High, Linda Oatman 1958-
High, Linda Oatman 1958-
Born April 28, 1958, in Ephrata, PA; daughter of Robert (a miner) and Mary Myrna (an office worker) Haas; married Ken Oatman, June 10, 1978 (divorced); mar-
ried John High (a recycler); children: Justin Oatman, Zachary High; stepchildren: Kala High, J.D. High (son). Ethnicity: "Caucasian." Religion: Christian. Hobbies and other interests: Playing bass guitar in a band, reading, aerobics.
Home and office—1209 Reading Rd., Narvon, PA 17555. E-mail—firstname.lastname@example.org.
News reporter and feature writer for newspapers in Ephrata, Coatesville, and Morgantown, PA. Has also worked as a waitress, lifeguard, and secretary.
Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, Pennwriters.
John Crane Memorial Scholarship, Highlights Foundation, 1993; work-in-progress grant, Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, 1994; Notable Book in the Language Arts citation, National Council of Teachers of English, c. 1999, for Barn Savers; Blue Ribbon Book citation, Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, and Best Books of the Year citation, Parenting magazine, both 2001, both for Under New York; Great Lakes Book Award, Great Lakes Booksellers Association, Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Honor Book designation, and Notable Social Studies Book for Young People, National Council for the Social Studies/Children's Book Council, all 2002, all for A Humble Life.
Maizie (young-adult novel), Holiday House (New York, NY), 1995.
Hound Heaven (young adult novel), Holiday House (New York, NY), 1995.
The Summer of the Great Divide (young adult novel), Holiday House (New York, NY), 1996.
A Stone's Throw from Paradise (young adult novel), William B. Eerdmans (Grand Rapids, MI), 1997.
A Christmas Star (picture book), illustrated by Ronald Himler, Holiday House (New York, NY), 1997.
Beekeepers (picture book), illustrated by Doug Chayka, Boyds Mills Press (Honesdale, PA), 1998.
Barn Savers (picture book), illustrated by Ted Lewin, Boyds Mills Press (Honesdale, PA), 1999.
Under New York (picture book), illustrated by Robert Rayevsky, Holiday House (New York, NY), 2001.
Winter Shoes for Shadow Horse (picture book), illustrated by Ted Lewin, Boyds Mills Press (Honesdale, PA), 2001.
The Last Chimney of Christmas Eve (picture book), illustrated by Kestutis Kasparavicius, Boyds Mills Press (Honesdale, PA), 2001.
A Humble Life: Plain Poems, William B. Eerdmans (Grand Rapids, MI), 2001.
Strum a Song of Angels: Poems about Music, Piano Press (Del Mar, CA), 2002.
The President's Puppy, illustrated by Steve Björkman, Scholastic (New York, NY), 2002.
The Girl on the High-diving Horse: An Adventure in Atlantic City, illustrated by Ted Lewin, Penguin Putnam (New York, NY), 2003.
Sister Slam and the Poetic Motormouth Road Trip, Bloomsbury (New York, NY), 2004.
City of Snow: The Great Blizzard of 1888, illustrated by Laura Francesca Filippucci, Walker & Co. (New York, NY), 2004.
The Cemetery Keepers of Gettysburg, illustrated by Laura Francesca Filippucci, Walker & Co. (New York, NY), 2006.
Cool Bopper's Choppers, illustrated by John O'Brien, Boyds Mills Press (Honesdale, PA), 2007.
The Hip Grandma's Handbook (adult nonfiction), Falls Media, 2007.
Contributor to anthologies, including Soul Searching: Thirteen Stories of Faith and Belief, edited by Lisa Rowe Fraustino, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2002; and Don't Cramp My Style: Stories about That Time of the Month, edited by Fraustino, Simon & Schuster, 2004. Contributor to periodicals, including Grit, Highlights, U.S. Kids, Child Life, and Just for Women. Author of weekly column "Jake's View," for local newspapers; author of weekly column for Penny Saver News (New Holland, PA).
Linda Oatman High is the author of young-adult novels, picture books, poetry, and other works for young readers. Her novels for young adults frequently feature spunky heroines whose unwillingness to give up their dreams, even in the face of unpleasant realities, helps ease the passage from childhood to adolescence. In Maizie, for instance, High's twelve-year-old central character has taken care of her alcoholic father and her four-year-old sister since her mother ran off with a vacuum-cleaner salesman. Maizie and little sister Grace keep their dreams alive by making "wish" books using pictures cut out of magazines. Maizie's most ardent wishes are for a horse of her own and a chance to see her mother again. In pursuit of these dreams, she takes a job at a nursing home to raise money to buy a horse, and writes to her mother.
High's characters "are fresh, and their dialogue is natural, with just a hint of mountain flavor," observed Elizabeth S. Watson in a review of Maizie for Horn Book. Several critics noted Maizie's ability to keep her spirits up, even when faced with seemingly insurmountable troubles. This feature of High's narrative "keeps the book from being dreary but makes [Maizie] unrealistically plucky," Susan Dove Lempke wrote in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, although Lempke admitted that "overall, readers will find Maizie both likable and admirable." Maizie herself "is a character readers will not soon forget," Carrie Eldridge declared in Voice of Youth Advocates, adding that High's first effort deserves comparison to Vera Cleaver's classic tale about Mary Call, the strong female protagonist of Where the Lilies Bloom.
Like Maizie, Silver Nickles, the main character in Hound Heaven, lives in rural poverty on a mountain in the eastern United States. Silver has lived with her grandfather since the death of her parents and little sister in a car crash and only wishes she could have a dog to love, a thing she feels will soothe her aching sadness. "High creates a rich and at times humorous cast of characters around Silver," Jeanne M. McGlinn remarked in Voice of Youth Advocates. Others found that the plot of Hound Heaven, which includes a one-sided schoolboy crush with overtones of stalking and a beauty pageant, strains the story's credibility. But, according to a critic for Kirkus Reviews, "this quirky novel is satisfying despite its odd detachment from reality." Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books contributor Deborah Stevenson credited the ultimate success of Hound Heaven to Silver's first-person narration, which "is touching in its yearning and appealing in its gentle humor."
Also told in the first-person is The Summer of the Great Divide, High's third novel for young adults. Set in the turbulent 1960s, this novel finds a young teen spending the summer on her aunt and uncle's farm while her parents decide whether they should divorce. There, thirteen-year-old Wheezie is confronted by strange and physically demanding tasks connected with life on a farm, as well as with the necessity of making peace with a mentally challenged cousin and dealing with the onset of puberty and news of the ongoing war in Vietnam. Readers of The Summer of the Great Divide are likely to sympathize with Wheezie's problems, according to Leone McDermott in Booklist, and "the 1960s time frame gives an interesting twist to a familiar theme."
In Sister Slam and the Poetic Motormouth Road Trip eighteen-year-old Laura Crapper is tired of her life as a social outcast and school misfit. Determined to make a change, the brash teen starts calling herself Sister Slam and looks for fame and fortune as a slam poet. Together with best friend and rapper Twig, the mismatched pair (Sister Slam is overweight, while Twig is very skinny) climb into Laura's junker of a car and head off for a slam poetry competition in Tin Can, New Jersey. Just getting to the contest becomes an adventure, as they nearly kill a pig, get ticketed by the police, and manage to anger a person who turns out to be a judge in the poetry slam. When Laura gets into an accident and destroys her car, it turns out to be good luck. The other person in the crash is the charming and wealthy Jake, who invites the girls to stay with his family at the posh Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York. When a journalist overhears the slam poets perform at a fancy restaurant, their career shifts into high gear even as Laura and Jake find romance with each other. Throughout the book, High "creates events and people bigger than life, yet readers will find some very genuine emotions hidden beneath Laura's loud, cynical front," remarked a Publishers Weekly reviewer. High "makes everything work" in a "surprisingly sweet tale" that is "[e]xceedingly clever, if not complex," observed Booklist reviewer Frances Bradburn.
High addresses a slightly younger audience in The Girl on the High-diving Horse: An Adventure in Atlantic City. Set in the summer of 1936, The Girl on the High-diving Horse describes the spectacles of Atlantic City's Steel Pier—boxing kangaroos, surfing dogs, dancing tigers, and, of course, high-diving horses—through the eyes of eight-year-old Ivy Cordelia. Ivy is thrilled when she becomes friends with Arnette and Sonora, the sisters who ride the diving horses. She is allowed to help care for the horses, and at the end of the summer, Arnette takes Ivy on one single high dive before she must return home. "High tells her warm, nostalgic story in musical, well-paced language," Gillian Engberg wrote in Booklist, while a Kirkus Reviews contributor noted that "the immediacy of the first-person voice and the magnetic force of the scenes are totally engaging."
