to read the feature "Echoes of a Puerto Rican Childhood" in the Contra
WHY I'M A WRITER:
There's nothing more frustrating than trying to figure out what you're
meant to do in life and not being able to easily find the answer. I
searched for years before I finally figured out what I was meant to do.
And what I figured out was that I was meant to do many things.
I have two quirky traits that helped me realize my role in life.
One is that I can't stand the feeling that there is something out there that I
might be missing out on, and the second is that I'm easily bored. So I'm
constantly doing something new, and growing and changing and adding bits and
pieces to who I am. And I'm never satisfied because I know there's more
that I can do and want to do, and I don't want to miss a minute of it.
Being a writer, especially a children's author, fits in beautifully with this
quirky personality of mine. Being a writer lets me be my own boss, set my
own schedule, set my own goals, and determine my own projects. If I don't
want to write about something, I don't—that's that. But if I do want to
write about something—something very near and dear to my heart—I can, and I
do. Everything I write about has a special meaning to me. My passion
is writing scary, creepy mysteries, with a twist. But in between, I write
picture books—folktales and silly, rhyming stories—to relax. I'll
never get bored because if I'm tired of mysteries and ghost stories, I can write
humor. If I'm tired of rhyme, I turn to prose. If I'm tired of long
complicated plots, I can work on a short story or a picture book.
Writing even keeps the "business" part of me busy. I organize
my writing files, keep expense records, and update writing and publishing
databases all on my computer. I love organizing my office and keeping
everything in color-coded files—I have every rejection letter ever sent to
me—enough to wallpaper a mansion. Even when I use the services of an
agent, having a law degree helps me negotiate my contracts.
I see myself as a children's book author, artist, lawyer, legal writer and
editor, humorist, motivational speaker, linguist, feminist,
disabled-person's-rights and affirmative-action advocate all rolled into one.
But no matter what hat I'm wearing, there's always a little kid inside me,
screaming to be let out.
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MY BACKGROUND AND PHILOSOPHY:
As a Child:
I was born in San Juan,
Puerto Rico, and at the age of four began the
traveling life of an "army brat," as my family moved to Missouri, then
to France when I was seven, and finally to California when I was ten. When
we arrived in Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri, to join my father, my mother and I
spoke only Spanish.
My mother, who has always had a great influence on my life, believes in the
importance of learning as many languages as possible, especially the language of
the country in which you live. So, while she learned English by using Berlitz books and listening to the radio and television, I played with the
neighborhood children, speaking "gobblety-gook."
To my ear, English words sounded like "Goo-goo, bah, bah, boo," so
that's what I would say. The other kids repeated what I said, thinking
they were speaking my language, and soon we were playing together, oblivious of
the fact that we were all speaking gibberish. After a few days, gibberish
turned to English words, and by the time I started Kindergarten, I spoke
For years, I was an only and very lonely child. That may very well have been
the foundation for my becoming a writer. I had a very active imagination, and I
was constantly using it—I did a lot of daydreaming, which got me in trouble in
class because I often stared out the window, making up stories in my head of more pleasant places to be. Even my
grade school photos show that wandering,
One of the things I wanted most was to be a combination superhero like
SuperGirl or Wonder Woman and a cowgirl like Annie Oakley. When the
neighborhood bad boys were out doing damage, I would do a presto-chango act, put
on my cowgirl boots, and teach them a lesson by kicking them in the shins—it
worked! I was the terror of the neighborhood. And I was all of three and four
at the time. I've never grown out of that desire: As a lawyer, I took on my
share of crusades against bad guys. Even now, I love to write about smart,
spunky young women, thereby living the life of a heroine vicariously.
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My Formative Years:
During my formative years—ages seven through ten—we lived in
France. Two significant things affected my life while we lived in France:
First, there was no television for me to watch because our American TV wouldn't
work, so I had to turn to books for entertainment. Because my parents had
read to me
when I was too young to read on my own, I already loved books.
But I really discovered books in France. I began checking out books at the
school library during the year and at the Army base library during the summer.
It was the best thing that could have happened! Books are now my life.
