I am new to writing books for children, but I am not new to writing books. The big difference between the books I wrote before–for adults–and the books I am writing now–for children–is that the books I wrote for adults are memoirs and everything that happens in them really happened, while the books I am writing for kids are completely made up from my imagination. I had always wanted to make stories up for adults, too, but I never seemed to be able to do it. Every time I’d start a story, by the second paragraph I’d be putting things in that really had happened to me. I couldn’t help myself. My life seemed more interesting than anything I could make up. Still, I got pretty sick of not being able to invent anything, because I knew I had a good imagination. In high school I was a terrible student and a very good liar. Instead of reading real books and writing book reports about them, I’d make all the stories up, including the name of the author, but not the publisher, which I would copy from other books. I was so good at making up stories, my friends would ask me to make up books for their reports, too.
I wrote two memoirs, and after I’d finished my second one, I had run out of interesting events to tell about, and I really didn’t have much more to stay about my life. But I didn’t know how to write anything but memoir, so I started another one that began with a touching story about a duck that had appeared in my yard one day. That was a fine beginning, but I couldn’t think of much else to write after that. I complained to a friend that I wished I could write fiction, and she said, “Why don’t you try writing for children. You might not be so afraid of the audience.” I wasn’t aware that I was afraid of the audience, but all the same, I thought writing for children was a very good idea. And so one day I sat at my desk, wondering what to write for children, and the first two lines of a book just came to me, like a gift. They were: “Mary lived in a big house with a very little Mouse. The Mouse lived in a little house inside a very big house, with Mary.” I thought that was a pretty good situation for a kid’s book, a girl and a mouse who live parallel lives and one day discover each other. I continued writing about Mary and the Mouse, and by the end of the day, I’d finished the book. It took me another week to polish it and make sure every word was perfect in its place, and then my agent immediately sold it to Anne Schwartz at Random House. The book is called Mary and the Mouse, the Mouse and Mary.
Anne had read my first book, Riding in Cars with Boys, which I’d written for adults. It was made into a movie starring Drew Barrymore, as me, which was thrilling and strange and many things. Anyway, it turned out that even though I wrote Riding in Cars with Boys for adults, a lot of teenagers had read it and continue to read it. My editor, Anne, said to me, “You’re a natural. Why don’t you write a book for young adults?” I responded that I’d always wanted to write about the worst year of my life, which had been the fifth grade. She told me to write a few chapters and show them to her, and maybe she’d give me a contract to finish the book. Which is exactly what happened. The book is Thank You, Lucky Stars. In this book, I began with something that had really happened to me: my best friend dropped me for my archrival, Joannie Fontaine, who I renamed Mona Montagne in the book. So the starting point was something that had really happened, but then I was able to make the rest of it up. And to put in a lot of things I love: all the old rock and roll dances such as the Swim, the Monkey, the Hitchhike, and Jerk, plus disco dancing and scenes from two of my favorite movies, Saturday Night Fever and Dirty Dancing.
After the main character’s, Ally’s, best friend dumps her, she basically has no choice but to be friends with the weird new girl in school, whose name is Tina. I decided to fashion Tina on my friend Jacki Lyden. Jacki is enthusiastic about everything, never seems to get tired, and never thinks that anything is impossible. She doesn’t have a shy bone in her body and would march up to talk to the president if he were in the same room. I, on the other hand, can be very shy, easily discouraged, and afraid to try new things. I wondered, if Jacki and I knew each other when we were in the fifth grade, what our friendship would be like? It’s the friendship between Ally and Tina that drives the plot.
I have always wished I could be a little more like Jacki, and I think in the writing of the book, in having to become Tina to write about her, a little of Tina and Jacki did rub off on me. Now, if that’s going to happen with all of my characters, I think I’d better be very careful about the characters I invent.
I hope I invent a whole slew of them, learn more about my world in the process, and pass the knowledge on to my readers. I consider it one of the greatest honors of my life that I am able to write books for young people, whom I find ever so much more alive and curious and fun than nearly all the adults I know, including–and especially–myself.