Growing up, I wanted to be an astronaut. Sadly someone once told me that you couldn’t be an astronaut if you had ever broken an arm because it was more likely to break again, and that could be tragic if you were in space. At ten-years-old, I broke my right arm, and my childhood dream died.
Fortunately, in sixth grade, I read Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card and Lord of the Rings (LOTR) by J.R.R. Tolkein (my generation’s equivalent of Harry Potter). Science fiction, with its emphasis on space-travel, and fantasy are still my favorite fiction genres—which is a testament to the power of early passions. I couldn’t be an astronaut, but I go to space within the pages of a book.
LOTR took me on a slightly different path. After reading that epic fantasy, I realized that I wanted to be on the flip side of stories; I wanted to write stories that people read. Still, for years after, I was just a reader and not a writer. When students ask me what they should do to become a writer, I answer, “Be a reader.” Good writers need to pour language into their minds: characters, plots, language, voices, dialogue and more. Without a rich background of literature—whether oral or written—it’s hard to write well. Read stories. Tell and listen to stories. Experience the world. Live a while. Then pour in more language.
THE ALIENS, INC. SERIES
After years of reading voraciously, the words came easily when I did start writing. In my early chapter book about aliens, The Aliens, Inc. Series, the stories revolve around an alien family from planet Bix, who crash land on Earth. They adopt a common English name, the Smiths, and name their son, Kell. To make a living, Kell masterminds an event planning business with help from Bree, his best friend. Extra drama is added by Mrs. Lynx, the school principal, who is president of the SAC, the Society of Alien Chasers. She’s convinced that someone in third grade is an alien, and won’t stop till she catches them.
Kell, the Alien, Book 1, starts with a rich story that includes enough subplots to provide a variety of ways to give continuity across a series. Each book begins with an art class that celebrates young artists with elements such as the Accidental Art Bulletin Board. The Parent’s Night Concert starts an emphasis on folk or patriotic songs. Kell points out to Bree that insects are the most common kind of animal on Earth; his fear of bugs leads to hilarious situations throughout the series. And of course, they plan an amazing Alien Party for Bree’s birthday.
In Kell and the Horse Apple Parade, Book 2, the Smiths plan a Friends of Police parade. Sasquatch, Paul Bunyan and other giants march through Kell and the Giants, the third book. The latest in the series, Kell and the Detectives poses mysteries for Kell and the gang, which ends with a detective party. Worse, Aliens, Inc. will only get paid if they can pull off a surprise party. But the biggest surprise is that Mom has laid an egg, and Kell expects a baby brother. Will his brother be a Bixster or an Earthling? Or both?
Kell and the Giants, Book 3 is about secrets, giants and alien-chasing dogs. If you’re an alien on Earth, you have one giant secret to keep. After a while, even friends want to tell your secret. Kell and Bree plan a birthday party with giants—Big Foot, Cyclops, Goliath and the Jolly Green Giant—while they struggle with keeping their own giant secret. But they have an even bigger problem: Principal Lynx and the Society of Alien Chasers is back with a dog trained to sniff out an alien in a crowd. When Mom is stung by a bee, Kell must find a doctor who can keep a giant secret, too. Will Aliens, Inc. be able to pull off the Giant Party and keep everyone happy?
Not included in the box set is Kell and the Detectives, Book 4. Kell makes a startling discovery: he has zigzag fingerprints. Worse, Mrs. Lynx and the Society of Alien Chasers know about the fingerprints, and they are on the hunt. But the stakes are higher than ever because Kell’s mom has just laid a beautiful green egg. With Mrs. Lynx on the prowl, can Kell and Bree keep the egg safe?
SCIENCE, CONTEMPORARY NOVELS, AND HOW-TO-WRITE
Science fiction and fantasy books aren’t my only passion. Thinking about my overall career writing children’s books, at one point, I decided to imitate Arnold Schwarzenegger. To sustain a career in a creative area, it’s helpful to have several options going at once. For a time, Schwarzenegger alternated and action-adventure story like “Terminator” with a comedy like “Kindergarten Cop.”
What genres could I alternate? That question has stretched my creativity into three areas: science/nature, contemporary novels, and stories about how-to-write. Two middle grade novels put families in the spotlight in contemporary fiction. Saucy and Bubba retells the Hansel and Gretel story in a family with an alcoholic stepmother. In Longing for Normal, a boy unites an immigrant community and rebuilds his family–using a simple sourdough bread recipe.
Three times, the National Science Teacher’s Association has named my science/nature picture books Outstanding Science Trade Books. See here, and here, and here. More fun for me, environmental books need a world-wide perspective, so in my stories I’ve traveled to far-flung places. If you travel to Honolulu, and then fly another five hours to the middle of the ocean – to Midway Island—you may catch a glimpse of the oldest known wild bird in the world, continuously banded since December 10, 1956. Read how Wisdom survived the Japanese tsunami in Wisdom, the Midway Albatross. In an urban area of Brazil, within sight of skyscrapers, there lives a healthy population of pumas, or cougars. One mother cougar decided to hunt easy prey, chickens. When she was caught in a trap and accidentally died, she left an orphaned cub, which I wrote about in Abayomi, the Brazilian Puma.
As a writing teacher, I care about the writer’s stories, and my passion is to help bring their stories to life. In 2004, I walked off the Seattle ferry onto Whidbey Island to teach a Novel Revision Retreat, an intensive class that I created in 1999. One writer went home, revised her story over the summer, sent it to an editor and sold it in ten days flat. That story, Hattie Big Sky, brought Kirby Larson a 2007 Newbery Honor. She later wrote a foreword for my workbook on revising novels, Novel Metamorphosis.
My experience as a writing teacher has also its way into my fiction picture books as my third alternate to science fiction and fantasy. My earlier book, The Journey of Oliver K. Woodman, was an Irma Simonton Black Honor Book. My passion for picture books, fiction or nonfiction, is to tell a good story. Period. However, I recognize the need to bring books into the classroom in a useful way, so I add layers to my stories.
In two recent stories, I combined my favorite writing lessons with the Common Core language arts requirements to write The Read and Write series, about writing elementary essays. It starts with these two books: I Want a Dog: My Opinion Essay and I Want a Cat: My Opinion Essay. The story is always first: Cousins Dennis and Mellie try to decide what kind of pet is best for their respective families. They consider ten criteria, write an essay, and receive the dog or cat of their dreams. The usefulness comes next: The story includes a mentor-text for writing opinion essay, and includes all the elements expected of second and third grade writers. Science teachers will also find it useful for discussing dog and cat breeds.
Sometimes, I regret the loss of my childhood dream of becoming an astronaut; sometimes, I wish I’d been one of the lucky ones to see our blue planet from space. Instead, my writing career has been an exploration of my own inner world, of our fragile environment, of important stories told by other writers, and of the writing process. I’ve been lucky enough to see and explore the world through the lens of the written word. It’s fun to be on the flip side of reading.