Kehret, Peg 1936-
KEHRET, Peg 1936-
Surname is pronounced "carrot"; born November 11, 1936, in LaCrosse WI; daughter of Arthur R. (an executive of Geo. A. Hormel Co.) and Elizabeth M. (a homemaker; maiden name, Showers) Schulze; married Carl E. Kehret (a player-piano restorer), July 2, 1955; children: Bob C., Anne M. Education: Attended University of Minnesota, 1954-55. Hobbies and other interests: Reading, antiques, watching baseball, animals.
Writer, 1973—. Volunteer for the Humane Society and Pasado's Safe Haven.
Authors Guild, Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators.
Forest Roberts Playwriting Award, Northern Michigan University, 1978, Best New Play of 1979, Pioneer Drama Service, and Best Plays for Senior Adults, American Theatre Association, 1981, all for Spirit!; Children's Choice Award, International Reading Association-Children's Book Council (IRA-CBC), 1988, and master list, Young Reader's Choice Awards in Nevada and Oklahoma, all for Deadly Stranger; Service Award, American Humane Association, 1989; Recommended Books for Reluctant Young Adult Readers, American Library Association (ALA), 1989, for The Winner, and 1992, for Cages; Books for the Teen Age, New York Public Library, 1992, for Cages and WinningMonologs for Young Actors: 65 Honest-to-Life Characterizations to Delight Young Actors and Audiences of All Ages; Young Hoosier Book Award, Association for Indiana Media Educators, 1992, Nebraska Golden Sower Award and Iowa Children's Choice Award, both 1993, Maud Hart Lovelace Award, 1995, and master list, Young Reader's Choice Awards in Vermont, Illinois, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Iowa, West Virginia, and Missouri, all for Nightmare Mountain; Young Adult's Choice Award, IRA, 1992, for Sisters, Long Ago; Texas Lone Star list, 1992, Recommended Books for Reluctant Young Adult Readers, ALA, Books for the Teen Age, New York Public Library, Young Adult's Choice, IRA, Maud Hart Lovelace Award, and master list, children's book awards in Oklahoma, Illinois, South Carolina, Tennessee, Iowa, Indiana, Nebraska, Utah, and the Pacific Northwest, all for Cages; Pacific Northwest Writers' Conference Achievement Award, 1992; Young Adult's Choice, IRA, Pacific Northwest Young Reader's Choice Award, and Iowa Children's Choice Award, all for Terror at the Zoo; Sequoyah Award, Indiana Young Hoosier Book Award, and Honor Book, West Virginia Children's Book Award, all for Horror at the Haunted House; Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers, ALA, and Children's Choices, IRA, both for Danger at the Fair; Children's Books of the Year Award, Child Study Children's Book Committee, 1995, for The Richest Kids in Town; Golden Kite Award, Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, 1996, Notable Book, ALA, and PEN Center U.S.A. West Award for children's literature, both 1997, Dorothy Canfield Fisher Award, 1998, Mark Twain Award, 1999, and children's book awards in Oklahoma, Tennessee, Illinois, Texas, Kansas, Pennsylvania, Washington, New Hampshire, and Alabama, all for Small Steps: The Year I Got Polio; Children's Crown Award, National Christian Schools Association, and West Virginia Children's Book Award, both 1998, Mark Twain Award list, 1998-99, and Utah Children's Choice Award, all for Earthquake Terror; Children's Choice Award, IRA, and master list, Indiana Young Hoosier, for Don't Tell Anyone; master list, Young Reader Awards in South Carolina, Nebraska, Missouri, and Indiana, for My Brother Made Me Do It; Henry Bergh Award, American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), 2001, master list, Young Reader Awards in Florida, Iowa, and Massachusetts, and Children's Crown nominee, all for Saving Lilly; master list, Iowa Children's Choice Awards, for The Hideout; master list, Young Reader Awards in Pennsylvania, Iowa, Tennessee, Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Washington, for Shelter Dogs: Amazing Stories of Adopted Strays; Kansas State Reading Circle Award and Disney Adventures Award nominee, for Five Pages a Day: A Writer's Journey; Lamplighter Award, National Christian School Association, master list, Young Reader Awards in Oklahoma and Utah, Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers, Young Adult Library Services Association, and honor book, Society of School Librarians International, all for I'm Not Who You Think I Am; master list, Lamplighter Award, and Young Reader Awards in Oklahoma and Missouri, for The Stranger Next Door; Florida Sunshine Award, master list for Young Reader Awards in Iowa and Washington, for The Volcano Disaster; master list, Young Reader Awards in Pacific Northwest, for Searching for Candlestick Park; master list, Young Reader Award in Florida, for Spy Cat.
Winning Monologs for Young Actors: 65 Honest-to-Life Characterizations to Delight Young Actors and Audiences of All Ages, Meriwether Publishing (Colorado Springs, CO), 1986.
Deadly Stranger, Dodd, Mead (New York, NY), 1987, Troll, 1997.
Encore!: More Winning Monologs for Young Actors, Meriwether Publishing (Colorado Springs, CO), 1988.
The Winner, Turman (Seattle, WA), 1988.
Nightmare Mountain, Cobblehill Books (New York, NY), 1989.
Sisters, Long Ago, Cobblehill Books (New York, NY), 1990.
Cages, Cobblehill Books (New York, NY), 1991.
Acting Natural: Monologs, Dialogs, and Playlets for Teens, Meriwether Publishing (Colorado Springs, CO), 1991.
Terror at the Zoo, Cobblehill Books (New York, NY), 1992.
Horror at the Haunted House, Cobblehill Books (New York, NY), 1992, Puffin Books (New York, NY), 2002.
Night of Fear, Cobblehill Books (New York, NY), 1994.
The Richest Kids in Town, Cobblehill Books (New York, NY), 1994.
Danger at the Fair, Cobblehill Books (New York, NY), 1995.
Don't Go Near Mrs. Tallie ("Frightmares" series), Pocket Books (New York, NY), 1995.
Desert Danger ("Frightmares" series), Pocket Books (New York, NY), 1995.
Cat Burglar on the Prowl ("Frightmares" series), Pocket Books (New York, NY), 1995.
Bone Breath and the Vandals ("Frightmares" series), Pocket Books (New York, NY), 1995.
Backstage Fright ("Frightmares" series), Pocket Books (New York, NY), 1996.
Earthquake Terror, Cobblehill Books (New York, NY), 1996.
Screaming Eagles ("Frightmares" series), Pocket Books (New York, NY), 1996.
Race to Disaster ("Frightmares" series), Pocket Books (New York, NY), 1996.
Small Steps: The Year I Got Polio, Albert Whitman (Morton Grove, IL), 1996.
The Ghost Followed Us Home ("Frightmares" series), Minstrel (New York, NY), 1996.
Searching for Candlestick Park, Cobblehill Books (New York, NY), 1997.
The Volcano Disaster, Pocket Books (New York, NY), 1998.
The Blizzard Disaster, Pocket Books (New York, NY), 1998.
I'm Not Who You Think I Am, Dutton Children's Books (New York, NY), 1999.
Shelter Dogs: Amazing Stories of Adopted Strays, Albert Whitman (Morton Grove, IL), 1999.
The Flood Disaster, Pocket Books (New York, NY), 1999.
The Secret Journey, Pocket Books (New York, NY), 1999.
My Brother Made Me Do It, Pocket Books (New York, NY), 2000.
Don't Tell Anyone, Dutton Children's Books (New York, NY), 2000.
The Hideout, Pocket Books (New York, NY), 2001.
Saving Lilly, Pocket Books (New York, NY), 2001.
Five Pages a Day: A Writer's Journey, Albert Whitman (Morton Grove, IL), 2002.
The Stranger Next Door, Dutton Children's Books (New York, NY), 2002.
Escaping the Giant Wave, Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers (New York, NY), 2003.
Spy Cat, Dutton Children's Books (New York, NY), 2003.
Abduction, Dutton Children's Books (New York, NY), 2004.
Cemeteries Are a Grave Matter, Dramatic Publishing, 1975.
