I was born in Chicago, Illinois on July 3, 1957 in a hospital called “Lying-In” which was exactly what my mother was doing on that day when I came into the world. My father was pacing around the waiting room with the other other fathers-to-be. That’s what dads did in those days. When the nurse told him he had a new baby girl, he passed out pink chocolate cigars to everyone.
My father is Jewish and my mother is black. He is good at math and loves to tell silly jokes. She is a poet and his jokes go right over her head. They have been married for sixty-one years.
In my family, “Girls Rule!” I have three sisters and no brothers. I have three daughters and no sons.
One thing I remember about school when I was little: girls had to wear dresses to school every day. But in seventh grade, my friends and I got signatures on a petition and presented it to the principal, calling for girls to be allowed to wear pants. It worked! We felt very powerful.
I grew up in a neighborhood where there were people of all kinds – Chinese, black, Norwegian, Indian. At first I thought everyone chose whatever nationality they wanted to be. When I was three, I decided, “Mama is black and Papa is Jewish. I think I’ll be French.” At school, there were kids of so many colors and experiences that no one stood out as different. Only when I got to college did I learn that lots of people grow up knowing only people who look like them. And the way they learn about other races and nationalities is from watching TV shows or sports or reading the newspaper.
I learned a lot at college about people who had grown up differently from me. And they learned a lot about me. Some of these people are still my good friends and sometimes we laugh, sometimes we shake our heads about our wee-hours-of the-morning conversations. Sometimes I think about them when I hear news about China or Iran or Charleston, South Carolina. And I think maybe more conversations like these might make the world just a little bit of a better place.
When I was little, I was pretty bossy with my three younger sisters. If I wanted a candy bar, I would give them a quarter and say, “Go to the store and get me a Snickers.” And off they would go without any fuss at all. But I was very shy around people I did not know. So, my mom sent me to creative dance class. She hoped I might be happy expressing myself in a different way. The very first day we pretended to be cats pawing and pouncing. “Freeze!” the teacher said. Then we were birds soaring in the air. “Freeze!” We were mice and frogs and elephants and rabbits. Then the teacher said, “Free movement!” And, each girl and boy danced out whatever story he or she wanted to tell. When class ended that first day, I had begun my lifelong love affair with dance.
I worked very hard but it was mostly fun because I loved it. When I was ten, I was chosen to dance with the great Russian Bolshoi ballet company on its visit to Chicago. In college, I was a member of the Yaledancers. And later, in law school, I taught dance to some of my classmates who needed a little break from bookwork. Now I am older and I can’t bend into a pretzel the way I used to but I still spin and sway in zumba class.
When I wasn’t dancing, I was writing. After school, my writing buddy and I would plop down on the floor surrounded by crayons and loose leaf, lined paper and we would be both writer and illustrator. I mostly created stories based on my favorite ballet, Swan Lake, spooling epic battles between the evil swan and the good swan. These stories helped me sort through my feelings when my friends were being mean.
After I graduated from Yale College, I went on to law school at The University of Chicago where I met lots more interesting people. One of them was Phil Harris, a young man from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. I thought he had a great smile and I liked his straightforward, Midwestern manner. We both loved Michael Jackson’s Thriller album. I took him to my favorite movies. He took me to Big Ten football games. A few years later, we decided to get married. And a few years after that, we started our own family. Our three girls — Emily, Caroline, and Corinne — are the loves of my life.
When Emily was a baby, before she could sit, I cradled her in my left arm and a book in my right palm, sharing the rhythms of the beautiful prose in Runaway Bunny and The Snowy Day. When Emily learned to talk, she sat tucked under my arm and turned the pages herself, asking questions, explaining to me her take on the story. A few years later, she read to her baby sister Caroline. And a few years after that, Caroline read to her baby sister Corinne. We sprinkled out conversations with our favorite children’s book quotes and compared our experiences to those of our favorite characters. It was magical. And powerful. Still, as we devoured book after book, I began to see that some stories were not being told, important stories. And, so I began to write books.
Now Emily, Caroline, and Corinne are young women. Emily is studying to be a lawyer, Caroline to be an actor, Corinne is a varsity college soccer player. Rafa, our dog, happily absorbs the benefits of being the only “child” left at home. Phil and I are no longer married but we share many good times together with our daughters. My boyfriend Bruce has joined our family circle. I share with him the secrets of cooking with exotic spices. He is from Montana and has showed me how to climb mountains and identify stars.I continue to delight in meeting new people, learning their life stories, and sharing mine. And I continue to write about people and events I think are important, reaching out to readers young and old with a story to savor and an invitation to be part of the experience.