In third grade, Judy Sierra remembers reading a magazine that gave her an idea to host a carnival to raise money for charity. She organized her classmates, and together they transformed their school’s playground with games like ring toss, a costumed fortuneteller, and one of Sierra’s many puppet shows. They sold old comic books and lemonade, and made their own signs to advertise the event. “The memory astonishes me,” she says, because of what she and her class accomplished on their own without adult assistance. Today, Sierra’s imagination continues to guide her success as a children’s author.
Prior to writing for children, Sierra was a children’s librarian in the 1970s using the storytelling and puppetry skills she developed as a child. Unwittingly, Sierra stumbled across a gap in the children’s book market. “Kids wanted more funny stories and more scary stories,” she says. Not the “tame” fare collected on children’s library shelves at the time. But Sierra wasn’t thinking about children’s books; she was thinking about puppetry.
She wrote several books about puppetry and storytelling as a Ph.D. candidate at UCLA in Folklore and Mythology. From an early age, she had made puppets and performed shows. “My mother was a maker of everything,” she says, remembering the many puppets they made together. “My dad made a puppet stage for me.” Becoming a professional puppeteer was a natural extension of what Sierra had loved as a child. She and her husband started a puppet theater and toured the United States. But the life of a professional puppeteer is not easy. “To make a living I had to work 24 hours a day and travel constantly,” she says. Sierra and her husband closed the theater in 1986 and Sierra returned to the library.
She attended a children’s writers’ conference with a free ticket from the library, and heard Uri Shulevitz, a noted children’s author, speak. Sierra remembers him saying, “’A picture book is like a theater. The adult presents the theater to the child using the page turns and the pictures.’ This light bulb went off in my head,” says Sierra. “I should write picture books.”
New writers are generally advised to write what they know, and Sierra followed suit. As a graduate student she found several folktales that had never appeared in children’s books. Sierra submitted The Elephants Wrestling Match (Lodestar, 1992), which was accepted instantly. Other folktale collections soon followed, such as Nursery Tales Around the World(Clarion, 1996), Silly and Sillier: Read Aloud Tales from Around the World (Knopf, 2002) and Schoolyard Rhymes (Knopf, 2005).
Sierra loves library research and frequently spends several weeks in the library before completing a story. During a conversation with one of her editors, Sierra found out that the single most popular unit among primary teachers nationwide was penguins—even before penguins made a splash in the wider popular culture. Sierra buried herself in the library amidst penguin facts and began visualizing a Broadway musical starring emperor penguins singing and dancing the story of their lives, which became Antarctic Antics(Harcourt, 1998).
Wild About Books (Knopf, 2004), Sierra’s best selling book, started with the title of a poster on the library wall advertising the summer reading program. “It took me five years to find the story,” quips Sierra, but the result is a rollicking, rhythmic ride through the joys of reading. “I write to be read aloud,” she says and she is especially grateful to the committee of the E. B. White Read Aloud Award for honoring Wild About Books in 2005.
Sometimes when Sierra is trying to harness an idea, she reviews the favorite characters from children’s classics. Prior to writing her newest book, Mind Your Manners, B.B. Wolf (Knopf, 2007), Sierra knew she wanted to write a book on manners, but she wanted to turn the whole concept upside down. “Who is the character most in need of manners?” she asked herself. The big bad wolf from Little Red Riding Hood and The Three Little Pigspopped into her mind. “Why does he need to learn manners?” asked Sierra. “To rehabilitate himself,” she said. Sierra quickly changed his name to B. B. Wolf and the story fell into place.
Sierra credits her success with her early love of language and literature as a child. “My parents read poetry to me from age two,” she says, “And I read a lot as a child.” Sierra says her reading helped her “internalize the rules of story and to generate her own ideas.” She still asks herself, “Why isn’t there a book about. . .?”
With dozens of picture books to her name, Sierra is beginning to think about writing longer fiction for children. “I see the illustrations more clearly in my mind,” she says, “and it’s becoming more difficult to write a picture book.” Picture book authors must leave room for the illustrators to tell their half of the story. “I want to tell more of the story,” says Sierra. “I want to tell a longer story.” Perhaps Judy Sierra fans will soon be able to read a novel by this beloved author.