The Places I Have Been, or A Bio

One true fact about my books is that they take place all over the world: Korea, Northern Ireland, Hong Kong, Australia and let us not forget Texas.

This is because I have spent my life living in lots of different places, traveling to lots of different places, or dreaming of traveling or living in different places.

I was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, but I didn’t live there long.  My father was on a job for a year or so, and that is when I showed up.  As soon as the work was over, it was back to New York, where all our relatives were.  And there were lots of them- many, many aunts, loads of uncles and can’t count ‘em all cousins.

I was the number two arrival- it was not too long before there were five of us altogether.

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Kids: my New York neighborhood was filled with them.  We lived in a part of town called “the number streets,” on 7th street.  In our section of 7th street alone there were 42 of us.  And there were six sections to the street!  Our school was the same- 60 kids in every classroom, with one mean nun up front keeping order.  And she kept order.

I forgot to mention grandparents.  My grandmother Mamie Clarke McMahon was a great favorite of mine and I grew up listening to her stories of County Leitrim, Ireland.  And for as long as I can remember, I wanted to go back home to a place I had never been.

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One day in the public library, on a piece of loose-leaf paper, I made a list of the Ten Places I Had to See Before I Died.  Of course, Ireland was on it, and Disney Land, who wouldn’t want to go there.  Here’s the list.  

I loved our public library.  The school didn’t have one, and there were some, but not lots, of books in our house.  But as libraries are, this one was full of them.  I read my way right through the children’s room.  So so so so many books I loved but Pippi Longstocking above all!  I know children’s books have always been one of the great loves of my life.

Speaking of that: one of the sixty kids in my class on school was named Timmy McCarthy.  He wasn’t my friend, he was just one of the mess of boys. I met his brother Joe, much later.  He was the nicest guy and he had been lots of places in the world (having a father who works for the airlines can be a very good thing).  When I told him about my list, he said, “Let’s go.”

So we did.

First off the list: Ireland.  Where I saw the farm my grandmother had told me about all those years, and met her friend from childhood, Katie Feeney, the girl she used to steal turnips with.  And was told I looked like my Great Uncle Patrick when everyone else always said I looked like the Drum girls, though I never knew who they were.  

The next stop was Michigan, which was perhaps not as exciting as Ireland, but it was the first place I ever lived where I didn’t have someone in my family nearby.

And then, probably the best thing I ever did besides marry Joe (and become the mother of two very interesting people) was move to Boston to join the first class at the Center for the Study of Children’s Literature.  Where I studied children’s literature and began to try to write children’s books and made the great friends of my life who also loved and wrote children’s books.  I loved Boston, and still do.

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South Africa was not on the list, but one evening Joe came home and asked if I thought we might move there for a while.  So we did.  We lived on the world’s largest construction site, and met people from all over the world on a daily basis, and traveled and traveled all over the country and to Lesotho, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Kenya, The Seychelles.  We had a great grand adventure.  And I wrote my first novel which was about a girl living in a crowded house in a crowded neighborhood in New York who goes to a crowded school with a mean nun for a teacher.  

Which is the way it has seemed to work out since then: I’m always writing about where I was, not where I am.

We came back to Boston, more than a little sad to leave the big sky of the South African high veldt behind.  I kept writing, and working in books: a children’s bookstore, in the children’s book department of a publishing company.

And then my McCarthy said “What about Korea?”  And I thought, that sounds good.

So we moved to the crowded, bustling, handsome city of Seoul, South Korea. Into a small apartment in a building high on a hill looking over the city.  I wandered through the palaces of the kings and queens of Korea, shopped in the sprawling markets, studied the history in classes and museums, and as can happen more than once, I fell in love with a city. And began to write a book set on Martha's Vineyard, an island off the coast of Massachusetts.  

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Back to Boston and then back to Korea again, this time a bigger family, bringing our new son Conor with us and staying for a few years.  Conor could speak Korean and English by the time he was three, and I wrote a book set in Alaska and the Canadian Yukon.

Leaving South Korea, we moved to Concord, Massachusetts which is the perfect place to live if you love history as well children’s books and those who write and illustrate them.  While I was here, I wrote Chi-hoon, my book about Korea.   I broke my rule and wrote Listen for the Bus, about David who lived nearby me in town.

New places call to those of us travelers, so we left our beautiful Concord behind to tackle a big new place: Houston, Texas.  Where the roads are as mighty and full of cars as the sky is full of stars at night.  We discovered Mustang Island on the Gulf of Mexico, and the peaceful beauty of driving through Pass Christian along that gulf on a quiet morning, and the good fun and wonderful Colleen Salley in New Orleans, who we all miss to this day.  Oh, and I wrote Summer Tunes a book about Martha’s Vineyard, and Conor Healy who lived in Concord.

And went back to Ireland, to Northern Ireland to write One Belfast Boy.  

And went to Hong Kong, which was on my Ten Places list, to tell the story of Six Words, Many Turtles and Three Days In Hong Kong.  My only long titled book may have been a result of loving Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley and Me Elizabeth by E.L Konigsburg.

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In Cleveland, while talking about my Irish book, I learned about an extraordinary dance company, Dancing Wheels.  I knew I had to tell their story.  So I did.

Another trip was coming, one which would take all three of us from Houston, but for three weeks, not three years.  We were heading to China: first to Beijing, then south to Kunming in Yunnan Province, on to Guangzhou on the Pearl River, circle back to Beijing and home again.

Only now there would be four of us, not three.  For in Kunming we met the lovely and fierce Claire GuanYu Gannon McCarthy- she was two years and nine months old and unsure of us.  We were beyond excited to welcome her to our family.

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And Conor Clarke McCarthy and I wrote the book Just Add One Chinese Sister about the trip to Claire and Claire’s trip home to us.

Texas is Texas however and stories here need to be told.  And after so much non-fiction, I felt using a different, broader brush.  Felt like using a touch of the Texas tall tale.  And wanted to have write about the joy of having a house filled with boys forming clubs while coming up with plans which involve trucks shooting down stairs and beanie babies flying off ceiling fans.  And little sisters who are going through an annoying “pink” phase, and their friends who are simply in the way.

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So The Freaky Joe Club Mysteries are more than a bit silly, and a love song to Houston, Texas, and the neighborhood where I live and the kids who fill it up, especially my own.  Oh, and our dogs.  I had to put them in.

Because we do, we headed off again to Western Australia, living in the city of Perth. Which is divided by a river wide enough to sail on and ten minutes from the sea and flat out one of the prettiest places I have ever seen, bar none.  That is actually true for all the coast of Western Australia.

Claire had to wear a straw hat and sailor dress to school at The Methodist Ladies College.  I thought she looked adorable, like Madeline.  She did not.

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Perth and Western Australia is chock a block with talented writers and illustrators of children’s books.  I was so lucky to be friends with so many of them.  Julia Lawrinson, one of the best, and I have co-written a novel about a friendship by email/phone/instagram/skype between an Australian girl and an American.  Fun and hard work.

And in Perth, I finished a novel set in the American West.  ‘Cause that seems to be the way I roll.

Now I am happily back in Houston, working away.  On a book about How to Dress for Battle.  And a non-fiction book about feminism.  And taking notes for a story set on Mustang Island.

But stay tuned…the suitcases are always near at hand!