Third grade was a special year for Margie Palatini. She remembers, “That was the year I had a teacher who told me I was talented and who nurtured my talent.” As a kid, Palatini made books and produced plays. “I could draw,” she says, “and I communicated my stories through pictures, or I made plays and acted them out.” Because Palatini never actually wrote out the words to her stories, she didn’t consider herself a writer. Looking back on it now, she realizes her books and plays were part of her creative process. “Creativity has to have a soul,” says Palatini, and role-playing gave her the foundation she needed to develop plot and character—essential story elements.
After college, Palatini worked as an art director for an advertising agency. “I was not completely fulfilled doing ads,” she recalls. “There was more story I needed to tell.” She enrolled in a writing workshop at Rutgers University where her instructors told her to write what she knew. She created her funny and popular Gritch the Witch character, based on her self-described irascible, emotional, impatient self, and Piggie Pie (Clarion, 1995) was born. That was 1975. Unfortunately, editors told her the story wasn’t funny and it wasn’t for kids and she shouldn’t be writing picture books. “I believed it,” says Palatini. “I didn’t write picture books for 18 years.”
Instead, her early published work focused on middle-grade readers. After marriage and a baby, she discovered the language in Piggie Pie tickled her three-year old son. “It was gosh, darn funny!” she says. When she submitted the manuscript this time, it was picked up by Clarion and published 20 years after she wrote it!
Palatini, a resident of New Jersey, doesn’t write every day. “I have to have an idea, be inspired,” she says. When an idea does strike, she lets it percolate for a while, attending to the minutiae of living while it matures and develops. “Finally, a day comes when I have to write,” she says. She writes without restricting the language or the humor allowing the story to be enjoyed on many levels by both adults and children. Palatini tells school children that “writing a book is like putting together a jig saw puzzle. One little piece begins it all, but it has no image.” Only after piecing other little things together does it become clearer.
For instance, Palatini says her son, Jamie (now 18), had a bad hair day every day of his life. She twisted this kernel of truth a million ways making it as outrageous as possible to become Bedhead (Simon & Schuster, 2000). The Perfect Pet (HarperCollins, 2003) began with memories of Palatini’s sister who always wanted pets as a kid, but was never allowed to have them. “We weren’t allowed to have pets,” remembers Palatini. “She pretended to be a dog or a cat. Now she has nine cats, two dogs, birds, rabbits, and turtles.”
Palatini describes all of her characters as the little engine that could. “They all have the ‘I think I can’ struggle, some problem to overcome.” Most of Palatini’s characters aren’t human, preferring animals to represent human foibles and emotions in her characteristic humorous way. Palatini’s books are loaded with colloquialisms, outrageous exaggeration, plays on words, and onomatopoeia. For example, Hilda Mae Heifer from Moo Who?(HarperCollins, 2004) loves to sing. Palatini writes, “She was right in the middle of a wailing ‘mi-mi-moo’ when suddenly, from out of nowhere, a hard and high-flying cow pie came hurtling straight for Hilda. Whiz. Wham. Klunk. It knocked her right on her noggin, and down she went. Yup. It was lights out for Hilda Mae Heifer.”
Once Palatini finds her character’s voice, the rest of the story seems to fall into place. “The voice helps me write them,” she says about her characters. “They channel through me.”
Finding her voice wasn’t always so easy for Palatini. During that first writing workshop at Rutgers her teacher read her work and commented they were nice, but not special. Palatini begged her instructor to tell her what would make the stories special. The instructor remarked that she couldn’t tell Palatini what it was, but she’d know when she saw it. “That sounds like B.S. when you’re struggling to learn how to write,” says Palatini, “but voice is so organic, so natural that you can’t tell a writer how to find it. That’s their journey.” Palatini’s 40-plus books prove she completed her journey successfully. But now she’s embarked on another exciting adventure—following her creativity and wherever it takes her.