Why did you want to become a writer and illustrator?

When I was growing up, I loved to draw, color and paint. I didn’t really like staying inside the lines in the coloring books. I also liked to write stories to my cousin Maria, who lived in California, about fairies and princesses. Away at college in England, I wrote hundreds of letters home. I was very homesick, and my father wrote many letters back. When my daughter Jenna was born, he started writing to her. Dear Annie was written in celebration of those letters. When I moved back home to the United States, my father told me that he would miss my letters because I was a very good writer. I took his word for it, and started writing stories. I never took a creative-writing course, but letter-writing was a wonderful way to practice my narrative style. I never studied illustration either, but in college, Matisse’s decorative pictures were my favorite, and carried me into card design and eventually children’s illustration.

What books did you read when you were a child?

I read lots of Beverly Cleary, books about nurses, Nancy Drew books, and historical fiction like In the Hands of the Senecas, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, and Calico Captive. My parents didn’t allow us to watch any television during the week, only on weekends. I read under the covers with a flashlight, late into the night, and so does my daughter Jenna. And I babysat a lot, to grab my share of television that I hated missing, like “Dr. Kildare” or “Ben Casey.”
 
You’ve had great success as both an author and an illustrator, which do you prefer: writing or illustrating?

If I describe my career as “hard fun,” the painting is the fun part, and the writing is the hard part. Until I start to write, the blank computer screen is a difficult mountain to climb. When I’m illustrating, I can listen to music, a talk show, or a book on tape. When I’m writing, I need dead silence.
 
What’s your work environment like?

I didn't have my own studio until last year. All of my painting was done on a drafting table at the top of the stairs, in an alcove by the window. Bright colors surrounded me, sunflower curtains, a sunflower rug, photos of my children in front of flowers. Light is very important to me. I wrote at the computer in my basement. Finally, I had my back porch converted into a studio, painted the walls violet, with shimmery green curtains that have purple touches and lots of sunlight. Heaven!
 
Your books cover so many different, interesting topics, where do you get your ideas?

When I introduce myself to a group of children, I usually tell them that I have three important jobs: I am an author, an illustrator, and a mother. I write stories about my children, about my own family background, and about my friends. Sometimes I take a nugget of truth and spin it into fiction. I listen to the world, and steal stories from it, too. In Dorothy’s Darkest Days, the chapter about the dog mix-up happened in real life to a nice librarian I met in Virginia, who gave me permission to write the story. Field Day Friday, is about my son’s fifty-yard dash. His shoe fell off, he came in last, and worst of all, the children laughed. He also gave me permission, but I have fictionalized lots of it. In Style with Grandma Antoinette was written about the hair salon where I work two days a week as a receptionist. I brought home hairdryers and nail polishes to copy, and lots of Salon magazines. A hair salon is full of dramatic stories that I've yet to write!
 
Do your children mind when you write stories about them?

They do and they don’t. I want to celebrate their lives, not steal from them. Now that Jenna is older, I try to be more careful. Her friends may not realize that I take a small anecdote and spin it into fiction. They may think that the story is true. In Slumber Party, I had originally intended to use Jenna’s name. But when I made the main character cry, Jenna asked me to change it. I cast Jenna as Zoë, a name my husband discarded when we were choosing baby names. In Witch Mama, I write that Jenna was born on Halloween day; she was not, but I liked the idea of the father calling the mother Witch Mama. And I was not dressed up as the witch at the Halloween party. In real life, the babysitter scared the children when they approached her in the coffin, but the story worked better using the mother. Sisters was written when a little girl showed me a photograph of her adopted baby sister coming over from China, posted on the refrigerator door. Bully was written about my nephew and son and various bullying that was done to them...a hat tossed across a bus, a favorite pencil snapped in half. The cookies however were stolen from my daughter Jenna by a bully in the lunchroom.
 
Since you’ve just published your 38th book, do you have any advice on writing?

My father used to say that you couldn’t call yourself a writer unless you write. I try to write every day, to keep away the fear. (I become afraid that I cannot write!) I am never afraid of illustrating, but many times my pictures do not live up to my expectations. That’s the reason I write and illustrate another book---perhaps the next one will be better. I write about what I know, or I write about things I feel strongly about, or care about, or that interest me. Perhaps my fascination with a subject will shine through, and kindle a similar excitement or recognition in my readers.
 
Do you have a hero or heroine?

My Grandma Rebecca was my heroine. She died at age 95, in a nursing home I tried to visit once a week. She is the grandma in almost every one of my books, especially Apple Pie and Onions. She lived with grace under pressure, and was the original family storyteller. She spoke in poetry, voted by absentee ballot, and read books instead of watching TV. If we give her a gift, a nurse or an orderly or someone in the family got it back in her own brand of recycling. She is my role model, along with my mother, who was the hardest worker I've known.
 

 

   
 
 
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