When did I decide that I wanted to be a writer? I can’t remember precisely, but I was ten or perhaps twelve years old.
The idea might have come to me because of my brothers. My two older brothers, my childhood companions, were always better than me in math, geography, history, and most other subjects. They knew about stuff like astronomy and chemistry, and they were better at building model airplanes and making stink bombs and developing photographs in our bathroom. The one thing I seemed better at was writing stories and poems. I was always being praised in school for them one teacher even Xeroxed a poem of mine and taught it to both his classes!
Also, I was real daydreamer. When I was little I would hide between two big armchairs in our living room and pretend I was in a submarine, or an airplane, or a space ship. In bed at night I made up long stories in which I was always the hero. Hours would go by before I realized that I hadn’t been sleeping. Writing was a way of daydreaming on paper, of imagining other lives.
One of my most vivid memories of being young is going fishing with my brothers. While they fished I would sit under a tree with a pen and paper and write. They were happy if they came home with some fish for my mother to make into gefilte fish, a Jewish delicacy, while I was happy if I came home with a story.
I was born in 1957 and had a happy childhood in the Toronto suburbs. My cousin Ellen and I put on marionette shows for birthday parties. I would write them, and the two of us would control the puppets while my brothers turned on and off the music and changed the sets. I also liked doing magic tricks, although I wasn’t very good at them. I’m still interested in puppets and magic and both have shown up in my stories. I also liked to write plays for school. I was fascinated by animals (we had lots of small pets mice, rats, guinea pigs, rabbits, lizards) and desperately wanted a monkey as a pet. Fortunately, my parents didn’t let me; monkeys need to be in the wild.
Unlike my brothers, I was not that big a reader when I was young. Sure, I read, and before that I can remember both my parents reading to me. (I remember my mother taking me to the library to choose picture books and my father reading to me Stone Soup in French and translating it, which I thought was a kind of magic.) But when I turned sixteen I decided that if I really wanted to be a writer I better start reading the classics. So I went into the school library and picked up a dull looking hardcover book. It was Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. I started to read and from the first line I was hooked. After that I read a dozen more Dickens novels, but Great Expectations is still one of my favourite books.
I went to the University of Toronto for an undergraduate degree in English, and won eight student writing awardspretty big encouragement. I was also very lucky to have parents who encouraged me and were willing to help support me whenever I was struggling to make a living. I started publishing stories and poems in the “little magazines” small magazines dedicated to publishing literary work. After graduating, I worked as an editor at a few magazines, and later became a freelance writer, publishing articles and reviews in all kinds of publications.
It wasn’t easy becoming a published author. In fact, at one point I got so frustrated that I decided to publish a story of my own as a little book. It was called “Nora by the Sea” and it attracted a surprising amount of attention. (I’ll always be proud that I published it myself.) Shortly after that came my first books with established publishers.
But it was several more years before I wrote my first children’s picture book, Gogol’s Coat. I’d long wanted to write for kids but just hadn’t been ready. Actually, my first kids’ story exists in only one copy. It’s called The Venetian Cat and I wrote it for my nephew when he was small. It’s about a Canadian cat who gets lost in Venice and befriends another cat who shows him how to survive. (Later, I also wrote little books, and drew the pictures, for my own two daughters. And on holidays I would tell them long stories about an adventurous girl named Galilah McGuffin, a new chapter each night. They’ve often asked me to write them down and publish them as books, but I can’t remember what I said!)
And so now I write for children as much as I write for adults. In fact, I’m usually working on both a kids’ book and an adult book, and I think each one influences the other. I love the form of the picture bookso short yet able to say so much. And I just love finding a great illustrator to do the pictures and then see what new elements he or she can bring to the story. And writing novels, like the Kaspar Snit series, is tremendous fun. But hard work too.
My four children are my first editors. They read my manuscripts and often give me excellent advice. And of course the editors at my publishing houses are extremely important. They help me to see what is strongest in my stories, and what needs more work. And they catch my spelling mistakes too.
I love visiting schools and libraries, reading to kids and talking to them about my books and their own stories too. I feel very lucky to be doing something that I love. And to be able to share my stories with others.