Let Him Sleep 'till It's Time for His Funeral, Contemporary Drama Service, 1977.
Spirit!, Pioneer Drama Service, 1979.
Dracula, Darling, Contemporary Drama Service, 1979.
Charming Billy, Contemporary Drama Service, 1983.
Bicycles Built for Two (musical), Contemporary Drama Service, 1985.
Wedding Vows: How to Express Your Love in Your Own Words, Meriwether Publishing (Colorado Spring, CO), 1979, second edition, 1989.
Refinishing and Restoring Your Piano, Tab Books (Blue Ridge Summit, PA), 1985.
Also contributor to periodicals.
Work in Progress
Middle-grade ghost-story novel for Dutton.
Peg Kehret is the author of over two dozen children's novels, most of them, such as award-winners Terror at the Zoo, Nightmare Mountain, and Earthquake Terror, serving up heavy doses of suspense and danger. Kehret has also written nonfiction for adults as well as for children. Her Winning Monologs for Young Actors and Acting Natural both reflect her own commitment to theater; the multi-talented Kehret has also penned a number of plays. The winner of the 1998 Dorothy Canfield Fisher Award, Kehret's Small Steps documents her own fight with childhood polio that left her temporarily paralyzed. In a Booklist review of Kehret's Earthquake Terror, Stephanie Zvirin neatly summed up the author's career to date: "Prolific author Kehret has a well-deserved reputation for writing good, solid thrillers for middle-graders."
Born in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, in 1936, Kehret formed an early passion for words and writing. Paid three cents a story by her grandfather, she wrote, published, and sold her own newspaper about the dogs in her neighborhood. From this experience she gained valuable knowledge about pleasing an audience, but her youthful broadsheet soon went out of business because she continually featured her own dog on the front page.
Kehret's idyllic childhood was shattered when she contracted polio in the seventh grade. As a result, she was paralyzed from the neck down and told that she would never walk again. "Much to everyone's surprise," Kehret once said, "I made almost a complete recovery. I vividly remember the time when I got sick and my months in the hospital and my eventual return to school. Maybe that's why I enjoy writing books for young people; I recall exactly how it felt to be that age. I remember my friends and the books I liked and even what programs I listened to on the radio. When I write, it is easy for me to slip back in my imagination and become twelve years old again."
As a teen, Kehret dreamed of being either a veterinarian or a writer, finally opting for the wordsmith business. "I'm glad I chose writing," Kehret said, "but two of the main characters in my books want to be veterinarians. Dogs, cats, llamas, and elephants have played important parts in my books." With high school came a new direction for Kehret's interest in words—theater. Cast as a hillbilly in a one-act play as a freshman, Kehret was seriously bitten by the theater bug, working backstage or in acting roles in every production she could. Kehret briefly attended the University of Minnesota before marrying in 1955. Children soon followed and she lived the busy life of mother and homemaker, also volunteering for the Humane Society.
Kehret began writing in the early 1970s, spurred on by further work in community theater as well as her interest in research of various sorts. She began selling magazine stories, eventually logging over 300 of them before turning her hand to lengthier works. There followed one-act and full-length plays, including the award-winning Spirit!, as well as two adult nonfiction titles, before she began writing books for young people. Her initial juvenile title, Winning Monologs for Young Actors, appeared in 1986 and was followed by her first novel for young people, Deadly Stranger. The story of a kidnapping, this novel was dubbed a "cliffhanger" by a Kirkus Reviews contributor. "As soon as I tried writing from a youthful point of view," said Kehret, "I knew I had found my place in the writing world."
Another popular early title from Kehret is Nightmare Mountain, a thriller involving young Molly and her visit to her aunt's ranch at the foot of Mt. Baker. The fun visit turns into a nightmare when her Aunt Karen falls into a coma and three valuable llamas are stolen. Booklist 's Denise Wilms observed that Kehret delivers "a fast-paced mystery-adventure tale with a heroine who, when forced to deal with disaster, shows courage and resourcefulness." Jeanette Larson concluded in School Library Journal that the book is a "satisfying novel that will keep readers guessing until the end."
One of Kehret's personal favorites, Cages, allowed her to write about the Humane Society, for which she has a special passion. When young Kit—who has an alcoholic stepfather and a mother in denial—gives in to a momentary urge and shoplifts a bracelet, she sets off a chain of events that has lasting repercussions in her life. Caught, she is sentenced to community service at the Humane Society. There she falls in love with the homeless dogs and learns lessons about personal responsibility and facing her problems. As Andrea Davidson noted in Voice of Youth Advocates, the book "will appeal to young teen readers interested in getting out of the 'cages' represented by their problems." School Library Journal reviewer Sylvia V. Meisner concluded that Kit's determination to set herself free from "the cages of alcohol enablement, jealousy, and, ultimately, the secret of her crime make her an appealing protagonist."
Kehret's best-selling Terror at the Zoo, is the story of an overnight campout at the zoo which goes very wrong. Horror at the Haunted House, continues the adventures of Ellen and Corey from Terror at the Zoo. This time around, they help with a Halloween haunted-house project at the local historical museum, only to discover that the house really is haunted. Overcoming her fear of ghosts, Ellen helps discover who is stealing from the museum's collection. Donna Houser noted in Voice of Youth Advocates that this "fun, fast-paced novel can be read in an evening." Booklist 's Chris Sherman concluded that readers "will be waiting in line for this action-packed novel, which combines a good mystery with an exciting ghost story, a little danger, and a satisfying ending that ties everything up neatly."
Ellen and Corey appear again in Danger at the Fair, "this time sharing a thrill-a-minute adventure set at a county fair," according to Zvirin. Atop the Ferris wheel, Corey spies a pickpocket at work, but when Corey subsequently trails the thief, he is trapped inside the "River of Fear" ride. Zvirin concluded that the mystery-suspense components of the story, plus "a pair of enthusiastic, heroic, quite likable" protagonists, all added up to a book "that won't stay on the shelf for long."
Two other personal favorites of Kehret are The Richest Kids in Town and Searching for Candlestick Park. The former title is a departure for Kehret, a comic novel about Peter's money-making ventures gone wrong. New in town, Peter desperately wants to save up enough money for a plane ticket to go back and visit his best friend. Peter enlists the help of some other kids, including Wishbone Wyoming, in some of his crazy moneymaking schemes. Their plans range from an alternative health club to a rubber-duck race, and all fail miserably and rather humorously. Finally Peter comes to see that he no longer needs to make money for a ticket; he has a new best friend in Wishbone. A critic for Kirkus Reviews concluded that there are "clever antics in this fun book," while Horn Book dubbed it a "read-aloud comedy."
In Searching for Candlestick Park, twelve-year-old Spencer is trying to find the father who left him and his mom three years before. Sure that his dad works for the San Francisco Giants, Spencer sets off on his bicycle from Seattle, accompanied by his cat, Foxey. Lauren Peterson noted in Booklist that Spencer's "honesty and integrity are repeatedly tested" in this "fast-paced, exciting adventure." A Kirkus Reviews contributor commented that "Spencer's impulsive escapade may give readers infatuated with the notion of running way some second thoughts."
With Earthquake Terror, Kehret returned to her more usual thriller format. When an earthquake destroys the only bridge to the mainland from the tiny island where Jonathan and his disabled sister Abby are staying, the young boy is pitted against nature. With no food or supplies, and unable to contact help, Jonathan must single-handedly save Abby, his dog, and himself. With displaced waters from the quake beginning to flood the island, the clock is ticking on Jonathan's efforts. "It will be a rare thriller fan who won't want to see what happens," Zvirin commented in her Booklist review. Roger Sutton, writing in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, noted that Kehret's "focus on the action is tight and involving," while Elaine E. Knight concluded in School Library Journal that "Jonathan is a sympathetic and realistic character," and that this "exciting tale is a fine choice for most collections." Using youthful protagonists Warren and Betsy, Kehret has also employed time travel to set up thrilling stories, as in The Volcano Disaster, in which Warren must survive the eruption of Mount St. Helens.
