Writer. Teacher. Mommer.
I did not like to write as a kid because I am left handed, and writing with a pencil smears graphite all over my pinky. Plus, I have crummy handwriting, and tend to squeeze too hard. I did not like writing until middle school, when I learned to type.
However, I have always loved to read. Before I could read, I was read to. One of my favorites as a child was a picture book called The Little Store on the Corner. In it, the kids are disappointed because the new guy doesn’t make ice cream cones with a small scoop hidden inside the cone, the way the last guy did. On one page there is a cutaway diagram showing how the ice cream cone ought to be made.
I don’t know why I love this book so much, but I do. My mom was kind enough to read it to me over and over and over. Thank you Mom. I still think about that book sometimes when I’m eating an ice cream cone. I still love ice cream.
Once I learned how to read, I read and read and read. I read in bed at night. I read in bed in the morning. I read at the dinner table. I read in the car. I read in the hammock in our backyard. Reading took me out of my boring life on Pine Street in Laconia, New Hampshire, and transplanted me somewhere exciting. Once I learned how to read I couldn’t stop! (By the way, have you ever tried to stop yourself from reading? Look at a word and just try to stop yourself from reading it. I bet you can’t!)
Authors I adore: Gary Paulsen, Shel Silverstein, Jane Yolen, Jerry Spinelli, Barbara Park, Sara Pennypacker, Karen Cushman, Laurie Halse Anderson, Judy Blume, E.B. White, C.S. Lewis, John Green, Louis Sachar, Pam Munoz Ryan, Katherine Patterson, Lois Lowry, Kate DiCamillo and more and more….
In seventh grade, my class read the book Lord of the Flies by William Golding. It was one of those books where it kind of kills you to turn each page, because you love it so much you don’t want it to end. But it did end. When we had finished the book our teacher assigned us to write the epilogue. What would the characters say to each other if they saw each other once more?
It was the best assignment I’d ever had, because I adored the characters in Lord of the Flies and I was certain of what they would say. The process of writing and revising was heavenly. If you like writing, you know exactly what I’m talking about. The drive to get the words just right felt like a fun, challenging video game I just couldn’t stop trying to win. The hours slid by. I don’t know how many drafts I wrote.
To this day, I still encourage young writers in my classroom to start this way if they feel stuck. If creating an entire story seems too overwhelming, think of a story you love and simply write more of it. Write fan fiction. Write another novel in your favorite series. Write what should have happened in that movie last night. Just write!
When I got to college, I majored in English. I wanted to learn how to create stories that kids would enjoy reading. (If you like reading and writing, you might think about majoring in English one day yourself.) Once in college my professor spent one entire hour talking about a simple seven-word sentence.
Nothing but one sentence for a whole hour! If that sounds weird but sort of awesome, it was! What was the sentence, you ask? It was a line from a 1964 Simon and Garfunkel song, called “America”. In the song, a British singer and his girlfriend are touring the U.S. The song is about what he sees and how he is feeling.
The sentence we studied comes about two-thirds of the way through the song. Here it is:
The moon rose over an open field.
The moon rose over an open field. That is all! It is a lovely sentence, simple and clear, and I still sing it to myself sometimes when I happen to spot the moon looking pretty above a field somewhere.
Once I had my English degree in hand, I decided the thing I really wanted to do was teach, so I went back to college and became a teacher. I wanted to be there when kids fell in love with writing, just as I had years before. Fawcett Elementary School in Tacoma was nice enough to welcome me as a student teacher in a third-grade class. (A whole lot of climbing of the classroom bookshelf went on in my room that Spring. Still not sure the principal knows about it.) Student teaching may have been a trial by fire, but there will always be a place in my heart for Tacoma and the kids growing up there.
Then I taught middle school for a while, mostly language arts and history. So many terrific young writers passed through my doors over the years! I taught Washington State history, like the fictional Mrs. Markus in The Octopus Under the Bridge. (By the way, for being among the younger states in the country, Washington has managed to pack in a lot of interesting history in a short time! Being from out-of-state, a lot of it was new to me. Read about The Pig War if you want to learn about a battle where nobody got hurt. Read about The Whitman Massacre if you’re ready for a terrifying native-versus-settler revenge story.)
