Words have always been a lifeline for me, processing (and if I’m lucky, capturing) perceptions of the world and the people in it, including myself, of course. I loved poetry and let my dreamy, introverted young-child-self get lost in wonderful stories like All-of-a-Kind Family, Ballet Shoes, King of the Wind, Black Beauty and The Black Stallion series. Reading, writing scribbled and rigidly rhyming poetry, and loving school writing assignments naturally blossomed into a dream of being a writer someday, even before my Fourth Grade teacher read a short story I’d written and pronounced, “You are a writer.”
Wanting to be a writer and loving to write did not seem to interfere with simultaneous dreams of wishing I could ride horses day and night or fantasizing about being a ballerina like the numerous newspaper photos of dancers on my bedroom walls.
My writing took a temporary turn toward journalism in high school, as I walked my still-introverted self into the student newspaper office at Oak Park-River Forest High and announced that I wanted to be a Cub Reporter. Four years of almost daily work on Trapeze news and features rewarded me with becoming co-Editor in Chief as a Senior, after a summer at the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism “Cherub” program. But I wasn’t that interested in pure facts, and my work leaned heavily towards creative nonfiction. I began writing weekly columns about internal and interpersonal issues I believed could be helpful to others. I continue today as a regular columnist for the Illinois-SCBWI Prairie Wind (“The Inside Story”) and the award-winning blog, Cynsations, writing about the inner creative journey with a focus on resilience.Without a doubt, work on the weekly high school paper writing, revising, cutting and pasting helped me find and sharpen my writer’s voice.
I also found my spoken voice during high school, when an extraordinary Speech & Drama teacher saw something in me I did not see in myself. He encouraged me to begin reading poetry aloud for Illinois State Speech Contests, and I loved it. In my final year, I won third place. Ironically, I graduated high school as Class Orator!
Gradually my dreams evolved and matured, as many dreams do. My dance life faded after Freshman year in high school, when I discovered at Interlochen Arts Camp that as much as I loved to dance, my skill level, body, and personality were not made for a ballet career. The extreme diet a friend and I pursued during the summer of dancing 6 hours a day triggered disordered eating and perpetuated, rather than changing my negative feelings about my body – and of course, did absolutely nothing for my dancing! I wrote a poem about dancing with my pen instead of dancing with my feet.
My poetry and creative nonfiction files grew throughout college, but I never submitted the work.I graduated with a BA in Creative Writing, but went on to Yeshiva University Graduate School in Social Work, having fallen in love with facilitating groups one college summer when I volunteered at an historic settlement house in Chicago.
My writing accompanied me wherever I went and whatever I did. During graduate school I was lucky enough to meet an older poet who read my work – much of it about my father’s recent death – and encouraged me to give a poetry reading at the community center where I worked. I did, and loved it. But he also pushed me gently to begin sending out my work. I did that, as well, and had some of my early, strongly feminist poems published. I realized that information about how to research potential submissions and try to make “good matches” with editors was a crucial component of being a writer. Through the years that followed, eventually as a clinical social worker in a community center working with children and the elderly, and in hospitals and ultimately private practice, I wrote scholarly papers and some essays.
But it was always poetry that captured the music of my life – the ups, the downs, the wonder of the world. Eventually it captured the gift of marriage and a child. That wonderful journey led me to my son’s school library, where another extraordinary person opened the doors to a new generation of children’s literature, particularly middle grade novels and picture books different from any I’d seen in my own growing up. I began to volunteer one day a week, my day off from my private practice in clinical social work, and read, read, read. My writing direction became clear: I passionately wanted to write for children.
Not only poetry, but diets and the failure of diets accompanied me (and my entire family) from a very young age. I ultimately had help discovering a way out by ending the lifelong cycle of dangerous yo-yo dieting, making peace with food and my body, and opening a door to the life I wanted. As a clinical social worker in private practice, I focused on working with women who wanted to do the same. Unlike my own experience that began very early in life, many of my clients traced the change from comfort with food and their bodies to discomfort and dieting to their preteen years, when they began developing breasts and hips. I wanted to write a story for children that addressed this experience as well as the culture’s tendency to identify the source of all problems as body-shape/size related.
Cricket published “The Inside Ballerina”, my first children’s story, and Heather Lattimer used it as a study text in Thinking Through Genre. In 2017, Filmelodic used the story as inspiration for the theme of their award-winning experimental film, La Folía.
Reeni’s Turn evolved from that early story. The first draft was prose. But the first revision danced through my brain in free verse. Many challenging revisions followed. An early draft won me a partial scholarship to the Highlights Novel in Verse workshop with Sonya Sones, Virginia Euwer Wolff, and Linda Oatman High, a Finalist Award in the 2014 Katherine Paterson Competition, and an Honorable Mention in the 2018 Sydney Taylor Manuscript Competition. I won a Ragdale Foundation Writer’s Residency and recently, an Illinois Arts Council grant. I worked hard to create a story that would engage young middle grade readers, but also support them as they navigate the wonderful but tumultuous years before adolescence, particularly in relation to the vulnerability to self-concept as their bodies change and grow. Although I couldn’t have written Reeni’s Turn without some my own experiences informing the story, Reeni is not an autobiographical character, and she discovers her strengths earlier in life than I did.
During this period, I continued to write other poetry and fiction, some of which has appeared or is forthcoming in Cricket, Ladybug, Highlights, Hello, and Hunger Mountain magazines. I also began working at an extraordinary early childhood center where my wide variety of assignments included the ability to spend time in the classroom with my young “friends”, and read them the best of children’s literature. I continue this wonderful activity now as a full-time writer, and love my time spent with the children. Their play and their thoughts about themselves and their work at school inspire poetry and picture book ideas each time I see them!
My husband and I live in Skokie, Illinois, and we are actively involved in priorities like climate change and voter registration. We enjoy travelling to visit our son in New York, other family members around the country, and as-yet unexplored places – always with my notebook and pen in hand.
I am thrilled to have my debut novel in verse, Reeni’s Turn, published by Regal House/Fitzroy Books. I look forward to many wonderful conversations with middle grade children, parents, and teachers about Reeni’s story and the questions it raises.