I grew up in a little town in Iowa. Really little. All around us was a sea—but it was a green sea, full of corn. Back then, our town (named Jesup) had one grocery store, a one-room library, and one traffic light. The ancient movie theater had been turned into a chicken feed store.
Our town was tiny, but my family was BIG. There were eleven of us. That’s a lot of potatoes to peel. (Clue: We were Irish). I adored my family: Dad, Mom, Mary, Rite, Pat (me), Tess; Bill, Joe, John, Ed, Tom. Did you notice that four girls came first, then five boys? Bing, bing, bing, bing—we sisters were born a year apart. Not only close in age, we were close friends, too.
We played the regular games—baseball, Annie Annie Over, Kick the Can down the middle of our street (except on the summer day when the tar trucks lumbered through, dumping smelly black gunk over the dirt and gravel town streets to keep the dust down.)
And like all kids everywhere, we made up games. The scariest was “I Dare You” where we had to go alone to the “haunted house” —a tumbling-down dirty shack inside a bog at the edge of town—and bring back proof we’d been there. One day three sneaky snakes slithered across my foot, bare but for flip-flops! Creepy! I never imagined then that I’d write a book about these slithery creatures (Snakes, Penguin Young Readers) and grow to like them.
For privacy I’d bike to the cemetery out in the country, toting along a picnic lunch in my bike basket. It was time for doing nothing much—just lying on the tickly grass, watching the clouds change shape, and dreaming.
Other times I’d walk the block to our church, go up the stairs to the choir loft, and play the organ for hours, letting out all the stops and setting the vibrato to full-quiver. (Since third grade, I’d been a church organist, along with my older sister Rite, a young Mozart.) I loved having the whole church to myself—along with God, of course. The majesty and secrecy of the loft was magical.
Another all-time favorite hide-out place was . . . books. Don’t you love picking up a favorite book and letting it take you into a whole other world? Reading is like a trip into outer space. Only it’s really an inner space we go to—deep inside ourselves where the magic lives.
Railroad tracks ran through the middle of Jesup. Every night, just as I settled down to sleep in the bedroom I shared with my three sisters, the last train of the day came through. Its clanging arrival sounded loud and clear and important. And then came my favorite part as I followed its whistle out of town, waning deeper and deeper into the night, until it was swallowed by the great reaches beyond. I was a happy kid in a happy family, glad to be nestled where I was. But I knew someday, I’d follow that whistle and see where it led.
I had no idea it would take me to New York City.