High's picture books for children include A Christmas Star. In this story, which is set during the Great Depression of the 1930s, a little girl and her family decorate their sleigh and their horse, Star, in preparation for a ride to church for the Christmas Eve service. The girl anticipates receiving a new pair of mittens, an orange, and some candy from the church's mitten tree, but when they arrive at the church they discover that the tree and the gifts have all been stolen. However, while the congregation is engrossed in creating their live Nativity scene, the girl catches a glimpse of St. Nicholas returning the stolen presents. High's "sensitive, well-paced tale brings the true meaning of Christmas to the fore," a reviewer commented in Publishers Weekly.
Other picture books by High focus on the warmer months of the year. The "spare, poetic descriptions" in Beekeepers "make it easy to imagine a dewy spring morning on the farm," a critic declared in Publishers Weekly. This book focuses on a girl and her grandfather, a farmer who raises bees. The two are working together one day to gather honey from the grandfather's hives when the girl must overcome her fear of the bees to deal safely with a swarm all by herself. This "personal triumph, sweet as honey" is "at the heart of the story," Stephanie Zvirin noted in a Booklist review of Beekeepers.
Barn Savers is "one of the few picture books to show rural life outside the farmyard," Carolyn Phelan wrote in Booklist. A century-old barn is about to be demolished, and rather than let its boards and beams go to waste, a boy and his father work to take the barn apart piece by piece. For an entire day, the father breaks the barn into single boards, and the son stacks them up. As they work, "the father passes on to his son a belief that the barn is a treasure … [that] deserves to be respectfully saved," a critic explained in Kirkus Reviews. At the end of the day, the boy takes the barn's old iron weathervane home to display in his room as a souvenir.
Winter Shoes for Shadow Horse is another father-son tale by High, this time about a blacksmith teaching his son how to shoe a horse. It is a story "about shared love and respect as one generation teaches another," John Peters related in Booklist. Describing the book as "memorable," School Library Journal critic Gay Lynn Van Vleck found Winter Shoes for Shadow Horse to be "remarkably rich in sensual elements."
Several of High's picture books are written in verse. City of Snow: The Great Blizzard of 1888 is presented in a mix of rhyming poetry and free verse and tells the story of a young girl's experiences during the disastrous snowstorm that struck New York in the late nineteenth century. As the storm approaches, the girl and her family make preparations. The narrator notes the sights and sounds of the snowbound city, but life goes on even under the full force of winter as residents brave the weather to attend a circus performance in Madison Square. High offers an historical note explaining how the blizzard resulted in the city's public transportation and power systems being placed underground. She "offers a compelling picture of the disaster and its aftermath," remarked a Kirkus Reviews critic, while in Booklist Jennifer Mattson commented that "High conjures a snowbound Victorian New York through sharply etched details."
In The Cemetery Keepers of Gettysburg a family of graveyard caretakers provides a unique perspective on the famous U.S. Civil War battle held in rural Pennsylvania. In High's free-verse narrative seven-year-old Fred Thorn tells how his father left to fight for the Union Army while his pregnant mother and siblings have stayed behind to manage the graveyard. When the full force of the horrific battle erupts around them, the family has little choice but to dig in and endure the violence as best they can. When the fighting is over, the family emerges unharmed. Then, doing their duty, Thorn and his mother begin digging graves for the many dead soldiers. "High's sensitive verse creates a vivid yet restrained impression of the boy's experiences" during and after the war, commented Carolyn Phelan in Booklist. A Kirkus Reviews contributor predicted that "readers will be touched and sobered by this deeply felt glimpse of battle" and its tragic aftermath.
Under New York marks a change of pace for High. Rather than be set in her customary farm country, the book explores the vast slice of life existing underground in a big city like New York. Each spread shows a cutaway of the city, with the action above-ground contrasting with what is going on below. "This is a sensational idea for a children's book, as awesome as falling down a rabbit hole, as creepy as looking under a rock," Sam Swope wrote in a New York Times Book Review appraisal of Under New York. Alicia Eames commented in School Library Journal that "tidbits of history and curious facts of present-day life add to the adventure."
High once noted: "I was born and raised in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, living in the boondocks on Swamp Road. Swamp Road was just a road like any other country road, with no swamp in sight. There were woods and trails and trees and creeks and relatives for neighbors. And there was me, wondering why in the world somebody named it Swamp Road when there was no swamp in sight. That wondering was probably one of the first signs that I'd be a writer. We writers spend lots of time thinking about titles and names and words and why people call things something they're not.
"So there I was, growing up on Swamp Road with two parents, one brother, and an assortment of pets. We had many pets: a nervous Chihuahua named Vester, who trembled whenever we looked his way; a yellow canary named Tweety-Bird, who threw birdseed all over my bedroom; an aquarium full of fish; a strawberry roan pony, Pedro the burro; a sheep named Lambchop who thought she was a dog; and Whitey, a fluffy Samoyed dog I loved with all my heart. It was my memory of the love I felt for Whitey that formed the backbone of Hound Heaven.….
"I was a child who believed in everything: angels, fairies, ghosts, UFOs, Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny. Once, I swore I saw Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer through my bedroom window, and it wasn't anywhere near Christmas. Mom said that I had a crazy imagination, and Dad said I ate too many bananas before bed. You need a crazy imagination to write, but you don't necessarily need bananas.
"For first grade, I was lucky enough to attend California School. California School was a one-room school with a hill for sledding and the best spring water ever and a creek out back where I threw my bologna sandwiches. The teacher said that was why I was so skinny, but he never could explain why California School was on California Road, smack-dab in the center of Pennsylvania.
"My year in first grade—1964—was the last year of California School. The next year, I went to a brand-new school in a nearby town called Churchtown, which of course had lots of churches. The new school had unscratched desks, fresh paint, a cafeteria, a gym, and a black macadam playground with hoops and nets and hopscotch squares. The brand-new school had lots of rooms, but no creek for bologna sandwiches. No hill for sledding. No spring water. No coal stoves in the corners or creaking wooden floors. I thought they should have built another church instead.
"As a child, I had an obsessive fear of death, until I found faith in California Church that day. In Hound Heaven, Silver Nickles is dealing with the death of her mama and daddy and baby sister, and faith plays a large part in the novel. When I was in the tenth grade, I wrote an essay about the Fireman's Fair in a nearby town. I wrote about the greasy French fries and the hillbilly music and the spinning roulette wheels that steal your money away. I wrote the essay for a creative writing class taught by Mrs. Severs (who we secretly called by her first name, Susie). Mrs. Severs—Susie—loved my essay and hung it on the bulletin board for everybody to see. She raved and raved about my writing and said that I should be a writer. From that moment on, I was. That's all I needed: to hear the words out loud.
"I wasn't officially published until 1984, after my first child was born. I had quit my job as a secretary and wanted to stay home with my baby, while still bringing in some money. Writing fit in my plans perfectly, and I wrote feature articles for local newspapers until 1987, when I decided that I wanted to write from my heart and not my head, as I'd been doing with newspaper reporting.
"In 1987, Justin was four years old, and I was reading a lot of picture books to him, becoming very interested in children's literature in the process. That's when I began writing for magazines, selling some stories to Highlights for Children, Hopscotch, and Children's Digest. I loved writing fiction for magazines, but I had a dream. My dream was to write books—picture books, novels, chapter books. So I wrote and I wrote and I wrote, creating and submitting and collecting rejection slips as I acquired three more children: my stepchildren, J.D. and Kala, then Zachary.
"There were times when I almost gave up, because it was hard. The writing was hard, the waiting was hard, the competition was tough. I had lots of kids and little time for writing. I almost gave up, but not quite. In 1990, right after my son Zachary was born, I wrote a novel called Maizie, published by Holiday House in April of 1995. It was my first published book, and Hound Heaven was to follow, then The Summer of the Great Divide.
"My dream has come true, with a bit of faith, a dash of determination, and lots of hard work. In Hound Heaven, Silver Nickles never gives up. She has faith and determination, and she works hard toward her goal. I try to instill all my fictional characters with these very real attributes … they can make dreams come true! In giving advice to aspiring writers, I would quote Ben Franklin: ‘Never, ever, ever, ever, ever give up.’"
