With students at MLC Portland.
(La vida de Ann Cameron: la realización de una escritora de libros para niños en Español).
Ann Cameron's life: the making of a children’s book writer
I was born in Rice Lake, Wisconsin in 1943 in the middle of an October blizzard. My dad was a lawyer. My mother had been a high school English teacher and was on the town library board. I grew up on 40 acres of land outside town. When I was a child I loved exploring nature--picking wild violets, staring into horses' eyes, puzzling over where the sun went when it went down.
My childhood friends and I made up our own games. We spent lots of time outside, skiing, hiking, biking and fishing. Our world seemed to us almost separate from the world of adults. I think the independence we enjoyed is disappearing from the life of American children today. I want them to experience it through my books. There was no TV in our town until I was nine years old. I listened to stories on the radio. The best thing about them was I could imagine all the characters and the places in my own mind. Radios before the invention of transistors were enormous; so I believed the voices I heard came from inside the radio, where the people who spoke were living. The only thing I couldn't understand was how they got their food.
Once I learned to read, I read, read, read all the time. My fascination with the radio became a fascination with books, especially fiction. When I was in third grade, I decided I wanted to be an author when I grew up.
My sister, Jennifer, is seven years older than I and was a big influence on my life. She was smart, a good student and also very popular. People were always asking me if I was going to be like her, or calling me by her name instead of mine. I disliked it that people didn't see me as an individual, but Jennifer's example spurred me to try to be outstanding.
Also influencing my life was the family cottage on Bear Lake, near Haugen, Wisconsin. We lived there during the summer. My dad taught me to fish and love swimming and boats. Bear Lake was the model for "Lost Lake" in The Secret Life of Amanda K. Woods. Margaret, the older sister in that book, is very the teenaged Jennifer.
After high school in Rice Lake, I went far away to college—to Harvard College in Cambridge, Massachusetts—the oldest university in the U.S., established even before the US was a country. I studied history, psychology, writing, art and literature. A lot of famous people spoke at Harvard. I heard Martin Luther King, Jr. speak. I went on a freedom ride bus to Maryland to desegregate a segregated restaurant—I saw both hatred and courage close up. Back at school, I heard Marianne Moore, W. H. Auden, and John Updike read their poetry. I studied poetry with Robert Lowell, another famous poet.
After graduating from Harvard, I went to New York and worked in publishing. I decided I should study writing further and returned to the Midwest, earning a Masters of Fine Arts degree in the University of Iowa’s Writers' Workshop.
It’s things I notice and wonder about that lead to books. My first one came about because I had a seed growing in a pot on a window sill, and wondered what it would be like to be living under soil, seeing nothing, new to the world, with no idea where I was going or growing. My first children’s book, The Seed, came from that glance at the window sill. It was published in 1974.
After Iowa, I lived in Berkeley, California, working for a scientific company whose chairman of the board, Luis Alvarez had won the Nobel Prize for physics. Then came more years in New York, some exciting months living in a rain forest jungle with jaguars and boa constrictors and as a volunteer on a Mayan archaeological dig in Belize; a move to Panajachel, Guatemala; and most recently in 2005, to Portland, Oregon, where I live now.
Guatemala had a lot to do with forming my character. Most of my adult life to that point, I’d lived only around people who, like me, had spent years and years in school. In the Mayan town of Panajachel, I lived among Guatemalan neighbors who mostly had gone to school only a few years and many who never had gone to school at all. I learned a lot from them about patience, endurance, and valuing the most important things in life. I found people who had never read a book in their lives be just as intelligent and often more original and interesting to me than people who had studied and read their whole lives long. But I also so how people suffer from lack of opportunity, from not having a chance at education.
For fifteen years, my husband, and I worked to improve the local Panajachel library, so that Guatemalan children could have the same opportunity to read that we’d enjoyed all our lives. With great help from local people in Panajachel, and from American and European donors, the Panajachel library became the best community library anywhere in Central America: it has 15,000 books in Spanish for readers of all ages--from toddlers to university students especially. Lake Atitlan Libraries, Inc. a nonprofit started by my cousins and childhood friends in Wisconsin, supported it.. LAL is still at work in Guatemala, now bringing books to junior high schools in rural areas there. LAL is a unique charity: nobody working with it, either in the U.S. or in Guatemala, takes a salary: all the money raised goes for books. Click here to connect to the LAL website.
My husband for eighteen very happy years was Bill Cherry. I first met Bill in 1989 in Washington, D.C., where he worked for the US Congress as the staff director of a Congressional subcommittee. We fell in love. He retired and in 1991 moved to Guatemala with me. In Panajachel, he quickly became the most popular man in town: Every day he gave away candy to all the children he passed in the street. Kids called him “Don Dulce”—“Mr. Sweet,” that would be in English—and crowded outside our door early every morning, knocking and asking me when Don Dulce would come out with his many bags of hard candies. Bill died in 2008, but memories of his love and intelligence will be with me always.
Where I am now: I live in Portland, Oregon—not far from Powell's City of Books, which is the largest new and used bookstore in the world. It’s a paradise for me. I also get inspiration from Oregon Symphony concerts, pleasure from the great restaurants, and joy from the path along the Willamette River that takes Portlanders past all kinds of wildflowers, a nature preserve, and an eagle’s nest.
For more information about me, go to the reference section of your library and read Gale Research, Something About the Author: Autobiography Series, volume 20; and Gale Research, Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, 1997. Additional biographical information may be found at the Random House and Macmillan Books websites.