Kehret has also authored several titles in the "Frightmares" series, a competitor to the popular "Goosebumps" books. Her books feature friends Rosie and Kayo, who get involved in all manner of adventures and mysteries, from solving a kidnapping in Arizona in Desert Danger to solving a possible poisoning in Don't Go Near Mrs. Tallie to discovering vandals in the school with the help of a pet in Bone Breath and the Vandals. Booklist 's Peterson, reviewing Bone Breath and the Vandals, noted that "Kehret delivers some likable characters and a thrilling plot that won't disappoint suspense fans."
Nonfiction for children has also received the Kehret touch. Of her several books of monologues for young actors, one of the most popular is Acting Natural:Monologs, Dialogs, and Playlets for Teens. "A wide range of topics is addressed in this sourcebook of sixty original scenes and monologues," noted Dianne G. Mahony in School Library Journal. Donna Houser commented in Voice of Youth Advocates that "all sections have their own merit because they deal with problems that are relevant to today's youth."
Kehret details her own battle with the paralyzing after-effects of polio in her award-winning Small Steps: The Year I Got Polio. "This heartfelt memoir takes readers back to 1949 when the author, at age twelve, contracted polio," noted Zvirin in Booklist. Kehret describes the progress of the illness, the paralysis, and her slow recovery. Christine A. Moesch concluded in School Library Journal that Kehret's memoir is an "honest and well-done book." In a 2002 interview with Mary Berry for Teacher Librarian, Kehret mentioned her recent "increased difficulties with post-polio syndrome," which have caused her to lighten her traveling schedule. Her children are now married and have made grandparents of the Kehrets. When they do travel for speaking engagements, Kehret and her husband take their dog and cat along in their motor home.
Yet another nonfiction title is Kehret's Shelter Dogs, stories of dogs that found a second life after being taken from Humane Society shelters. A Kirkus Reviews critic called the book "an amiable collection of short anecdotes," concluding that there was "a ready audience to cry over and gasp at the tale behind every dog." Kehret donates ten percent of her royalties to animal welfare groups.
My Brother Made Me Do It, is the story of eleven-year-old Julie Walsh and her eighty-nine-year-old pen pal, Mrs. Kaplan, which unfolds through Julie's letters. As part of a school project, Julie begins a correspondence with Mrs. Kaplan, who lives in Kansas. The preteen shares stories with her pen pal about everything from her younger brother's pranks to her run for student council. When Julie is diagnosed with juvenile arthritis, Mrs. Kaplan is the first friend she tells. It turn out that Mrs. Kaplan, too, suffers from arthritis, and through the pen pals continued exchanges, the reader follows their triumphs and struggles with challenges at two different stages of life. A reviewer for School Library Journal noted that "the incidents are treated with humor and sensitivity." Susan Allen, writing for Voice of Youth Advocates, called My Brother Made Me Do It, "an unexpected gem" that tackles "many topics, such as the challenges of chronic illness and the payoff for perseverance."
Kehret's coauthor for The Stranger Next Door and Spy Cat is Pete the Cat, whose contributions to the stories appear in italics. Pete, the pet of twelve-year-old Alex Kendrill, makes his first appearance in Stranger. Alex has moved to a new neighborhood where his life is threatened by an arsonist and where the unfriendly boy with whom he tries to establish a friendship is in a witness-protection program. "Readers will be caught up in the action even as they are amused by Pete's astute observations and adroit detective work," commented a Kirkus Reviews contributor. In Spy Cat, Alex's younger brother, Benjie, is kidnapped by thieves when he learns too much about them for his own good. Pete, whose mewings are not understood by humans, nonetheless leads them to his rescue and the solution of the crimes.
In a second memoir, Five Pages A Day: A Writer's Journey, Kehret recalls her beginnings as a writer, including her prize of a trip to Hawaii and a new car for her twenty-five-word entry on why she liked Kraft Macaroni and Cheese Dinner. "Like her novels, this memoir is written in spare, lively prose with plenty of interesting details, anecdotes, and insights," said a Kirkus Reviews critic.
Kehret has amassed a large body of work and a legion of loyal fans—both girls and boys—for her middle-grade thrillers. Blending exciting action, likable characters, and hi-lo language, Kehret writes books that lead her readers on to more difficult fiction and nonfiction. Berry asked which awards mean the most to Kehret. She replied that "they are all special. The children's choice awards, where students have voted for their favorite book, are always great because they tell me that the audience I write for has appreciated my work."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Kehret, Peg, Small Steps: The Year I Got Polio, Albert Whitman (Morton Grove, IL), 1996.
Kehret, Peg, Five Pages a Day: A Writer's Journey, Albert Whitman (Morton Grove, IL), 2002.
Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature, 1975-1991, Gale, 1992.
Booklist, September 15, 1989, p. 184; February 15, 1990, p. 1166; May 15, 1992, p. 1672; September 1, 1992, pp. 56, 60; September 1, 1994, p. 41; December 1, 1994, p. 664; May 1, 1995, p. 1573; October 1, 1995, p. 314; January 1, 1996, p. 834; November 1, 1996, pp. 492-93; August, 1997, p. 1901; August, 1998, p. 2005.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, February, 1995, pp. 202-203; March, 1996, p. 231; November, 1996, pp. 100-101; November, 1997, pp. 88-89.
Horn Book, spring, 1995, p. 78.
Kirkus Reviews, March 1, 1987, p. 373; August 15, 1994, p. 1131; June 1, 1997, p. 874; April 1, 1999, p. 535; March 15, 2002, review of The Stranger Next Door, p. 415; September 15, 2002, review of Five Pages a Day: A Writer's Journey, p. 1393; February 1, 2003, review of Spy Cat, p. 233.
Kliatt, July, 1993, p. 10; March, 1997, p. 40.
School Library Journal, October, 1989, p. 120; March, 1990, pp. 218-219; June, 1991, p. 126; August, 1992, p. 182; September, 1994, p. 218; May, 1995, p. 108; December, 1995, p. 104; February, 1996, p. 100; November, 1996, p. 114; July, 1998, p. 96.
Teacher Librarian, April, 2002, Mary Berry, "A True Survivor: An Interview with Peg Kehret," p. 50.
Voice of Youth Advocates, June, 1991, pp. 97-98; June, 1992, pp. 126-127; October, 1992, p. 224; February, 1996, p. 373; December, 2000, Susan Allen, review of My Brother Made Me Do It.
Peg Kehret Home Page, http://www.pegkehret.com/ (March 18, 2004).
My first stories were written for my grandfather when I was seven years old. I wish I could say I wrote them for the joy of creating literature but the truth is, I wrote them because Grandpa offered to pay me three cents for each story.
Money was tight in my family then—so tight, in fact, that I didn't have paper on which to write these stories. My dad was a salesman so I took used pages from his old sales receipt books, made paste from flour and water, and stuck the receipt book pages together. Then I wrote my stories on the blank back sides of the paper. The pages were lumpy from my homemade paste, but the right size for a few lines of narrative and two or three illustrations.
All of these early "books" featured city children who went to visit a farm or live in the country. Animals fascinated me, and I longed to know cows, horses, rabbits and chickens on a personal level.
I lived in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, a fine city but lacking, at least in my neighborhood, in any animals other than dogs and cats. My dog, Skippy, was a patient fox terrier who allowed me to dress him in doll clothes and push him around in a buggy. While I loved Skippy, I also wanted to be awakened by a crowing rooster; I wanted to perch on a stool while I milked a cow. My family woke to an alarm clock, and milk arrived on our front porch in glass bottles.
Because I yearned to feed baby lambs and ride ponies and maybe even have a pet pig, I invented characters who did what I wished I could do. There wasn't much suspense in these stories but there were lots of farm animals. I named all of them, my first attempts at alliteration: Pansy Pig; Clara Cow; Buttercup Bunny. Grandpa said my "books" were wonderful.
