I am a writer because I grew up listening to the different ways that people talk and use language. When I was little, I lived with people from three diverse cultures. My father, a kid from the Bronx, New York, met my mother at the 1964 World’s Fair. She was from a small town in Nottingham, England (where legendary hero Robin Hood lived).
After they got married, my parents lived in Thailand for a year and became friends with the Osathanugrah family. Around the time I was born, the Osathanugrahs’ two teenage boys came to live with us and attend school in the U.S. Imagine the mix of accents my ears had to tune into every day!
By the time I was in second grade, my Thai brothers were gone, and I had two younger brothers in their place. Teachers seemed to like my writing. A few of my poems and stories were published in PTA newsletters. But it was reading the novel, Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte, that made me want to be a writer.
I was reading on my bed on a sunny spring weekend when I was about twelve. I looked up from sad Jane and the gray, windy moors of England and saw — through my window — my younger brothers playing outside. How could my mind be with Jane Eyre on the desolate moors when I was physically in New Jersey, in my own room? I felt like Alice in Wonderland at the moment she is in both worlds, the real one and the one beyond the mirror. I wanted to be able to take people to far away places and times with my words, the way Charlotte Bronte did with Jane Eyre.
I spent a lot of my time at Ramapo High School in Franklin Lakes, NJ writing in my journal, working on the school literary magazine, and dreaming of being a writer. I tried other activities (marching band, fencing) until I hurt my knee. Having to sit out sports made me focus on writing even more. When I received my college acceptance letter from New York University’s Dramatic Writing Program, I knew I was on my writing path.
Tuning in, listening to the way people spoke and the things that they said – these were skills I learned as a young child, even though I didn’t know I was learning them. I still use those skills today, especially in my writing and as a poet-in-the-schools for the Maryland State Arts Council’s Artist-in-Education program.
Writing poetry and fiction with kids is one of my favorite ways to share my love of words, language, and interesting people like the ones you will meet in my books The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary, Takedown, and A Place at the Table.