My mother met my father when she was a student of medical illustration working on her first job. She was sitting by a (dead) gorilla illustrating his anatomy for the Museum of Natural History. My father was a medical student who walked into the room and fell in love with her at first sight. I was born in Princeton, New Jersey 1943, the second of three children. At the time of my birth, my father was riding a horse in Australia. He was an army doctor in the Pacific during World War II, studying how to protect Allied troops from the tropical diseases that were infecting many of them.
I grew up in Baltimore, where I went to public schools. We spent summers in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, a scientific community by the ocean where the fathers and a very few mothers worked in the labs by day and night, and where the children learned to love the land and sea and mostly to avoid science, not realizing that science had infected us even as we rebelled against it.
I went to college at Wellesley and majored in French. After college graduation in 1965, I went to Kyoto, Japan, where I taught English and learned enough Japanese to know that I wanted to explore it much more. After a year and a half, I returned to the U.S. but while waiting to be accepted into a graduate program in Far Eastern studies, I got a job as an interpreter for the (Japanese) Asahi newspaper. This happened just at the time of the first Apollo flights. Through the job, I was able to work and become friends with some of the best Japanese newspaper reporters, travel to parts of the United States that I'd never seen before, and learn something about one of the greatest of human endeavors. I walked inside the vast buildings that housed the rockets and saw them from all angles, got a sense of the developing science of "systems analysis," and sat in the press box as the rocket of the first landing mission shook the ground beneath us as it lifted off for the moon.
I studied Far Eastern Languages and Literatures, first at the University of Arizona and then at Harvard. I received Masters' degrees from both and learned how unsuited I was for scholarly research and a life spent in libraries. I then worked at the Baltimore Sun, where I learned how unsuited I was as a reporter by getting fired. At this low point, two close friends convinced me that I should do what I had always wanted to do: illustrate children's books.
All through the years I was growing up, my parents had given each other copies of books illustrated by the great British illustrator, Arthur Rackham, and I had spent hours and hours of my childhood looking at his pictures. I dreamed that someday I would make pictures as magical and entrancing as his. After working for a year to develop a portfolio, I took my pictures to several publishers in New York. They told me that the illustrations "didn't fit" any writer's writing, and that I should find my own stories. This led to my first books: collections of folktales that I translated or collected, and then illustrated. I have been writing and illustrating, mostly for children, ever since.
My early books were just stories I enjoyed, mostly based on folktales. Once I became a mother, I have been much more influenced by my daughter, Monika. It was because of her that I made Ten, Nine Eight, as well as Dawn, and When Sophie Gets Angry—Really, Really Angry. And of course I illustrated her series of books about Little Rat.
I've made only a few forays away from children's books. My father became a professor of public health, and I have been interested in this subject all my life. I spent many months in Bangladesh illustrating for UNICEF and for the annual report of a public health program. My ability to speak French, which I had long thought to be useless, helped me get a job as educator for a public health project in French-speaking Mali, West Africa. I spent the year there in 1980-81, writing and illustrating stories containing information on maternal and child health.
At some point, a friend helped me understand that in spite of the growing success of my career, I didn't have a clue how pictures work. As a result, I read as many books as I could about the topic. I then spent a couple of years volunteering in my daughter's public school, trying to help children understand how pictures work, hoping I could thereby learn it myself. Eventually I was able to figure out the most basic principles of picture structure and show how they determine our emotional response—our feeling about a picture. Picture This was the result—my only book for adults, now used in art schools around the country. The first part of Picture This builds, step-by-step, a single illustration from the tale of Little Red Riding Hood, showing how each additional piece makes the picture scarier, and again scarier. The rest of the book explains the structural principles that all artists use to make their pictures emotionally powerful.
In the past 10 or 15 years, I have become more concerned about American children's lack of knowledge about even the most basic scientific principles, and I've written four books about science in an attempt to help change this. Even though Common Ground won The Giverny Award for the best children's science book of 2000 and My Light was chosen as an ALA Notable and won the Massachusetts Book Award for Children's Literature in 2005, sales of my science books have been universally dismal. I intend to keep trying.