Colleen O'Shaughnessy McKenna was born in 1949 in Springfield, Illinois, and grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Though largely happy, McKenna's childhood had more than its share of tragedy: her house burned down when she was 11, and her father, who suffered a stroke at the age of 32, died of cancer at 52. “I think my sense of humor developed during these years, as a way of combating some sad things that were happening in my life,” McKenna reflects. “I enjoyed being able to see the humor in daily events, so I could relate them to my family, and make them smile.”
Until eighth grade, McKenna wanted to be a cartoonist, and still says she would have loved to have gone to animation school. Instead she attended Slippery Rock University, where she studied elementary education and the education of emotionally disturbed children. She also acted in several college productions, winning the Pennsylvania State Award in Oral Interpretation in 1969. Her first works for children were also plays, written when she was teaching third and fourth grade.
McKenna's books, many of which feature the hectic family life of the fictional Murphys, are based in large part on the experiences of McKenna's own large family. She and her husband, Jay, have four children whose names will be familiar to Murphy fans: Collette, Jeff, Laura, and Stevie.