My Life as a Writer

At Herrick Chapel with new honorary hood
The following is a speech I gave at the Grinnell College graduation, May 21, 2001 after being given an honorary degree, Doctor of Humane Letters.  I think it provides some insight into my evolution as a writer.

Thirty five years ago I was just like today’s graduates--sitting in my cap and gown, waiting for my turn to walk across the stage and pick up my Grinnell diploma.  My view of the future was hazy at best.  I planned to study art in graduate school but after that I had no plans.  If someone had looked in a crystal ball and told me then that my career would be as a children’s book author and that one day I would be standing on the stage again receiving an honorary degree, I would not have believed it.  And yet, looking backwards, I can see that I was actually preparing to be an author all my life and didn’t realize it--through my love of books and reading, through my summers in the out of doors at camp and with my family, through my art which trained me to be an accurate observer, and perhaps most importantly, through my Grinnell education, which taught me to look at the world across a broad spectrum and to think critically about it.

My first book was published in 1980, just about the time that most of you who are graduating today were born.  I suspect that many of you read my books in school.  They are the kind of books that you probably checked out of the library when you were researching a report.   They have titles such as, Saving the Peregrine Falcon, A Guide Dog Puppy Grows Up and The Ancient Cliff Dwellers of Mesa Verde.

I like to write both fiction and nonfiction, but the vast majority of my published books are nonfiction, many of them focusing on animals.  My husband, Art, who is here today, also graduated from Grinnell and it was through his work that I was first exposed to the study of animal behavior and field biology.  I few years ago at a party I overheard someone ask him why I choose to write factual books.  His answer was that I have a nonfiction personality.  What I think he meant is that I get excited about learning new things.  The world we live in is an amazing place.  My books may be for children, but you don’t have to be eight years old to be amazed by the fact that a kangaroo baby is the size of a jelly bean, that a California condor has a ten foot wing-span or that 20,000 years ago giant mammoths may have been grazing on what is now the Grinnell campus.

I love doing research and finding out things I never knew before.  What is even more gratifying for me is the knowledge that because of my books, thousands of children, most of whom I’ll never meet,  are also getting excited about learning things that they never knew before.

It took me several years after I graduated from Grinnell to discover that writing for children was what I wanted to do.   If there is one thought that I can leave with you today, it is that as you go from here, no matter what your chosen path in life, I hope that you too will find what you love to do, and pursue it with a passion.

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