Lee Wardlaw took up writing when she was seven years old. In elementary and junior high school, her stories were about kids because she was a kid. As she grew older, her stories didn’t change. So she asked herself, “Am I stuck at the age of twelve, or do I have something to say to kids?” Thankfully, Wardlaw has a great deal to say to children. With more than 20 books to her credit, she shows no signs of running out of things to tell them.
Although Wardlaw’s stories speak to children of all ages, every one comes from some aspect of her life. For instance, Wardlaw learned something important about herself when she created Sneeze in 101 Ways to Bug Your Parents (Dial, 1996). Sneeze’s passion for inventing wacky gadgets parallels Wardlaw’s passion for writing. Sneeze invents because he has to, and Wardlaw writes because she has to.
Corey’s Fire (Avon Flare, 1990) is closest to Wardlaw’s heart because it is her family story. During Wardlaw’s senior year in college, her family’s home in Southern California burned to the ground in a blaze that destroyed 200 homes. Through all of the commotion and heartache, she was amazed by the resiliency of her 14-year old brother and his friends. According to Wardlaw, “Their attitudes were heroic.” They made her realize that no one was telling their story in the news, which inspired her to try. Like a phoenix,Corey’s Fire was born from the ashes of Wardlaw’s home.
Two of Wardlaw’s books for younger readers were inspired by her son, Patterson, when he was an infant. The Chair Where Bear Sits (Winslow Press, 2001) shows bear transforming a simple bowl of oatmeal into a Jackson Pollack-like spatter painting. First Steps (HarperCollins, 1999) is a board book that expresses Wardlaw’s astonishment over her baby’s perseverance in learning to walk.
When Wardlaw begins a new project, she first develops a strong person at the heart of the story. “My stories are character-driven. Their plots come out of my characters’ problems, likes and dislikes.” For example, Wardlaw created Sneeze in 101 Ways to Bug Your Parents over several months, assembling a notebook containing minute details like his best friends and enemies, his favorite subjects, what he likes to do after school, and what makes him laugh. She often writes about her characters in first person, using the exercise to allow them to tell her who they are.
Prior to finding her niche as a children’s author, Wardlaw taught elementary school for five years, tutored, and led a Girl Scout troop. She also served as the Tooth Fairy for a private dental foundation. According to Wardlaw, “There was no magic wand or tutu. I drove The Brush Bus—a mobile dental education classroom.” Wardlaw wrote the entire curriculum for the 30-minute programs in which children participated while on the bus.
Falling back on old teaching habits, Wardlaw sometimes includes age-appropriate classroom curriculum in her books, the most recent example in 101 Ways to Bug Your Teacher (Dial, 2003), a sequel to the award-winning 101 Ways to Bug Your Parents.Sneeze and the rest of the gang are back, this time saddled with an ancient Egyptian history project. In keeping with Sneeze’s inventiveness and creative streak, he decides to mummify a chicken, an idea Wardlaw read about in an article and tried at home with her son.
Wardlaw has experimented with several kinds of fiction from board books for infants and toddlers to novels for middle grade readers and young adults. She also has three nonfiction titles to her credit: Cowabunga!: The Complete Book of Surfing (Avon Sports, 1991), Bubblemania: A Kid’s Book of Bubble Gum (Scholastic, 1995), and We All Scream for Ice Cream! (Harper Trophy, 2000). Research for these projects included several trips to the library and hours on the internet, but Wardlaw managed to work in a bit of fun, too. She cooked gumballs in her kitchen, judged bubble blowing contests, and took ice cream scooping lessons from a former soda jerk. According to Wardlaw, “I tasted every brand of ice cream I could get a spoon into—gaining six pounds in the process!”
Wardlaw and her husband, Craig Jaffurs, own and operate a small winery in Santa Barbara, California. She confesses to loving crispy McDonald’s french fries and potato chips. To help control her cravings, Wardlaw created a character to eat potato chips for her. Chip, from The Ghoul Brothers, eats barbeque potato chips and keeps the girls away with his barbeque breath. Wardlaw also stashes chocolate in favorite hiding places around her house. But her first love, by far, is writing. “I’ll keep writing until I fall over dead.”