At first I made colorful crayon drawings of the animals, but the illustrations stopped after my second grade teacher turned a critical eye on a picture I had made at school. I had drawn a little girl wearing what I thought was the most beautiful outfit in the world. Proudly, I showed my teacher.
"A yellow blouse," she said, "should not be worn with a red skirt. Those colors clash. And who ever heard of purple shoes?"
I had been particularly pleased with the purple shoes, and I thought the yellow blouse and red skirt looked stunning together. Ashamed of my ignorance, I stared at my masterpiece and wondered how I could have seen beauty in such an ugly picture. I learned two lessons that day: I had no talent for art and I had no fashion sense. Whether either of those ideas was true or not, I believed they were and therefore, they were true for me. From then on I quit adding pictures to the stories I wrote.
The summer before I started third grade my family moved to Austin, Minnesota. We spent six weeks in a rented cabin on a river while we waited to move into our new house. We had no neighbors and did not yet know anyone in our new town so I had no playmates but I was not lonely or bored. I spent those weeks reading, daydreaming, and playing alone in some ramshackle sheds on the property. I wound spider webs on a stick, around and around, until I had six inches or more of spider web clinging to my stick. I pretended it was cotton candy.
On my first day in my new school, I was so nervous that I feared I would vomit before I got to class. I didn't, but many years later I used that feeling as the opening of my first novel. The book begins like this:
Katie Osborne hoped she wouldn't throw up.
As she walked toward Franklin Middle School on her first day as a student there, she thought there was a distinct possibility that she would lose her breakfast.
—Deadly Stranger, Dodd, Mead, 1987
That description was of me as I entered the third grade at Shaw School. My mother had insisted I eat breakfast, and I was sure I couldn't keep it down.
As it turned out, I got along fine at Shaw School. I liked all of my teachers, I made friends, and I developed a lifelong love of learning.
During elementary school, whenever I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up I replied, "A mailman." (This was before the politically correct term, mail carrier.) It seemed to me that the mailman had an ideal job. He got to walk around the neighborhood, pet the dogs and cats, and read all the postcards. What could be more fun than that?
Before long my career dream changed. Thanks to the three-story house my parents had bought, I decided to be an acrobat. I didn't take lessons in gymnastics or acrobatics nor did I have any particular athletic talent.
What I did have was an old mattress on the floor of an empty room—the perfect place for practicing cartwheels, handstands, and other tricks.
This was no ordinary room. Not only was it void of any furniture, but the only way to reach it was via a stairway that began inside a closet. When we moved to Austin, my grandpa came along, and he now lived with us. His bedroom closet contained this astonishing secret: a stairway! Hidden in the closet! I liked to think nobody knew about it except me.
I would climb the stairs to the second story of our house, go through Grandpa's bedroom, enter the closet and close the door behind me, then dash up the stairs to the third floor and my own private world. I practiced my stunts over and over until I was so tired I'd have to flop down on the mattress to rest.
When I wasn't training on my sagging mattress to be a world class acrobat, I spent my time reading or playing Monopoly with the boy next door. We played one game of Monopoly that lasted for three months because neither of us would admit that we had gone bankrupt. Instead, we kept lengthy records of how much money we owed the bank.
My family's finances improved and I began taking piano lessons, which I loved. I practiced without being reminded and I pretended to give concerts—bowing modestly at the end of each piece to the imagined adoring crowd. My older brother, Art, inherited our father's ability to play piano by ear. Art rarely practiced, yet he could sit down and play tune after tune perfectly. I was tethered to my sheet music, which didn't seem fair, but I enjoyed my piano lessons anyway.
A teacher noticed me squinting at the blackboard and suggested to my parents that they have my eyes tested. The results showed that I was badly nearsighted and in need of glasses.
My parents were shocked. As we drove home, my mother pointed to a road sign in the distance. "Can you read what that sign says?" she asked.
"What sign?" I said.
"Why didn't you TELL us that you couldn't see?" Mother demanded.
"I didn't know. I thought this was how everybody sees."
I'll never forget getting my first pair of glasses. I put them on, looked around in wonder, and said, "It looks like the world just had a bath." Everything appeared crisp and bright—no fuzzy, blurred outlines; no foggy background.
The first time I wore my glasses to a movie, I was thrilled at the difference—but I also realized how much I'd been missing. I had missed a lot in school, too, without knowing it.
I've never been able to understand people who refuse to wear glasses because they think the glasses make them look too scholarly. It didn't matter to me how I looked in my glasses because the rest of the world looked so much better when seen through my new lenses. Besides, I decided I looked fine in glasses. By the time contact lenses became an option, I was so used to wearing glasses that I would have felt a part of me was missing if I didn't have them on.
My love for animals continued all through my school years and during sixth grade I decided I'd like to be a veterinarian. We had two dogs then and their vet was a woman whose husband was also a veterinarian. "Doc" Schrafel cared for the large animals; Edna handled the dogs and cats. At a time when few women worked outside the home, Dr. Edna Schrafel was a role model for me.
My life changed forever when I was twelve. I got polio, one of the most contagious and potentially deadly of all diseases. The polio vaccine was not yet available and polio epidemics were common. One day I was a carefree seventh grade girl; the next day I was paralyzed from the neck down.
I told the full story of that time in my life in the book, Small Steps: The Year I Got Polio, so I won't go into detail here; but no account of my life is complete without including the nine months I spent in hospitals, gradually regaining the use of my muscles. I received the Sister Kenny treatments of hot packs and muscle-stretching exercises. I spent my thirteenth birthday in a wheelchair, and then learned to walk with walking sticks. Eventually, I walked by myself. It was a long, difficult journey during which I was separated from my family except for a two-hour visit each Sunday afternoon.
Polio not only affected my body, it also shaped my personality. I had to deal with pain, disability, and loneliness while my friends back home were concerned only with spelling tests and weenie roasts. I had been a sheltered daughter in a small Midwestern town; in the hospital I learned to get along with people of all ages and backgrounds.
I learned perseverance, an attribute that I needed when I began submitting my early writing to potential publishers.
Most important, I realized that nobody but me can decide how I react to what happens to me. I could not control the disease or my treatments, but I could control my thoughts and feelings. No matter what my physical condition was, I could choose happiness.
I returned home a different girl than the one who had been stricken with polio. Before polio I was a dreamer—pretending to be a concert pianist, pretending to be an acrobat. After polio, I was more pragmatic. I still had dreams but I now knew that it was up to me to make them come true, through persistence and hard work.
My days as an acrobat ended with the polio diagnosis. For two years I couldn't climb the stairs to my secret room, much less do cartwheels. The mattress was hauled away.
The idea of becoming a veterinarian no longer seemed possible, either. Although I looked normal and could now walk unassisted, polio left me with some permanently damaged muscles.
I never took Physical Education again; I simply could not keep up with the rest of the class. I knew it was unrealistic to think I could handle large dogs or horses with my weak arms.
Giving up on veterinary medicine was also influenced by the fact that I did not care at all for my science classes. I knew I'd have to take a lot of science to be a vet but I would much rather take classes in reading and writing.
I still played the piano for my own pleasure. I played duets with a friend and I accompanied the school chorus, but I quit pretending to give concerts.
When I was in tenth grade, I received a diary for my birthday. It was supposed to be a five year diary, with an inch of space allotted to every day. The date was printed at the top of each page. January 1 was followed by an inch of lines to be written on, then a dark line to show that the next inch should be filled out a year later. So it went for five inches.
Since I had way too much to say to be limited to one inch of space per day, I ignored the dark lines and made my five-year diary into a one-year diary. I wrote in it faithfully, every night before I went to sleep. I kept it locked, with the key hidden.
Besides recording my day to day activities, I used the diary to experiment with emotions and language. Once when I had a crush on a boy, I wrote, "Our love is a flame that flickers in adversity but always burns brightly in the end." I read that sentence several times, pleased with the metaphor and the alliteration even though the boy I wrote of so tenderly knew nothing about "our love."
The diary became a way for me to figure out my feelings. By writing about my thoughts each night, I clarified them in my own mind. I explored ideas in the diary and wondered why I so often did not feel the same way my peers felt. When my classmates complained about school work, I kept quiet, not wanting to admit how much I liked school. With my diary, I could be honest.
