Profile by Dave Jenkinson.
Author Frieda Wishinsky was born July 14, 1948, in Munich, Germany. Originally from Poland, her parents ended up in a Displaced Persons camp following World War II. "I wasn't actually born in the camp but in a hospital in Munich. My parents were the first wedding in the camp, and I was one of the first kids born to people who were staying there. My mother had a lawyer relative in New York who got her papers out, and so we came to New York when I was eight months old. I grew up in Manhattan and went to a Jewish day school through high school before going on to CUNY, the City University of New York. They used to call it the Harvard of the Proletariat, and it's where a lot of the immigrant kids went."
Frieda graduated in 1970 with a B.A. in International Relations. Regarding her choice of major, Frieda says, "I really admire my father who didn't say, 'What are you going to do with International Relations?' I think countries relate to each other like kids in the school yard. Studying International Relations was a natural transition to writing about grade three because kids and countries act the same. It's just that countries are bigger and have bigger weapons to bully people with. There's a lot of ego, a lot of 'Who's got more "candy" whose got more power, more people behind them?'"
"After my undergraduate degree, I decided to get a master's degree. I was accepted into good master's programs at Columbia and Georgetown in International Affairs, but then, like a lot of people in their 20's, I asked myself, 'What am I going to do with this?" The options were either teaching at a university or becoming a diplomat, and I decided that I didn't want to do either. Consequently, the summer after graduating from university, I looked for a job with my BA. I couldn't find one and started to think, 'Well, maybe I'll get a master's degree in something useful.'"
"In those days, girls were either teachers, nurses, or receptionists, and I wasn't going to do anything like 'that.' It didn't occur to me to become a writer. Instead, I began a master's program in special education with learning disabled kids. A year later, I walked out with an M. Sc. in Special Education from Ferkauf Graduate School, and for 23 years I taught special ed."
"My first year, I taught disabled adults and people from Puerto Rico who were trying to learn English. The experience was wonderful. Then I spent a year in Israel where, since I speak Hebrew, I taught learning disabled Israeli kids to read Hebrew. As a result, there are children who may still be reading Hebrew with a New York accent. And then we came to Canada. New York in the Seventies was in terrible shape fiscally, and it was on the verge of bankruptcy. The city felt scary, and we wanted to be in a big city that didn't have that negative aspect to it. Originally, we wanted to go to Vancouver where my husband has an uncle, but the jobs in our fields weren't there. At the time, my husband was working in the computer field, and IBM in Toronto wanted him in their laboratory, and so we came here."
"For a year, I worked as a research assistant at York University, and then for two years I worked as a special education teacher in Scarborough. My husband decided on a career shift and got into medical school at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, and so I spent four years teaching in a high school for learning disabled kids. We returned to Toronto, adopted two children, and I taught part time at a private school. So we stayed and stayed, and 30 years later, I'm still here with my New York accent."
Reflecting on her childhood, Frieda says, "Just the other day, I was telling kids at a school that, as a child, I really wanted to be a doctor or scientist and cure cancer, but I realized that science was not my thing. I like reading about scientists, and I like writing about scientists. I just don't want to do science."
"I'm convinced that everybody who's a writer is a reader. Every Friday, as a child, I went to the local library and took out the maximum six books. I loved the library, and it was my second home. In New York, you didn't have malls, and so kids would hang out and socialize in the library. It was at the library, as I was getting my books stamped out, that I heard Kennedy had been shot. I always liked writing. I liked writing letters. If I got a writing assignment in school, I felt comfortable with it. I'd rather do an essay than take a test. I liked writing, but I think most people don't think that they can do that as a job."
