Telling Their Own Stories

Autobiographies of Children's Book Creators

What is just as good as reading a wonderful book? Reading about the author of that book, especially when the author tells his or her own life story.

by Mary Northrup

Many readers want to know how their favorite author or artist became a writer or illustrator. Usually those seeds are planted in childhood, and the books included here provide the authors’ own versions of their childhoods. Many address how they came to recognize their talents and what form their writing or illustrating took in childhood and adolescence.

The selections below range from picture books to books for the middle grades to young-adult titles. Warm evocations of bygone days are here, such as Bigmama’s by Donald Crews, as well as edgy memoirs such as Jack Gantos’ Hole in My Life and Walter Dean Myers’ Bad Boy. Some writers tell everything from "I was born . . ." on, while others concentrate on one year or one season. Many of these titles feature photographs of the authors and illustrators. What fun to see them as teens—or toddlers! For readers who enjoy getting to know their favorite children’s book creators, autobiographies can be a great source of information and inspiration. Try these for read-alouds or individual reading.

Books for Younger Readers

Brown, Margaret Wise. The Days before Now. Illus. by Thomas B. Allen. 1994. 32p. Simon & Schuster, o.p.
 
Preschool–Gr. 2. The author of Goodnight Moon and other classics describes her life in the early part of the twentieth century in New York City and on Long Island. Adapted from Brown’s vivid and rhythmic autobiography in the 1951 Junior Book of Authors, this picture book brings to life the people, places, animals, and childhood memories of this prolific author.

Cole, Joanna, and Wendy Saul. On the Bus with Joanna Cole. 1996. 56p. Heinemann, $16.95 (0-435-08131-4).
 
K–Gr. 4. Cole, author of many fiction and nonfiction books, describes how she writes in this Creative Autobiography title. She also remembers her early years, relates incidents in her adult life, and tells how she works with editors and illustrators. Her story is enhanced with color photographs, sketches from book dummies, and illustrations, especially from her Magic School Bus books.

Crews, Donald. Bigmama’s. 1991. 40p. Greenwillow, $15.99 (0-688-09950-5); HarperTrophy, paper, $5.95 (0-688-15842-0).
 
Preschool–Gr. 3. The author spent his childhood summers with his grandparents on their farm in Florida. Colorfully illustrated with watercolor and gouache paintings, this account of the trip and Crews’ summer adventures captures the high-spirited fun and family togetherness.

dePaola, Tomie. 26 Fairmount Avenue. 1999. 64p. Putnam, $13.99 (0-399-23246-X); Puffin, paper, $5.99 (0-698-11864-2).
  Gr. 2–5. This title follows one year in the life of author-illustrator dePaola—1938—as his Irish and Italian family builds a house. Young Tomie starts school, goes to the movies, visits with his relatives, and has all the adventures he can. His story is continued in Here We All Are (Putnam, 2000), On My Way (Putnam, 2001), What a Year (Putnam, 2002), Things Will Never Be the Same (Putnam, 2003), I'm Still Scared (Putnam, 2006), and Why? (Putnam, 2007). For a humorous account in picture-book format of Tomie and his grandfather’s mutual love of mischief, see Tom (Putnam, 1993).

Lester, Helen. Author: A True Story. 1997. 32p. Houghton/Walter Lorraine, $13 (0-395-82744-2).
 
Preschool–Gr. 3. Lester knew she would be a writer ever since she was a three-year-old grocery-list maker. With humorous prose and illustrations, she explains how she continued her writing career through her school days and into adulthood, when she became a teacher and children’s book author.

Lyon, George Ella. A Sign. Illus. by Chris K. Soentpiet. 1998. 32p. Orchard, $15.95 (0-531-30073-0).
 
Preschool–Gr. 3. Simple images of her childhood—a neon sign, a circus tightrope walker, an astronaut traveling into space—convey Lyon’s career aspirations and how they link to the work of a writer. With colorful, realistic illustrations, this book delights in the magic of childhood dreams.

McPhail, David. In Flight with David McPhail. 1996. 48p. Heinemann, $15.95 (0-435-08132-2).
 