Biographical and Critical Sources
Booklist, April 15, 1995, Frances Bradburn, review of Maizie, p. 1500; June 1, 1996, Leone McDermott, review of The Summer of the Great Divide, p. 1718; June 1, 1997, Shelley Townsend-Hudson, review of A Stone's Throw from Paradise, p. 1703; September 1, 1997, Hazel Rochman, review of A Christmas Star, p. 139; May 15, 1998, Stephanie Zvirin, review of Beekeepers, p. 1632; November 1, 1999, Carolyn Phelan, review of Barn Savers, p. 524; March 1, 2001, Gillian Engberg, review of Under New York, p. 1283; September 1, 2001, John Peters, review of Winter Shoes for Shadow Horse, p. 115; September 15, 2001, Ilene Cooper, review of The Last Chimney of Christmas Eve, p. 235; December 15, 2001, Susan Dove Lempke, review of A Humble Life: Plain Poems, p. 734; April 15, 2003, Gillian Engberg, review of The Girl on the High-diving Horse: An Adventure in Atlantic City, p. 1478; May 1, 2004, Frances Bradburn, review of Sister Slam and the Poetic Motormouth Road Trip, p. 1555; November 1, 2004, Jennifer Mattson, review of City of Snow: The Great Blizzard of 1888, p. 489; March 15, 2007, Carolyn Phelan, review of The Cemetery Keepers of Gettysburg, p. 45.
Book Report, November-December, 1996, Nancye Starkey, review of The Summer of the Great Divide, p. 41; January-February, 1998, Patricia Bender, review of A Stone's Throw from Paradise, pp. 32-33.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, April, 1995, Susan Dove Lempke, review of Maizie, p. 277; December, 1995, Deborah Stevenson, review of Hound Heaven, p. 129; April, 1998, Pat Mathews, review of Beekeepers, p. 282.
Childhood Education, spring, 2002, Loline Saras, review of Winter Shoes for Shadow Horse, p. 173.
Horn Book, May-June, 1995, Elizabeth S. Watson, review of Maizie, p. 332; January-February, 1996, Maeve Visser Knoth, review of Hound Heaven, p. 74; July, 2001, review of Under New York, p. 439.
Kirkus Reviews, October 15, 1995, review of Hound Heaven, p. 1493; February 1, 1998, review of Beekeepers, p. 197; August 15, 1999, review of Barn Savers, p. 1311; September 1, 2001, review of A Humble Life, p. 1290; March 15, 2003, review of The Girl on the High-diving Horse, p. 468; April 1, 2004, review of Sister Slam and the Poetic Motormouth Road Trip, p. 331; September 15, 2004, review of City of Snow, p. 914; March 1, 2007, review of The Cemetery Keepers of Gettysburg, p. 223.
New York Times Book Review, May 20, 2001, Sam Swope, review of Under New York, p. 30.
Publishers Weekly, October 6, 1997, review of A Christmas Star, p. 55; February 2, 1998, review of Beekeepers, p. 90; February 26, 2001, review of Under New York, p. 86; September 24, 2001, review of The Last Chimney of Christmas Eve, p. 54; December 3, 2001, review of A Humble Life, p. 63; January 13, 2003, review of The Girl on the High-diving Horse, p. 60; March 29, 2004, review of Sister Slam and the Poetic Motormouth Road Trip, p. 63.
Reading Teacher, November, 1998, review of A Christmas Star, p. 280.
School Library Journal, April, 1995, Marie Orlando, review of Maizie, p. 132; November, 1995, Carol Schene, review of Hound Heaven, p. 100; April, 1996, Beth Tegart, review of The Summer of the Great Divide, pp. 134-135; October, 1997, Jane Marino, review of A Christmas Star, p. 42; December, 1997, Linda Binder, review of A Stone's Throw from Paradise, pp. 124-125; June, 1998, Evelyn Butrico, review of Beekeepers, p. 109; May, 2001, Alicia Eames, review of Under New York, p. 142; October, 2001, review of The Last Chimney of Christmas Eve, p. 65, and Gay Lynn Van Vleck, review of Winter Shoes for Shadow Horse, p. 120; February, 2003, Carol Schene, review of The Girl on the High-diving Horse, pp. 112-113; May, 2004, Nina Lindsay, review of Sister Slam and the Poetic Motormouth Road Trip, p. 148; November, 2004, Susan Lissim, review of City of Snow, p. 106.
Voice of Youth Advocates, October, 1995, Carrie Eldridge, review of Maizie, p. 220; February, 1996, Jeanne M. McGlinn, review of Hound Heaven, p. 372.
Authors Den Web site,http://www.authorsden.com/ (January 22, 2002), Linda Oatman High, "On the Edge of Pennsylvania Dutch Country"; (June 18, 2007) "Linda Oatman High."
Linda Oatman High Home Page,http://www.lindaoatmanhigh.com (June 14, 2007).
Linda Oatman High
Linda Oatman High contributed the following autobiographical essay to SATA:
Once upon a time, there was Me: a baby named Linda Louise Haas.
Born on April 28th, 1958, I came way too close to entering this earth in a red 1955 Ford Crown Victoria. With my mother suffering labor pains and screaming, my father was speeding to the Ephrata Hospital in the hot red car he'd purchased right after returning home from serving the U.S. Army in the Korean War.
Dad was 28; Mom was 20. I was 0. The speedometer was over 100.
Dad heard sirens screaming along with my mom, and he saw in his rearview mirror the flashing lights of a Pennsylvania State Police officer.
"I can't stop," Dad said.
"Go!" Mom yelled.
"Stop!" the officer yelled as he overtook the Crown Victoria. Dad squealed to a halt and pointed at my mom.
"Go!" shouted the cop. So Dad did, with the officer leading the way at 105 miles per hour.
It was an auspicious beginning to my life. (I'm now 49. Mom's 69. Dad's 77. We don't know what happened to the red car or the Pennsylvania State Police officer.)
My parents and I were now a family, leaving from the Ephrata Hospital with Dad driving at a safe and legal speed. We went home to Loags Corner, Pennsylvania, where we lived in a tiny mobile home. My mother was a stay-at-home mom; Dad worked underground in the Grace Mines, where even the mules went blind from the constant dark. He worked hard to support us, and by the time I was two years old, Dad was building our new home. It was a 1960 green-painted "ranch house," the hippest suburban style on the market in those days. The house was built on a wooded lot, close to lots of Dad's relatives, on Swamp Road. There was no swamp; just trees and creeks and leaves that changed colors with the seasons.
My earliest memories include falling from my crib onto a metal toy camera (my parents confirm this memory, and so does a scar on my eye), playing with a sweet little beagle dog whose name nobody remembers, and staring warily at my brand-new baby brother Randy when he came home from the hospital, red-faced and squalling. Randy was new, our house was new, I was two.
The first book I can remember from my early years was a small Tell-a-Tale book titled Happy Written by Marion Borden. The story is one of a cat found under the hood of a school bus. Sweetly illustrated by Norma and Dan Garris, the book always stuck in my memory. It had a pink-checked border and a green-eyed smiling cat on the cover. My own Happy book was lost somewhere along the way, but I found one in an antique store a few years ago. It cost a dollar. I bought it, and it now sits on a file cabinet in my office, reminding me that books make me Happy.
I spent a lot of time with my grandmothers. Emma Millard—my mother's mother—lived close to the mobile home in Loags Corner. Minnie Haas—my father's mother—lived close to the new ranch house. Emma—" Nana"—was (and still is, at the age of ninety-one) a good cook. Her special recipes include homemade Easter eggs, zucchini bread, and pies of any kind that you can imagine. Nana loves to work in her flower garden, and she adores cleaning her house, a big white farmhouse built in 1776. Nana plants strawberries and lettuce and tomatoes and beans, and she grows the tallest sunflowers you've ever seen.
Minnie—"Grammy"—died when I was nine. Grammy was a good cook, too, and she made the best meadow tea, using fresh mint picked from her fence row. Grammy's sugary meadow tea cured any ailment or bad mood. We called it "catnip tea," but I don't think it was really catnip. I think it was mint.
Grammy also loved gardening, flowers, and keeping her house sparkling clean. She planted corn, tomatoes, lettuce, green beans, and peas. She had a grape vine close to the house, with sour, purple-skinned grapes growing plump from the sun of Morgantown, Pennsylvania.
Grammy had chickens, and my brother and I loved to watch how they jumped around even after their heads were chopped off. It was frightening and strangely funny all at the same time. Of course, we didn't want to eat the steaming chicken soup, after having seen the butchering.
