Marion as a nine-month-old baby
I was born in a four-room frame house in the shadow of a cement mill. The mill, at the edge of a small northern-Illinois town called Oglesby, provided the houses for the families of the men who worked there. My father was a chemist at the mill, so throughout my childhood, the dusty, old mill filled my horizon.

How I loved it all! The huffing, banging trains delivering coal and carrying away cement. The deep-bellied whistles from the mill itself, announcing that my father would soon come walking home. The wide green yard, the luxuriant woods that took up where the yard left off, even the column of smoke that puffed across my sky from the tall stack.

My mother was a taciturn woman who loved babies, and when I was very young she surrounded me—and my brother, Willis, who was two years older—with an unspoken but utterly solid love.

There happened to be a goodly pack of boys for Willis to run with, but no girls for me. Still, I entertained myself easily in my mother's cozy world. I don't know what it was like for Will to leave this idyllic existence for school. For me, it was like being cast out of paradise.

I began kindergarten at age four, so I was younger than most of my classmates and, thanks to my isolation, utterly lacking in social skills. Moreover, my mother sent me to school wearing velvet bonnets and high-topped leather shoes, the kind of clothes babies wore then. In kindergarten such ignorance of fashion—and of the rules of the pack—went pretty much unnoticed. By first grade, my classmates began to notice. And in the years that followed I fell steadily in their esteem. I was a good-enough student and got along well with teachers, but there was no way around it … I was a colossal nerd!

I wonder how many children's writers were, for one reason or another, outsiders when they were young. From those I know personally, I would say many, if not most.

Being an outsider, while certainly painful, seems to have the capacity to keep a door open into childhood. It gives ongoing access to a world that most adults learn very quickly to forget. And it leaves some of us with a need to fix whatever went wrong the first time around, even if the fix is for others, not ourselves.

My high school graduation photo

My mid and late teens improved substantially. In high school I joined the yearbook staff and by my senior year I became the editor. I thrived in that world, so I decided to get my college degree in journalism. How else could I make a living writing? After two years at our local community college, I moved on to the University of Missouri, the oldest and most respected journalism school in the country. It took me only a few weeks, though, to realize that I wanted a very different kind of education. I shifted into American and British literature and philosophy. (Later, after spending a summer typing travel claims in quadruplicate, I shifted again, just slightly, and took a degree that allowed me to teach high school English.) I also married Ronald Bauer, who was studying to become an Episcopal priest.

The rest can be told in quick summary. I taught high school English, briefly; had two children, Peter and Beth Alison; filled my home with foster children and exchange students (and lots of pets). And finally decided it was time to take the writing that I had been doing in the cracks of time—usually when I should have been cleaning the house—seriously. That was more than forty years ago.

After a brief, and at that time futile, attempt at writing picture books, I stumbled onto the contemporary novel for young people and knew I had found the kind of writing I had been searching for. So I sat down to try. The main character, of course, in that first novel was an outsider.

  In my early thirties

Now my life is defined in every way by my writing. After twenty-eight years, I left my marriage, but that only made the writing more urgent … my means of support as well as my passion. I taught writing part time, too, culminating in being one of the founding faculty and the first Faculty Chair for the Vermont College of Fine Arts Master of Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Retired from teaching now, but not from writing, I live in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, with my partner, Barb. And to my great delight, I have a passel of grandchildren, most of whom are grown now. (How they will hate this photo!)

What else to say? Only that I feel profoundly blessed. Blessed to be able to do this good work and to provide myself a livelihood doing so. Blessed to have my books living out there in the world. And blessed, all these years later, still to be able to make good use of both the pain and the delights of my childhood.

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