Linda Boyden describes herself as the girl in a brother sandwich. During her childhood, she was often left out of her brothers’ rowdier activities, but her grandparents always made time for her. Boyden credits her grandmother with helping her become an artist because of all the time they spent coloring together, and her grandfather with the idea for her first published book.
Patricia Newman: Describe a childhood memory that sticks out in your mind.
Linda Boyden: No one in my family read. There were no books at my childhood home until I became a teenager and I bought my own. From fourth grade on I would go to the library after school. I think I read every fairy tale book ever—the whole section. And I could check them out and bring them home.
Newman: How are your hopes and dreams from childhood intertwined with your stories for children?
Boyden: I believed in fairy tales completely, totally. I lived in a fantasy world as a child. I was alone a lot. In the neighborhood, there were tons of kids but they were mostly boys, and the girls were too young. I had no best friend for many years.
Newman: Were these childhood experiences the inspiration for Rosalie in The Blue Roses?
Boyden: Yes. Rosalie is an only child and she bonds with her grandfather very much like I did. That whole book came about because my grandpa died when I was pregnant with my last child. I was too pregnant to travel 3,000 miles for his funeral. So I grieved and grieved and grieved. He came to me in a dream—more like a vision. It was so real I can still feel it. He’s standing in his garden behind a white picket fence which he never had, and his face was smooth and glowing. He had no wrinkles. He said, “Leave me alone. I’m happy. Stop crying.” I wanted to go into the garden because behind him his flowers were the most beautiful colors I’ve ever seen. I rattled the gate. “Linda,” he said. “It’s not your time.” And then I woke up. That dream is in the middle of The Blue Roses. The best writing is the writing that comes from the heart. It’s the writing you can’t ignore.
Newman: When did you realize you wanted to write for children?
Boyden: At four years old, I knew I wanted to be a teacher. At first I started teaching my dolls. I tried to play school with my brothers. They were not teachable. During the almost thirty years that I taught, I must have read five gazillion picture books. I said, “I know I can do this.” But the problem was I used every bit of my creativity in my classroom. And I was a mother of a boat-load of kids. I had my three and then we took in people. There was nothing left. I was drained. But when we moved to Hawaii and the kids were all adults and I didn’t have to work anymore I said I was going to be a writer. I’d had it on the back burner for way too long.
Newman: You’ve written a number of Cherokee-themed books. Are you Native American?
Boyden: My Dad was Cherokee and Irish. During the time he grew up there were signs that said, “No n…… No dogs. No Indians.” He grew up in a really harsh time, so we are not enrolled in the Cherokee Nation.
Newman: Can you enroll now?
Boyden: I don’t have the proper proof. My great-grandmother was full-blood, and I have a picture of her but we don’t have the birth record. If you survived the Trail of Tears (to my understanding some Cherokee came back), you kept low, you didn’t talk about it, you kept it hidden.
Newman: What was your first big break?
Boyden: As an author, I won the first New Voices Award from Lee and Low Books, and that changed everything. It was stunning to have my first published book win an award like that. As an illustrator, I found out that the University of New Mexico Press was seeking children’s books. I called them and told the editor about my picture book called Powwow’s Coming. The editor said, “Send it to me,” so I did. Because I am a tiny bit OCD I had a very clear vision for this book—it had to be simple shapes and Native American colors so I made up a couple of [cut paper collage] art samples to show a [potential] illustrator my vision. The editor offered me a contract on the condition that I did the illustrations. I said, “What? I’ve never been to art school.” So that’s how I became an illustrator.
Newman: How have ideas led to books?
Boyden: I wrote Giveaways: An ABC of Loanwords from the Americas to celebrate the contribution that Native American languages of North, South and Central America have made to English. Did you know that skunk is a native word?
I began working on Twitch [a new young adult novel] in 2003. It started out for middle-grade readers, but it just didn’t fly. Thousands of rejections later I figured out that I had to find his age. I tried ten, twelve, and sixteen. Now he’s fourteen to keep his innocence, but also to become a man. In 2015 I finally signed a contract. There’s a lesson there: never give up!
Newman: Is there one thing you’d like readers to know about you?
Boyden: When somebody says I can’t do something I feel I must try to prove them wrong.