Grammy had given birth to sixteen children, the youngest being my dad. There had been twin boys, both of whom died of croup in my Grammy's arms. The babies were nine months old, and Grammy had thirteen other children. One of them—Jack—had to run across the fields to call for help from a neighbor's telephone. My Grammy had no phone in those early years.
Grammy had an outhouse: an outside wooden bathroom with two rough seats. The outhouse was scary at night, and there were spiders and mosquitoes and bees inside. I told my brother Randy that killer chickens lived under outhouses, and he was terrified.
I believe that the killer chickens were early signs of my wild writer's imagination. Other indications were that I totally believed in aliens, flying saucers, ghosts, and monsters, as well as in Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer. I used to sit for hours on Christmas Eve, staring through my window into the sky, looking for the elusive red light of the reindeer's nose.
I was a big dreamer as a kid: daydreaming and night dreaming. My favorite daydream was that I might grow up to become a cowgirl. I was a big fan of horses, and my favorite TV show was Sally Starr, a Philadelphia program that featured a sparkly cowgirl on a majestic white horse. I wanted to be Sally Starr. I also wanted to be Catwoman, Nancy Drew, a Roller Derby queen, or a rock star. I told you: I had big dreams.
My night dreams were full of detail and color. I frequently remembered my dreams, and very often they came true. Intuition is another quality that serves a writer well.
Living on Swamp Road near Morgantown, Pennsylvania, Randy and I played outside a lot. We made dams in the creeks; we caught turtles, "Daddy Longleggers" and fireflies; we climbed trees; we piled rocks. There were no video games in those days, so playing required lots of creativity.
I was an outdoors kind of girl; the kind of child that used to be called a "tomboy." Randy and I rode minibikes and three-wheelers and snowmobiles through the meadows and the wood trails. We had horses and dogs and fish and birds and a donkey and one sheep named Lambchop who thought she was a dog (we never had a monkey, despite the fact that I begged to get a tiny spider monkey like the one in Pippi Longstocking).
Lambchop followed our dog Whitey around the yard, trying to imitate her. Whitey would jump at our door when she wanted to come inside. One day, 200 pounds of sheep crashed up on two legs and into the door. That incident found its way into my first book, a middle-grade novel titled Maizie. I changed the sheep's name to Wooly Girl.
We writers sometimes change names and places and dates. It's fun: We get to be the bosses of our own universe. It's almost as good as being Catwoman.
When I was six years old, I started first grade (there was no kindergarten in our area in those days). I attended the California One Room School, on California Road, right in the middle of Pennsylvania. The California Schoolhouse had a coal stove and one line of books upon a shelf. There was a row of students for each grade: 1st through 6th. The teacher, Mr. Overly, would teach a row at a time. The grades not being instructed by Mr. Overly would read or work on assignments, and we learned how to focus and block out distractions. (This skill would serve me well in later years when I started writing while raising a houseful of kids!)
Mr. Overly was a patient teacher. He had a kind smile and a gentle voice. Mr. Overly loved to read, and he made sure that his students loved to read, too. I recall the excitement of learning words in the Dick and Jane storybooks, and I remember writing my name—LINDA—in crooked letters.
We had a sledding hill and a trickling creek at California School. We built forts in the woods. There was a spring across the road, with the coldest cleanest water in Pennsylvania. At recess and lunchtime, we'd cross the country road and fill our cups with water. Lunch was eaten on a little bridge over the creek in warm weather, and we ate at our desks on winter days. Once, we got snowed in by a blizzard.
My best friends were Bonnie Fink and Jimmy Hartranft. We toted our bologna sandwiches, bananas, apples, Tastykakes, and thermoses in metal lunchboxes. I had a Flintstones cartoon lunchbox, and I can still remember how it smelled when I opened it: like bologna and bananas. I was a skinny kid, and had a bad habit of not eating enough lunch. I'd either throw my bologna sandwiches in the creek, or give them to my friend Jimmy. I always ate my Tastykakes.
I wrote a story for Hopscotch magazine about California School. I like to say that my memories stick like bubblegum to my brain, and fall off onto the pages when I write.
For second grade, I moved on to the brand-new Caernarvon Elementary School. Caernarvon was built in the nearby village of Churchtown, and it was a beautiful school. There was a room for each grade, and some grades even had two rooms! There was a cafeteria and a gymnasium and a music room and the most magical place in the world: a library filled with books. I still remember how my heart lifted when I looked up at all those shelves and shelves of books.
To this day I continue to dream of that library, and in the dream there's a thick pink book. My heart gives a little squish at the sight. I think that the book may have been a Mary Poppins book. I remember reading lots of books in Caernarvon Elementary School, and being amazed at how an author could make something seem so real. I thought it was a miracle that twenty-six little letters of the alphabet could make a million different stories.
I loved to read the Wizard of Oz books, and I loved to read every Nancy Drew mystery that I could get my hands on. I read comic books and Mad magazine. As a teen, I devoured Tiger Beat, a magazine of movie stars. I read and read and read. My favorite book was Baby Island by Carol Ryrie Brink, and I also loved A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith.
I read so much that my parents couldn't keep up with my reading needs in the summertime, when the school library was closed. My Aunt Mary, who lived in the town of Goodville, would go to the Bookmobile each week, and she'd choose an armload of books for me to read. I was always so excited to see what Mary had found in the library on wheels.
My dad bought John Updike books for me, because Mr. Updike (a famous Pulitzer Prize-winning author) had lived nearby. His mother had been one of my dad's schoolteachers. I thought it was incredible that someone could be just a normal person living in the countryside of Pennsylvania, and grow up to become a well-known writer.
I read all of the John Updike books when I was probably too young to be reading his work. Some of the content was for more mature readers, but I liked the
feeling of reading "grown-up books." I also liked reading grown-up magazines, and would sneakily read True Story while my mom got her weekly hair perm at the beauty salon.
In addition to reading a lot, I also loved to watch television. My favorite programs were Dark Shadows (a daytime soap opera about a vampire), The Brady Bunch, and The Partridge Family. I had a crush on Keith Partridge, a character who was played by the very handsome actor David Cassidy. I used to imagine that David would pick me up for a date. He'd be riding in a shiny white limousine, carrying a bouquet of red roses, resplendent in a tuxedo. I'd be wearing the coolest black dress with real pearls. I'd kiss my arm at night, pretending that it was David Cassidy (my kids think that this was ridiculous, but I still think that kissing practice isn't a bad idea).
I had a vivid and colorful imagination, another quality that serves a writer well. I dream in color, I imagine in color, and I write in color. Writing is like art: it gets better with a lot of color.
My life as a teen was full of color: I drove a 1969 yellow Mustang, my bedroom was lilac-purple, and I played a candy-apple red 1969 electric Epiphone guitar. The grass in our neck of the woods was green; the sky was blue; the sunshine was yellow. Life was fun, and it was all about Me. (Isn't that how it is with every kid?!)
When I was in sixth grade, it was announced that there would be a Cow-Judging essay contest. (Hey; this was the 1960s, in Pennsylvania Dutch Country!) I was excited, and told my parents that I was going to win. They laughed.
"You go to school with Amish kids who live on farms," Dad said. "They know cows better than you. You know nothing about cows!"
He was right. I knew nothing about cows. But I was determined to learn, and so I researched and researched, studied and studied, wrote and wrote. With persistence, I finished that essay. I did my best, and guess what? I won the Cow-Judging essay contest at Caernarvon Elementary! I also won the school spelling bee, and I still have the prize thesaurus that I was awarded. It has served me well, and I still enjoy the challenge of research, though it's not always about cows.
I loved blizzards, and this fascination would stay with me as I wrote my book City of Snow: The Great Blizzard of 1888. I always suggest that people write about the things they love, as well as the things that scare them. Fear and love are powerful emotions, and you need lots of emotion in writing.
As a kid, I loved chocolate, Halloween, ice skating, bicycle riding, swimming, the ocean, and these musicians: a singer songwriter named Harry Chapin, the Rolling Stones, the Carpenters (people said that I looked like Karen Carpenter), John Denver, Olivia Newton-John, and the Monkees. I loved going to church at my little country church: California Church, just up the road from California School. My parents weren't church-goers, so I was happy to go there with my Aunt Julia and Uncle Dave. It was at California Church that I found faith, a theme that would later show up in several of my books. Fear of death had haunted me ever since I was a little girl, and finding faith helped me to deal with that fear.
At California Church, I met Tamie Braine, and we had lots of laughs when we were supposed to be praying. My antics with Tamie show up in several of my books, hidden under the fictional skin of my characters.