Frieda's transformation from writing to being a writer was gradual. "As a teacher, I believed that, if the kids write, you write. I didn't want my students to think that writing's an activity that adults impose upon them, and so I always wrote with my students. When I was in London, ON, while my husband was in medical school, I was working with high school kids, and the hi-lo interest books were just coming out. I started using them, and the kids hated them. I found that there was money at the school for a library and no one had used it. I was the only 'academic' teacher at the school, and so I said, 'Well, there's money. Let me use it.' I was adopted as the unofficial librarian, and I went on buying trips. It was so much fun. They brought us to these giant warehouses, gave us a basket and said, 'Here's money to buy books.' I discovered a whole world of children's literature that I never had really known. This is going back to the early 80's, and so I began reading authors like Arnold Lobel. I just stood there for hours reading. Everybody else had their basket filled, and I was still reading."
"After that first trip, I learned that you can't stand in the aisles reading. You have to come prepared with lists. Even from the first buying trip, I brought back picture books that I loved. I found my high school students loved them too. We started to write to writers whose work we enjoyed. We wrote to one author telling her we liked her book, and she replied saying, 'I read your letter a hundred times. It was my first fan letter. I'm 31. How old are you?' And I thought, 'Here's somebody not famous who received a letter and was delighted to get the letter.'"
"While I was in London, my husband had an elective course in his medical program, one that he could take anywhere he wanted. He chose Eugene, Oregon, and I took a sabbatical. We drove across country. While he was doing his course, I went to the local library in Eugene and started to write. Then I went and picked up books that I liked and looked in the front for the names of their publishers. I Xeroxed 10 copies of my story, 'Dimple's Delight,' and sent them off. I didn't know what I was doing was not the appropriate way to do things. Luckily, I received a couple of responses. One, in particular, was from an editor, Anne Schwartz, who has her own imprint now, and she said, 'This is good. You've got a real voice. If you revise it, I'll consider it again.' I revised it for her at least four times, but she didn't buy it. But, because she said, 'There's something here,' I felt that writing was worth pursuing. I was hooked."
Like other authors, Frieda has her own story about the experience of being published. "I wrote a book called Why Can't You Fold Your Pants Like David Levine?. I didn't make that title up. My mother-in-law said it. The manuscript was the second or third story that I sent out. After about three months, I still hadn't heard anything, and I happened to be visiting New York and thought, 'Maybe I'll call Avon Books and just make sure they received the manuscript.' The assistant editor picked up the phone when I called, and she asked, 'Didn't you get our letter?' to which I replied, 'No." And then she said, 'We want to do the book.'"
"That was a wonderful moment. When I returned home to Toronto, there was the letter from the editor. I later met her in New York, but she left Avon after about nine months. Another editor came in, and she didn't last too long. This went on for three years with my book still sitting there. Finally, an editor, Ellen Krieger, arrived, and she found an illustrator. 'Ok,' I thought. 'Maybe we're getting there.' The book was supposed to come out in the spring, but Ellen called me in tears a few months before its planned publication date. Avon had a new head of the whole company who said, 'Picture books are too expensive. We're only doing novels.' Ellen felt terrible. So did I. My first book. After three years, my book didn't go anywhere. I felt devastated but still determined."
"My first book that was actually published was Oonga Boonga I'd met an editor, Karen Klockner, from Little Brown at a conference. I sent her about six or seven manuscripts that she rejected, but she did so so beautifully that they were almost like acceptance letters. Karen writes the best rejection letters, and that mattered so much. When she published Oonga Boonga, I was definitely hooked on writing."
In describing her sources for stories, Frieda says, "A character, an incident or an anecdote is so powerful that it stays with me, and then I think about it and try to figure out why it's making such an impact." Oonga Boonga has its roots within a family happening. "I have two kids, and when my daughter was very young, she'd cry, and you didn't always know what to do. Her brother, David, who's five and a half years older than her, went up to her one day when she was crying and spewed out some nonsense words. She stopped crying and looked at him as if he'd spouted the most brilliant words in the world. After that, whenever she'd cry, the joke in the house was, 'David, go talk to her.' One night in bed, (where you get very good ideas because you're relaxed), I said to my husband, 'You know what? That's a story.' I don't know why I chose the words 'oonga boonga,' but they just seemed to sound right. Since I always have paper near my bed, I wrote the idea down. That book was one of the quickest stories I ever wrote."
