I have been making up stories ever since I
was a little girl. I lived on a dirt road in Vermont with
few other children nearby. I didn't have a television until
I was much older, and my brother wasn't born until I was
four, so I had to make my own entertainment. I invented an
imaginary friend who climbed in my window every night. I
also made up stories about my stuffed animals, giving them
silly names and personalities. They seemed as real to me
as the characters in my novels do now.
Books and stories were always important in
my family. While my parents read to me, I pored over the
words, but I couldn't figure out how to read them. One day
when I was about four years old, my mother and I were out
driving. We came to a stop sign. I remember, very clearly,
that I suddenly understood that those four white letters
- S-T-O-P - made a word I knew. I could read!
One Sunday morning soon after that, I lay in
bed studying "Little Lulu," my favorite comic strip. Somehow,
the letters became more than just squiggly black lines. They
made sounds, and the sounds turned into words, like "POW!" and "EEK!" I
felt as if a big light bulb had just lit up over my head,
just as it did for Little Lulu when she got a new idea. Now,
whenever I was lonely and had no one to play with, I could
disappear into books.
I started to write my first stories when I
was in second grade. I folded construction paper and stapled
the pages into small, hand-size books. Each page had a picture
with words to go with it. I was very proud of my stories,
and liked to read them at night, under the covers with a
flashlight, when I was supposed to be asleep.
By the time I was eight or nine, my brother,
Tom, and I created an imaginary kingdom with our stuffed
animals. We had kings, queens, courtiers, soldiers, cooks,
fools, and trouble-makers. Tom came up with many outlandish
names (such as a cross rabbit named Brick-Bat-Bun). I liked
to write about their adventures in a notebook.
My parents encouraged all this play-acting
and storytelling. My mother was very tolerant of our games,
which usually left animals and wooden blocks strewn across
the floor. At night, my father drew pictures of our stuffed animals
and let us make up stories to go with them.
Our parents read to us all the way through
childhood. When I was fourteen, I was very sick with the
measles. I had to stay in bed with the shades drawn and the
lights out. Worst of all, I wasn't allowed to read! I passed
my days listening to serialized stories on the radio. (I
never guessed that someday I would write a story that would
be serialized in the newspapers.) I waited in my dark room
until evening, when my mother pulled a chair into my closet,
turned on the light, and read "The Witch of Blackbird Pond." Her
voice came to me through a crack in the door. I listened
with my eyes closed, creating pictures in my mind to go with
On Sunday nights, my family enjoyed a "make
your own" supper. We ate sandwiches in the living room while
my father read from his favorite collection of James Thurber
stories. Sometimes, when he came to the funniest part, he
laughed so hard he couldn't go on. Tears ran down his cheeks
and he passed the book over to my mother so she could finish
the chapter. I was amazed that books and words could have
so much power.
I kept writing stories and poems of my own.
Even when my eighth grade English teacher encouraged me to
be a writer, my dream was to be an actress! Ever since I
was young, I had been playing dress-up with my best friend
Sally. We paraded up and down in my grandmother's high-heeled
shoes and slinky "flapper" dresses from the 1920s. As we
grew older, we invented characters, then put them into plays,
giving ourselves the starring roles. I acted in plays in
junior high and high school, and went to theater school the
summer before college. I also taught drama at a summer camp.
Although I never became an actress, my work in theater turned
out to be great preparation for writing novels. For each
part, I had to imagine what it was like to live inside someone
else's skin—just as I do now when I invent characters
During my junior year at Sarah Lawrence College,
I studied with a wonderful writing teacher named Harvey Swados.
He sent us on strange, exciting assignments in New York City.
We went to the fish market at dawn and watched the boats
come in. We sat on hard benches in Night Court, where people
who had been arrested lined up before the judge. We wandered
all over the city, taking notes on conversations and soaking
up smells, textures, and tastes. Afterward, we wrote stories
about what we had seen and heard. From that class, I learned
that some of the best writing comes from experience.