I was always big on laughing and on crying, and when I write a novel I hope that it makes my readers laugh a lot and cry a little. I could laugh or cry harder than anyone I knew. I often got in trouble in school for laughing. Sometimes my friends got in trouble, too. My biggest laughing friend was Lisa Lowry, who would make me laugh so hard that my sides hurt. My friends Rita Esch and Janet Fox, too, were my Partners in Hysteria. We would laugh so hard that we couldn't talk. Janet was a library volunteer, and the librarian would roll her eyes whenever I showed up in the library, because she knew it was going to turn into a Giggle Fest. (It was fun for me to bump into that librarian when I'd grown up, and to tell her that I was now an author.)
Funerals were very difficult for me. I would weep harder than anybody else, and I couldn't stop crying. When my Uncle Harry, Aunt Blanche, and neighbor Marie all died on the same day, there were three funerals. Marie's granddaughter Teresa was a good friend of mine, and we cried until our eyes puffed like the marshmallows in the Cocoa Puffs cereal we were always eating.
Teresa and I had liked to play tricks on Harry, Blanche, and Marie: three old people who got together for card games at least once a week. In warm weather, they'd put up a rickety card table and sit on the front porch of Marie's farmhouse. I can still hear the riffling of the cards as they were shuffled.
"Teresa!" Marie would call. "Make us some popcorn and Kool-Aid."
One day, Teresa and I had an idea that we thought was hilarious. We decided to put sugar on the popcorn, and salt in the Kool-Aid. Giggling uncontrollably, we peeked through the porch window.
Harry took a bite of popcorn. He grimaced.
Blanche took a swig of green Kool-Aid. She frowned.
Marie took a handful of popcorn. She screamed: "TERESA! LINDA!"
We were so busted.
Teresa and I created a little self-published newspaper about our escapades. The name of the paper was The Secret Chicks. We had no subscribers, but we had a lot of fun, and it was good preparation for my future career.
I can still recite every teacher I had through my five years at Caernarvon Elementary: Mrs. Reeser, Mrs. Weinhold, Mrs. Shirk, Mrs. Bretch, Mrs. Bretch. I had Mrs. Bretch for fifth grade, and then again for sixth. Mrs. Eloise Bretch recently passed away, and her daughter told me that she was always very proud that one of her students had grown up to become a writer. Mrs. Bretch will forever remain in my brain as "The Teacher Who Could Have Mortified Me But Didn't." This was during my infamous Toilet Shoes incident, the most embarrassing happening of 1969, my sixth-grade year.
My friend Darlene Kurtz was the instigator. Darlene was a beautiful blonde girl, a graceful cheerleader/ballerina type who was polite and well-behaved. She was a great student, and the teachers loved her. But Darlene wasn't as innocent as she seemed.
Darlene had discovered that if one stood upon a certain toilet in the Girls' Room of Caernarvon Elementary, there was a certain rusted metal grate that served as a walkie-talkie into the Boys' Room. Not only did it serve as a walkie-talkie, but it was also a Viewmaster, if a boy was standing in a certain spot by the sinks.
Darlene convinced me—clumsy Linda Haas—that I should climb up on this toilet and give it a try. I did. I was wearing brand-new Keds sneakers. I had only a moment of glory, shouting through the walkie-talkie into the Boys' Room, and then it happened. I fell. Slipping, splishing, splashing … my Keds sneaker-clad right foot was dripping with toilet water. I squished back to class in my Toilet Shoe, not quite sure what to do about my dilemma. Should I go to the Principal's Office and tell them that I had to call my mom and ask her to bring new shoes? No. That was not going to work. Should I take off my shoes? No. Against school rules. I didn't know what to do, so I just squished back into the classroom.
Mrs. Bretch looked at my shoe. She looked at me. "Why, Linda, what happened?" she asked.
"Um … my … my shoe got wet. It's … raining!"
Mrs. Bretch looked at my shoe. She looked through the window. It was a brilliantly sunny day. She looked at me. She smiled. She said nothing. I'm forever grateful to her for that.
The Toilet Shoes incident stuck to my brain like bubble gum, and it fell off onto the pages when I wrote a book titled Cool Bopper's Choppers. Cool Bopper is a jazz man, a baritone saxophonist, who loses his false teeth while playing his horn one night, one crazy old night. They land on the beehive wig of a be-boppin' lady, who drops them into the toilet.
We writers change details: a shoe becomes teeth. A sheep named Lambchop becomes Wooly Girl.
When I was eleven years old, my parents decided that my brother and I watched way too much T.V. In those days, we had only three channels (6, 8, and 10!), and in order to change those three channels we had to actually STAND UP AND WALK TO THE TV.! No remote control in those days. I know; it was crazy.
So anyway, one day my dad said to Randy and me: "You guys watch way too much TV., and all you do is listen to those Rock and Roll records all day long. It's not good for you. We're going on vacation to a little cabin in the Pocono Mountains, where there's no television and no record player. No telephone to call your friends, either. We'll just play Monopoly and take walks in the woods and cook on the campfire. It'll be fun."
My brother and I were bummed. We thought this trip to the mountains was going to be really boring. But it wasn't. It actually turned out to be fun.
We stayed in a rustic little cabin with a name plaque on the front porch. The sign read "Bark Shanty." Bark Shanty had no TV and no record player and no telephone. (In those days, we used phones that hung on the wall. They were almost always black, and they were dialed by sticking a finger in a hole over the number and actually moving the dial. I know. It was crazy.)
Bark Shanty had an outhouse, with spiders and bees and mosquitoes and quite possibly killer chickens. That outhouse, along with the two-seater one at my Grammy's house, stuck to my brain. They fell off onto the pages of my books Hound Heaven and A Stone's Throw from Paradise.
Hound Heaven takes place in rural West Virginia, in a little tarpaper shack. While writing the book, I had the idea to name the shack "Bark Shanty." I thought that I made up the name, and later found a photograph of me sitting on the porch of the cabin in the Pocono Mountains. The sign reading "Bark Shanty" hung over my head. I'd carried that cabin in my subconscious memory, and it was shook loose when I started writing a book set in the mountains. Writing really is mystical and magical at times, and nobody can really explain how it works.
In the summer before seventh grade, I had two terrible accidents. First of all, I dove too hard into three feet of water at the Morgantown Pool, hitting my face on the bottom of the pool. My two front teeth were horribly chipped. The dentist could do nothing until the "roots grew more," and so I walked around feeling like a vampire.
A few weeks after the Vampire Teeth incident, I was roughhousing with my brother in the backyard. Our roughhousing started as fun and games, and then it turned serious. Randy escaped from my clutches, and dashed away. He ran into the garage and slammed the door. I'd been running after him with outstretched hands—think Frankenstein—and when he slammed the door, my hands smashed through the glass.
"Linda!" gasped my brother. "You broke the window!"
I'd also broken through the skin on my right wrist. Blood was flowing from a huge gash, and tendons were literally hanging out of my arm. My left wrist was bleeding, too.
My cousin John, who lived next door, showed up right after the crash. He took one look, turned white, and hightailed it on home.
"Mom!" I screamed. "I need to go to the hospital!"
Mom came outside to see me standing on the green front porch, drenching it red. She went pale, and sank down to the ground, holding her head.
"Hurry!" I said. "Take me to the hospital!"
"Wait," Mom breathed. "Wait until Dad gets back." My Dad had gone on a motorcycle ride.
The next thing I remember is sitting in the backseat, Mom desperately pressing a tea towel tourniquet to my right wrist. Dad was speeding to the hospital. It must have been kind of like the scene when I was born, except there was no policeman and there was no 1955 Crown Victoria. We were in a beige Rambler, and I was dying. Or so I thought.
But I didn't die. The doctors stitched me up: twenty-six stitches in the right wrist and seven in the left.
I started junior high a week after that. I was taking pain medication, and my wrists were bandaged. I had to hold them mummy-like: upside-down and very, very still. My teeth were chipped.
It was horrific: I was a seventh-grade combination of a vampire, Frankenstein, a mummy, and a weirdo. I looked as though I'd been through a war. Blood leaked through the bandages on my hands, and people kept asking what had happened.
I couldn't participate in gym class, and I couldn't carry my books. (We had no backpacks in those days.) A boy from my homeroom, Russell Hackman, took it upon himself to help me. Without a word, he'd tote armfuls of books, write down homework assignments, and hang my jacket in the locker.