At the end of the year, with my five-year diary crammed full of words on every page, I locked up the diary for a final time and never opened it again. Nor did I get another diary. When I went away to college, the diary, still locked, was tossed out. All those emotions and carefully crafted words ended up in a garbage dump.
I was active in a church youth group but for me it was a more of a social event than a religious experience. (One of the monologues that I wrote for Encore!: More Winning Monologs for Young Actors is titled "Come to Church Camp; Learn to Kiss.") While I gained insight into ethical values from my participation in the church's weekly youth discussions, what I really liked were the games and sing-alongs, the New Year's Eve parties, and the autumn hayrides.
My love of writing burst into full bloom in high school when each person in my English class was assigned to write a term paper on a topic of his or her choice. I chose Harlem, a place I had never been and knew nothing about.
I had a wonderful time doing research for and writing that term paper. Internet research was not yet possible so I made numerous trips to the library, read everything I could find about Harlem, and wrote copious notes on 3 x 5 cards. My excitement grew as the stack of cards became higher.
I organized the cards often, endlessly shuffling them around like a dealer in a card game. Partway through the semester, we were required to submit an outline of our proposed paper. This was the only hard part of the project for me. Every time I tried to write the outline, I ended up writing a portion of the paper itself. I'd get so carried away with each section that instead of a brief heading, I'd write several paragraphs or even whole pages. I finally wrote a full first draft of the term paper, then picked out the important parts and made them into an outline. This outline satisfied the teacher, and having a complete draft made it really easy for me to finish the project on time.
My trouble with outlines continues to this day. I've never been able to plan out a book in advance. When I try, the same thing happens that happened to me back on that high school term paper—I end up writing an entire scene, complete with dialogue, description and action. Before long I have so many finished scenes that it's easier to forget the outline and write the book.
I got an "A" on my Harlem paper but it wasn't the grade that gave me the most pleasure; it was doing the work. As my friends grumbled about having to write such a long paper, I enjoyed every minute of it—the research, the writing, and the revision. I would gladly have done a second term paper that semester, though I wouldn't have admitted that to the other kids.
My teachers encouraged me to write. Some of the encouragement was unintentional—I always got an A on essay questions, no matter whether I knew much about the topic or not. Other times, teachers commented on my writing in ways that let me know my work was original and worth reading.
I volunteered to help with both the school newspaper and the yearbook and got valuable experience and guidance from those activities.
In my senior year I was chosen to attend a national convention of high school journalists. Along with a few other students from my school, I rode the train to Chicago to take seminars in writing, page layout, and production. What an experience for a small-town girl! Except for the time I'd spent in hospitals in Minneapolis, I had never been in a large city and I was astonished by the traffic, the tall buildings, and the bustling crowds of people.
The convention classes excited me and I went to as many as I could each day but there were no planned activities in the evening. My friends and I made the most of our free time. In retrospect, it's amazing that we were allowed to sightsee unchaperoned in Chicago at night but that is what happened. Another girl and I went to a concert given by Nat King Cole. Except for school events, I had never been to a live concert before. To have my first experience be a performance by a legendary singer was pure good fortune. Enthralled by Mr. Cole's talent, I clapped until my hands stung. I attended my first opera, Carmen, and got chills when members of the audience rose to their feet at the end crying, "Bravo! Bravo!"
What affected me the most, however, was the conversation with my fellow journalists on our way home. As the train clickety-clacked back to Minnesota we talked of what we'd learned, and we planned our futures. Most of the kids, inspired by the speakers we'd heard, spoke of some day working for newspapers or national magazines.
I started to agree when one friend turned to me and said, "Not you, Peg. You'll be a famous novelist."
I gaped at her. Except for a fanciful article or two for the school newspaper, I had not written any fiction. I had never tried to write a short story, much less a novel. Why would she say such a thing?
To my astonishment, the other kids agreed. "We'll work for The Minneapolis Tribune or The New York Times, " one said to me, "but you won't. You'll write something all your own, something different."
I don't know what my classmates saw in my writing that I had not yet seen. Since none of them went on to careers as psychics or fortune tellers, I can only assume that my tendency to embellish the facts when I told a story was their hint at my future in fiction.
Many years later, after I'd published a dozen or so novels for children, I returned to Austin for a visit. While I was there, I did an autograph session at a book store. One of my fellow journalists from that long-ago trip to Chicago came to the event. I had not seen her since we graduated from high school but she greeted me by saying, "I knew you'd end up as a fiction writer." If so, she knew it long before I did!
One high school class prepared me for my future career in ways that I never expected. The class was Public Speaking, taught by the drama teacher, Miss Spaulding. She insisted that I speak clearly, stand up straight, and most of all know my material. It was great training for the years ahead when I would speak at schools, libraries, and conferences.
At the time I had no inkling that I would ever be called on to do any public speaking. I liked writing the speeches more than I liked giving them (I still do) and I took the class as a way to help my chances of getting cast in the school plays rather than to train me for a profession.
Each of us in the public speaking class was assigned to do one speech on a famous saying. I chose, "Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist" (Ralph Waldo Emerson). As I wrote the speech it became clear to me that being different from the majority wasn't a bad thing. I looked for, and found, examples of many famous people who had been considered odd by their contemporaries. Writing that speech helped me clarify my thoughts and become more self-confident about my beliefs. After that, peer pressure didn't matter as much to me as it had before. More than once I've had a character realize that it's okay to be different.
Miss Spaulding is the only real person on whom I ever based a fictional character. When I wrote Cages I kept Miss Spaulding in mind as I created the character of Miss Fenton, the teacher in the book. After Cages was published, I decided to try to find my former teacher. It didn't take long. She had recently retired from teaching but still lived in Austin. I wrote to tell her how much her class had helped me and also told her that she was the model for the character in Cages. Of course, I sent her a copy of the book, as well.
Miss Spaulding responded promptly, thanking me and saying such a letter was the best reward any teacher could have. Later she sent me a newspaper clipping with a photo of her holding Cages. The local press was excited to have a former teacher honored in a book and had done a feature story about her.
It shouldn't be a surprise that I enjoyed giving speeches because during all of my childhood, I talked nonstop. Not out loud. That would have driven my family crazy. I talked inside my head. No matter what happened to me, I mentally told some unseen person all about it, changing details to make it more dramatic. When Emily, the little girl who lived down the street, refused to play with me, I mentally related the whole, sad tale making myself a pitiful friendless child. When my dad was late getting home for dinner, I told the imaginary person all about my father's horrible accident and how much I was going to miss him. I confided to this nonperson that I had eaten the ears off my chocolate Easter rabbit the week before Easter when I wasn't supposed to know the rabbit was hidden in a box under my parents' bed.
Even the most mundane events were retold—what I did in school, what we ate for dinner, what had happened during the latest round of the ongoing Monopoly game. Like a cassette tape with no end, the perpetual monologue reeled through my mind.
It didn't stop when I grew up. I continued to "talk to myself" as an adult although the imagined person was replaced by someone I knew. In my mind, I told my mother or my husband or one of my friends all about what my kids had done each day. Long before I ever uttered a word out loud about anything, I had rehearsed what I would say. By the time my husband got home in the evening, I sometimes couldn't remember what I had told him in person and what I had only told him in my head.
Occasionally my family caught me whispering to no one and teased me about it, but most of the time my conversations were completely silent.
It took many years before I realized that I wasn't talking to an imaginary listener, as I had long thought. I was writing! I was taking the everyday events of my life and shaping them into stories. Each time I mentally relayed an incident, making it as dramatic as possible, I was practicing to be a writer. I was observing not only the world around me but also my reactions to it. My unspoken conversations were honing my ability to tell a story and to share my thoughts and feelings with others.
I still talk to myself—only now I recognize that I'm sifting through the small incidents of each day, like a miner panning for gold. I let the dull parts fall away and hang on to the nuggets of excitement or insight that I can use in my writing.