These days, I teach a combined fourth and fifth grade class at Minter Creek Elementary School on the Key Peninsula, just across the bridge from Tacoma. I love, love, love teaching students this age! Every year my students write novels as part of NaNoWriMo. We take two whole months to plan, draft, revise and edit. Then we design our covers, collect “brags” from friends and family members, and write up a summary for the back. Every kid goes home with a bound copy of his or her book on the last day of school before break. It makes my day when a kid tells me “I’m already thinking about the next novel I want to write.”
How did I come up with the idea for The Octopus Under the Bridge? I spent the summer of 2014 helping my mom paint a house in Franklin, New Hampshire. It was a big house, and a lot of work. As you can imagine, it was very boring. As my paintbrush swished back and forth, my mind wandered. I started missing my home in Washington State. I started thinking about the history there*, and wondering (as I always do) about the future.
Maybe it was the paint fumes, but suddenly the main character, Jay, appeared in my imagination. Then I saw his warm and kindly Grandma on the Key Peninsula, his smart but secretive parents, lovely Sarah, and little sister Flossie. A story started to take shape in my mind. I went home that night and started typing. I typed as fast as I could, afraid I would forget details. It took me ten days to write the first draft of what became The Octopus Under the Bridge. I wrote early in the morning, I wrote late at night. Always with dried paint on my hands.
Then six years passed while I was busy doing other things. I would revise my story, set it aside, revise it some more, set it aside again. My dad, the children’s book author Robert Kinerk, read every draft and gave me so much helpful advice. Then, in the summer of 2020, I picked it up and published it! Now I am a published author!
Part of me always believed that becoming a published author was basically the real-life equivalent of “happily ever after”. Life’s no fairy tale, but I wanted to write a book for so long I had kinda convinced myself that once the book came out, the world would be my oyster. (I love that phrase: The world is your oyster. It means you can do whatever you want.)
But the world, as it turns out, is not really my oyster. In some ways yes, but in other ways no. We’re still under quarantine as I type this. I’m not sure that I will be back to teach in my classroom this fall. My daughter is unhappy about possibly starting middle school online. My stepson, in high school, doesn’t want to miss out on junior year. My dog has fleas. My husband’s back aches. And there are always, always, always (even now, as I type this) dirty dishes to wash.
As you know, one of the hardest parts of quarantine is loneliness. Even people who value alone-time and like having lots of long quiet hours to read, write, draw, think, or just be alone, even we need to see our friends sometimes. Yes, I can chat with them online, but it isn’t the same.
So here’s how I’ve been filling my quarantine hours. First, writing. I like to write early in the morning before I get busy with everything else. I write until I can’t think of anything else to say–usually an hour or two. When I’m done writing, I go outside and water the tomato plants. (Tomato plants have furry green stems that smell like tomatoes, and beautiful star-shaped yellow flowers.) I check to see if the chickens have knocked over their food container (they usually have) and I set it back up for them.
Then it’s time to take our dog for a walk. Rudy is a three-year-old black lab. He holds the title of World’s Friendliest Dog. (Not really, but I think he could win if it was a real contest. Rudy loves absolutely every person he meets. If he met you he would love you like crazy.) We walk in the woods behind our house, the same trail every day, but we never get sick of it.
Then breakfast, dishes, laundry, more dishes (remember how I told you dishes never end in my house?) and then, for a little while, free-time. I like to read. Sometimes I draw. I like to make silly cartoon faces. Or I will take a fruit or vegetable from the kitchen and try to draw it precisely. Shading is hard. Sometimes I use watercolor paints, which are tricky and I am not very good at, but I keep trying because watercolor art can be so beautiful. If the house isn’t blazing hot, I often make bread, bagels, or pizza. (Don’t mix computer time with baking time or you’ll wind up with bits of flour gumming up your keyboard. Can you guess how I know?)
I wonder what you are choosing to do during these long, long, at-home hours? In what ways are you making the world your oyster? Are you reading? Are you writing? What else have you been up to? Click here to write to me and tell me all about it. If you write to me I will write you back!
*A note about the history in my book: One hundred and twenty-five years ago the Key Peninsula really was home to a group of free-thinking anarchists, similar to the colony of Collectivists in my book. The Anarchists of Home Colony on the Key published their ideas in newspapers that were read around the world. The radical political activist Jay Fox (1870-1961) was the inspiration for the character of Jay in my book. Click here to read more about the history of anarchists on the Key Peninsula.