What inspired you to start writing? When I read Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain in the fifth grade, I knew I wanted to be a writer. I have always felt very lucky, because for many people it takes a lot of time and effort to figure out what it is they want to do. I feel fortunate that I’ve known since I was young.
Looking back, which experiences, jobs and personality traits do you think have really helped you? I always journaled, and I think that daily putting of pen to paper gave me a facility with and pleasure in words. Studying English literature in college was inspiring and fun, and contributes to what I want to accomplish as a writer. And the fact that I was a children’s book editor for many years has informed my writing too.
What do you love most about classics? I love their timelessness. I love their enduring characters. And I love that they are about the things that matter most. They help us make sense of the world and our place in it; they help us untangle who we are.
How do you choose which classics to do a new book about? Originally I made lists of books—the most influential books of all time, the 100 best books, and so on—from many different sources. I compiled these lists, noted what crossed over, ranked them. Then we also look at other media. Which books have been made into movies or TV shows? Which are currently in the media or pop culture? Which authors have had action figures made of them? Some classics are more beloved than others; some have a strong sense of nostalgia that we are drawn to. I try to think about all those things when I make a new BabyLit book. Then, of course, the books have to be in the public domain. For example, I really wanted to do The Great Gatsby, but it’s not available. As the series has gone on, I’ve also had to pay close attention to what type of primer I want to do. For example, Frankenstein was great for an anatomy primer and The Jungle Book was great for an animals primer. Those were both primers I wanted to do and the original novels were on my list of top books too. I don’t want to do the same thing over and over. We’re really careful about keeping the ideas and illustrations creative and fresh. We also take suggestions from readers from time to time. For example, The Secret Garden was something a reader requested and it turned out to be a great book.
What was the best thing about writing these books? One of my favorite things was the unexpected pleasure of reading and rereading the classics. Without this project, I would never have sat down and read Don Quixote, which turned out to be hysterically funny, or Treasure Island, which is one of my favorite books I’ve ever read. You think you’ll read Moby-Dick someday, but really, when would you? With each new classic that I tackle, I’m wonderfully surprised again and again at how good it is. You know these books are great, that that’s why they have endured. But each time I am in so much awe of the skill and talent of the author and how absolutely wonderful each book is in its own distinct way.
What was one of the best things that happened because of these books? Their success enabled me to transition to being a full-time writer.
What traditions from your childhood do you continue? My mom took my brother and me to the Utah Shakespeare Festival in Cedar City, Utah, every summer. We still try to go every year as a family tradition, and now I get to bring my husband along too.
Do you have a favourite museum or art gallery? I love the MOMA in New York, the Victoria and Albert in London, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Do you collect anything? I collect books. I work at an independent bookstore—The King’s English—one day a week, and although I don’t have nearly as many books as some of my fellow booksellers, I still have way more than I have space for. Also, my husband would say I collect cats—we have four.
What are you working on next? We’ve just sent BabyLit Emma and BabyLit Treasure Island to the printer. I’ve got a lot of great classics on my nightstand now, including Les Miserables and Arabian Nights, so we’ll see where it goes.