Laurie Halse Anderson says that no one who knew her as a child thought she would become a successful adult. “I was an innocent child and wasn’t terribly bright. I stuttered and needed a reading tutor.” As a teen, she remembers feeling confused and overwhelmed most of the time and withdrew into herself for protection. In college, Anderson avoided English and language arts classes because she hated the way teachers made her analyze books. “This made the process of becoming an author A LOT harder!” she says.
In spite of her lack of formal English training, Anderson possesses a well-developed sense of story. When she was a kid, she used to sneak downstairs after bedtime to eavesdrop on the grown-ups telling stories. Their tales not only grounded Anderson in her own history, but subliminally implanted literary devices liked pacing, hooks, and dialogue.
Anderson’s interest in writing original stories began after she had children. Together, they’d check out grocery sacks of library books. After Anderson read them to her children, she used them as textbooks for studying the craft of writing. Initially, she worked as a journalist and completed work-for-hire writing projects to gain experience.
Her first book, Ndito Runs (Holt, 1996), combined her journalistic talent for research with her innate sense of fiction. Inspired by a National Public Radio segment on why Kenyans make the best marathon runners, Anderson was captivated by a little girl laughing in the background as the NPR reporter conducted his interview. Story ideas flooded Anderson’s mind as she imagined what life was like for this little girl. After many expensive telephone calls to headmasters at Kenyan elementary schools, her manuscript was ready. Because Anderson was writing outside her culture, she asked the Kenyan embassy to vet the story. Ndito Runs has been translated into Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans, and Lesotha—a tribute to her accuracy.
Anderson is a Thanksgiving-aholic and has managed to incorporate her enthusiasm for the holiday into two picture books. One Thanksgiving Anderson’s 4-year old daughter broke out in chicken pox. While Anderson changed the family’s plans, she simultaneously thought, “Man, this is going to be a great story!” She called it Turkey Pox (Albert Whitman, 1998).
The idea for Thank You, Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving (Simon & Schuster, 2002) came from Anderson’s editor. Sarah Hale was responsible for persuading President Lincoln to declare Thanksgiving a national holiday. Anderson did her research, but couldn’t figure out how to tell Sarah’s story in an interesting way. During one meeting with her editor, she doodled an “S” with a shield around it. The doodle reminded her of Superman. Thinking about Sarah Hale as a superhero was all Anderson needed for the story to fall into place.
Anderson is best known for her award-winning teen fiction. In addition to her roles as author, wife and mother, she’s taken on the role of counselor for the teens that write to her. Victims of sexual abuse thank her for Speak (Viking, 1999), a National Book Award finalist. Recently, one reader from Slovakia wrote about how depressing her bombed out city looked after the war in Bosnia. She said, “I’m writing to ask you how Melinda [from Speak] found the courage to keep going when she was so sad.” Anderson says when she gets a letter like that she has to put everything else aside and respond.
Prom (Viking, 2005), Anderson’s newest novel, combines Anderson’s trademark sensitivity toward adolescents and their problems with a healthy dose of humor. Ashley Hannigan is from a working class family that loves each other, but according to Anderson, “irritates the living hell out of each other, too.”
Before Anderson is ready to write she thinks about her main characters until she can hear their voices in her head. She calls this stage “eavesdropping” because she records what she hears—bits of dialogue, likes, dislikes, fears—all the nuances that make her characters real. As the characters develop, conflict points become clearer. Once Anderson establishes conflict, she begins writing.
When Anderson first started writing for children, she had a day job. “I was sneaking in my writing in the morning and at night. Now that I’m a published author who’s had a lot of lucky breaks, I have a day job—designing my website, answering fan mail, speaking at schools and conferences. So I still sneak in my writing in the morning and at night.” But Anderson isn’t complaining. She feels fortunate to have had such an impact on children. If she had to predict how her life would have turned out, she would never have predicted her current success. She quotes a line from a Grateful Dead song, “What a long strange trip it’s been.”