In March 2012, Carolyn Crimi received the Prairie State Award in her home state of Illinois for her body of work. “The committee told me [last] summer,” she says, “and I’ve been dieting ever since.” Crimi’s sassy, snappy stories explore universal issues of childhood, but she also refuses to shy away from jokes that appeal to adults. “I think of the poor parent who reads the book night after night after night after night,” she says.
Crimi wanted to be a children’s author as soon as she could read. “I fell in love with books,” she says. Some of her happiest memories involve spreading a blanket on the ground to read, “That whole feeling of cracking into a good book on a beautiful day,” the sigh implicit in her tone. Those blissful moments are tied into the books she writes today,
Unfortunately as Crimi grew older, she lost sight of her goal to write for children. College degree in-hand, her dream suddenly seemed impractical. She floated through a variety of retail and advertising jobs (worst among them, selling panty hose in the hosiery department of Lord and Taylor), before discovering the Institute of Children’s Literature’s “You can be a children’s book author” poster on a grocery store bulletin board. She enrolled in the class in 1989, and soon after began submitting her work. Her first acceptance came from Child Life Magazine, and a book contract for Outside Insidefollowed in 1993. When the editor telephoned to tell Crimi the good news about Outside Inside, Crimi remembers standing in front of the mirror thinking, “Here’s one of the biggest moments of my life and I’m in my underwear!’”
At the beginning of a new project, Crimi usually examines an issue she’s grappling with in her life. “It doesn’t solve my problem,” she says, “but it’s a good way to start a story.” For instance, Boris and Bella stars two monsters, messy Bella Legrossi and tidy Boris Kleanitoff, and is based on Crimi and her husband. “Tidy people have plagued me my entire life,” she says. “They always want you to be tidier, but why can’t they be a little bit messier?”
When two of Crimi’s good friends moved away, she recalls grumping around the house saying, “I don’t need friends,” so she tapped that grumpy, left-out feeling everyone experiences at one time or another—both adults and children. Don’t Need Friends helped Crimi remember that she doesn’t necessarily need a lot of friends, just one true friend.
Where’s My Mummy?, Crimi’s bestseller, is the story of Little Baby Mummy playing Hide and Shriek with Big Mama Mummy. No one reading this tender and gently spooky story would guess that it developed from a sad place. “After my mom died I was feeling sort of lost, and I said, ‘Where are you, Mom?’” The title came into my head after I said that.”
Crimi says sometimes ideas are handed to her on the proverbial silver platter. After receiving some sympathetic advice from Crimi, a writer-pal began a thank you note with “Dear Dr. Cat,” (Crimi’s nickname), but before she finished the note she called Crimi about a great idea involving a cat who plays a psychiatrist. Crimi’s sense of humor took over; Dear Abby morphed into Dear Tabby and an animal advice column was born. “She handed me that idea,” Crimi says of her friend. “She doesn’t do anthropomorphic tales. The idea was perfect for me.” As the story developed, Crimi wanted to explore all the different ways we use paper to communicate; newspapers, invitations, letters, and notices tell the story throughout Dear Tabby as Crimi weaves the tribulations of Tabby, Boots Whitepaw, Pauline Parrot, a lost bear, Manfred Basset Hound, Fizzy Hamster, and Stanky Skunque into a satisfying conclusion.
Frequently ideas “fall into your head and you don’t know how they got there,” Crimi says. For instance, she owns a pug named Emerson and she also owns a green Volkswagen bug. The first time she rode in her favorite car with her favorite dog her brain kicked in. “It’s a pug in a bug…that’s all a writer needs.”
Each morning, Crimi rolls out of bed to walk Emerson and then checks her email in front of the television. “I need to know what’s going on,” she says. She settles down to write about 11:00 am each day, but frequently jumps up and down. Lately, listening to Gregorian chants helps her relax (she laughs and sings a Twilight-Zone-type whoo-ooo whoo-ooo). She also sets a timer for 20 minutes. “I can’t do anything else but write for those 20 minutes,” she says. When the timer rings, she sets it for a five minute break. She repeats the cycle as many times as it takes to reach her word-count goal—usually 500 words a day. “But I can do better!” she says.
Crimi searches out the fun in life–on the dance floor, being silly with her girlfriends, and especially in her books for children. “I [write] because it’s fun.”