I was asked once, as part of a party game, what I considered to be my best feature. I remember saying that I liked my hands because they were good at making things. They’ve been busy doing that all my life: drawing and painting, carving animals out of bars of soap, making Christmas ornaments from sequins and Styrofoam balls, building a horse’s head from papier mâché for a Halloween costume. My hands have scribbled across the pages of countless notebooks; they’ve danced across keyboards—from my first manual typewriter to my current computer—writing stories, poems, and plays. There’s one other thing my hands have always been good at: holding books and turning their pages while I traveled to other worlds, other times and places, in the company of characters I will never forget.
But as much as I loved creating things, I never once thought of being an artist or a writer–or anything else for that matter. I grew up at a time when women weren’t encouraged to have careers. So I went to college, not to prepare for my future but to become an educated person. I hadn’t really considered what was supposed to happen next. Then the last semester of my senior year I took an art class. Standing at the easel, charcoal flying across the cheap paper of my newsprint pad, I entered a state of perfect, intense, joyful concentration. I lost track of time. After three hours, I was always surprised (and disappointed) to discover that the class was over.
A week before graduation, my professor called me into his office. He said he wanted me to know that I was the only student in the class who wasn’t an art major and he was giving me the only A. He told me I had talent. That was the first of two major turning points in my life. The second one came a few years later. By then I was married, working as a medical illustrator, and raising two young daughters. Having loved books and reading all my life, I started visiting the children’s section of the library every week and bringing home stacks of books to share with them. The more I studied those books, the more I was dazzled by the many topics that could be explored through words and pictures, by the power they held to delight, and inform, and enrich young readers and their parents. I finally knew what I wanted to do with my life: write and illustrate books for children.
It’s been over thirty years since then, and I’ve published more than fifty books. I’ve worked as both an author and an illustrator, done picture books and novels, fiction and nonfiction. Even the media I’ve used for the illustrations, and the style of my art, has varied from book to book; I’ve worked in pencil, colored pencil, pen and ink, ink resist, pointillist dots, watercolor, gouache, pastels, acrylic, egg tempera, and many combinations of the above.
Over the years, as I’ve traveled to conferences and other events, I’ve had the privilege of meeting lots of other authors and artists. Listening to their stories, I’ve been struck by how different our various paths have been. One author/illustrator got his first book contract shortly after starting art school; another turned to writing after years as a middle school teacher; there was an artist who worked in a cottage with no electricity, heated by a wood-burning stove; another did all his illustrations on a computer in a high-tech studio. Yet despite our differences, we all seem to have arrived at the same happy place: a life where we get to do the things we love every day, follow our personal interests in whatever direction they lead, and using our hands (and imaginations) to create something worthwhile and important—books that children read.