Two of my high school friends (twins) and I had a friendly ongoing argument that continued until we graduated. The question was, "Which are better, dogs or cats?" They were staunch cat enthusiasts with many arguments why cats were the superior animal. I had never known a cat personally but I'd had a pet dog for many years and was convinced that no animal could ever surpass the dog for loyalty and intelligence. We often debated this question, a dispute which obviously no one could win. I would never change their minds, nor would mine ever change. Or so I thought.
Years later when I had my first pet cat, I remembered how the twins had talked of an independent spirit and deep, rumbling purrs. It took me only a few weeks of living with a cat to know that I had been wrong to argue the superiority of dogs. Cats are wonderful creatures and I have had at least one in my home ever since I adopted that first kitten. Of course, my friends who argued against dogs were wrong, too. All animals are unique; all have marvelous characteristics. I've written not only about dogs and cats but also about llamas, chimpanzees, elephants, bears, a horse, a rabbit, and a monkey.
Children often ask me, "What's your favorite animal?" I always reply, "I don't have a favorite. I like them all." How could I answer any other way without being disloyal to part of my family?
One of my cats, Pete, co-authored two books with me. Our collaboration began one day when I briefly left my office and returned to find lines of gibberish on the computer screen. For an awful moment I thought my computer was going to crash. Then I noticed Pete sitting on the table, licking his shoulder, and I realized Pete had walked on the keyboard while I was out of the room.
A few days later, the same thing happened. I left my desk for a moment, and came back to several lines of nonsense. Again, Pete sat nearby, looking at me. I joked to my husband, "Pete wants to help me write my books." I kept thinking about that, wondering what Pete would write if he really could. I knew any book Pete wrote would have Pete as the hero. Why invent a fictional cat when the perfect specimen already existed?
Pete and I wrote two books together, The Stranger Next Door and Spy Cat. The Library of Congress issued the copyrights in both of our names. Pete now gets fan mail and once he was invited to do an "author visit" at a school. I was asked to go, too, but I suspect my inclusion was an afterthought.
I have not kept in touch with the twins who were cat lovers. I'm sure they'd be astonished to know I've collaborated with a cat.
After I graduated from Austin High School, I attended the University of Minnesota for a year. I liked college, I liked living in a dormitory, I liked my classes. I didn't experience any of the homesickness that some of my dorm-mates wrestled with because I'd been away from home under much harsher circumstances when I had polio. Compared to that, adjusting to college was a snap. But my mind wasn't focused on getting an education; I wanted to get married.
I had met my future husband, Carl, while I was still in high school. During my freshman year at the University of Minnesota he was a senior there, a fact that had a strong bearing on which college I selected. Any plans for a career were overshadowed by the dream of being a wife. We were married as soon as Carl graduated, and we moved into an apartment in Austin, where Carl worked in his family's small dairy.
Although Austin had a two-year community college, I made no effort to continue my studies. Instead I learned to cook and keep house. I also got a part-time job writing radio commercials. I had worked at the radio station the summer after high school and I was pleased when the station manager asked me to return. I liked the fast pace of breaking news, the joking of the staff, and the sense of accomplishment that I felt whenever I heard one of my commercials on the air.
A few months after my wedding, my dad was transferred to Fresno, California. The next winter, Carl and I drove out to Fresno to visit my parents. Delighted with the warm winter weather and the casual lifestyle, we fell in love with California, and began making plans to move there.
Carl sent resumes to large dairy companies in California and a few months later he was offered a job in San Francisco. We packed all our belongings in a U-Haul trailer, put our two cats in the car, and headed West. The cats howled all the way across the country but even their shrill distress did not dampen our enthusiasm.
For years, we've kept a quote from Helen Keller taped to our refrigerator door. It says, "Life is either a grand adventure, or it is nothing." As we drove across the U.S. toward our new life, we were giddy with excitement about our grand adventure.
It took some time to find a landlord who would rent to people with two cats. We finally found an apartment in Oakland. I signed up to work for a temporary employment agency and was given a series of menial jobs such as typing invoices and filing.
The most interesting thing that happened during those temporary jobs was the day an earthquake struck while I was on the eighth floor of a building in downtown Oakland. It felt as if the whole building swayed from side to side. The papers on my desk slid to the right, then to the left. It lasted only a few seconds but it scared me silly and after that I had an intense interest in earthquakes. I kept newspaper clippings about earthquakes. When earthquake survivors were interviewed on television, I made notes, jotting down quotes about their experiences. Years later when I began writing Earthquake Terror, most of my research was already done.
The reason I took only temporary jobs was that Carl and I wanted to start a family. When that didn't happen, we applied to adopt a child. A series of interviews and home visits followed. We waited impatiently, wondering if we would ever be parents to anything but cats.
Our son, Bob, came to us when we'd been married four years. I quit the temporary agency and plunged happily into full-time motherhood. Our daughter, Anne, joined us two years later.
Children who have read Small Steps sometimes ask me if the day I got polio was the worst day of my life. My answer is no. The deaths of my parents were worse but the hardest day of all happened when Bob was three-and-a-half years old. We still called him Bobby then. He liked to play with some children who lived across the street but he was not allowed to cross the street alone. Usually they came to our house to play. If he was going to their home, I walked him over and then went back in an hour or so to get him.
One sunny afternoon, I'd taken Bobby across the street to play with his friends. Then I put Anne, who was eighteen months old, to bed for a nap. I had just sat down to read the day's mail when there was a frantic pounding on my front door. As I hurried to answer it, I heard a neighbor shout, "Bobby's been hit by a truck!"
I rushed outside and saw my precious son lying unconscious in the street. Neighborhood kids clustered around him, staring down. A telephone company truck was stopped nearby. I dropped to my knees on the pavement. "Bobby," I said, "can you hear me?"
There was no response.
Somehow I gathered my wits. "Call an ambulance," I said, and one neighbor ran inside to do so. Next I gave Carl's work number and asked someone to call him.
The shaken truck driver handed me a jacket to put over Bobby. "He came out from behind that parked car," the man said, "and I was driving into the sun. I never saw him until it was too late." At age three-anda-half, my son was exactly tall enough for the front fender of the truck to crash into his head.
I soon heard the wailing of the ambulance as it approached. By then every neighbor who was home that day had gathered around me. One, the mother of our babysitter, offered to take care of Anne.
With my heart in my throat, I climbed in the ambulance with my unconscious son. The driver took us to Children's Hospital in Oakland. Our family doctor met us there and Carl arrived soon after. He told me later that when he arrived at the hospital, he was unable to let go of the steering wheel. He had driven across the Bay Bridge from San Francisco to Oakland, fearing the worst. In his anxiety, he had gripped the wheel so hard that his fingers were clenched too tightly to unwind. He had to work himself loose, then straighten one finger at a time.
Bobby suffered a skull fracture and a concussion that day. He also permanently lost all of the hearing in his left ear.
Later, I learned what had happened. Bobby and his friends had argued over a toy. Bobby didn't want to play any more but instead of calling me as he was supposed to do if he wanted to come home, he had angrily run off to go home by himself. He dashed into the street, right into the path of the truck.
I felt guilty that I had let my child play with the kids across the street. They were a large family and I knew the mother of those children didn't watch them as carefully as I watched mine; why hadn't I insisted that they come to our house? Although everyone told me the accident wasn't my fault, I still felt that it was.
To make matters worse, parents were not allowed to stay at the hospital with their children. We could visit but we had to leave at dinner time and couldn't return until the next morning.
Children who enter the hospital for surgery or other planned procedures benefit from stories told to them ahead of time about what to expect at the hospital. Bobby had no such preparation. He simply woke up hurting in an unfamiliar place and then, just when he needed his parents most, we went away, leaving him with strangers.
Each time we left, Bobby screamed and cried. He stood in the crib-like hospital bed, clinging to the metal bars and sobbing. It broke my heart.
On the third night, I told the doctor I thought we were doing more psychological damage than the hospital was doing good. "We're checking him out," I said, "and taking him home."
