On the move
My father was a career Army officer and for that reason I was born in Honolulu way back before it was a state. My birth certificate says Territory of Hawaii on it. From there we went to New York but at about that time Pearl Harbor was bombed and my father had to go off to war. And so my mother took the children — she was expecting her third — back to her hometown, a small town in Pennsylvania, a little college town. It was an idyllic place to grow up, right out of a Dick and Jane storybook, with little picket fences and puppies, all of that. And I lived there with my grandparents throughout elementary school. Then my father had a stay in Japan after the war ended and when the time came that he could bring his family over, we all schlepped off to Tokyo. And I went through 7th and 8th grade in Tokyo. I went through high school in New York and then I went off to college in Rhode Island.
A poet in pajamas
When I was a very small child I had memorized a very long poem and a very boring poem, but it was one that my grandfather loved. It was a poem by William Cullen Bryant. And because it was kind of a bizarre thing for a child who only weighed about 22 pounds to be able to say this multi-paged poem, my grandfather brought me out like a parlor trick at a dinner party, that he and grandmother were having. I remember there were very beautifully dressed people around the living room. I was in my pajamas and he schlepped me in, holding my hand, and asked me to recite this poem, which I did, being an obedient child.
And many years later when I was in college, at Brown, I got a letter from a Philadelphia lawyer telling me that a man named Biddle had died in Philadelphia. Biddle is a very prominent name in Pennsylvania. And this man had been a guest apparently at my grandfather's dinner party and he had left one half of one percent of his estate to the little girl who had recited "Thanatopsis" in her grandfather's living room while wearing pajamas with feet. And when my roommate read that, one half of one percent, I remember she laughed and said, "Shake the envelope, a dime is going to fall out." But it was a substantial amount of money and being a sophomore in college at the time and therefore sophomoric, I spent that money on a pale blue Pontiac car. I dropped out of college and drove my pale blue car to California with a football player.
And that's my confession, that's my history as a lover of poetry, how it paid off in the end in a bizarre way.
An interrupted education
I went to college to major in writing and I went there with a special scholarship provided for me for that purpose because of some writing awards that I won in high school. And so off I went to Brown where I was a good student and I loved college and I was in this special program for writing. And I loved that, but by golly, this was the '50's and I had a boyfriend. This was the aforementioned football player, who was two years ahead of me at Brown. And he graduated and he wanted to get married and so I dropped out and got married, which interrupted that college career. I had four children before I was 26. When my children went to school, when the last one entered kindergarten, so by now I was in my late 20's probably, I went back to college. It took me four years to complete the two that I still owed and then I went to graduate school. But it was an interrupted college career — probably actually a good thing because I was young when I went to college. I had just turned 17 and I was immature as proven by rushing off to get married. That's an immature thing to do. So when I went back and was by then grown, I took it all more seriously. I studied harder, I learned more, I cared more. So I guess in a way I don't regret having interrupted my education, though I would not advise young people to do it.
A love for words
"Why do I write?" is not an easy question to answer, because I think there are probably many answers; one purely pragmatic answer is it's how I make my living. It's my job and I'm very fortunate to be able to make a living doing what I love. I think the people who are least lucky in this world are the ones who have to go off to a job that bores them and that they hate, simply in order to support themselves or a family. But I think even were that not true, if I were married to Donald Trump, oh God forbid, that's a terrible thing to speculate about. If I had a rich husband or something and did not have to make a living, I would write anyway.
Because for me the most important thing is just the amazing satisfaction one gets, somebody like me gets, just by arranging words on a page and then rearranging them so that they flow differently, better or clearer or say better what you want to say and then to go back and look at them and read them and change them again a little bit. I could just do that all day long. In fact, I do that all day long, everyday.
A Summer to Die
My first book for kids was called A Summer to Die. I was just today signing a new edition of it, a new cover. And that was published in 1977 and I signed those books today in 2007, so that's 30 years ago and that book is still in print. I had been writing for adults, but an editor came to me and asked me to write a book for kids and did not suggest any topic, just expressed an interest in whatever I might write. And I think perhaps not surprisingly, I turned my thoughts and my attention to something from my own history, something from my own life and it had to do with the death of my older sister when we were both young. I had just one sister, three years older. We had been very close and she died young. And so that was a story probably that I had been telling to myself, to a lesser degree to friends, I suppose, for many years.
And then when they said write us a book, that's what came to my mind. So although I fictionalized it, I did recreate the two sisters, the older one pretty, popular, cheerleader, and homecoming queen at Penn State — all the things that I envied. And the younger one, kind of a nerd and a bookish child but she later told me that she envied my good grades. She majored in home economics in college. When I'm about to say simple person, I don't mean simple-minded. She just had no aspirations beyond being a happy person with a family and a home — that's all she wanted. And of course that was cut off for her when she died young of cancer.