I was in absolute stammering awe of Russell Hackman, who seemed as if he towered at about six feet tall. I don't remember ever properly thanking him, or telling him how much his assistance meant to me. I'd just mumble an awkward "thanks," and be on my way, hoping that nobody noticed the girl with the chipped teeth and the bandaged hands.
Russell Hackman died in a car accident a few years after our high-school graduation. He left behind a wife and a baby boy. I told many people about Russell Hackman through the years: how much he'd helped me without even being asked, how much I wished that I could thank him, how I now tried really hard to express gratitude to people who did kind things.
Flash forward to 2005: my stepson's wedding. The reception was outside, and it was dark. Fireflies flittered and crickets chirped, and I was sitting on the porch chatting with a pony-tailed young man who played the guitar. I asked him his name.
"Phil Hackman," he said.
"Oh, I went to school with a Russell Hackman," I replied.
Phil caught his breath. "That was my dad," he said quietly.
Goosebumps prickled my arms, and tears sprung to my eyes. "You're Russell's baby boy," I said to this twenty-something young man. "Well, let me tell you a story about your dad."
By the time I finished, Phil and I were both weeping. "And I never even thanked him," I said.
Phil wiped his eyes. We hugged. "You just did," he said. "You have no idea how much that story meant to me."
It meant a lot to me, too. I included parts of it, fictionalized, in an adult novel I'm working on.
When I was thirteen years old, I was horse-crazy. The horse I wanted most was a strawberry roan pony. Mom and Dad responded to my wish with that favorite parental saying: "No way. You'd get tired of doing all the work, and we'll end up having to do it. No way."
My dad jokingly said, "If you want a pony, you earn the money and buy it." I took him seriously. I had a brilliant idea: I was going to collect money from my relatives and buy my own pony. My Aunt Dot and Aunt Mary came over a lot, so that my mom could give them home hair permanents. They played cards. I figured that in-between getting their hair permed and playing Rummy, my aunts could just throw some money into a Strawberry Roan Pony Donation Can. I used an old coffee can, and taped a sign onto it: Linda's Strawberry Roan Fund. Contributions Greatly Appreciated.
My dad didn't like the idea. He said that it was rude to ask my relatives—his sisters—for money. He threw my can in the trash. But I got him back: many years later I wrote a book Maizie about a girl who wants a strawberry roan pony. Maizie has a can just like mine.
I also got my dad back by writing a poem about his favorite saying, the one he said about my contribution coffee can. My dad's favorite saying is Pennsylvania Dutch, and it goes like this: "Don't Talk So Dumb." So here was my poem:
"Don't Talk So Dumb"
my Dad always said,
my Dad always said
wild cockeyed idea.
"Where's Your Common Sense,"
and "Use Your Head,"
and "You Had No Business Making Up Stories."
what Dad didn't know,
was that someday,
I'd use my head
and make it my business
to make up stories.
When I visit schools to talk about writing, I suggest that students think of one of their parents' favorite sayings, and try writing a poem about it. Poems can be very simple, and they don't have to rhyme. I also have the students write Road Poems, using the name of their road as the first line. Here's my Swamp Road poem:
was just a road,
like any other road,
with no swamp in sight.
Just houses and twists and turns,
and a couple of creeks.
There were woods and trails and trees,
and there was Me …
wondering why in the world
they named it Swamp Road,
when there was no swamp in sight!
That wondering, debating about names and places, is an early sign of a writer. We're always wondering.
When I write, I think of it as a recipe. It's like making chocolate chip cookies: you throw in flour and sugar and eggs and chips. Mix it up, and a new thing appears: a cookie. Writing's recipe is wondering and thoughts and memories and dreams and wishes and pain and eavesdropping and curiosity. I throw all those things together, mix them up, and … TA-DA! A book appears.
When I was in the sixth grade, lots of things were happening, in addition to the Toilet Shoes incident. My cousin was in the Vietnam War. Mood rings were hot. We all watched the first man on the moon on our TV screens in July of 1969. I also watched a lot of Sonny and Cher shows, Laugh-In, and American Bandstand.
My parents were arguing a lot. They ultimately divorced when I was twenty-four years old, and even though I was grown up, my feelings were the same that a younger person has if parents divorce. I took my feelings and put them in a book titled The Summer of the Great Divide. Set in 1969, the book includes the Vietnam War and mood rings and the first moon walk. It's the story of Wheezie, whose parents are getting a divorce.
Writing doesn't have to be just about happy things: it can be about things that make you sad or mad or confused. When I created the character of Wheezie, I was suffering from serious allergies and asthma. I was wheezing, so hence the name.
When I created the character of Silver Nickles for my book Hound Heaven I gave her an annoying male character with whom to deal. He came directly from my real life, when an annoying kid named Roscoe had a big crush on me.
Another part of Hound Heaven that came from my real life was the "Painting the Toenails" incident. In the book, Silver's grandfather—Papaw—has his toenails painted pink on Easter Eve, by the alleged Easter Bunny who is losing his eyesight and paints toes instead of eggs. Here's the real-life story.
When our children were young, I would paint my husband John's toenails pink as he slept on Easter Eve. (John sleeps so soundly that we could paint his entire body and he wouldn't know it.) After painting John's toenails, I'd leave a note on our kitchen table that read: "Dear Mr. High: I am so sorry that I painted your toenails. As you know, my eyesight is failing and sometimes I mistake toenails for eggs. Please accept my apologies—The Easter Bunny."
John would wake up on Easter morning, see the pink toenails, grumble and promptly go for the nail polish remover. Except for the year that our son Zach was five, and believed in the Easter Bunny. That year, Zach cried and begged, "Please, Daddy. Please don't take it off. The Easter Bunny did it! Please leave it on, Daddy. Please leave it on for just one day. Please, Daddy!"
John gave in, and he said, "Just one day. Okay?"
Well, the next day John totally forgot about the polish. He headed off to work at his manly man job of being The Barn Saver. (I wrote a book about John's work,
titled Barn Savers. There's no pink polish in the book.) As The Barn Saver, John saves old barns from bulldozers. If a barn has to come down, to make way for new houses or stores or whatever, John takes it apart piece by piece. He makes a blueprint and tags the pieces so that the barn can be put back up somewhere else, living on for another hundred years.
So the day after Easter the year our son was five, John was working hard. It was a dusty and dirty morning. Lunchtime arrived, and the crew was sitting down in the barn to have lunch. John removed a boot and shook out the dust. He took off a sock. Every head in the barn dropped; every eye was riveted to John's foot. John looked down, and to his complete mortification, he saw five shiny pink toenails.
"But … but you don't understand," John stammered. "The Easter Bunny did it."
"Yeah, John. Sure. Right," replied the tattooed World War II veteran who owned the barn.
John made me promise to never again paint his toenails, but I didn't promise not to put it in a book. So I did.
I never thought of being a writer until I was in the eleventh grade. I was taking a creative writing class with a teacher named Mrs. Severs. Mrs. Severs was a genius, but she was a scatter-brained kind of genius. Her most famous day was when she accidentally tucked the back of her dress into the top of her stockings, and stood writing on the chalkboard with her ragged underwear in full view of the hysterical class.
For Mrs. Severs' class, I wrote an essay about the Morgantown Fair. It included details about greasy French fries and spinning roulette wheels and winning goldfish in tiny bowls. Mrs. Severs said to me two sentences that changed my entire life: "You're very creative. You should think about becoming a writer."
I am eternally thankful for those words. They planted the seed of the idea within my brain. I realized that I loved books more than just about anything in the world. I loved words. My friends Jim Hagey and Manny Regas and I had created another homemade newspaper in high school. Like the newspaper I'd written with Teresa, this one had no subscribers but it had us: The Writers. And that's all that mattered.
I took a few detours along the way to becoming a professional writer. I didn't pass "Go" and collect a degree in writing. I got married very young. On June 10th, 1978, at the age of twenty, I became Linda Oatman. Now married to Ken Oatman, Linda Haas was gone. For a few years, so was the girl who'd wanted to become a writer.
Linda Oatman was the girl who worked as an accounting department clerk at a nuclear power plant firm. It was there that I met a black girl named Helen: the first African American I'd ever known. Living in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, was not a multicultural experience. Helen called me The Ivory Girl, because she said that I was naive, and that I looked like the fresh-faced woman in the soap commercial. Being friends with Helen helped to open my protected young eyes to the realities of life in the real world, where things could be tough.