My favorite reading spot was the living room window of our small
apartment in Toul, three stories up, leaning back in a chair with my feet
propped on the radiator. I'd read for hours after school and during the
summer, and when I looked up to daydream about the story, I had the most
incredible view, directly in front of me: the Cathedral of Toul, where Joan of
Arc (my childhood heroine) was tried for witchcraft. We lived a mere two
blocks away. Even as a child, I was in awe every time I gazed out that
My favorite books were: The Secret Garden, The Island of the Blue Dolphins,
Follow My Leader, The Little Witch, and a series of biographies about famous
women like Annie Oakley (whom I wanted to be), Amelia Earhart (whom I also
wanted to be), Betsy Ross (I passed on sewing the flag), Mary Maples Dodge,
Dolly Madison, Pocahontas, Sakajawea, and others. I also loved mysteries, ghost
stories, and anything to do with witches. I know if Harry Potter had been
written back then, I would have loved it. I certainly do now.
The second thing that affected my life was my mother's decision that we live
in town. Since none of us spoke French when we arrived in France, my
mother insisted that we should live on the economy, among the French, rather
than on base with other Americans. That way, she and I would be sure to
learn French. As a seven-year-old concerned with maintaining her dignity,
it took me a little longer to learn French than to learn English because I
refused to revert to gobblety-gook. But within a few months, I was best
friends with our landlady's daughter, Martine, and with the dedication and skill
of a practiced teacher, she taught me all I needed to know.
Since another of my mother's rules was to speak Spanish at home so I wouldn't
forget, I now spoke three languages during the day: Spanish to my parents,
English at school, and French with my neighborhood friends.
It was heartbreaking to leave France, but in early October of my sixth grade,
we moved to the Monterey Peninsula of Northern California.
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My Pets and Fondness for Animals:
I've always loved
animals, but since we moved so much, I didn't get my first pet until we were
settled in California and I was in sixth grade. We adopted a stray
black-and-white kitten who came meowing at the door and whom I called Tippy.
Five years later, when Tippy died of distemper, we adopted another stray, a
female kitten named Tabby. A year later, we got a funny little black terrier
mix I called Fifi (gender rarely played a part in my choice of names for pets).
I also loved birds, so my parents got me a pair of parakeets—Piccola and
Years later, my husband and I had another pair of budgies called Sissy
and Sammy, a cockatiel named Max, a dwarf macaw named Rousseau, and a blue-front
Amazon named Casey. It's my fondness of birds, ducks, and geese that led me to write Egg-Napped! It's also my fondness for all animals that has led me
to seek the company of many different animals, like Samantha, a three-year-old
dolphin I met in Roatan, Honduras. Because of my
love for animals, I always try
to include an interesting animal in my stories.
As most people, I don't have a great fondness for hospitals. But there's one
thing that's makes my hospital stays tolerable—even pleasant: Pet Therapy. Once
a week, the hospitals where I've stayed allow certified volunteers to bring in
their pets to visit with the patients. I usually make a royal pest of myself
reminding the nurses over and over not to forget to bring around the pet
therapist of the week—a dog or two, a bird, or one time, a whole truckload of
animals, including an 18-month-old camel who'd been participating in
since he was a baby. That time, the patients went out to the parking lot to
visit with the animals.
I also have a quirky affection for non-cuddly animals like tarantulas (for 8
years we had a tarantula named Tammy), lizards (we've never had one of those but
we see many in the Caribbean), and frogs (we have an aquatic frog named Toby). I
have a special fondness for the Puerto Rican national symbol, the tree frog
called "el coqui".
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When I was 16, I was stricken with rheumatoid arthritis (actually it was more
like clobbered)—at the time, I was very athletic and a member of the high school
drill team, a cheerleader, a competitive roller skater, and a senior at Seaside
High School. When I graduated from high school, we moved back to Puerto
Rico, where I completed my freshman year at the University of Puerto Rico.
For health reasons, I moved back to California and transferred to the University
of California at Santa Cruz, where I met my husband, David Plotkin.
