I grew up in upper Manhattan, Washington Heights to be exact, a hilly, pretty neighborhood. My family lived across the street from P.S. 173, my elementary school, and from a park where I used to climb what my friends and I called the "danger" rocks, which were part of the palisades that overlook the Hudson River. Going up, clinging to cracks with my fingertips, terrified, I'd think, If I live, I will never do this again. When I reached the top I'd work my way down and start over just as frightened as before.
In high school, George Washington High, also in Washington Heights, I was cast as the female lead in George Bernard Shaw's Androcles and the Lion. The male lead was six-feet tall, and I was (and still am) not quite four-foot-eleven. The stage manager had to construct a system of platforms for me so the hero and I didn't look ridiculous standing side by side.
From third grade through high school I wrote stories and poems, and a few of my poems were published in an anthology of student writing, but I never thought of becoming a writer. The authors of most of my favorite childhood books were dead (Mark Twain, L.M. Montgomery, Louisa May Alcott, Anna Sewell). I knew a few artists because my dad owned a commercial art studio, and I saw actors in the movies and on stage, but I didn't think of writing as work that any modern person did.
In college—first Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, then City College of New York (Phi Beta Kappa, not that I'm bragging)—I majored in Philosophy, a useless major for a future writer. Philosophers use winding, twisty, endless sentences and words like posit, predicate, epistemology, ontology. Don't get me wrong. Writers need to have enormous vocabularies, and I never met a word I didn't love, but we use our arsenal judiciously. We don't go all sesquipedalian at the drop of a hat.
And in college I met and married my husband David, who is a very witty man. He's been giving me humor lessons ever since! He's also a fine jazz pianist, a gifted photographer, and a general high-tech whiz. He created this website and the photographs you see on it. You can see him, comfortable behind a camera, below, and you can see more of his photographs at www.dmlevine.com.
After college, I worked for New York State government, mostly in jobs that had to do with welfare. My favorite time was the first part of my career when I helped people find work. How satisfying that was!
Meanwhile, I did my first bit of writing for children. In the 1970's I wrote the script for a musical called Spacenapped. David wrote the music and lyrics, and it was performed by The Heights Players, a community theater in Brooklyn. But I still didn't think of myself as a writer. I read novels constantly, as I always had, and one day while I was meditating I asked myself why, since I adored stories, I never made up any. That was the beginning of The King's Cure, an art appreciation book for kids. I wrote it and drew pencil illustrations of birds and used reproductions of famous art for the illustrations—and no one would publish it—but I became hooked on writing. I took writing classes and joined critique groups and The Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (find it online at www.scbwi.org, a great organization). And I collected rejection letters for nine years until an editor wanted the manuscript for Ella Enchanted. You know the rest.