K–Gr. 4. In this Creative Autobiography title, McPhail takes us inside his head as he develops an idea into a story, and tells how the story becomes a book. He covers his childhood briefly, with the beginnings of his career in drawing. The author of more than 50 books fills this one with many wonderful illustrations.

Stevenson, James. July. 1990. 32p. Greenwillow, o.p.
 
Gr. 1–3. This book revels in the pleasures of one summer month as the Stevenson family goes to the grandparents’ house on the beach. Through snappy prose and simple illustrations, the reader can almost taste the toasting marshmallows, feel the wet sand, smell the fish, and hear the grown-ups’ instructions. Other picture-book memoirs by Stevenson include   Don’t You Know There’s a War On? (Greenwillow, 1992), Fun/No Fun (Greenwillow, 1994), Higher on the Door (Greenwillow, 1987), I Had a Lot of Wishes (Greenwillow, 1995), and When I Was Nine (Greenwillow, 1986).

Books for Middle Readers

Ada, Alma Flor. Under the Royal Palms: A Childhood in Cuba. 1998. 96p. Simon & Schuster/Atheneum, $16 (0-689-80631-0).
  Gr. 3–7. Each chapter features an event or memory from Ada’s childhood in Cuba: molding clay into pots, exploring rivers with her cousins, her uncle’s death, and Christmas traditions. The book is illustrated with black-and-white photographs. See also Ada’s memoir of an earlier time in Where the Flame Trees Bloom (Simon & Schuster/Atheneum, 1994).

Berenstain, Stan, and Jan Berenstain. Down a Sunny Dirt Road: An Autobiography. 2002. 208p. Random, $20 (0-375-81403-5).
 
Gr. 4–8. The Berenstains tell, in alternating chapters, about their childhoods and young-adult years. After chronicling how they met, they write together about becoming a team and selling cartoons and magazine covers and, finally, writing and illustrating books. Photographs of the Berenstains and numerous examples of their work illustrate the book.

Byars, Betsy. The Moon and I. 1991. 112p. HarperTrophy, paper, $4.99 (0-688-13704-0).
  Gr. 3–7. In a series of 18 chapters illustrated with black-and-white photographs, Byars remembers incidents from her life, bound together from one chapter to the next by reflections on a snake that she is observing.

Carle, Eric. Flora and Tiger: 19 Very Short Stories from My Life. 1997. 64p. Philomel, $17.99 (0-399-23203-6).
 
Gr. 3–6. Carle, born in the United States and raised in Germany, recalls his life in a series of short stories. A preteen and teenager during World War II, Carle writes about those days, but also about his life as an adult. Illustrated with his famous animals, the stories will delight readers who love The Very Hungry Caterpillar (Philomel, 1969) and his other books.

Cleary, Beverly. A Girl from Yamhill: A Memoir. 1988. 320p. HarperCollins, $21.99 (0-688-07800-1); HarperTrophy, paper, $10.99 (0-380-72740-4).
 
Gr. 4–7. The creator of Ramona and many other characters in children’s literature relives her childhood memories and how she came to love books and writing. Illustrated with many black-and-white photographs, her memoir covers the years from before she was born to her leaving Portland, Oregon, for college. Cleary discusses her college years, getting married, work, and writing her first book in My Own Two Feet: A Memoir (HarperCollins, 1995).

Fletcher, Ralph. How to Write Your Life Story. 2007. 128p. HarperCollins, $15.99 (0-06-050770-5); HarperTrophy, paper, $5.99 (0-06-050769-1).
  Gr. 5–8. Fletcher, the author of several books about writing that are directed at young people, offers some advice for those attempting to write an autobiography or memoir. Included is a discussion of how characters, place, and plot are important to memoir, just as they are to fiction; Fletcher also covers ways to “brainstorm” stories, including making maps, finding personal artifacts, and collecting family history. In addition, interviews with several well-known authors, including Jerry Spinelli and Jack Gantos, are of interest.

