Marilyn Singer describes herself as a curious person—an accurate description when you consider the more than 50 children’s books she has written, including poetry, fairy tales, picture books, novels, mysteries, and nonfiction on a wide variety of topics. “I like being called versatile,” says Singer. “I like that I write on lots of different things.”
After teaching high school English for four years, Singer quit without knowing what she’d try next. One day while enjoying the Brooklyn Botanic Garden she began writing about insect characters she’d created when she was eight years old. She joined a writer’s critique group which provided a great deal of support and encouragement, and within two years had sold her first book, The Dog Who Insisted He Wasn’t (Dutton, 1976).
Singer’s fiction often springs from an event in her life. Josie to the Rescue (Scholastic, 1999) “is based on me because when I was a kid I used to try to do these things that I thought would be so helpful and they turned out to be complete disasters.” It Can’t Hurt Forever (Harper, 1978) featured a main character who had heart surgery, as did Singer. Sometimes Singer takes the opposite route and writes about characters and problems with which she has no experience. Deal in Deal with a Ghost (Holt, 1997) is a “bad girl” who Singer thought would be “cool to explore. Sometimes I’ll deliberately write about someone who’s not me to force myself to be in that person’s head.”
When Singer creates a new character she pretends she’s an actor playing a part. She tries out her character’s dialogue and practices moving like her character. “I act a little bit,” says Singer. “It makes me inhabit the character and the character inhabit me. The most fun is if I can physically feel the character.” Storm Ryder from Storm Rising (Scholastic, 1989) is one of Singer’s favorite characters because she knows him so well. “He literally started babbling in my head,” says Singer. “So I told the story as a boy in the first person. I hadn’t ever done a boy’s voice before. Storm wasn’t like me at all and I liked that.”
Although Singer’s novels explore a wide range of characters and problems, they share a classic theme. Her characters “go awry and have to straighten themselves out.” According to Singer, “stories about redemption have always interested me. . .The idea of people being tested and redeeming themselves is probably in all of my books in one sense or another. That’s how we have to live. We have to look at the little dark corners of ourselves and change.”
Besides her love of writing, Singer loves animals. She has a standard poodle, three cats, two collared doves, and a pet starling. Singer’s husband, Steve Aronson, rescued the starling from the gutter as a nestling, and now the bird is completely imprinted on them. Darling Starling imitates their speech with phrases like “Hello, Sweet Baby” and “I love you,” and also convincingly imitates cardinals, blue jays, and robins. Singer competes with her dog, The Big Easy, in obedience trials and together they are taking agility training classes. In addition to their Brooklyn home, Singer and her husband own three acres in Connecticut where she can happily observe wood ducks, mallards, crows, wild turkeys, and wood chucks. Singer describes her Connecticut retreat as “good for the soul.”
Singer’s love for wildlife is evident in her nonfiction books and poems. She treasures animals and has learned to use her observations of their habits to her advantage: Prairie Dogs Kiss and Lobsters Wave (Holt, 1998) is about how animals greet each other; Bottoms Up! (Holt, 1998) explores animal rear ends and their uses; and Turtle in July (MacMillan, 1989) shares one animal poem for each month of the year. Singer generally begins a new nonfiction book with an observation she’s made and expands upon it after hours of library and internet research, and interviews with scientific experts.
Singer actually sits and writes with pen in hand for three to four hours a day. “But I thinkwriting for twenty-four, it seems. I like to write in cafes, restaurants, subways—it’s not fixed.” Part of her writing time is spent observing people. “You need to get past your own biases” to understand people you don’t particularly like or who aren’t like you before you can write about them. “Sometimes I am wiser in my books than I am in real life.”