When I was growing up, the first thing I wanted to be was a cowboy. That lasted till I was about ten. Then I wanted to be a baseball player. Preferably shortstop for the New York Yankees.
I played Little League in junior high and high school. I only hit two home runs in my career, but I had no equal when it came to standing at shortstop and chattering to my pitcher: “C'mon, baby, hum the pea.” Unfortunately, when I stood at the plate, so many peas were hummed past me for strikes that I decided to let somebody else become shortstop for the Yankees.
It was about that time that our high school football team won a heart-stopping game against one of the best teams in the country. While the rest of the town was tooting horns and celebrating, I went home and wrote a poem about the game. A few days later the poem was published in the local newspaper, and suddenly I had something new to become: a writer.
Little did I know that twenty-five years would pass before a book of mine would be published.
Not that I wasn't trying. In the years after college I wrote four novels, but nobody wanted them. They were adult novels. So was number five, or so I thought. However, because it was about a thirteen-year-old boy, adult book publishers didn't even want to see it. But children's publishers did — and that's how, by accident, I became an author of books for kids.
Life is full of happy accidents.
Sometimes I'm asked if I do research for my stories. The answer is yes and no. No, in the sense that I seldom plow through books at the library to gather material. Yes, in the sense that the first fifteen years of my life turned out to be one big research project. I thought I was simply growing up in Norristown, Pennsylvania; looking back now I can see that I was also gathering material that would one day find its way into my books.
John Ribble's blazing fastball. Dovey Wilmouth, so beautiful a fleet of boys pedaled past her house ten times a day. Mrs. Seeton's whistle calling her kids in to dinner. The day my black snake disappeared. The creek, the tracks, the dump, the red hills. My days did not pass through, but stayed, filling the shelves of my memory. They became the library where today I do my research.
I also get material from my own kids. Along the way I married another children's writer, Eileen Spinelli, and from our six kids have come a number of stories. Jeffrey and Molly, who are always fighting, have been especially helpful.
Ideas also come from everyday life. And from the newspapers. One day, for example, I read a story about a girl who competed on her high school wrestling team. A year later bookstores carried a new book with my name on it: There's a Girl in My Hammerlock.
So there you are. I never became a cowboy or baseball player, and now I'm beginning to wonder if I ever really became a writer. I find that I hesitate to put that label on myself, to define myself by what I do for a living. After all, I also pick berries and touch ponies and skim flat stones over water and marvel at the stars and breathe deeply and grin from ear to ear and save the best part for last. I've always done these things. Which is to say, I never had to become anything. Or anyone. I always, already, was.
Call me a berry-picking, pony-touching star-marveler.