Fritz, Jean. Homesick: My Own Story. Illus. by Margot Tomes. 1982. 160p. Putnam, $16.99 (0-399-20933-6); Puffin, paper, $5.99 (0-698-11782-4).
 
Gr. 5–8. In this Newbery Honor title, Fritz draws readers into scenes from her youth as a missionary’s daughter in China in the mid-1920s. Also see China Homecoming (Putnam, 1985), in which Fritz writes about returning to China as an adult.

Joyce, William. The World of William Joyce Scrapbook. 1997. 48p. HarperCollins/Laura Geringer, o.p.
 
Gr. 3–7. Joyce takes the reader behind the scenes as he explains how the ideas for some of his books originated. Along the way he introduces us to his childhood, his family, his kids and wife, holidays, and toys.

Kehret, Peg. Five Pages a Day: A Writer’s Journey. 2002. 192p. Whitman, $14.95 (0-8075-8650-1).
 
Gr. 3–8. From the age of ten when she wrote the "Dog Newspaper," Peg Kehret has been a writer. She takes readers along as she relates how she wrote for contests and magazines, and finally, at age 50, wrote a book. Black-and-white photographs illustrate the text. Also of interest is Small Steps: The Year I Got Polio (Whitman, 1996), her riveting memoir detailing her illness and recovery.

King-Smith, Dick. Chewing the Cud: An Extraordinary Life Remembered by the Author of Babe: The Gallant Pig. 2002. 208p. Knopf, $16.95 (0-375-81459-0).
 
Gr. 5–9. King-Smith remembers his life and work before he became a writer in this volume illustrated with black-and-white photographs. As a farmer, much of his work revolved around animals, which play a big part in this memoir.

Lowry, Lois. Looking Back: A Book of Memories. 1998. 192p. Houghton/Walter Lorraine, $16 (0-395-89543-X).
 
Gr. 4–6. With a photograph to spur each memory, Lowry recalls scenes from her childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. While the book shows the growth of a writer, it concentrates on her relationships with the people in her family, whose real stories inspire her fiction.

Millman, Isaac. Hidden Child. 2005. 80p. Farrar/Frances Foster, $18 (0-374-33071-9).
  Gr. 5–9. In this heartbreaking memoir marked by photos and paintings, Millman relates the events of his childhood as a Jew in occupied France. After being separated from his parents, Millman survives the war after a random encounter with a Jewish woman who arranges for him to go into hiding. The straightforward narrative is filled with details of daily life even as it tells of Millman’s harrowing escape.

Naylor, Phyllis Reynolds. How I Came to Be a Writer. 2001. 144p. Aladdin, paper, $4.99 (0-689-83887-5).
  Gr. 5–8. Here is a writer who must have saved everything, as her childhood poems, stories, and illustrations appear here reproduced. Naylor tells her life story with emphasis on her development as a writer. The book is illustrated with black-and-white photographs of the author, relatives, and book jackets.

Nixon, Joan Lowery. The Making of a Writer. 2002. 160p. Delacorte, $14.95 (0-385-73000-4); Yearling, paper, $4.99 (0-440-41905-0).
  Gr. 5–up.
 Joan Lowery’s first byline came at the age of 10. In her memoir, she takes the reader from this momentous day to her first professional sale as a grown-up writer. Illustrated with black-and-white photographs, this title includes "Joan Lowery Nixon’s Top Ten Writing Tips."

Paulsen, Gary. My Life in Dog Years. 1998. 144p. Delacorte, $15.95 (0-385-32570-3); Yearling, paper, $5.50 (0-440-41471-7).
 
Gr. 5–up. Each chapter in this book features one of Paulsen’s dogs, from the time he was a small boy to the present day. These dogs were companions, protectors, playmates, and, in one case, a life-saver. This is a real treat for dog lovers and for fans of Paulsen’s books. The genesis of some of his adventure novels as well as his love for the sea is evident in Caught by the Sea: My Life on Boats (Delacorte, 2001).

Peet, Bill. Bill Peet: An Autobiography. 1989. 192p. Houghton, $22 (0-395-50932-7); paper, $14 (0-395-68982-1).
 
