|Biography [Page 2]||[Page 1] [Page 3]|
Barbara in The Children's Bookshop in Montana
When I returned to Montana, I not only went to work in a Montessori school there, but also opened up a children's bookstore with a friend, Georgia Johnson, who had been trained as a children's librarian. We both loved children's books and jumped into this business endeavor with much enthusiasm. But before long, Alan had finished his course of study in forestry and soils, and took a job with the Soil Conservation Service in Goldendale, Washington. I sold my share of the bookstore to Georgia and moved to eastern Washington.
In Goldendale, I worked as a children's librarian in the quaint public library. We came to know the Columbia River area and Mt. Adams, and picked and canned all the peaches we could stand. I got an even better education in children's books at my job in the library. We were also able to spend time with my college roommate Kristin Skotheim who lived north of us in the town of Toppenish. She taught at Project Pallatisha for handicapped pre-schoolers on the Yakima Indian reservation and took us to our first real pow wow. Later on I would do a retelling of a Native American story from this area of the country for Harcourt Inc. called Coyote and the Fire Stick.
After two years in Goldendale, Alan was offered a job transfer to the western part of the state, to Bellingham, Washington. Bellingham was midway between the two lively cities of Seattle and Vancouver. I was very drawn to the awesome landscape of water, mountains, and trees, and to the lifestyle and myths of the Northwest Coast native peoples in this northwest corner of Washington State. Alan and I traveled up and down the coast where it was an everyday experience to watch tens of eagles circling overhead. We traveled to the interior of British Columbia where native villages dotted with impressive totem poles stood along the rivers. I volunteered in my friend Kristin's Lummi Head Start classroom and searched through local libraries hunting for information and stories. Besides Coyote and the Fire Stick, another one of my books has come out of this period of my life—The Girl Who Lived with the Bears, a Haida-Tlingit tale, also for Harcourt Inc.
It was while living in Bellingham that I became a writer. During all my years of preschool teaching (eleven), in all sorts of schools in all kinds of places, I told stories I made up on the spot to the children. I remember one school especially that had a large closet off the main room. Sometimes we'd go in there for a story. There's nothing like a dark closet for effect, especially around Halloween. A turning point came for me when one little girl asked for a particular story over again—one that I had told the year before. Much to my dismay, I couldn't remember it. I decided that I had better start writing down some of these stories.
So I began taking classes in writing books for children from Dr. Flora Fennimore at Western Washington University. She emphasized the joy of the process, not the focus on the end product. I learned that by writing more and more, my end product improved over time with practice. Listening to feedback from others and revising a lot helped. I found out that I loved to write and was reminded of my father's efforts. Before I was born, and off and on while I was growing tip, he had written poems and stories. He even had a short story published in Boy's Life during his Boy Scout leader's days, of which he was very proud.
This was also about the time that I had our first child, Josee, named after my grandpa Joe. She was a lively and alert baby, loved getting into things and pulling everything out from purses, drawers, and clean folded laundry hampers. I timed my writing sessions with her nap times and became a very disciplined writer. The minute she fell asleep, I would head for my tiny study. A lot of my early stories (never published) were about my experiences with Josee—berry picking, camping, carving pumpkins.
When Josee was a toddler, I took a course in writing for children given by Jane Yolen at Centrum in nearby Port Townsend, Washington. I had read every single one of Jane Yolen's books I could find while I was working at the Goldendale Public Library. She had been a favorite of Georgia's, my old bookstore partner, who first pointed out The Girl Who Cried Flowers to me.
Jane Yolen turned out to be a down-to-earth and charming person, and a most helpful and perceptive teacher. She not only listened to our stories, taught us how to critique each other's work, and inspired us to write and rewrite, but she also taught us about the nitty gritty aspects of writing and marketing.
I also met a whole group of people who were writing for children, including Nancy White Carlstrom, who turned out to be a kindred spirit. After the workshop, we both joined an ongoing Society of Children's Book Writers critique group in Seattle, which I drove to each week from Bellingham—an hour and a half away. The group was a great support during all the years when rejection letters were the norm. In my case, it was five years of rejection letters before I sold my first book to a publisher.
Barbara with her children Josee and Jeremy, 1983
We lived for a total of eight years in Bellingham and saw Josee in a new light as a big sister to a sweet and (at the time he seemed to be a) very mild tempered baby brother. I continued going to my writing group in Seattle, taking baby Jeremy in a basket to the meetings where he would sleep through all the critiquing. I adapted my writing to Josee and Jeremy's schedules, grabbing writing time when I could. Often I woke up early to write before anyone else was awake.
I had lots of writing ideas by this time, many from my early experiences of growing up in a large extended family. I became very interested in researching and writing about Eastern Europe because of my grandparents. Three out of four of them were from the "Old Country." I heard that term a lot while I was growing up, but I realized as an adult that I knew very little about what it was like in Eastern Europe or about how my grandparents lived when they were young. And I couldn't ask them. They were all gone.
I began to read everything I could on Eastern European life, especially memoirs and fiction by great Yiddish writers like Isaac Bashevis Singer and Shalom Aleichem. I looked at old photographs of small town shtetl life. Quite a few of my picture book stories came from this period of time when I read and thought about Eastern Europe and my grandparents—books like Just Enough Is Plenty: A Hanukkah Tale, Cakes and Miracles: A Purim Tale, and The Magician's Visit: A Passover Tale.
Once I brought my first published book, Just Enough Is Plenty: A Hanukkah Tale, to my cousin Sarah to show it to her. By this time, she was my only relative still alive who had lived in Eastern Europe before World War II. She looked at the book, looked up at me, and said, "This is just the way it was." Her words made me feel so good.
