At the 2014 National Book Festival
Previous National Book Festival Appearances
From the 2009 National Book Festival
What sparked your imagination for your book – Peace, Locomotion?
Long after I finished writing Locomotion, I realized the main character, Lonnie, stayed with me. It’s hard to write and not be aware of the many things going on in the world. The war was very much with us and as I thought about Lonnie, I thought ‘what does it mean to be a child of war?’ and so I brought his foster brother, Jenkins, who is off fighting in the war, more to the forefront of the story. Mostly I wanted to write about Peace – the way we find it inside ourselves and out in the world. Lonnie is searching for both paths to peace.
You have written many books. Do you have any special favorites among them?
I don’t have any favorites – I like them all for different reasons. I’m usually most excited about my latest book – because it’s new to me and I still am discovering stuff I like about it. And I’m always excited when I get new ideas for books.
What challenges do you face in your writing process? How do you overcome them?
I think my biggest challenge these days is trying to be both a good mom and a good writer. I have a seven-year-old daughter and a nineteen-month-old son so the days can get pretty crazy. Before I had kids, I could write whenever I wanted all day long. Now I have to be very disciplined about carving out writing time and sticking to it. And I have to be disciplined about letting the writing go when the kids are around needing my attention. Before kids, I could have the characters in my head all day long. Now, in order to be emotionally present for my family, I have to turn the writing off at the end of the day. Sometimes I cheat though and pick it back up once the kids are asleep or early in the morning before they wake up. I think one of the really cool things is being able to discover new writers with my daughter who is a new reader. Right now, she loves Fashion Kitty by Cherisse Mericle Harper and when I see her sitting quietly reading on her own, I think ‘wow, that’s a writer after my own heart.’
What tips or advice can you share with young students who hope to start writing?
I think it’s important to read lots and write what you know. By reading, a young writer realizes how much they actually DO know about writing and about their own lives. They meet other characters and discover similarities between themselves and those characters and that place where the reader and the character meet, is the place where all good writing begins.
Can you suggest a fun writing topic to get them started?
Choose a year in your life and write down every single detail you can remember about that year – who your friends were, what your favorite outfits were, what your neighborhood was like, your room, the songs you loved, and on and on. When you get to the place where you can’t remember anymore, start making it up. Don’t stop writing to think about spelling or grammar – just write.
What is your list of favorite children or teen books?
I have so many books that I loved as a child and love now that I don’t know even know where to begin. For young children – anything by Mo Willems, Cherisse Mericle Harper, Eloise Greenfield, Rick Walton, Chris Myers, Ashley Brian, and For older readers, Linda Sue Park, Kahmira Sheth, Kate DiCamillo, Christopher Paul Curtis, Virginia Hamilton… the list goes on and on.
How do you decide on themes for your books?
My books tend to be character-driven and I never know what they’re going to be about. I just start writing and let the writing take me. I have some good ideas – like with Lonnie and the war and stuff, but mostly, I just have a character in my head and trust the rest will come.
How important is research in the development of your books? Can you explain the process as well?
I don’t like doing research and usually save that for last or ask my journalists friends to do it for me. I’m sure that’s why I love realistic fiction. But even that requires research sometimes – When I was writing HUSH, I had to learn a lot about the Witness Protection Program. In the case of After Tupac and D Foster, I had to research Tupac Shakur’s life. So even in ‘writing what I know’ I learn there is lots I don’t know.
What is your advice to parents for passing the joys of reading on to their children?
READ to your children from the time they are in the world. Children learn by what they live and a child who grows up in a home where they are being read to and see their caregivers reading will become readers. Books aren’t cheap but libraries are free so USE THEM. I grew up in the Brooklyn Public Library because my family couldn’t afford to buy lots of books. I still use the library all the time and love it.
Can you tell us about any new books that you will be working on during the coming year?
I am finishing up three picture books – Pecan Pie Baby, illustrated by Sophie Blackall, will be published in 2010; The Rope, illustrated by James Ransome, will be published in 2011; and Each Kindness, illustrated by Shadra Strickland, will be published soon after that. I am also working on Locomotion, the Play that will open at The Kennedy Center in 2011. And of course, various young adult novels that are in different stages of disrepair.
If you weren’t creating children’s books, what do you think you would be doing?
My dream would be to play for the New York Knicks (or the Phoenix Suns if the Knicks didn’t work out – only because I like Arizona.) If I couldn’t do that, I’d love to design clothes for kids and babies. I sew a lot and love figuring out patterns and putting fabrics together.
Do you have a website where young people can learn more about you and your work?