"When Ooonga Boonga was reissued in 1998 in England with new pictures, the editor called me and said, 'We can't use the punch line, "Bonka Wonka."' I asked, 'Why not?' I thought perhaps it was because of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Willie Wonka. She said, 'No, no, no. It's the first part, "bonka," that's a problem. You can't write that in England,' and so they changed it to 'Bunka Wunka.' I howled because not in a million years would it have occurred to me that, in England, my made-up word was slang for having sex. We speak the same language but not quite. I've done quite a few books now with English publishers, and I love working with them. They're so positive, but every once in a while you run into a language problem. I had an easy-to-read book that's coming to the States, and I initially put a bald eagle into it, and my English editor said, 'No, you can't because nobody knows about bald eagles here.'"
"I actually have three versions of Oonga Boonga. In 1995 or so, Little Brown ran into a lot of financial problems, and they started to fire staff and to put a lot of books out of print. Oonga Boonga was one of them. At that time, I had just joined a literary agency, Transatlantic Literary Agency, and I said, 'Let's send Ooonga Boonga out somewhere else. I think it's a good text.' Well, Scholastic wanted the book in Canada and Transworld Doubleday, which is now part of Random House, wanted it in the UK and Dutton wanted it in the US, but they couldn't agree on the art and so they published separate versions. Michael Martchenko did a terrific job on the illustrations for the Canadian version."
"I get ideas for books from life, mostly my own life, but sometimes it's something that a kid says. In the case of Jennifer Jones Won't Leave Me Alone, it was my son who was then in grade two. He came home one day and said, 'That girl is really bugging me,' but I could tell that part of his response really was, 'Oh boy, isn't it nice that this girl is bugging me?' It's a story about that kind of very mixed feeling we all have in certain situations."
"Jennifer Jones Won't Leave Me Alone did very well with HarperCollins Canada, but one day I found out that there were only about 50 books left in the warehouse. HarperCollins had reprinted it a bunch of times, and I asked, 'Look, are you really going to reprint this again? If not, can I have my rights back?' They very nicely gave me them back, and the book's coming out again in 2003 in England and the States. Neil Layton, who did the illustrations for Nothing Scares Us, is doing the art, and it's very different from Linda Hendry's original art. I guess I'm the 'Queen of Resale.' I don't mean this pejoratively. I really believe a good story is a good story, and I'm seeing a lot more reprints of backlist. I'm glad because a good story should last."
Crazy for Chocolate was also a book with personal connections, or, as Frieda puts it, "Guess who loves chocolate? Guess who loves history? I passionately love both, and I use a lot of history in my writing. But, as a kid, I didn't love history in school; I loved it out of school. In school, we sat in rows, and we had the textbook from which we read paragraph after paragraph out loud. So I would 'count' what paragraph would be mine, silently read it, and then I'd talk to my neighbor. Also as a kid, I loved those wonderful historical movies that were mostly inaccurate and smaltzy, but wonderful. I recall one about Chopin, and, after I watched a movie like that, I'd run to my set of World Book Encyclopedia and find out about Chopin. Then I'd go to the library and take out a book about Chopin. And I thought, 'That's what's intriguing me. Not my textbook.'"
"Consequently, when I thought of writing about history, I knew that you have to get the kids intrigued, and I think a way to do that is to make them identify with the characters, and that was what I was trying to do with Crazy for Chocolate. I'm against putting words into historical people's mouths, but I think you can if you very obviously say, 'This is fantasy.' My character, Anne, in this fantasy, can talk to an historical figure, like Mr. Fry, and, along the way, she can pick up historical information."