Working at Gilbert Associates was my first step into real life. I gave up my dream of becoming a writer, or at least put it out of my mind. I focused upon making money, paying bills, being a wife. By the time my son Justin was born, when I was twenty-four, I'd almost totally forgotten that I was once Linda Louise Haas: the girl who wanted to write. I was now a wife and a mother.
I loved being a stay-at-home mom. I loved watching my son grow. I didn't miss working in an office, where I'd always felt as if I were somehow swimming against the stream. I never felt as if I fit in with the corporate world, even though I tried. I was always referred to as "The Little Hippie Girl" or "The Free Spirit."
When Justin was just a few months old, I saw an ad in a local weekly paper. They needed a feature writer. Something sparked inside of me: the smoldering ashes of what had once been a fire for writing. I applied for the job, and I got it. When my first article appeared with my byline (on the front page!), the fire was reignited. I remembered how much I'd loved putting words to paper.
I wrote feature after feature for that free paper in Morgantown, Pennsylvania. I took my son along on assignments: interviewing circus clowns, profiling cancer survivors, reporting on local tragedies, featuring tractor pulls and demolition derbies and bake sales and church charities. I interviewed nuns in a mansion, and they invited us to lunch. One-year-old Justin threw spaghetti all over the marble floor, and the nuns loved it. My world was expanding, and the experiences that writing gave me were fun for me and my son.
Reading lots of children's books to Justin, I was one day struck by the thought that maybe I could do this. Maybe I could write books for kids. I had no idea how to start.
I went through a difficult divorce when Justin was very small, and once again my writing dreams were put on the back burner. I worked at various jobs: attendant at an exercise salon where the motorized tables did all the work, lifeguard (where I never got to save anybody), convenience store clerk.
In 1986, I met John High, who had two children from his young marriage. We joined our families, which isn't as easy as The Brady Bunch made it seem.
Being a stepmother was the hardest job I ever had. I continued to work at odd jobs to earn some income, and I continued to write for local papers. I'd also started submitting stories to children's magazines, and to think about the goal of one day being able to write and publish a book for kids.
1989 was a horrible year. I had a car accident in which a drunk driver demolished my vehicle and left me with back and neck injuries. We suddenly got full custody of John's son, only six years old at the time his mother dumped him on our doorstep. I unexpectedly became pregnant, and contracted a form of the measles during the pregnancy. Having weekly ultrasounds to make sure that the baby was okay, I prayed for everything to work out fine. On the day before I was due to deliver, John was laid off from his job.
"I could give up this crazy dream of writing, and just get a job," I said to John.
"No; don't give up," John said. "You're going to do it."
Our son was born on August 4th, 1990: a beautiful and healthy baby that we named Zach. John stayed home with me for two weeks, and then saw an ad in the local paper: "Barn. Free for the taking down."
John took down the barn, and found that there was a market for all of the salvaged materials. It was then that his business of being The Barn Saver was born.
In 1993, I still hadn't broken into the world of books. Having published thousands of magazine and news articles, the desire to publish a children's book was still burning. I'd sold a few pieces to Highlights for Children magazine, as well as to Hopscotch, New Moon for Girls, and other publications.
I applied for a scholarship to attend the Highlights Foundation Writers Workshops at Chautauqua, and was elated when the phone call came that I was being awarded the John Crane Memorial Scholarship.
Attending the workshops in Chautauqua was a turning point in my career. It was there that I met Larry Rosler, editor of Boyds Mills Press. I told Larry about John's job of saving barns, and told him of how I wanted to write a picture book about it. Larry loved the idea, and we signed the book contract a month later. Ted Lewin illustrated Barn Savers and it was published in 1999.
Ted and I have since done two other books together: Winter Shoes for Shadow Horse and The Girl on the High-diving Horse. Ted and I share a passion for the Atlantic City of days past, where there were dancing tigers and boxing kangaroos and flagpole sitters and the high-diving horse act. As a child, I often went to Atlantic City with my family, and I was a fan of the brave girls who rode the high-diving horses, flying sixty feet from a platform into a tank of water. The high-diving horse act amazed and awed me. Amazement and awe are two things that a writer should always keep. We need to dive deep into our passions, interest, and curiosities in order to write.
Our writing sometimes seems like part of us. The writer is the words, and the words are the writer. The letters of the alphabet are my breath. Words are the beat of my heart: rhythmic, reliable, life giving. Sentences are the blood that runs through my veins; paragraphs the bones upon which my stories are built.
Writing, to me, is life. It is living; it is alive. My writing sustains me. It nourishes me, and soothes me, and excites me. It makes me nervous and it agitates me. It scares me to the core, and sometimes I'm bored by the chore of it. Writing is easy, and difficult, and everything in-between. It's fast and it's slow. Sometimes it flows; sometimes it doesn't.
My writing is like my child: sometimes I'm annoyed by it; sometimes I've overjoyed by it. I'm always proud of
it. It goes into the world and it does things without me. It takes on a life of its own, and I smile at its accomplishments. Writing is walking, except without feet, without legs. It is walking with fingers upon keyboard. It is walking with thoughts upon paper. It is running with stories.
Writing is faith; faith that a blank page will be transformed into something new and moving. My writing is me, and I am my writing. We are as one, until death, and then the writing will live on. It will outlive me, and my words will sit on shelves and resonate in the hearts and minds of my readers. My writing means dreams come true. Writing is my moon and stars and sun and sky. It's the place I reach high, and the place I go low. It's the only place I know that feels like dreaming. It's sleeping while awake, and flying while sitting still.
One of my characters looks as if she can fly: Granny Zook. She's a character in my middle-grade novel A Stone's Throw from Paradise. Granny Zook was real: she was my husband John's grandmother. She stars in the book, and also in a short story I wrote for an anthology titled Soul Searching Stories. Granny was born to parents who died of yellow fever shortly after her birth. Adopted by an Amish couple, she was raised as Nellie Zook, an Amish girl. Granny had an interesting and sad life, becoming pregnant out-of-wedlock and being sent to a "home for unwed mothers." Nellie died a few years ago, in her nineties, but she lives on in my memories and in my stories. When you're a writer, nobody ever has to die.
I always loved Christmas, and so of course I had to write a few Christmas books. The idea for A Christmas Star came from my Nana, who told me that she was happy if she received an orange, a piece of candy, and a pair of mittens for Christmas when she was a little girl. (This amazed my son Zach, whose Christmas lists were always very long and expensive!) I wrote the story A Christmas Star to help kids learn about holidays long ago, when there wasn't much money but lots of joy could be found.
My second Christmas book is The Last Chimney of Christmas Eve, illustrated by a Lithuanian artist named Kastutis Kasparavicius. Kastutus doesn't speak English, and his daughter translated my manuscript. He did an awesome job of illustrating the book in an Old-World European style, which suits the story perfectly. The tale of an orphaned chimney sweep named Nicholas who grows up to become Santa, The Last Chimney of Christmas Eve is a book that I'm proud to have written. People write letters to me stating that they love the message of kindness being passed along, and I love their kind letters.
A few years ago, my Nana casually mentioned that we are related to Abraham Lincoln. I couldn't believe it; why had nobody ever talked about this as I was growing up?!?! It would have been a great thing to brag about in school. I wasn't sure that Nana was correct about the Millards being descendents of President Lincoln, and so I did some research. She was right! Abe Lincoln's great-great grandfather Mordecai Lincoln purchased 1,000 acres of land from my ancestor Thomas Millard in what is now Berks County, Pennsylvania. Thomas Millard's son Joseph later married Mordecai's daughter Hannah Lincoln. Hannah and Joseph (who would be my great-great-great-great something or other) had seven children before she died. So my Nana was right! I am proud to say that I'm related to Abe Lincoln.
Even before I learned this fascinating fact of ancestry, I'd been interested in Abe Lincoln. I wrote an easy-reader titled The President's Puppy, about Abe Lincoln's yellow dog Fido, who couldn't accompany him to Washington, DC, when he became president. I felt as if Abraham Lincoln was approving of the book, and I felt that way too during the writing of The Cemetery Keepers of Gettysburg, which ends with Lincoln giving the Gettysburg Address.
The Cemetery Keepers of Gettysburg is the story of Elizabeth Thorn. Elizabeth was the wife of Peter, cemetery keeper of the Evergreen Cemetery. Peter enlisted in the military in 1862, and went off to serve for the Union in the U.S. Civil War. Elizabeth promised to take care of the cemetery while her husband was gone. Little did she know that the horrific battle of Gettysburg would hit the town in July of 1863, leaving hundreds of casualties. In the week after the battle, Elizabeth (six months pregnant and with three little boys) buried more than one hundred soldiers. Her story intrigued me, and I'd wanted to write about her for a long time. I couldn't really figure out how to do it for a kid's book, though.