I also studied education in college, and ran
my first writing workshop for children. After I graduated,
I worked in special education in Washington, D.C., then lived
in England and wrote a book about some of their most exciting
schools. When I moved to Vermont, I started my own pre-school,
using some of the teaching ideas I had seen in England. My
sons, Derek and Ethan, were born, and I carried on my family's
tradition of reading aloud. As we devoured the Arthur Ransome
series and the "Ramona" books, or laughed over Tintin comics,
I started to wonder: Could I do this? Could I write a story
summer, I drove from Vermont to California with my family,
visiting sites on the original Oregon Trail, as well as places
described by Laura Ingalls Wilder in her "Little House" series.
I read everything I could find about the gold rush and the
Oregon Trail. Most of the stories were told from a man's
point of view. What was that westward journey like for children,
and for girls and women? I began writing a diary about a
young woman's experience on a wagon train headed to California.
Slowly, the diary became a novel, and the main character
changed from a young woman to a teenager. I was creating
my first book for young people.
West Against the Wind was published in
1987 and I have been writing for young readers ever since.
I also carry on my love of teaching by visiting schools,
and by running writing workshops for students of all ages.
In 2001, I joined the faculty of the Vermont College MFA
in Writing for Children and Young Adults, where I am privileged
to teach adult writers who are also creating stories for
About My Family
My sons, Derek and Ethan, have always helped me with my
books. Derek is a scientist who helped me to explain the
geology of the California gold rush to young readers. His
wife, Ali, is also a scientist who writes about environmental
issues, including climate change. Ethan is an artist who
has taught me a lot about design and illustration. ( He also
created the icons on my home page!) They both gave me good
advice about soccer, as well as suggestions about music and
dialogue, for Blue Coyote and Twelve
Days in August.
My husband, John Straus, is a pediatrician who reads all
my drafts and sometimes helps me come up with ideas for stories.
We live in Massachusetts and enjoy music, canoeing, traveling,
visiting museums, and gardening together.
Even though I live in the city now, I have spent many years
in the country, and my husband and I share a small cabin
in Vermont with my sons. When we are at our cabin, we see
lots of wildlife, including deer, foxes, coyotes, and bears—as
well as many different kinds of birds. We love the quiet
of the forest, the views of the mountains, and the noisy
springtime chorus of frogs in our little pond. I like to
know the names of birds, flowering plants, and trees, so
I enjoy taking classes that help me to learn more about the
I am very concerned about our environment, and am doing
all I can to work with groups that protect our natural resources
and care for our fragile planet. One of my favorite volunteer
jobs is being a water tester on the Charles River near my
home. On the third Tuesday of each month, I get up long before
dawn and join a crew of other volunteers who test the river
from its source in central Massachusetts all the way to its
outlet in Boston Harbor. At six A.M., my testing partner
and I lower a bucket from a bridge high above the river into
the dark river water, haul it up, and then pour it carefully
into our test bottles. We put the bottles on ice and rush
them to a collection point. From there, the bottles go to
a laboratory for testing, so we can see whether the Charles
is dirty or clean that month. Our group hopes that, by the
year 2006, people might be able to swim in the river again.
On Earth Day every year, my husband and I join hundreds of
volunteers from many towns who get together to clean up the
banks of the river. We fill big dumpsters with garbage, and
hope that a cleaner river will help the birds and fish who
I also volunteer for an energy committee in my town, and
I am the proud owner of a hybrid car, which has a combination
gas and electric engine that releases less pollution and
uses half as much fuel as most regular vehicles. My car is
very sleek, and her name is “Princess.”
When I speak to young people, I am always interested to
hear about their interests in nature. If you or your friends
belong to an interesting environmental organization, or have
started a project to help take care of wildlife or to clean
up your neighborhood, I hope you’ll let me know about
your activities by going to the Guest