Elaine Lobl Konigsburg has always loved reading. As a girl, she discovered the magic of The Secret Garden and learned about life in a middle-class English family from Mary Poppins. These stories became part of her childhood, and, as she relates in her excellent book of essays, TalkTalk: A Children's Author Speaks to Grown-ups, classic stories become a bridge between today's children and earlier generations.
What she was looking for as a child and did not find, was a reflection of her life in a Pennsylvania mill town. In classic books, the mothers were just that. The women in Elaine's neighborhood worked as maids for extra money. In classic tales, there were maids, but they were always on the sidelines, and the classroom rolls were filled with Smith's, Jones', Edwards', and the like. Where were the Ravinsky's, Machotka's, and Spinelli's?
It was her third grade teacher who showed Peggy Rathmann that reading could be fun. She had spent the first two grades squinting at the blackboard, trying to make out the alphabet with her nearsighted eyes. But her third grade teacher used pictures to tell stories, and when Peggy grew up to be a famous illustrator, she made sure that her big, bold pictures were clearly outlined in black ink so the kids in the back of the class could see them clearly.
Richard Peck grew up in the heartland town of Decatur, Illinois. His childhood and young adulthood were filled with grown-ups of different generations. If a problem arose, there was always someone around to ask for advice.
When 16, he took a trip to the Empire State that changed the way he felt about Illinois. He realized that New York City was the place he wanted to be. At 20, he sailed for England to spend a year at the University of Exeter. The American students were popular because they were so out-going and made friends easily. The rest of his college days were spent in Illinois, but that one year abroad opened up his eyes to the world's possibilities.
Mysteries for the mind and the eye, that's what Chris Van Allsburg creates for his readers. His drawings seem quite still and perhaps a little dull-until you notice the huge snake slithering across the mantelpiece (Jumanji) or the brambles stealthily growing out of a sleeping girl's book in The Mysteries of Harris Burdick.
Over 100 years ago, Helen Beatrix Potter was born in London. Her family had plenty of money, but they were not truly happy. Lonely Beatrix lived upstairs in the nursery. She rarely saw her parents and was looked after by a nanny, who, although she was strict, did tell her marvelous fairy stories which she loved. Beatrix and her little brother were happiest when the family went on holidays (vacations) to the countryside. There the children were free to play outside and explore nature.
Do you know Karen Hesse? Her books can take you on a voyage of discovery with Captain Cook, into the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, or turn-of-the-century Russia. A sense of place has always been important to this author. She grew up very quietly in a row house and later an apartment in Baltimore, Maryland. When she wanted a place to be by herself, she had to get creative. Outside, there was an apple tree where she could sit for hours, reading and dreaming. Nearby was the Enoch Pratt Free Library, where she started with Dr. Seuss and kept on going, from picture books to chapter books to novels.
Jon Scieszka (pronounce that SHESH-ka) is a wild and crazy guy. Don't leave the man alone in a room with an old-fashioned story. He'll twist it and bend it around 'til it looks like something that should be dripping with cheese and sold at the shopping mall.
His takes on classic tales are so off-the-wall you'll wonder what it would have been like to have him in your class. Let me tell you: it would have been dangerous-for you. He'd sit quietly, and then he'd crack up the other kids without making a sound. THEY would be the ones to get into trouble. Not Jon.
C. S. Lewis spent his first years at the family home, called Little Lea, in Belfast, Ireland. He was never really called C. S. or even Clive (C. S. stands for Clive Staples). This young man wanted to be called Jack. Like another college professor (Indiana Jones), Jack nicknamed himself after his beloved dog, Jacksie, who died when the author was quite young. His friends called him "Plain Jack Lewis," and it suited him. He was not especially handsome, but he was kind and bluff and came to have many friends.
When Mary Downing Hahn writes a book, she works along steadily until that magic moment when the characters develop their own voices. Whether it's a mean-mouthed boy who is hiding family secrets or a girl who is terrified of the ghostly presence haunting her small step-sister, this author's characters tell their own stories both believably and intriguingly.
Vera Baker was born in Hollywood, California, on January 28, 1927. She and her family moved to New York City when she was quite young. Luckily for Vera, they lived near a studio space called Bronx House where she learned painting, writing, acting, and dance. When she was nine-years-old, one of her paintings, called "Yentas," was put on exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art. She was filmed there explaining to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt the meaning behind her work. The Movietone film reel ran before the regular features at the movies. This, Vera recalled, made her quite a big shot in the neighborhood!