Each One Special, Frieda explains, "came about because my father was a pastry chef. He came from Europe, and he didn't have a profession after the war. He went and took a course in cake design and was a wonderful pastry chef. He was a dynamic man, and when he retired early because he had a bad back, he was looking for something to do. One day, he picked up some clay, took a course and was hooked. He was an amazing sculptor, and he did a lot of scenes from his childhood in the shtetl, a sort of Shalom Aleichem Fiddler on the Roof kind of look. He used to swirl flowers on cakes, and flowers were the first thing he made when he sculpted. I've got flowers from clay that I show kids in schools. When my father went from one medium to another, I knew that was a story. I thought there was something magical about that connection, but it took me years to figure out a way to write the story so it would work."
"I almost sold Each One Special as something called 'Zeyde's Dummies' because 'Zeyde' is 'grandfather in Yiddish. My mother would dust my father's sculptures and would say, 'Why do I have to dust all your dummies.' But the story didn't work well that way. One day, after probably six or seven years, I realized that I had to get away from the reality of the story and keep the essence. That's one of those key things that you learn as a writer. Each One Special's still about a baker who loses his job and has to find a new way to use his talents. I added the whole business about downsizing which seemed to be a natural extension of the story. Each One Special was one of the first picture books nominated for the Governor General's Literary Award."
The illustrations for Each One Special also have a special meaning for Frieda. "The illustrator, Werner Zimmerman, whom I did not meet until after the book came out, never met my father. I didn't send him pictures of my dad, and usually author and illustrator are kept apart. When I got Werner's first black and whites, I had chills because my character, Harry, looks just like my father. My father was dying of cancer at that time, and I took Werner's pictures down to him and said, 'Dad, that's you.' So I feel very touched. It looks just like him, and I don't know how that happened. When Werner and I met afterwards, he told me he used a baker in Nanaimo as his model."
Frieda sees a link between Crazy for Chocolate and The Man Who Made Parks. "Ask kids where they think chocolate comes from, and they may tell you, 'Chocolate comes from a store.' I had that same lack of knowledge about city parks. I grew up in New York, and I didn't have a back yard, but I had the city parks. I somehow thought the parks were always there and that no one actually made them. One day when I was in the children's department in the North York Central Library, I found this book about Frederick Law Olmstead who designed New York's Central Park. I was floored and thought, ''Someone made Central Park?' The more I read about Olmstead, the more I liked him."
"Olmstead was a fabulous guy who was ahead of his time. He was anti-slavery, and he also didn't know what he wanted to do with his life until he was 35. His father was indulgent as Olmstead kept switching careers. When he was 35, somebody asked him to supervise the clean-up and later design Central Park, and Olmstead said he'd give it a try. For the rest of his life, that's what he did. He travelled around North America designing parks. What a wonderful thing to do. Parks make a huge difference in the lives of so many people, especially immigrants who don't have yards or gardens. Olmstead impacted on everybody's life, but he was someone about whom there was little written. I had a hard time selling the story in the States. I'd hear, 'Very well done, but nobody knows who he is.' But Kathy Lowinger at Tundra said, 'Yes, let's do it.' Luckily, Olmstead also worked on Mount Royal in Montreal, and so there was a nice Canadian connection. If I could be a groupie, I'd be an Olmstead groupie. I thought he was a remarkable person."
What's the Matter With Albert? came about because of a conversation Frieda had with Sheba Meland at Maple Tree Press. "Originally, I wanted to do women scientists because I have a friend who I admire who's a woman scientist. I've always admired how tough it was for her to get ahead in science. One day Sheba said, 'I'd like you to do scientists, but famous scientists,' and then she left it up to me to choose. I started to read about Einstein and thought he was amazing. He was funny, brilliant, controversial, and he went down his own road. What I'm finding fascinating is the response to this book. The strongest part of it is coming from people saying, 'My kid is in special ed., and I love this book about Einstein because my kid is having some difficulty in school.' I hadn't written it with that intent. I just used the material about Einstein's troubles in school, but I'm seeing an enormously strong response to that aspect of his life. There are a lot of kids out there who want to be reassured that they're ok."
