I was born in the Appalachian hills of Virginia, which is the setting for Belle Prater's Boy and The Search for Belle Prater. I lived there until I graduated from high school and went away to college. Though I left the hills, they never left me. My memories of those years are quite vivid. I have always referred to that time as both traumatic and wonderful. I get most of my ideas for my stories from those memories of my childhood home, the small coal-mining town of Grundy, Virginia.
I started writing at a very young age. I remember trying to write stories before I was even able to put long sentences together. It was just something I felt compelled to do, probably because I loved stories so much. We had no television because my family was very poor; my mother was raising my three sisters and me with very little money. So we read aloud and enjoyed each other’s company.
Eventually I became a teacher and then a school librarian. Working in the public schools among adolescents fueled my desire to write, and I suppose the age group I worked with helped me determine that I wanted to write for them instead of for adults or smaller children. I wrote my first book, The City Rose, based on an experience that happened when I taught seventh and eighth grade in Mt. Pleasant, North Carolina. The schools had recently been integrated, and I had two black girls in one of my classes. I noticed that whenever we went to the library, they didn’t check out any books. Finally, they told me that it was because they couldn’t find any books about black children. So I decided to write one.
For Belle Prater's Boy, my inspiration came from Grundy, like it has so many times. When I was small I used to ride through the nicest residential area there and look at the pretty houses and manicured lawns. I thought these were wealthy people who had ideal lives. Only in later years did I realize that the people living in those houses were quite average, living the way most Americans live. They had their own particular problems, which I could not even imagine. So I decided to set a novel there. First, I created Gypsy, the city mouse, who lived in one of those pretty houses, and Woodrow, the country mouse, who was from the sticks. Then I asked them to tell me their story.
I didn’t plan to write a sequel to Belle Prater's Boy. I thought Woodrow's theory about what happened to his mother would be enough for the reader, but it obviously was not. I had many letters from readers wanting to know what happened to Belle, and asking me to write a sequel. Actually, I did the first draft of the sequel in the late nineties. After many revisions, I created The Search for Belle Prater.
When I'm not writing, I like to walk in the park with my golden retriever, listen to books on tape, and watch movies. Away from home, I like to visit schools and talk to young people about books and writing. My daughter usually travels with me, and we have a great time together.