|I wasn't the first to sit down at school spelling bees, but I never brought home a trophy, either. I spent many gym classes far out in the field, daydreaming and praying that the ball wouldn't come too close. My fingers scrambled when I tried to play piano. I messed up the positions in ballet. My Halloween costumes were unspectacular.
But I had a knack for memorizing poems. In second grade, Mrs. Dunwoody pushed me out the door with a poem that I was to memorize on my way to another classroom. I shuffled down the hall, head bent, murmuring, then recited three stanzas to a delighted teacher but unamazed third grade.
It seemed cool that words could rhyme. The rhythm in poetry lured me, but I liked stories, too.
And because I loved to read, I wanted to write. I read and wrote both at home and at school. Among the trees behind our house, I played that I was Sacajawea, Louisa May Alcott, or Archie's pal Betty.
Much of my writing featured the fairies, trolls, and heroic prairie girls I liked to read about. But in fifth grade, my teacher asked us to write about something that really happened to us. I was stumped. My own life in the middle of Massachusetts seemed so ordinary. I didn't guide Lewis and Clark over mountains or put my Christmas dinner in a basket to carry to a poor family or go on dates at soda shops. But after staring at the kitchen table for a while (like the sky, kitchen tables are packed with ideas), I remembered a recent day when we heard thumping in the clothes dryer. When my Mom opened the door, our cat Fluffo calmly stepped out with his superior cat look that said, "I meant do do that." Fluffo must have curled inside the cozy spot, then been surprised when the door snapped shut and he began to spin.
I was asked to read aloud the description of my cat's elegantly lifted knee. I can still remember the laughter and the sense of power I felt from making people see what I'd seen. Well. I couldn't create the splendid noise of a ball smacking a bat. I never mastered an arabesque and I couldn't think of clever things to say until people had left the room, but now I had this, I had writing. Learning the tricks and pleasures of language made my life less lonely.
I grew up into someone who reads books, writes books, and teaches books. After finishing college, I got married, had a child, and in the natural course of events began to read and reread Goodnight Moon and other books with bunnies, badgers, and armadillos as protagonists. Like thousands of others before me, I thought: I could write this stuff. But I'd written fiction for adults, and I knew that clear, easy sentences can trick readers into thinking that they must have been easy to write.
At least I could research while hauling my daughter around the library or snuggled next to her under blankets. I snuck peeks at the publisher's name on the spine while my daughter told me to get on with the story. In spare moments, I thought about what topics had been done and what hadn't and what I most wanted to say. I scanned The Cat in the Hat. I studied old favorites like Angus Lost, amazed by its page-turning hooks: that snowstorm! that mailman! Picture books, like poems, are meant to be read aloud, so I murmured words until the rhythm felt right. Every word must be chosen with care or ruthlessly cut. I stared down sentences and obsessed over commas.
I sent drafts to Bruce, Dina, and Lisa, the members of my writing group. Every few weeks we met in coffee shops where we argued, encouraged, gossiped a bit, questioned and learned to trust each other. Sometimes I muttered as I drove home; once in a while I felt elated.
Always, the next morning, I scratched out sentences or paragraphs or chapters and began to write again.
I made lots of trips to copy shops. I mailed envelopes with my work and another envelope addressed to myself so that editors who didn't want my writing could return it. I got back enough of these envelopes for one mail carrier to ask if I was sending letters to myself. Finally I got a wonderful phone call. (Thank you, Liz!) My writing friends and my family gathered for a party.