Sharon Dennis Wyeth
Though reading and writing have always been two of my passions, I didn't become an author immediately. After graduating from Harvard University, I tried a number of jobs. I had an interest in social work and was drawn to children, so I became a family counselor at a day-care center on New York's Lower East Side. Ever since I'd written a play in fifth grade and played Juliet in high school, I'd been smitten with a love for the theater. So while continuing my job as a family counselor, I studied drama at night and opened a small theater of my own along with a few friends. Soon I found myself producing, acting, and writing plays. Writing was what took over in the end.
From writing plays, it was a bit of a leap to writing books, but I jumped at an offer to write paperback romances. I'd quit my job as a family counselor by then. Though I had jobs teaching voice to students at two universities in New York City, I still needed to make more money, and writing let me do both. From writing adult romances, I went on to write romances for young adults. That led to creating Pen Pals, a middle-grade series. After that I began to write single novels and picture books mainly based on my own childhood experiences.
I am an African American. Many of the protagonists in my books are children of color. The story of Mahalia Moon in A Piece of Heaven is inspired in part by memories I have of children I met on the Lower East Side and in part by experiences I had myself growing up in a divorced family. Something Beautiful celebrates the working-class African-American community in southeast Washington, D.C, where I spent most of my childhood and where I went to high school. Another picture book, Always My Dad, is set on my grandparents' farm in Virginia, where I caught my first lightning bugs and stared at a moon the color of a sweet potato hanging over the Blue Ridge Mountains. Tomboy Trouble is based on my daughter's third grade challenges after she got a short haircut. Most of these books took much too long to write and seemed much harder than they should have been. Maybe that's because some of them contain painful memories.
Writing historical fiction has been equally significant. The 18th-century African-American family I created in Once on This River became so real to me that I began to dream about them. Since I know so little about my own African-American ancestors, I think the characters I created began to fill in. I had a similar experience while working on Freedom's Wings. I identified so much with Corey as he made his escape on the Underground Railroad that sometimes my hands shook while I was writing.
My job as an author for young readers is perfect for me. It combines my passion for writing with my interest in children and families, while giving me an opportunity to explore history! And there's lots of drama in storytelling! But my favorite part of the job is meeting my readers!
Sharon Dennis Wyeth is the first recipient of the Stephen Crane Literary Award, presented by the Newark Public Library. She lives in Montclair, New Jersey, with her husband Sims, daughter Georgia, and her standard poodle Roscoe.