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My first language is English, but through studying and working overseas, I've learned to also speak Spanish and Japanese. To record The Jazz Fly, I even learned to speak jazz! I have a passion for encouraging young people to read--and for encouraging parents to read to their kids. "Language, rhythm, color, life!"TM are the threads I weave through my books and presentations. Here's the story of how my interests and experience lead me to this career.
Though I wasn't what you would call a bookish kid, I knew from the 5th grade that I liked to write. It all started when my 5th grade teacher took the time to type a story written by every kid in the class. (This was in the days before computers.) She snipped and glued our pages of text then bound the pages between cloth sidings. What we each wound up with was a hardcover book. I remember feeling pride as my friends laughed at my funny story. I had discovered the joys of composing words that elicited guffaws from my peers. Next to shooting baskets on the playground after lunch, I decided, writing was the activity for me. There was a rhythm to dribbling a basketball, a rhythm to writing words. Soon I would discover the rhythms of travel and playing drums.
The drumming started in my elementary school band. First came the snare drum--rat-a-tat-tat. Then the bass drum-boom! Then the crash cymbals--spshing! At night, I'd fall asleep with my radio tuned to the jazz station. (One advantage of growing up near Los Angeles was having a radio station that played jazz 24 hours a day!) I heard scat singers, big bands, many of the jazz greats-Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington. Master drummers like Max Roach, Buddy Rich, and Joe Jones inspired me to study the drum set. And the early seeds for writing and performing The Jazz Fly were sown.
My travels began after I finished the 9th grade. I had the opportunity to spend the summer with a family in Quito, Ecuador. There, I first learned how to get along in Spanish. A voyage to the Galápagos islands and bus journeys through the jungle sparked my life-long love of travel. It was this rhythm of foreign travel--slow and easy yet full of discoveries-that made me want to study overseas.
At 17, I arrived at the University of the Pacific wondering where in Latin America I would spend my sophomore year abroad. But in those first weeks of school, I met other students who'd just finished their sophomore year in Japan. I had never considered spending a whole year in Asia. But when I learned that I could live with a group of Japanese drummers, not attend a single class during the spring-and still get credit for that semester-I was sold. To play taiko, the large Japanese barrel-shaped drums, would take stamina. And the drummers, I knew, would speak only Japanese.
To prepare for the challenge, I enrolled in Beginning Japanese and devoted early morning jogs to chanting Japanese numbers: ichi, ni, san, shi, etc. Over and over, I'd belt out the numbers while running through the streets and fields of Stockton amid morning clouds of Delta fog. I'm sure I sounded manic to the residents around the university, but years later I had the kernel that yielded Ten Oni Drummers -published by Lee and Low Books.
During my sophomore year in Japan, I developed such a taste for the language and culture that I wound up graduating from U.O.P. with degrees in International Studies and Japanese Language. Overseas studies lead to overseas jobs--as a copywriter, newscaster and touring member of the same Japanese taiko troupe in whose Shinto shrine I lived as a student. For over a year I translated ads for a Japanese ad agency. Some of the staff around me were so quirky that I still sometimes chuckle when I recall my co-workers in downtown Osaka. Since I hadn't majored in English or journalism, I was grateful to hone my skills on the job. Although I could not have foreseen it at the time, the years I spent translating Japanese to English prepared me to later write Cool Melons-Turn to Frogs! Despite, or perhaps because of, these rich experiences overseas, more and more I harbored a desire to write stories of my own.
In 1990, I went to Oaxaca (wa-HAH-ka), Mexico, where a friend introduced me to Leovigildo Martínez. A jovial spirit and a magnificent painter, "Leo" introduced me to Oaxacan markets and villages. As a fine artist, he had never illustrated picture books but suggested we collaborate on Oaxacan tales for children. The idea was to take threads of existing folklore, then create original stories to be understood universally. The region's phenomenal array of indigenous cultures-their pyramids, textiles, fiestas, and crafts-posed too delicious a challenge to turn down. Although I had never written for children, I told Leo, "Me gusta la idea."
I based our first book, The Twenty-five Mixtec Cats, on my experiences with a Oaxacan healer. The title for our second book, The Moon Was at a Fiesta, was borrowed from a proverb Leo taught me that explains why the moon is sometimes out in the morning. In our third collaboration, Uncle Snake, Leo and I explored the mysteries of ancient Mexico such as caves (considered openings into other worlds); snakes (which symbolized rebirth and fertility), and the shape-changing nahual, a kind of sorcerer who can turn himself into an ocelot or owl.
Breaking into publishing with William Morrow & Co., then continuing to publish with Lee & Low Books, provided me with invaluable experience-and the confidence to launch Tortuga Press in 1997. After opting to publish The Jazz Fly as a book with audio CD, I was gratified when the book won kudos from the publishers in the way of the Benjamin Franklin Award. And I'm still overjoyed that the book won the Writer's Digest National Self-Published Book Award.
The book with audio CD format energizes and challenges me, not just as a writer but as a performer and musician. The idea for Gobble, Quack, Moon, my newest such book, came to me while I was washing dishes in time to a leaky faucet!
Travels to many countries have inspired other books in progress. I feel stories in foreign settings are of great value to children and that ultimately the world's peoples must learn from each other to solve the many problems we face.
At home, I find inspiration to write from my wife, and my son Jacob, who has already given me more ideas for stories than I'll ever likely have time to develop. I also derive inspiration from playing drums. I have conga drums, bongo drums, a drum set, and a Middle Eastern dumbek, and I am fond of tapping rhythms between paragraphs. For this reason, I do not live in apartments, and colleagues do not invite me to share office space.
But writing children's books and drumming has lead to invitations from schools. I enjoy presenting my stories with music and drama, sparking the creativity inherent in young people. My interests since I was a kid have broadened but not changed. Writing, traveling, and playing drums are still the activities for me, but these days I play more soccer than basketball.