Another story based on my early years called "Ketsele's Gift" was published in Cricket in April of 1989. The girl in the story is based on me and the grandfather on my grandpa Joe. When I do school visits, I like to read this story and talk about what is true in it and what is fiction. I learned a lot about myself and my relationship with my grandfather from writing this story. And I find that the discoveries I make when I write are one of the most exciting parts of being a writer.
This incident—making a present for my grandfather for his first visit to my new house in Philadelphia—was a memory that had stuck in my mind for many years. By writing the story, I discovered it had stayed with me for a reason—there had been something unresolved that continued to bother me over the years, something I did not understand. I had worked for days on the present—a notebook full of Hebrew words—and thought my grandfather would be so pleased and would love the fact that I was learning his language in my new Hebrew school. But when I gave him the notebook, he hardly paid any attention to it. I was very disappointed and never knew why he didn't react the way I had expected.
In writing the story, I realized that as a nine year old I hadn't understood that he spoke Yiddish and not Hebrew. They are two very different languages that use the same alphabet. I wondered if he would have been excited if I had done the notebook in Yiddish instead. So, in my story, the girl figures out this difference in the two languages herself and starts a new notebook for her grandfather with Yiddish words. He is very pleased and ends up teaching her more and more Yiddish. Much to my surprise, this story turned out to be all about communication between a girl and her grandfather, and the frustrations of a granddaughter who can't speak to her grandfather in his language. Ketsele's Gift has a happy ending and I felt a lot better after writing it. I couldn't change the past by writing about it, but I could certainly understand it better. I find I often work out questions I have, and problems I am thinking about, through my writing.
One idea for a book that was specifically inspired by being in Bellingham is called Red Means Good Fortune: A Story of San Francisco's Chinatown. The idea for this story came from a conversation I had with a friend there about prejudice and minorities in the Northwest. She related some stories her grandmother, a native Bellinghamster, told her about the Chinese who worked on the railroad line that ended in Bellingham. Her grandmother said that when they finished the line, the opening to one of their tunnels was purposely blocked up so that the whole crew was killed. I was horrified by this story and always meant to look up the incident in old newspaper files in Bellingham to see if it was a true story. I never did. But her story led me to do research on the Chinese immigrants on the West Coast. I was curious to find out if there had been this much prejudice against the Chinese and discovered that there had. I wove this research into the story for Red Means Good Fortune about a boy Jin Mun who lives in San Francisco's Chinatown, whose father owns a laundry, and whose brother helps build the railroad. The plot revolves around Jin Mun's accidental meeting with a Chinese slave girl Wai Hing and his plans to buy her freedom.
As it happens, I knew nothing about Chinese slavery until I came across stories about it in the books I read. Originally, I thought my book would be about a boy who worked on the railroad. Only after doing all the research did I decide to focus the story on Jin Mun and Wai Hing. This is one of the interesting aspects of researching an historical fiction story—the research can influence the plot and change its direction.
In looking back now after I've written a number of books, I realize that much of my writing grows out of my interest in my own cultural background and religion, and in others'. When I think of myself as that sixth grader who read every book I could find on ancient Egypt, I realize that it wasn't archaeology that I was interested in so much as people and the way they have lived and do live in different times and places, and how they do when they're transplanted from one place to another, just as I seemed continually destined to be.
This interest periodically pops up in my life in the form of actually "exploring" (to use my father's term) different people's neighborhoods or villages, attending a variety of places of worship, and talking to a mix of spiritual leaders. Never having taken a formal comparative religions course, I have often created my own. During my first year of college, I remember dragging friends to different kinds of Services—Lutheran one week, Ethical Culture or Quaker another, once even to a mission on skid row in downtown Chicago where we were given free doughnuts and coffee and preaching besides. I still am very much interested in religions, my own and others', in what people believe, how they pray, how they celebrate, how they try to answer the "big" questions.
In Bellingham I picked up on this "exploring" of religion again, this time within Judaism. I had lived in places that were very isolated as far as my own religion was concerned, places that did not even have a synagogue. Now I lived close to cities like Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia, which had many choices.
One Saturday, I drove up to Vancouver to "try" a service at Or Shalom, a Jewish group. I remember entering a dark hallway, standing there transfixed, as I listened to a man with a deep and rich voice tell a story from the Old Country, a story about faith and magical prophets and charity.
Over the next eight years, I heard many more stories from Rabbi Daniel Siegel and his wife Hanna Tiferet Siegel. As it turned out, the Siegels and Or Shalom opened a whole new world to me within my own religion.
The stories the Siegels told drew from many sources, including Talmud and Midrash (terms I wasn't too sure about), Hasidic and contemporary rabbis, and religious leaders of all paths. As I learned more and more stories and commentaries, I decided that someday I would like to collect a group of these stories and retell them in a way that would appeal to children and their families today. This idea was to simmer on the back burner of my mind for years, as I went about learning where and how to find these stories to retell.
Besides searching for wonderful stories to retell from classical Jewish sources, I also began to write my own Jewish holiday stories that weren't too informational, too teachy. I knew from all my submitting and rejection letters that editors were looking for Jewish holiday stories, but not ones "bogged down" with information. I worked hard on trying to make a story move, not just telling about a holiday, but telling a good story that happened to involve a holiday. When I finally started to sell to children's magazines, I knew my stories were getting better. I was also writing articles for Jewish newspapers about how to celebrate the Jewish holidays with children. These articles fed into my fictional holiday stories as background information and a source for ideas.
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