"I don't know how many 'scientists' books we'll do, but Manya's Dream: A Story of Marie Curie will be out in 2003 so I got my girl in. I'm not doing it exactly the same way as I did the Einstein book. With Marie Curie, I don't have a young kid interviewing her. I thought of doing it that way, and it just didn't work. I think you have to look at the materials and see what works with it."
Again, it was another family happening that led to the book No Frogs for Dinner . "When our son, David, was 10, our best friend, who is his honorary aunt, invited him to visit her in New York, and we sent him. He had the best time, but, when he went, I thought, 'What if you went to visit someone, and she had her agenda, you had your agenda, and you're a kid? How do you handle it?' Now, in reality, our friend was amazing. She said to David, 'What would you like to do?' and she did everything he wanted."
So Long Stinky Queen , another book in the "First Flight" series, is rooted in Frieda's own childhood. "There was this girl, Evelyn, who made my life rather miserable in grade three. Nothing happened then that happens in the book, but the essence of it happened. I recall my mother having to come to school because there was some incident with this girl. I remember that scary feeling of just wanting someone, an adult, to know that I was telling the truth. My best friend's name was Ruthie, and I dedicated the book partially to her. She's in Israel, and I'm still in touch with her. I sent her a copy of the book, and she called me, saying, 'It's Evelyn J....' I replied, 'You're right.' You don't forget those bullies. Those moments and what they feel like imprint on you. Ruthie was a quieter kid than I was so probably a lot of me is Samantha, the main character."
"A Quest in Time was a book for Owl, and it was a bit similar to Crazy for Chocolate. I thought I could present history in a way that was fun. It was as simple as that. I had Lisa, my main character, time travel into historical events. She picks up an object from a chest that belonged to her deceased uncle, and she is transported to a different time period. For each period, I tried to choose somebody at a defining moment, and I had famous people and non-famous people. I have Lisa meet a girl during the Plague, and this girl is just an ordinary girl who's lost her parents and is on her own in the world. For a while, they have a relationship, and when Lisa leaves, she feels bad that she's abandoning this girl and hopes that she survives. Each of my chapters was like a little mini story within my book."
The idea behind Nothing Scares Us Frieda again mined from her childhood. "As a kid, I lived next door to a boy named Norman, and Norman used to drag me to see scary movies such as 'Godzilla and The Fly.' I didn't mind them when I was in the theatre, but at night everything scary from the movie appeared at my window. I knew they weren't really there, of course, but it was uncomfortable and scary anyway. Finally, I decided I didn't want to go to those movies any more. I had to tell Norman, and I wasn't sure what he'd say. In fiction you can change things. In reality, Norman was not very nice about my refusal to go to the movies with him. The book came from that feeling that different things scare different people and everybody has a different fear trigger."
Just Mabel, part of the "I Am Reading" series, contains two stories. In the first, Mabel, dislikes her name. "Guess who disliked her name as a child? And the other story's about a girl who loves the colour red, and her mother gets her a red dress, but then she gets teased that she looks like a tomato. I have always loved red, and, when I was a kid, my mother bought me a red coat. I thought it was great til people told me that they saw me coming 10 blocks down the street. I looked like a stop light. So, I remembered this feeling of wanting something desperately, getting it and thinking, 'Oh wow! This is great.' Then somebody says, 'Ha, ha. You look stupid in that,' and then you have to cope with that reaction. One of my editors said I was the 'Queen of Kiddie Angst' because I write a lot about angst."
"I'm actually comfortable about getting up in front of an audience, and so I don't think Give Maggie a Chance is about me, but I've never been to a school where a kid hasn't raised a hand and, when you call on him, freezes and says, 'I forgot.' I know what that feels like. And, in every class, there's always a mean kid like Kimberly. There's also a Kimberly in every staff room. She or he just uses adult language. I didn't know that Dean Griffiths, my illustrator, was going to turn my kids into cats, but he did it brilliantly. It works. It wouldn't have occurred to me to use cats, but I love the fact that he did it. And I love that bad cat, Kimberley. She's so bad."