Gr. 3–6. The writer/illustrator of many Disney animated films also wrote and illustrated children’s picture books. Even as a preschooler, Peet drew. This account, profusely illustrated with Peet’s drawings, takes the reader from that time through his school days, art training, and career in California.

Rylant, Cynthia. But I’ll Be Back Again: An Album. 1989. 64p. Orchard, o.p.
 
Gr. 5–7. The author of the Henry and Mudge books tells her story, illustrated with black-and-white photographs, in chapters headed by Lennon and McCartney lyrics. She writes of absent parents, life with grandparents in a house with no running water, boyfriends, religion, politics—and what happened when everyone grew up.

Speaking of Journals . Edited by Paula W. Graham. 1999. 240p. Boyds Mills, paper, $14.95 (1-56397-741-9).
Gr. 5–8. Though not strictly autobiography, this book offers insight on children’s book writers as they talk about their journals, notebooks, and sketchbooks. Graham introduces each person (among them Bruce Coville, Jean Craighead George, and Jacqueline Woodson) with a few pages of discussion and a bibliography. The interview that follows is presented as a first-person account of the writer talking about the techniques and rewards of keeping a journal. At its best, this title presents unusually good, often lively self-portraits of writers at work.

Spinelli, Jerry. Knots in My Yo-yo String: The Autobiography of a Kid. 1998. 160p. Knopf, paper, $10.95 (0-679-88791-1).
 
Gr. 5–8. From his first memory in his first house to his last football game in high school, Spinelli recalls his youth, heavy on sports, friends, and adventures, in a book illustrated with black-and-white photographs and a map of Jerry’s town.

Sutcliff, Rosemary. Blue Remembered Hills. 1984; reissued 1992. 176p. Farrar, o.p.
 
Gr. 5–8. The author of The Shining Company (Farrar, 1990) and The Eagle of the Ninth (Oxford, 1987) tells of her lifelong bout with rheumatoid arthritis and how this condition related to her beginnings as a writer. Included are photos of the author and her family.

Books for Older Readers

Bauer, Marion Dane. A Writer’s Story: From Life to Fiction. 1995. 144p. Clarion, $14.95 (0-395-72094-X); paper, $6.95 (0-395-75053-9).
  Gr. 7–up. Bauer reveals how her upbringing and her imagination made her a writer. She explores the process of creativity, making this as much a book about the writing process as about her life. Fans of her novels will enjoy reading where the ideas for those books originated.

Crutcher, Chris. King of the Mild Frontier: An Ill-Advised Autobiography. 2003. 272p. Greenwillow, $16.99 (0-06-050249-5).
  Gr. 7–up. Crutcher, author of several young-adult novels, including Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes (Greenwillow, 1993) and Ironman (Greenwillow, 1995), recalls his youth as an ungifted athlete. A self-described dweeb, he survived his childhood and became a child and family therapist. Here he shows how all this shaped his writing.

Fleischman, Sid. The Abracadabra Kid: A Writer’s Life. 1996. 208p. Greenwillow, $16.99 (0-688-14859-X); HarperTrophy, paper, $4.95 (0-688-15855-2).
  Gr. 7–up. Fleischman quickly covers his early childhood and then concentrates on his teenage years, when he performed as a magician. After serving in World War II and writing detective novels and screenplays, he found success in children’s literature, including winning the Newbery Medal for The Whipping Boy (Morrow, 1986). The book is illustrated with black-and-white photographs.

Gantos, Jack. Hole in My Life. 2002. 208p. Farrar, $16 (0-374-39988-3); Sunburst, paper, $8 (0-374-43089-6). Paperback edition available September 2004.
 
Gr. 9–up. The author of the Joey Pigza series relives his late teens and early twenties when, as the result of a drug bust, he was sentenced to prison. While serving time, he became a writer, and his early release under strict conditions, including going to school, cemented his resolve to write. At times harrowing but always moving, Gantos’ story will scare, touch, and enlighten.