I managed to successfully attend and graduate from college, and I went on to
law school at University of California, Hastings College of the Law. I
began law school on crutches, after having had total-hip surgery the previous
summer. After graduation, I practiced family and immigration law in a
low-income, Hispanic district of San Francisco for three years, then went on to
write and edit law books with a local legal publisher. During that period,
I also started writing fiction at home. After ten years in legal
publishing, I retired from law to spend my days writing for children.
My First Children's Books:
In 1987, I joined the Society of Children Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).
There I met fellow writers and made many
friends, some of whom are in
my critique group. I also met all my editors through the SCBWI. In 1994, I began writing children's books fulltime.
In 1996, I sold my first picture book,
Bobo Goes to Work, which was published by HarperCollins Children's Books in
fall 2000 and won the ALA's 2002 Pura Belpré
Honor Book Award for Illustration. In 1999, the fifth novel
I wrote, Something Wicked's in Those Woods,
was the first novel to sell. It
sold to Harcourt Children's Books. Two
months later, I sold a second novel to Harcourt (the fourth novel I wrote),
which is called
A Circle of Time.
A month later, I sold a rhyming picture book called,
to HarperCollins. Both Circle
of Time and Egg-Napped! will be published in Spring 2002.
My Hobbies and Travels:
My favorite hobby, which is now part of my work, is reading. I love
mysteries, suspense, and thrillers for any age group, as well as ghost stories
and stories about the supernatural. Humor plays a big part in my life, so I
enjoy anything humorous—books, movies, TV sit-coms, and stand-up comedians. And
I particularly love reading children's books and classic novels.
Another hobby is art. With arthritis, it's hard for me to sketch and paint,
so digital art has become a good substitute. I also enjoy
haven't had much time in the last few years.
A recent pastime that my husband and I enjoy is traveling, especially to warm
places. Born in the Caribbean, I really miss year-round warm weather. A few
years ago, we discovered the joys of
cruises. So far, we've gone to Hawaii,
Bermuda, the Texi-Caribbean coasts, and several islands in the Caribbean.
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My Favorite Foods and Recipes:
As a child, I was a very fussy eater. My mother had to rack her brain trying
to come up with tempting dishes I'd be willing to eat (Sadly, she still does).
Now, I have so many food allergies that I'm still a problem eater. But there
were three dishes I would never pass up:
flan (both of which my mom still makes for
me), and lechón asado—roast pig (sorry vegetarians—but you'll be happy to know
that I'm now allergic to any type of pork, so I haven't eaten roast pig in
omelet is my favorite. On weekends when I was growing up, Mami would make
me a banana omelet for breakfast and still does whenever I visit. It's a recipe
she learned from her mother in Puerto Rico. Now, the taste and aroma of ripe
bananas sautéed on a griddle always reminds me of home. So in describing how my
main character in Something Wicked's in Those Woods (Harcourt Children's Books)
was trying to recapture a little piece of the mother he had recently lost, I
wrote a scene that included his attempt to make a banana omelet just like she
used to make.
My Philosophy on English as a Second
In writing Something Wicked, I
began with the two genres I love most—mysteries and the supernatural.
Then, I did extensive research in parapsychology, and loosely based most
of the incidents in the book on documented cases of paranormal activities.
Finally, I added a subplot that deals with a topic in which I firmly
believe: the importance of being proficient in the language of the country in
which one lives.
Like my mother, I feel that Hispanics who live in the United States must be
fluent in speaking, as well as reading and writing, English.
Since people, especially children, learn a language best when immersed in
it, I feel strongly that the concept of "English as a second language"
in the schools is a detriment rather than a benefit to Hispanics.
When children are attending schools in the United States, English must be
considered their first language. However, since I also believe that holding onto one's culture
is vital to a person's self esteem, I think it is important to retain the
ability to speak the language of one's origin, either by speaking it at home or
by studying it in addition to English.
My family and I have lived by, and succeeded through, this philosophy.
My brother, sister, cousins, as well as myself, have all become fluent in
English, and each of us has gone on to U.S. colleges, then to law schools,
medical schools, or other post-graduate schools.
Yet each of us was brought up in a Spanish-speaking home.
Through my writing, I hope to bring this message to my readers.
Mi Família (my relatives in Puerto Rico, Dec. 2001)
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