"It's too soon," the doctor said.
The doctor finally agreed to discharge Bobby providing he stay in bed except to go to the bathroom, and that he wear a helmet for those short trips. It was critical that he not get bumped in the head.
I would have agreed to anything so long as I could take my boy home. We bought a helmet and checked Bobby out of the hospital. Even so, the terrifying experience left its mark. Our cheerful, happy son came home afraid to be alone for even a few minutes. If we tiptoed out of his room while he slept, and he woke to find us gone, he immediately cried uncontrollably. He had stayed dry at night for more than a year; now he began wetting his bed again. He had nightmares and woke up screaming.
We had twin beds in Bobby's room so I slept in the extra bed. It was weeks before I could leave that room at night without making sure Carl was there to take my place in case Bobby woke up. Gradually his fears subsided, but the nightmares continued sporadically for over a year.
Having survived polio, I knew that our family would get through this trauma, too, but the accident affected me profoundly. The next year, when the first anniversary of the accident was a few weeks away I began to count down the days. I've never been especially superstitious but I was relieved when that date came and went without further tragedy.
For years afterward I got chills and my heart would race whenever I heard ambulance sirens nearby. The sound instantly brought back a vision of my son lying crumpled in the street in front of our house.
Bob is now a high school teacher and coach, married, with two children of his own. This essay is the first time I've ever written about how he lost the hearing in one ear. Even though his accident was one of the most dramatic events of my life, I've never used that experience in a book. I've written about almost everything else unusual that's happened to my family (changing details and embellishing the facts for fiction) but so far I have not created a character who gets hit by a vehicle. Decades later, the memories are still too painful.
However, I have used my feelings from that ordeal many times as my characters experienced fear or guilt or pain. When a character stands up for what she believes, I remember how hard it was to insist that my son be discharged from the hospital before the doctor wanted to let him go.
When Bob and Anne were both in school, I decided to return to school, too. I enrolled at a two-year California college near my home, and I loved taking classes again. I read every assignment, studied hard, and especially liked writing reports or essays. Once again, I began to think of a career as a writer.
A year after I went back to college, the company Carl worked for closed its San Francisco plant. He was offered a job in Seattle so once again we packed up a rented truck, this time with two kids in addition to two cats, and started a new adventure in the Pacific Northwest.
The local colleges considered me an out-of-state student until I had lived in Washington for one year. Out-of-state students pay higher tuition, which I couldn't afford, so I decided to skip the college degree and start writing.
Each day after the kids left for school, I carried my cup of coffee downstairs to the unfinished basement where I had my desk, and spent the day pounding away on the Smith Corona portable typewriter that had been my high school graduation gift from my parents. I wrote magazine articles and stories. I wrote light verse and short plays.
Even though I knew nothing about marketing my writing, I sent these manuscripts to publishers. All of them came back in the self-addressed, stamped envelopes that I always included. Usually a form rejection slip was enclosed. Sometimes I didn't even get that.
Because I knew something was wrong with my writing but I didn't know what, I started reading "howto" books about writing. I also subscribed to two magazines for writers and I read every word of them each month. I attended the Pacific Northwest Writer's Conference that summer, and every summer for many years. Slowly I began to learn the craft of writing.
I also began targeting my markets properly. Before sending material to a magazine, I read more than one copy of that magazine. If a magazine offered writer's guidelines, I sent for them. When I wrote short stories about family problems, I submitted the stories only to magazines which published that type of story. This seems a common sense thing to do, but thousands of writers each year make the same mistake I made at first: I sent my work to inappropriate publishers.
Eventually my efforts paid off. I began selling brief magazine articles, some light verse, and an occasional short story. I wrote a two-character skit and submitted it to Contemporary Drama Service. An editor there, Art Zapel, said that the skit was too short to publish by itself but if I wanted to write two more playlets of the same kind, he would consider publishing them as a group.
I rushed downstairs to my desk. I did little else until those additional playlets were finished and in the mail. Mr. Zapel accepted them, and thus began a long partnership with Contemporary Drama Service as well as a personal friendship with Art Zapel. I wrote more playlets, then some one-act plays, and finally full-length plays. Contemporary Drama Service published most of my work; other play publishers took the rest.
While I worked on my plays, I continued to write magazine articles and stories because they provided a steady income. Most of the play publishers paid royalties annually. My royalties depended on how many scripts were sold as well as how many times each play was produced. It was hard to budget when I only got paid once a year, especially when I never knew how big the check would be.
With magazine stories, the publisher and I agreed on an amount for each story when it was accepted. Sometimes payment was made on acceptance; sometimes I didn't get paid until the story was published, but at least I knew how much was coming, and when. For several years, I wrote one short story each week, most of which sold, then wrote plays in my "spare" time.
I soon wore out the Smith-Corona. The second time I took it to the typewriter repair shop, the repairman asked me how many hours each day I used it.
"Usually about seven," I said.
"Lady," he told me, "this flimsy little portable is meant for writing occasional letters. You need an office typewriter."
I bought an IBM Selectric typewriter. It was much larger and sturdier than the portable had been, but I wore it out, too. Next I got an IBM self-correcting typewriter and I thought I'd purchased the ultimate machine for efficiency. I'm a fast typist but my accuracy leaves something to be desired. It had always taken me hours to produce a "clean copy" of each manuscript—one with no errors. I painted a white liquid on the mistakes, waited for the liquid to dry, then typed the correct letter. I often had several errors on each page, so it was a time consuming process. With my new self-correcting typewriter, all I had to do was backspace and then type in the right letter. I loved that typewriter!
I loved it so much that when the early computers with word-processing systems became available, I refused to buy one. Writer friends urged me to get a computer, my son begged me to buy one, people who had one told me I would love working on a computer; but it took several years before I finally bought a computer. Even then I kept the old self-correcting typewriter for a long time, just in case I decided to go back to it. I didn't, of course. After the first frustrating weeks of learning how to use the computer, I found it far faster and easier to write on than the typewriter had been. I became more careful in my revisions because I didn't have to go to all that trouble to change a word. It seemed miraculous when my first noisy dot-matrix printer spit out a page of copy so much faster than I could have typed it—and without any errors.
As more of my material got published, I began dreaming of writing a book. I think most writers long to publish a book, no matter what genre they work in. It was fun to go to the grocery store, browse at the magazine racks, and see a magazine containing one of my stories but each story was there for only a month or less. Then they were gone, never to return.
A book, on the other hand, lasts forever—or so I thought. Now I know that books, too, go out of print and disappear, but a book is still so much more substantial than a magazine or even a play script. I gazed at the books in my public library and at my favorite book store, and wondered if I would ever see my name on the cover of a book.
You'll never know if you don't try, I told myself. My first effort was a mystery novel; it never sold. Next I tried a nonfiction book; it didn't get published, either. I couldn't help but think how many magazine stories I might have written and been paid for in the time it took me to write those two books, yet I continued to work on book-length material. The dream had become far more important than the money.
I wrote a collection of original wedding vows, intended for people who were planning a marriage ceremony. After several large publishers turned it down, saying they didn't see where it would fit on their lists, I sent the manuscript to my editor friend, Art Zapel. I knew that Contemporary Drama Service also had a book division, Meriwether Publishing, that published dramatic material for schools and churches. I thought perhaps my "Vows of Love and Marriage" would be of interest to the church market.
Art agreed, and my first book was published. Next I did an adult how-to book which sold to TAB Books. Then Art Zapel said he thought there was a need for audition material for students. He said he'd like to publish a book of original monologues for student actors, and he wondered if I wanted to write it.
I began writing monologues from a kid's point of view, and I'd never had so much fun writing. The words and ideas flowed effortlessly as I crafted sixty-five original monologues. When the book was done, I knew I was now a children's author. I had found my voice as a writer.
I wrote another mystery, this time for kids, and it sold to the first publisher who read it. The book's theme was friendship so I called it New Friend, True Friend. The editor, Rosanne Lauer, said, "This is a scary suspense story, and New Friend, True Friend is a terrible title. We can only publish this book if you change the title."