When it comes to her work habits, Frieda described herself as "disciplined. Some people get up and write in their pyjamas. I get up and walk with a friend in the morning. Then I go to a coffee shop and work for about three hours. I find that I can work in anonymous places. It's much better than at home. At home, I'm more distracted. Maybe it's because I grew up in a big city with a lot of noise that I can tune out a lot of outside noise, but personal noise, like a phone ringing in your house, is harder. After I write longhand, I will do an errand or two before I go home and put what I've written on the computer. I pretty much write every day, and I miss it if I don't. The toughest time for me is when I'm almost finished with something because, unless I have something definitely to write right after, it's 'Now what am I going to do?'"
Frieda has been, and is, published by a variety of publishers, and she attributes this situation to the fact that "I'm fairly prolific. I write a lot of different kinds of books, and every publisher does a certain type of book. I remember sending some picture books to Sheba Meland at Owl Books [now Maple Tree Press], and she wrote me a very nice note that said, 'I love these, Frieda, but we don't do picture books.'"
Frieda's latest book is Just Call Me Joe, and it's about a 10-year-old boy who immigrates from Russia with his older sister to New York. Again, Frieda's used her knowledge of what it feels like to be an immigrant to write the story and her love of New York and its history. She even stuck a scene into the book about Central Park, one which mentions its impact on immigrants.
As to her writing future, Frieda sees herself starting to write for an older audience as well as continuing to write picture books and nonfiction. "I'm definitely moving up. With each new genre, I learn. Each genre is different. Each one has a different pace, style, rhythm. I'm always learning.
Books by Frieda Wishinsky.
This article is based on an interview conducted in Toronto on November 16, 2002.
- Crazy for Chocolate. Scholastic, 1997. Illustrated by Jock McCrae. Grades 2-5.
- Each One Special. Orca, 1998. Illustrated by H. Werner Zimmermann. Preschool-grade 3.
- Give Maggie a Chance. Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2002. Illustrated by Dean Griffiths. Preschool-grade 2.
- Jennifer Jones Won't Leave Me Alone. HarperCollins, 1995. Illustrated by Linda Hendry. Carolrhoda Books, 2003. Illustrated by Neal Layton. Preschool-grade 3.
- Just Call Me Joe. Orca, 2003. Illustrated by Don Kilby. Grades 2-6.
- Just Mabel. (I Am Reading). Kingfisher, 2001/Houghton Mifflin, 2004. Illustrated by Sue Heap. Grades 1-3.
- The Man Who Made Parks. Tundra, 1999. Illustrated by Song Nan Zhang. Grades 3-6.
- Manya's Dream: A Story of Marie Curie. Illustrated by Jacques Lamontagne. Maple Tree Press, 2003. Grades 2-5.
- No Frogs for Dinner. Fitzhenry & Whiteside,1999. Illustrated by Linda Hendry. Preschool-grade 2.
- Nothing Scares Us. Scholastic, 2000. Illustrated by Neal Layton. Preschool-grade 2.
- A Quest in Time. Owl, 2000. Illustrated by Bill Slavin. Grades 3-7.
- Oonga Boonga. Little Brown, 1990. Illustrated by Carol Thompson. Scholastic Canada, 1998. Illustrated by Michael Martchenko. Preschool-grade 2.
- So Long Stinky Queen. Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2000. Illustrated by Linda Hendry. Grades 3-4.
- What's the Matter With Albert? Maple Tree, 2002. Illustrated by Jacques Lamontagne. Grades 2-5.
- Why Can't You Fold Your Pants Like David Levine? HarperCollins, 1993. Illustrated by Jackie Snider. Preschool-grade 3.