“I have so many good memories from my childhood,” Melinda Long says. “My mother and father both were very influential in me becoming a writer. Dad told family stories all the time. Mama was the one that read to me every night. We read Green Eggs and Ham [by Dr. Seuss]. That book was falling apart.” Another memory that sticks in Long’s mind is the time her mother suggested she write a story and use rubber stamps to illustrate it. “I loved telling stories,” Long says in her soft southern drawl, “but I didn’t like writing things down, so [Mama] gave me her typewriter and that was [how I wrote] my first story.”
Today, Long uses many of her childhood memories in her stories, but she alters the details to keep her books current. “A lot of things are universal and they transcend time,” she says. “Kids play pretend even now and we used to play pretend all the time. The one [game] I remember that probably influenced my writing was I used to play pirate. I would go outside and bury things in the yard like my mother’s earrings and I would draw pirate maps to find them again.” She laughs at the memory. “I can remember pacing it off. I used to love doing that stuff!”
Long graduated from Furman University in South Carolina where she majored in elementary education. One particularly influential teacher taught a children’s literature class and Long fell in love with Where the Wild Things Are (by Maurice Sendak) and Ira Sleeps Over (by Bernard Waber). “Those are the most awesome books,” she says, and for the first time she thought, “While I’m teaching, I might want to write children’s books.”
In 1984, after Long married, she says, “I got up the nerve to submit.” After 12 years of refining her craft, an agent expressed interest in one of Long’s stories and took her on as a client. The manuscript that first piqued the agent’s interest never sold, but in 1997 Long sent him When Papa Snores and he sold it within a few months.
Snoring is a family joke in the Long household; both Long and her husband snore. Long’s husband once said to their two children, “When your mother snores the manhole covers outside bounce up and down.” Long says, “The kids would giggle at that. I couldn’t let him top me so I’d say, ‘When your daddy snores the people in the graveyard sit up and yell, ‘Be quiet!’’” The idea took on a life of its own inside Long’s head until she developed a story around snoring. The main character in When Papa Snores wanders through her house quieting objects disturbed by her grandparents’ snoring.
Long’s second book, Hiccup Snickup, uses an old rhyme her grandmother taught her about curing hiccups. Before Long’s grandmother passed away at the age of 98, Hiccup Snickupwas published and Long read it to her. Long says, “She laughed and patted me on the knee and said, ‘Honey, you should get a prize for that.’ She didn’t know I had all the prize I needed right there.”
Although the inspiration for How I Became A Pirate came from Long’s childhood pirate games, the seed for the story came from a conversation she had in Barnes & Noble with an acquaintance who mentioned that pirate books were hard to find. Long based Jeremy Jacob, the main character, on her childhood self. “It’s my voice,” she says, “and I really love him.” But illustrator David Shannon created another of Long’s favorite characters—the pirate with two eye patches. “He’s always lifting one up to see. I just think he’s hilarious. He’s perfectly visual and is all [Shannon’s] creation.” In Long’s third pirate book still in production, she had to think of a compelling reason for the pirates to return for their treasure; consequently, she researched what might have happened to their ship that would have required an expensive repair.
Long writes from her home in Greenville, South Carolina whenever the creative mood strikes. Generally, the morning hours are her most productive. Long says, “I don’t think in pictures,” which may seem odd for a picture book author. She chooses words that she thinks will tell a good story, but then forces herself to step back to be sure that the text has enough action and a variety of scenes to create an interesting visual experience for readers. “It doesn’t come naturally,” she says. “And I still don’t see detailed pictures.”
Prior to finding her niche in teaching and writing, Long worked as a disc jockey at a radio station. “It was local hambone stuff,” she says, “and fun for a little while.” But she confesses to missing the interaction with people, and especially children, that she found in teaching and that she continues to find in her presentations to children. “I love being around kids because they’re funny,” Long says. And children love being around her and reading her books, because she makes them laugh.
Perhaps Cameron, one of Long’s fans, says it best. “Your books are so good they made my bald head grow hair!”