Finally the idea occurred to me that I could write it in the first-person voice of Fred, her oldest son. He was seven at the time of the battle, and he helped his mother to bury the soldiers. After that breakthrough idea, the book flowed.
I stopped at Evergreen Cemetery one day, on my way home from a school visit, and I talked to Elizabeth (silently, of course. I didn't want other cemetery tourists to think that I was completely out of my mind!) I said, "Elizabeth, I admire what you did. You were so strong and brave, and such an inspiration. I don't want you to be forgotten, and so I've written a book about you. It's been under consideration at various publishers for over three years, and I don't know if it'll ever be published. I did write it, though, and I admire what you did."
I drove home, and the phone was ringing as I walked in the door. It was editor Tim Travaglini, saying that he wanted to publish the book. Talk about serendipity and magic! There really are no coincidences in this mystical world of writing.
When I wrote Sister Slam, my teenage novel in verse, my house was filled with teenagers who loved to listen to rap music. The rhythm of rap (the word is an acronym that actually means "rhythm and poetry") was en- grained in my brain, and it drained with no pain onto the pages. The main character is Laura Crapper, a large-sized girl whose stage name for performance poetry is "Sister Slam." Laura becomes a star, and she rises above hard circumstances in her life.
"I love that the fat girl gets the hot guy," emailed a teenage girl. "We need to have more books about normal-sized girls."
I agree. Our media-influenced culture has become obsessed with weight and appearance and image, to the point that many young girls are damaged. I'm honored that girls relate to my character, and feel empowered by her. I really felt as if I knew Laura/Sister when I was writing the book, and I almost felt like calling her when I got the contract offer.
Readers often ask me if I am my characters, and if my characters are me. Every character has bits and pieces of my soul. I'm a little bit of Sister and a little bit of Twig, her skinny best friend. The car they drive is a little bit of my first car: a yellow 1969 Ford Mustang with a hood scoop and a racing stripe.
I'm a little bit Silver Nickels and a little bit Maizie and a little bit Lizzie Zook and a little bit Wheezie Moore. I'm a little bit Ivy Cordelia, from The Girl on the High-diving Horse and a little bit of every other little boy or girl in my stories. I'm a little bit of every teenager, and a little bit of every adult. My heart and soul go into my books, and my books are my heart and soul.
Kids sometimes ask me: "Which of your books is your favorite?" That's like asking your mom who's her favorite kid, if she has more than one. It's hard to name a favorite, but I can say that when my books go out into the world and do something wonderful, I'm a proud parent.
If one of my books wins an honor or an award, I feel like a mom whose child brings home a blue ribbon from the spelling bee, or gets a trophy for MVP in a ballgame. Lots of my books have earned great honors: Barn Savers was lauded as a Best Picture Book of 1999; Under New York won a Nick Jr. award; A Humble Life: Plain Poems was a Lee Bennett Hopkins poetry honor award winner. I'm proud. My kids—my books that came from my body and my heart and my soul and my memories and my experiences—have done well for themselves.
I couldn't ask for more. I'm often asked what else I'd want to be, if I had not become a writer, and there's only one answer: a rock star. I still play the electric guitar, and my son Zach plays now, too. We have seven guitars between us, and my red electric Epiphone hangs on my kitchen wall. My dad bought it for me in 1969, and it's a shiny sight that reminds me of the music inside. I stopped playing during my too-busy childrearing years, but got back to it in my forties. I played for five years with a wonderful band of guys: Clark, Pierre, Perry, and Rob. We had so many good times, and shared so many songs. Clark flew away to play music with the angels a few years ago, and that band fell apart. I then played bass guitar with an all-woman band called Tickled Pink. I went on hiatus from playing guitar a few years ago, when I became a grandmother.
I babysit my spectacular grandson Connor, who was born on May 18th, 2004. Connor is with me two or three days a week, when I'm not traveling or doing school visits. He's one of my best friends, and I love being M'Mère. That's what Connor calls me: M'Mère. It's a French version of the word for grandmother. I'm not French, but I like the way it sounds: elegant and lighthearted and fun.
When I started babysitting the Con-Man, I researched like crazy. I wanted to know all about the best baby products and good nutrition and advice for raising happy babies. I wanted to find good educational toys and DVDs and books. I wanted to learn all the newest childrearing theories, and I wanted to do the best job possible of helping to take care of this sweet little boy who came magically into my life.
All of that research is now being put to good use. I'm under contract for a book called The Hip Grandma's Handbook. It's a book of inspiration, tips, advice, and resources for the new breed of cool grandmother. We Baby Boomer grandmas don't rock; not in rocking
chairs, anyway. We rock out at Rolling Stones concerts, and we like to dress hip. We're not the old traditional stereotype of a grandmother, and so there was a need for a book for grandmas like us. I'm writing it! The book will have a companion Web site, with Hip Grandmas Club membership. I'm in the process of forming a rock band of grandmothers. The publisher and I are hoping that Oprah Winfrey will notice. That's one of my goals: to be on Oprah. I'd also like to write a screenplay for a movie and a stage play (and have them produced). I'd like to have a tiny cameo role in my movie, and I'd like to have one of the songs I've written used in the soundtrack. I'd like to travel the world. Those are my goals.
A writer has to have goals.
I finally made it to Europe in July of 2006, at the age of forty-eight. I taught a writing workshop in Tuscany, Italy, for a company called Toscana Americana. The students and I stayed in a 1,000-year-old monastery on a hilltop. Roosters crowed in the valley below. The Tuscan food was incredibly delicious; the people were peaceful; the scenery divine. That trip filled my soul, and it fed my spirit. I'll be teaching for the same company again, and I hope that some of my readers will think about attending. The details may be found on my Web site: www.lindaoatmanhigh.com.
Aren't Web sites wonderful? I never would have thought, back in my early writing career when I plugged away on a typewriter, that one day we'd have access to the whole world through our fingertips. With the click of a mouse and the flick of a keyboard, we can learn anything about almost anybody or anywhere or anything.
It's a great time to be alive. John and I took our first cruise in January, and it was a writing gig. The cruise was free, as I was writing an article.
When our children were all young, John and I could never afford to take them to Disney World. In October of 2006, though, we finally made it: John and Zach and I. The first sight of Cinderella's castle made me cry. We got free tickets to the park, due to the fact that I was writing an article. Sometimes I just can't believe this good fortune: Cruises! Disney! Italy! It's a tough job, but somebody has to do it.
Writing has nice benefits: it's helped me to travel outside of my usual walls.
Being in this business of writing books for kids has been a magnificent gift. I feel like Alice falling into Wonderland or like Dorothy being lifted into Oz. I truly feel as if I'm at home here in this magical world, and I'm grateful to be here. Sometimes I awaken at night, amazed and astonished that I have become what I always wanted to be: a writer.
My writing friends are many: Marty Crisp, Laurie Halse Anderson, David Lubar, Jennifer Bryant, Carolyn Magner, Lola Schaefer, Mary McIntosh, Jerry and Eileen Spinelli, Ted and Betsy Lewin, Michael Dooling, DyAnne DiSalvo Ryan, John O'Brien, John Rocco, Aileen Leitjen, Margery Cuyler … the list goes on and on and on. My agent Deborah Warren is a superb friend, and so are my editors. It's like I've skipped along the Yellow Brick Road, gathering fantastic people by my side to help me along this journey.
And what a journey it's been. The little girl who wanted to write has grown up (debatable to some) and become—TA-DA—a writer. I feel sometimes as if I've been sprinkled with fairy dust by one of the Disney pixies, granting me entrance into the Wonderful World of Publishing.
One of these days, I may get a tattoo. It'll be that of a fairy, waving her wand over the letters of the alphabet. Not all twenty-six of them (that's too much ink and pain), but maybe just A, B, C …
My life has not always been easy, but it's been consistently interesting. How did I get here, to this place? Hard work, determination, persistence, hope, faith, laughter, tears.
Find a dream, follow it, and never, ever, ever give up. That's my advice, and I'm sticking to it.
"High, Linda Oatman 1958-." Something About the Author. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 23, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/children/scholarly-magazines/high-linda-oatman-1958
"High, Linda Oatman 1958-." Something About the Author. . Retrieved October 23, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/children/scholarly-magazines/high-linda-oatman-1958
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