As a child, Pam Muñoz Ryan retreated to her imagination to fight boredom, an exercise that has served her well as a writer. “Pretending, daydreaming, putting on plays in the backyard—that type of play for a young child is the best foundation for being a writer.” Although Ryan still daydreams, she’s learned to harness her wandering imagination and turn wisps of ideas, fragments of news clippings, and obscure historical references into riveting stories for children.
Amelia and Eleanor Go For a Ride (Scholastic, 1999) began as a tiny reference to Amelia Earhart’s and Eleanor Roosevelt’s night flight over the nation’s capital. “On April 20, 1933, Amelia and her husband, G.P. Putnam, were invited to spend the night at the White House. . .That night, still in formal dresses and white gloves, Amelia and G.P. arranged to take Eleanor for a flight over Washington, D.C.”
While researching California Here We Come (Charlesbridge, 1997) Ryan stumbled across Six-Horse Charley, a female stagecoach driver from the 1800’s. “Just relying on the facts alone, I couldn’t have asked for a better ‘bare bones’ outline. An orphan who runs away and in order to survive, poses as a stableboy only to become a renowned stagecoach driver!”
The American flag inappropriately displayed on cases of beer in a grocery store inspired Ryan to write The Flag We Love (Charlesbridge, 1997). “When I saw how the flag had been used, I was really offended. . .I went looking for a picture book about the flag for my own children who were very young at the time. I couldn’t find one. Sometimes. . .the best inspiration of all is to realize that you might have an idea for a story that no one has done before.”
In Esperanza Rising (Scholastic, 2000) Ryan mined her own family for ideas. Although Esperanza’s personality is based on Ryan as a child, Esperanza’s riches-to-rags story comes from Ryan’s grandmother. “When I was a young girl, Grandma used to tell me what her life was like when she first came to the United States from Mexico. I had heard stories about the company farm camp where she lived and worked and the lifelong friends she made there. . .It wasn’t until I had children of my own that my grandmother told me of her life in Mexico, about a fairy-tale existence with servants, wealth and grandeur which had preceded her life in the company farm camp.”
Ryan’s fertile childhood imagination allowed her to become a “benevolent queen, an explorer, or a doctor saving people,” but it never occurred to her to record her stories. It wasn’t until Ryan was married with four children and enrolled in a Master’s in Education program that a professor planted the seed. Soon after, a friend asked her to co-author a book for adults, and “the path revealed itself to me.”
Ryan lives in Leucadia, California (just north of San Diego) about six blocks from the Pacific Ocean. With four teenagers and two dogs, Ryan’s household is noisy and cluttered with paraphernalia like surf boards, beach towels, and volleyballs. When she needs quiet, she retreats to her office. There, Ryan loves to write both picture books and chapter books because they require such different skills. “When I write picture books, I have to be more concise and I have to leave a lot of room for the illustrator to do her job. When I write a novel, I have the freedom to paint every scene with words.”
When Ryan prepares a manuscript for publication she may revise it as many as ten times before her editor even sees it, writing between two and ten hours a day depending on how close her deadline looms. After her editor reads the manuscript and offers suggestions, Ryan again rewrites as many as three or four times. “Sometimes children say to me ‘You’re so lucky’ because when they see me on the day of a school visit, it seems so easy to them. I want them to know that like anything else in life, the harder you work the luckier you get. The more you practice, the better you get. Writing is just the same.”