the director of a small public library in western Pennsylvania, which we called the Mr. Rogers library, because it was located in his hometown. Mr. Rogers was very generous to the town library, and had given a large sum of money to build the children's book collection and library. My friend invited me to be the children's librarian there.
By this time, I sorely missed Richard (my husband to be) and I had dreams of escaping another Minnesota winter. So I headed back to Pennsylvania, moved to a small town in the mountains, and worked part time at the Mr. Rogers Library.
It was 1991. About one month after returning home, my father died unexpectedly. I was devastated, and went into a kind of grief I'd never known. Five months later, to the exact day, my mother died. My life was turned upside down with such unspeakable loss. A sorrow took hold of me. I couldn't write. It was all I could do just to get through each day.
I stayed in Pennsylvania for a few years, because I wanted to be close to the memory of my parents. To be able to drive past their house, walk on the old path through the woods, visit their grave, go to the rose garden planted in their memory. And I wanted to be with Richard, in the arms of someone who loved me.
I started writing another novel, about a girl whose father had died. I didn't know then that I was just too close to it. I was really struggling with how to get it right when my editor suggested that I write something funny instead. He told me he thought I was a funny person, and that he saved a lot of my post-it notes because they were so funny.
I will always be indebted to Richard Jackson for seeing just what I needed during that time. I curled up on the couch under the old quilt and wrote Insects Are My Life in my notebook. It's about a girl who loves bugs. Big bugs. Small bugs. Any bugs. All bugs. Creepy bugs. Crawly bugs. Slimy bugs. Climby bugs. Bugs with wings. Bugs that sing …
"Amanda Frankenstein, get your feet off the table!" her mother scolded at dinner that night.
"But butterflies have taste buds on their feet," Amanda said.
"Well, please keep your taste buds on the floor," said her mother.
I had the most fun writing that book. I laughed again. It felt so good to remember the childhood stories of collecting dead moths and lining them up in my jewelry box like a scientist, playing the "dead fly in the ice cube" trick on my sisters, hatching hundreds of praying mantises in my sock drawer by accident! These stories all became part of Amanda Frankenstein's world, her passion for bugs.
I thought I might never leave Pennsylvania again, my childhood home, but Richard and I took a trip to San Francisco and drove up the coast along Route 1. I fell in love with the rolling green hills in winter, the morning fog, the sunny blue-sky days, the certain slant of light in the afternoon, something I'd never found anywhere but in the west.
On our way back to San Francisco, we drove through a little town called Sebastopol. A classic California small town with a charming center square and lots of little houses tucked into the surrounding hills. The town had a great coffee shop and an independent bookstore, my two requirements for a place to live. At the time it was just a dream to move to northern California. But we couldn't get it out of our minds.
Months later, we came back again, this time seriously looking for housing and jobs. We were lucky to find a tiny house on the outskirts of Sebastopol, dotted with persimmon trees, calla lilies that sprang wild from sidewalk cracks, and chickens that laid fresh, organic eggs under all the bushes, in a daily hide-and-seek sort of treasure hunt.
In one week, everything fell magically into place, and before we knew it, we were heading west to a new life in Richard's stuffed-to-the-gills pickup, imagining what it was like for the pioneers on the prairie, or the brave souls traversing the Donner Pass in winter. We drove cross country for days, crossing the sunflower fields of Kansas, then the deserts of Nevada on the Loneliest Road in America. For hours and hours, we saw only tumbleweed.
This setting would later inspire the spooky, atmospheric tale, The Bone Keeper, the first book I wrote on coming to California. It's a folkloric tale, based in oral tradition, about an old woman who goes out into the desert to collect bones. She pieces them together, and when the last bone is put in place, magic happens. It springs to life and becomes a wolf, bounding off into the desert.
If you listen to the desert …
If you listen …
You may hear
They call her Owl Woman
They call her Rattlesnake Woman
They call her Bone Woman
Bone Woman is old,
Older than the Joshua tree.
She is bent and stooped,
Closer to earth than sky.
Her hands are withered
Like some ancient oracle
Through a wrinkle on the sole of her foot
She feels everything.
She is Hunter
She is Gatherer
She is Keeper of the bones, bones.
Northern California is a small paradise. In winter, the velvety green hills call to mind Ireland, the ancestral land of my great-grandparents. In summer, we're only a short drive from the coast, which is always dramatic and awe-inspiring. The hills are carpeted in wild lupine and Indian paintbrush, and the seals are always at play in the waves. Since that first time I'd seen the ocean as a child, I'd always had a dream of living near the ocean.
Richard and I married a few weeks after arriving in California, in September, 1994, in a small private ceremony at St. Teresa's Church in Bodega Bay. If you've ever watched Hitchcock's movie The Birds, you'll see our tiny church in several of the scenes, right next to the old schoolhouse where Tippi Hedren helped to rescue the school children.