Of course, I agreed to change the title but it took me three long days to write just two words—the new title. When Rosanne and I finally agreed on Deadly Stranger, I had some misgivings. The book was being marketed for ages nine to twelve, but I wasn't at all sure that when Bob and Anne were that age I would have let them read a book called Deadly Stranger. I soon learned that kids love scary books and are attracted to exactly that sort of title.
Rosanne is a talented editor, and I learned a lot from her. We continue to work together; as of this writing she has edited fifteen of my novels. Like me, she's a devoted animal lover, and our correspondence often includes the latest news of our pets.
One of my books is about a boy and his grandmother who has Alzheimer's disease. It, too, is a suspense story but it also focuses on the relationship between T.J. and the elderly Grandma Ruth. I called the book, What Happened to Grandma Ruth? The title worked on two levels—what happened to T.J.'s grandmother after the two of them discovered a man hiding in the neighbor's barn, and what happened to the real grandmother who was no longer there because of her Alzheimer's disease.
I was especially fond of this title because my dad had Alzheimer's disease for sixteen years. Then I heard from Rosanne.
"The kids you write for are not likely to choose a book called What Happened to Grandma Ruth? " she said, and I knew she was right. Once again I began brain-storming scary titles. The story of T.J. and Grandma Ruth was published as Night of Fear.
A few of my other titles also got changed. When I wrote Terror at the Zoo I called it Zoo Night. Rosanne thought that sounded like a nonfiction title, a book about where the animals sleep. At first I was a bit embarrassed by the title, Terror at the Zoo. It seemed TOO scary to me, even though this was before the words terror and terrorist were used daily in news broadcasts and newspapers.
I wrote a second book about the characters from Terror at the Zoo and called that one, The Wedgwood Ghost. While it was being edited, I signed books at a meeting of the International Reading Association. Over and over again, teachers and librarians reached for Terror at the Zoo, commenting, "This sounds like something my students will like." I realized they were choosing it solely because of the title. The next day I called Rosanne and asked if it was too late to change the title of The Wedgwood Ghost. She asked what I wanted to call the book. I said, "Horror at the Haunted House." "Much better," Rosanne said. Later I did a third book about those kids, called Danger at the Fair.
After Deadly Stranger was accepted, I never again wrote plays or short stories or any other adult material. Once I began writing books for kids, I was hooked and I've stayed with that field ever since.
It took me a long time to discover my place as a writer but once I did, I made up for lost time. I wrote and wrote and wrote. In my most prolific year, I published five books! I got up at 5:00 A.M. to write; I wrote all day; I sometimes worked in the evening.
As my books became better known, and especially after I began to win some of the state Young Reader awards, I received invitations to speak at schools and at large conferences. Finally my training in public speaking was put to good use. It astonished me at first that large groups of teachers and librarians were interested in what I had to say, but when I spoke honestly about my thoughts and feelings, I discovered that many people could relate to what I said. In the years since I began publishing children's books, I've given hundreds of speeches.
I wish my grandpa could have lived long enough to see that his early encouragement of my writing took root. My dad never knew of my success, either. He was still living when my first books were published, but by then his mind was too ravished by Alzheimer's disease to understand. My mother was thrilled, though, and she went to Tulsa, Oklahoma, with Carl and me when I won the Sequoyah Award for Horror at the Haunted House. For the rest of her life, we rejoiced together each time I published a new book.
About fifteen years ago, I began having physical problems that were diagnosed as post-polio syndrome. The muscle pain and weakness are similar to what I experienced when I was twelve. Fatigue is also a symptom. It is hard for me to acknowledge that the disease I thought I'd conquered is once more giving me trouble. However, I can still walk (I have a cane that has cat faces all over it) and do the activities I love most: read, write, enjoy visits from my children and grandchildren, and play with my animals.
I no longer rise at 5:00 A.M. and write all day. Now I usually write from eight in the morning until twelve or one. My office is one room of my home where I have two computers, a printer, a desk, a library table, many bookshelves, and a big, soft chair for reading. Oh, yes, there's also a dog bed because my dog "goes to work" with me each day. Even after so many years of writing, I still enjoy sitting at my computer and working on a new book.
After lunch and a walk with my husband on our short nature trail, I usually answer mail—a part of my job that I enjoy but which takes increasing amounts of time. I average more than two hundred letters and e-mails about my books each week. I answer most of them.
This letter came from a sixth grade girl:
"Dear Peg Kehret, I used to steal anything I wanted. After I read Cages, I thought about what would happen if I got caught. I don't shoplift any more."
Awards are exciting, and strong sales of my books are gratifying, but the most fulfilling part of being a writer is when I get letters such as that one.
Children sometimes ask me how old I am. (This question is usually accompanied by the groan of a teacher or librarian who has instructed the class not to ask personal questions.) I answer honestly, and the next question is always, "Are you going to retire?" It's a logical query, since most people who are over sixty-five are more than ready to retire. But writing is different. The time spent creating books has always seemed more like a gift to myself than a job. Writing is what I choose to do, not what I must do.
The question I'm asked most often is, "Where do you get your ideas?" My answer is, "Ideas are everywhere. All I do is use what's going on around me." Here's an example:
One day Carl and I were headed up the on-ramp of a freeway when I noticed a man walking in a large vacant lot next to the freeway. A big bag hung from his arm; as I watched, he took something out of the bag and threw it into the weeds. I strained to see more. The man had a bag of carrots. As he flung the carrots into the weeds, rabbits hopped forward to eat them!
Curious, I made some inquiries in the area and learned that people had dumped unwanted rabbits there. The rabbits had multiplied, as rabbits do, and were often hit by cars. People who worked at nearby businesses worried about the rabbits, but nobody knew what to do about them.
A few weeks later I saw a newspaper article about a new office building that was going to be built. When I studied the accompanying map, I realized the building would be constructed on the lot where the rabbits lived. What will happen to them, I wondered, when the bulldozers come to level the lot?
Other people who knew about the rabbits shared my concern, and a group of workers from animal welfare organizations got together to rescue the rabbits. Using trained volunteers and donated money, the groups humanely trapped more than three hundred rabbits! All were taken to veterinarians for any needed treatment and to be neutered. Many were adopted as house pets; the others went to animal sanctuaries to live out their lives in safety.
The rabbit rescue was a huge undertaking with plenty of drama and I decided to write about it, but the novel I wrote, Don't Tell Anyone, doesn't have a single rabbit in the story. Instead I chose to write about feral cats because unwanted cats are a problem in every city. The rabbits were unique.
In my book, the cats live in a vacant lot next to the freeway. A girl who lives nearby, Megan, puts out food and water for them every day even though they run from her. When Megan learns that a building is going to be constructed on the lot, she has to try to save the cats before the land is bulldozed. She also learns how important it is to have cats, feral or tame, neutered.
Megan runs into many complications that didn't happen during the rabbit rescue. (None of our volunteers was abducted by a man in a hot air balloon.) That's the fun of fiction. I can take the basic idea and turn it into something entirely different.
The animal welfare theme in Don't Tell Anyone is repeated in various ways in most of my books because I believe strongly that children who learn to treat animals with kindness will grow up to be compassionate, caring adults. Sometimes the animal is the major focus of the story, as in Saving Lilly or Shelter Dogs: AmazingStories of Adopted Strays. In other books, the animals play a smaller role, but they are always loved and treated with respect by the hero or heroine.
I've heard from many young people who share my love of animals and who want to show their feelings in meaningful ways. I launched an Animal Club for Kids as a way to encourage these children to put their feelings into action. The children who participate have donations made in their names to organizations that help animals. They also have a chance to win autographed books.
The results have been heart-warming. Individuals and whole classes have undertaken innovative projects to help the animals.
When readers identify with characters who are compassionate, they become more compassionate themselves. If they learn to turn their feelings into positive actions, they have taken a giant step toward becoming caring, productive members of society.
I hope my books will continue to help young people know the joy of reading, the satisfaction of volunteering for a worthy cause, and the importance of leading an honorable life.