But I recreated those sisters and their personalities and that part of the book is realistic. There are other things that I changed. One thing my brother has never forgiven me for was that I took out the cute little brother that those two sisters had. But that was my first book and it was the reaction to that book — not so much from critics, although the book got wonderful reviews and won awards — but the reaction from kids that made me turn my attention to writing for kids instead of the adults for whom I'd been writing. I began to feel, and I think this is true, that that audience that you're writing for, when you write for kids, you are writing for people who can still be affected by what you write in ways that might change them.
When you write for adults, they can be affected by what you've written but they're already well molded and shaped. It's kids who are still in the process of growth and change and it's why I think I take very seriously what I do because it does affect kids that way.
The Giver, if I remember correctly, was published in 1993. It was different from my previous books and I knew that when I was writing it. I've never liked science fiction so I never thought of it as science fiction, although some people who like to use categories have put it in that category. But what it is is a book set in a future time. And for me it was like writing realistic fiction. I created a place, created a character — he's a boy about to be 12 — and here's where he lives and here's what it's like. And because it's in the future, it's very different from our contemporary way of life — but not in a sense of technology. I didn't deal with any of that — just in the way it's evolved into a place with a complicated set of rules, all of which are designed to make the world in which he lives very safe and very comfortable. And then I tried in writing it to make it seductive so that for the first third of the book, I hope, readers will feel as though this is a good place to live. There's no crime. There's no inequality. There's no discrimination. And then gradually you realize that the reason there are none of these things, no discrimination for example, is because everybody is the same color. There is no crime because there's no money. Everybody has all their wants taken care of. And then there are hints along the way, and I won't go into each detail, that make you become aware, in an uncomfortable way, that maybe it isn't such a great place.
And by the end of the book you're certainly aware — as the boy becomes aware — that there's a terrible underbelly to this place where he lives. Terrible compromises have been made. And then as happens I think in many of my books, this young boy, who now by the time the books concludes, is almost 13, has set out to try to change the world he lives in. I think that's such a wonderful thing for a fictional child to take on. That year it won the Newbery Medal, which was astonishing enough. But the Newbery Medal is given for the most distinguished piece of literature published that year for children. Okay. So people, important people, people who know, thought it a distinguished piece of literature.
At the same time, almost simultaneously, other people became very frightened by this book. And ever since 1993 it has been on the list of most challenged books in the United States. That doesn't mean banned or censored. It hovers close to it though. What it means is that somebody has gone forward with this book and demanded that it be removed from the school or the library.
And then it generally goes through a set of procedures. Usually there's a meeting of the school board. Often there are lots of newspaper articles, letters to the editor, sometimes public meetings, and people shouting at each other — all over this book. It's never, to be honest, been completely clear to me what it is they're objecting to and why they feel so frightened by it.
Gooney Bird Greene
Gooney Bird Greene is in second grade, and she's very outgoing and very self-confident. My mother would have called her a "little mouthy." She's exactly the kind of child I was not. I was always the one who sat silently with my head down looking at the floor. And I was terribly shy. So she falls into the category of the kind of child I yearned to be, because certainly I knew children like that — they've always been around, those self-confident children. So I think, as often writers do, we try to recreate our own childhood in terms of what we wished it could have been like.
So here is a child who in the first book, enters a classroom a month after school has begun, which I remember doing many times, but in 7th grade. Not only has school begun and 7th grade is a tough age anyway, but I'm also in a new location, in anther country even. We have moved now to Tokyo and suddenly I'm thrust into a classroom. And I'm now 70 years old so I was 11 in 7th grade and that makes it 59 years ago. And yet to me it's like yesterday that I entered the classroom having just had my hair cut and the first words I heard were from a boy sitting in the classroom, calling out, "Is it a boy or a girl?" So embarrassing and humiliating when you're 11 years old.
So she is a character I made up, but I thrust into a classroom on her own, but she doesn't wait around to see how anybody is going to comment. She saunters into the classroom and says, "Hello I'm your new student and I want a desk right in the middle of everything." I want to be right smack in the middle of everything.
Revving it up and slowing it down
Two things that I think I do intuitively well — and I know there are a number of things I don't do well and I could list those too if you want — but two things I think I do well are pacing and also transitions. And the two things are connected, I think. Anyway, pacing, how can we describe that? It has to do with the way a story moves along and the flow of the narrative and I can sense when it's time to back off, switch scenes, or move into a slower paced mode for a while before revving it up again. In order to do that, one has to make those changes not abrupt and uncomfortable.
And that's what I think I do pretty well. And I mention that only because every now and then, of course, an editor gets involved and makes suggestions. And sometimes I say, but if I take that out, I'll lose that beautiful transition I made, which the editor won't have noticed. Of course it's good if it's not noticed because you don't want one to notice it, you are supposed to feel that it's smooth.
But in cases it's so smooth that that he doesn't realize that it will throw it off if I lose that. So I'll have to get back and re-transition. But those things I think come intuitively to me when I'm working. And I just sort of know when to slow down, when to speed up. Maybe it's like driving a car, maybe one could make even that analogy that you know that there's a curve and so you slow down, otherwise you might smash. And I think the same thing could be said of writing. You know that you're coming to a difficult point and you need to slow down rather than just throw it all into a collision.