In My Grandmother’s House: Award-Winning Authors Tell Stories about Their Grandmothers . Compiled and illus. by Bonnie Christensen. 2003. 208p. HarperCollins, $18.99 (0-06-029109-5).
  Gr. 6–12. In this powerful anthology of family stories, some of the best-known authors of children’s books––including Beverly Cleary, Diane Stanley, and Jean Craighead George––write about their grandmothers. While not strictly autobiographies, these personal essays reveal additional background about these authors’ lives and growing-up years.

Kerr, M. E. Me Me Me Me Me: Not a Novel. 1983. 224p. HarperCollins, o.p.
 
Gr. 7–up. For Kerr’s many fans, this book provides the true stories of the people and events that later became the characters and plots of her novels. A section at the end of each chapter explains how those real-life events were portrayed in her books. She even reveals the origin of her pen name.

Lobel, Anita. No Pretty Pictures: A Child of War. 1998. 208p. Greenwillow, $17.99 (0-688-15935-4); Avon, paper, $5.99 (0-380-73285-8).
 
Gr. 6–12. In this autobiography, Lobel, a prolific author-illustrator, tells of going into hiding during World War II in a futile attempt to escape the Nazis, and her eventual reunion with family members after surviving a concentration camp. In addition to chronicling her war experiences, this riveting autobiography also tells how Lobel discovered her talent for drawing.

Myers, Walter Dean. Bad Boy: A Memoir. 2001. 224p. HarperCollins, $15.95 (0-06-029523-6); HarperTrophy, paper, $6.99 (0-06-447288-4).
 
Gr. 7–up. Myers writes about his life in Harlem during the 1940s and 1950s. He loved to read and write, but fell into gang-related trouble on the streets and had problems at school. The book concludes with a list of Myers’ fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, and the honors those books have won, a fitting end to a compelling story.

Paulsen, Gary. Guts: The True Stories behind Hatchet and the Brian Books. 2001. 160p. Delacorte, $16.95 (0-385-32650-5); Laurel-Leaf, paper, $5.50 (0-440-40712-5).
 
Gr. 7–up. Paulsen relates the specific incidents that inspired his most famous books. Heart-in-the-throat writing takes the reader into Paulsen’s life and his many adventures. For a closer look at a particular time in the author’s life, see thecoming-of-age account The Beet Fields: Memories of a Sixteenth Summer (Delacorte, 2000).

Peck, Richard. Anonymously Yours. 1991. 128p. Messner, o.p.
 
Gr. 6–10. Although resistant to writing about his experiences (according to the preface), Peck offers his autobiography, not because he thinks novelists are interesting but because he believes he has something to say to young adults. He covers his childhood, young adulthood, and teaching career, which he finally left to write fiction. The book is illustrated with black-and-white photographs.

Uchida, Yoshiko. The Invisible Thread. 1991. 144p. HarperTrophy, paper, $4.99 (0-688-13703-2).
  Gr. 6–up. Uchida remembers her youth during World War II, when her family was relocated to an internment camp simply because they were Japanese Americans. The end of the book explores how her novels reflect herself and her family.

Yep, Laurence. The Lost Garden. 1991. 144p. HarperTrophy, paper, $5.99 (0-688-13701-6).
  Gr. 6–up. Author and playwright Yep recounts his childhood outside of Chinatown in San Francisco. He describes his unease as a Chinese American, as well as his love of reading and how his memories come out in his books. His account is illustrated with black-and-white photographs.

Zindel, Paul. The Pigman and Me. 1991. 176p. Random/Starfire, paper, $4.99 (0-553-56456-0).
  Gr. 7–12. Zindel chronicles his life as a teen on Staten Island in this account featuring cleverly named chapters, black-and-white photographs, and a map of his street. Readers will enjoy hearing how Zindel met his mentor, the pigman.

Mary Northrup is a reference librarian at Metropolitan Community College Maple Woods in Kansas City, Missouri, and a freelance writer of books and articles for children, teachers, librarians, and writers. This article originally appeared in the May 2004 issue of Book Links.