Writing Life

Age 5, library kid
Growing Up(ish)
When I was a kid in the Kansas City area, I spent lots of time reading books. In fact, I learned to read on superhero comic books from my dad. My mom would take me on Saturday mornings to the local library to load up for the week. At age 7, I won a summer reading contest sponsored by the Mid-Continent Public Library of Grandview, Missouri. It was an extra big deal because kids as old as 12 participated. I got to meet the mayor and had my photo in the newspaper. It’s my favorite achievement.

Between third and fourth grade, I moved across state line to Lenexa, Kansas. Through junior high, I worried too much about being a foot taller than everyone else (they kept growing; I didn’t). I was shy and bullied at school. Books were my safe place.


Growing up, my favorite books included BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA by Katherine Paterson, THE WITCH OF BLACKBIRD POND by Elizabeth George Speare, and FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER by E.L. Konigsburg. These all received The John Newbery Medal, awarded by the American Library Association. I also loved TIGER EYES and ARE YOU THERE GOD? IT’S ME, MARGARET by Judy Blume. Like many women of my generation, I am thankful to Judy for helping me survive the upper elementary grades and junior high.

As for my own story, I was lucky enough to be part of a close extended family, an only child with lots of first-to-third cousins, most of us in Missouri (my dad’s home state) and Oklahoma (my mom’s home state). I’m a citizen of the Muscogee Nation and a descendant of the Cherokee Nation. These are among the southeastern tribes forcibly relocated to Indian Territory (now called “Oklahoma”) during the removal known as “The Trail of Tears.”

I always had a special fascination with stories about the grandfather who’d died the year I was born. I remember hearing again and again about how he was a gruff man who cried at sad movies, how he was deeply committed to his career in the U.S. Air Force, and how as a boy he’d grown up with his brothers and sisters at Seneca Indian School in Oklahoma. That makes me a second-generation survivor of the U.S. federal Indian boarding schools experience.

Exploring Interests

My love of stories inspired an interest in newspaper reporting.

In the mid 1980s, I served as editor-in-chief of The Epic at Shawnee Mission West High School in Overland Park, Kansas; and later went on to major in news/editorial and public relations with a concentration in English at The William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications at The University of Kansas, Lawrence. All along, I wrote poems and short stories but didn’t seriously consider being any other kind of professional writer than a journalist.

Over the next few years, I reported for The University Daily Kansan and then various community and metropolitan newspapers. It was a terrific opportunity to learn about people from all walks of life. I talked to a Black lawyer about his work in the civil rights movement, to a city alderman about his decision to run for state representative, and to a Tony award-winning actress about her guru. Over time, I became less shy and more confident.

In the 1990s, I learned a JD at The University of Michigan Law School in Ann Arbor. My plan was to become a newspaper reporter covering legal court cases and then teach Media Law at a journalism school (or maybe First Amendment at a law school). During summers, I studied the French legal system in Paris, worked for a legal aid office in Hawaii, clerked for a federal appellate judge in Kansas, and reported for both The Detroit Legal News and The Dallas Morning News. In my spare time, I was writing fiction for grown-ups, too. Then, for almost a year after graduation, I worked in the law offices of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and of the Social Security Administration in Chicago.

Children's and YA Writing
My mom was the one who suggested I write for children, and I thought that was a horrible idea. Then I started to read children’s books again, and I realized I couldn’t think of anything better to do with my life.

In the wake of the Oklahoma City Bombing, I felt compelled to dedicate my career to young readers. Immediately. Full time. No excuses. I did what everyone tells you not to do: I quit my day job.

I moved to Austin, Texas. I started teaching part-time at St. Edward’s University and doing freelance writing for a couple of parenting magazines. I joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators. I read SCBWI publications, attended conferences and workshops, met mentors and friends. Most importantly, I took a children’s writing class at a ranch in La Grange, Texas; from author Kathi Appelt.


Within a year and a half, I sold my first book, JINGLE DANCER.

Over time, I’ve continued to write contemporary stories and books for young readers but also have branched into creative nonfiction, short stories, young adult fiction, and speculative fiction.

I grew into my role as a signal booster for children’s-YA literature, joined the faculty of the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts, began coordinating the WNDB Children’s-YA Native Writing Intensive, and now serve as author-curator for Heartdrum, a Native-focused imprint of HarperCollins Children’s Books.

My journalistic and legal education helped prepare me to write for youth readers and to pursue a competitive career in children’s-YA publishing. So did the lessons I learned from SCBWI, VCFA, and Kathi Appelt.

But the earliest, perhaps most influential, gifts I received as an author came from childhood—from family stories, comic books from the quick mart, and children’s-YA books from the public and school libraries.