Although I grew up in New York City, as a child I still managed to spend a lot of time in treetops. I'd sit up there watching the people and animals below, the clouds drifting above, and I'd listen to the leaves around me rustling in the wind. I climbed big rocks — like the one that inspired Will's Mammoth and The Boy Who Loved Mammoths. My mother read fairy tales to me from her beloved Book of Knowledge encyclopedia. It was very old, but the fairy tales in it were still exciting. She told me Aesop's fables. One of our favorites was “The Tortoise and the Hare.” “Slow and steady wins the race,” she would say; “slow and steady.” (Since I didn't write my first book until I was 35, I clearly followed that story's theme.)
I especially wanted to know what the world had been like when my mother was young, before I was born. To think of the world before I existed made everything I looked at — the sun, the trees, a table or chair — more mysterious. I remember, too, lying in bed when my mother read fairy tales to me. In my mind I could see the great black raven, or the prince riding through the dark forest, or Rapunzel letting down her long, long hair. Yet none of these characters or things was even in the room!
At holidays my father's family would get together and talk about old times growing up together on New York City's Lower East Side. They were all first-generation Russian Jews. Family, a sense of humor, and stories had helped them face hardship. They often told hysterically funny stories, but they were not shy about talking about sad times, either. The stories were hardly ever told by any one person. Everyone interrupted everyone else, throwing in pieces, details, and changes so that the stories grew, with each person throwing something of their own into the pot. Those get-togethers made it clear that television was really only a distant “second best” to what words and a spirited storyteller could bring alive.
From my father, who had flown intelligence and rescue missions in the Himalayas in World War II, I heard tales of rescues in the jungles, of elephants, tigers, cobras, and headhunters, of holy men and beggars, and of pilots who flew off on days like any other and never returned. I heard of ancient cities — Calcutta and Bombay — and of mysterious rivers like the Ganges and Brahmaputtra. From my grandmothers, who had each left their families at the age of 16 to come alone to America, fleeing the Revolution, I learned of history and of the deep, quiet snows of Russian winters. In essence, my family gave me what I most wanted and needed — stories.
Naturally, I loved to read. My favorite books were myths and legends from around the world, stories about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table and of Robin Hood as well as any tales of animals. I especially loved Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Books. In sixth grade I found Herman Melville's Moby Dick and read it over and over for many years. From it I learned about whales, work, the sea and the imagination. From it I learned, too, that a good storyteller can make you see with your mind and believe what might, at first, have seemed impossible.
Through my wife Rose, new people, stories, and words came into my life. But it wasn't until our children, Jacob and Ariya, were born that my interest in sharing literature with children began. Through sharing stories each night with them — usually reading aloud but sometimes telling stories — I began to understand how stories, when told out loud, come alive.
I have appeared as a visiting author and storyteller in Japan, Hawaii, Alaska, and throughout the continental United States. I've found that the personalities of the audiences themselves shape the tale. My first children's books were published in 1984 and 1985. In the process of writing books I've found that I can't just take a story I tell, write it down, and presto! — have a successful book. In working from a spoken story to a written one I have to take back words and incidents and give the illustrator room to show the story in his or her own way. I'm not interested in making the illustrator see the story the way I do. For me a good picture book is not just words and pictures but words and pictures together producing something new.
Storytellers can only make sounds on the air. A writer can only make squiggles on paper. Yet those who hear or read those words can see, can feel and live, a whole life in their minds. Every time I tell a story, each time I work on a new book, this mystery lives for me again.