Richard was working as a teacher, and I was working at the public library and a children's bookstore, speaking to schools and taking on part-time jobs here and there until my writing could support me. Richard eventually went back to graduate school to get a master's degree in counseling, and is now a Marriage and Family Therapist in Santa Rosa, CA.
I kept on writing, never short of ideas, always trying out different ways of storytelling, new voices. A few years after moving to California, I finally found the courage to give up my bevy of part time jobs, and became a full-time writer. I continued to speak at schools and conferences around the country. I was speaking at a local conference in northern California, when I was asked to be on a panel with my agent, Kendra Marcus, and an editor from Candlewick Press, Mary Lee Donovan.
Even though we'd never met, we role-played for the audience a scene that demonstrated what the author/ editor relationship was like. We were immediately drawn to each other, and Mary Lee asked me to please keep her in mind if I ever had a manuscript that might be for her.
Call it synchronicity. I've been extremely blessed with synchronistic events in my life. Richard Jackson, my editor of over ten years, was at a time and place in his career where he was not in a position to accept and publish as many books as I was writing. When I met Mary Lee, I was just beginning to think about what other editor I might work with. After meeting her, I had such hopes that we would make a good match.
At the time, I had written a collection of twenty-five short, easy-to-read vignettes about the sibling dynamics of a feisty older sister and her little brother. I showed them to Dick Jackson, who just wasn't in a position to deal with so many stories, and easy readers were not selling at the time.
My agent suggested I take the individual episodes, and turn them into a short novel for kids just starting to read chapter books. She assured me that we had to introduce my writing to a new editor with something really strong, and one of the stories, called The Toad Pee Club, really caught her eye, and her funnybone.
I spent the better part of a year writing the short novel. We sent the manuscript, based on those laugh-out-loud funny stories about growing up with four sisters, to Mary Lee Donovan at Candlewick. My character was a third grader full of moods, good moods and bad moods, who enjoyed tormenting her little brother, Stink. Like the time she put the fake hand in the toilet to scare the pants off of him!
The book was called Judy Moody.
Mary Lee liked it right away, and had a clear and wonderful vision for the book. She put me through several tough revisions, including one where I had to cut about one hundred pages from the manuscript (these papers later became Judy Moody Saves the World!).
She also brought the inventive mind of illustrator Peter Reynolds to the project. Together with Ann Stott, the designer, they came up with a whole new look for the third grade chapter book.
We set out with only one thing in mind. To make the best book we knew how. Each of us had a part.
We didn't know then that Judy Moody would hit the bestseller lists, reaching millions of young readers and being printed in languages all across the world, from Japanese to Latvian.
I didn't know then that Judy Moody would take me to meet my fans, not only across the United States, but all over Europe and soon, Australia. I didn't know then that Judy Moody would connect with readers in a way I hadn't known before.
Story. All these years, it's the power of story that connects writer and reader.
Katherine Paterson, said it best in an essay in her book Heart in Hiding:
What I think I'm doing when I write for the young is to articulate the glorious but fragile human condition for those whose hearts have heard but whose mouths, at the age of five or ten or fourteen, can't yet express. But the truth is that I can't really express it either. So what happens is a reciprocal gift between writer and reader: one heart in hiding reaching out to another. We are trying to communicate that which lies in our deepest heart, which has no words, which can only be hinted at through the means of a story. And somehow, miraculously, a story that comes from deep in my heart calls from a reader that which is deepest in his or her heart, and together from our secret hidden selves we create a story that neither of us could have told alone.
I've always loved working with clay, as well as words. When I work with clay, I'm reminded of my first pottery teacher, Betsy Krome, who asked us to cut open the first hundred bowls we made—to see the inside.
This is what the writer asks of herself, of each story. This is what makes me a writer. Always wanting to see the inside.
I'm lucky to be a writer. I tell kids I'm lucky because I get to live in my imagination all day. I get to stay up late and go to work in my pajamas, spending my days, as Dick Jackson often put it, "making stuff up until it's true."
Carl Jung says no matter how isolated you are or how lonely you feel, if you listen to your own voice, if you pay attention, if you try to see the inside … unknown friends will come and seek you.
All those years ago, I had no idea of the unknown friends that would come and seek me … Hermit Crab, Iguana, The Potato Man, Beezy, Amanda Frankenstein, Judy Moody.
What a gift it's been.
Brief BiographiesBiographies: Al Loving Biography - Loved Painting from Early Age to Alice McGill Biography - PersonalMegan McDonald (1959-) - Awards, Honors, Writings, Sidelights, Autobiography Feature Megan Mcdonald - Personal, Addresses, Career, Member, Work in Progress