Ann Angel considers it her good fortune that she discovered the music of Janis Joplin as a bookish teen who would rather paint or write bad poetry. She became a writer and teacher and has penned a ton of fiction and many biographies including her most recent Adopted Like Me, My Book of Adopted Heroes (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2013). That early fan-crush led to writing the award-winning biography, Janis Joplin, Rise Up Singing (Abrams 2010), winner of the American Library Associations’ 2010 YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award. The book also made Booklist’s 2011 Top Ten Biographies for Youth and the 2011 Top Ten Arts Books list. It is a 2011 CCBC Choice Book and received an SCBWI Crystal Kite Award and more. Angel is also a writer of young adult fiction and nonfiction with critically acclaimed books that include Such A Pretty Face: Short Stories about Beauty (Abrams, 2007), Robert Cormier: Writer of the Chocolate War (Enslow, 2007). A biography of Amy Tan, Weaver of Asian American Tales was released by Enslow in 2009, and a student’s guide to Sandra Cisneros in 2010. Her short stories have appeared in anthologies including, Flash Forward Youth: 65 Short-Short Stories (Persea Book, 2011). Another anthology, Things I’ll Never Say: Short Stories About Our Secret Selves (Candlewick), will be forthcoming. For more info, visit her website.
What’s the worst thing you did as a kid?
When I was about 8 or 9, I hit the boy next door in the head with a rolling pin when we were playing house because I was ticked that he was going off to save the whales and wanted me to stay home under the lilac bush with our pretend kids—who happened to be mermen and mermaids.
Oh, wait, I once hit my brother in the head and he had to get stitches, but I was only about 6 then, and I hadn’t meant to do it. Johnny, if you’re reading this, I’m so, so sorry that you got broken.
What’s your idea of a good time?
Quiet good times are spending time simply hanging out with family, reading a good biography or listening to rock or blues. But then a close second would be the loud good times I’m with my family or off at a writers’ retreat like SCBWI-Wisconsin with close writer friends and acting totally sophomoric, doing things like squirting my friend Peggy with a squirt gun, sneaking wine into a retreat center with Judy, or checking out the priest’s robes in a Catholic retreat center that I won’t name here with MJ.
It’s those silly times when I’m often falling off my chair because my family and friends get me laughing so hard.
Have you been told you look like someone famous?
I have been told I look like someone famous. Fortunately I don’t have a swastika carved into my forehead like she does, but my sister tells me I look like Squeaky Fromme who was one of Charles Manson’s followers. She’s serving life in prison so my sister’s comment is pretty creepie. But I tell myself I really look like Audrey Hepburn.
Name one thing you can’t live without.
What’s the silliest thing you have heard people say about you?
My niece brought her boyfriend over to my house, and I have a collection of magic wands hanging in my kitchen and sunroom. He asked, “What’s with all the magic wands?” She responded, “Oh, didn’t I tell you? My aunts on my dad’s side are all fairies.” I’m one of 7 sisters and two brothers and, seriously, my sisters and I do think we’ve got a bit of magic in us.
What’s your motto in life?
I’m totally stealing this from Anne Lamott: “Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” No….seriously, my motto is to show up to life everyday.
What’s the naughtiest thing you did in school?
I have to admit I misbehaved quite a bit in high school. So, let’s see, was it telling a teacher that my mother was sick so I couldn’t do my homework? For the record, I got caught. Then there was smoking in the bathrooms. For the record, I got caught. I cut school. And, yes, I got caught…
What initially inspired you to pursue a career in writing?
I was a quiet bookish kid in grade school and I loved reading. I also loved to draw but didn’t think I was very good at it. But it was watching Janis Joplin in action that made me realize I didn’t need to follow the crowd. I could stand up there and do what I wanted. So I started to write. I also still draw and take art classes, btw.
What books are you reading right now?
I just finished reading AS King’s Reality Boy. I’m reading Marilyn Monroe’s Fragments, which is a collection of her notes and poetry. I also just downloaded Far, Far Away by Tom McNeal on my e-reader.
Do you have any advice for other writers?
I’m going to be cliché here. Read everything you can. And write everyday if you can.
What inspired you to write your first book?
My first book was about adoption for my kids. That was Real for Sure Sister. It came out at a time when parents were told to talk openly about adoption but there were no books on the market that I could read to my own four kids, all adopted. I wrote the book to tell them the stories of their adoptions. That book was in print for ten years and I still run into adopted people who say it was their favorite book.
What do you think you do best in your writing? Bragging is encouraged.
My best writing? If we’re talking awards, it’s Janis Joplin, Rise Up Singing which won the YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction award and was awarded a SCBWI Crystal Kite award among many honors. It was named on Booklist’s Top Ten Biographies for Youth and Top Ten Art Books for Youth. I love the part where it’s an art book because I did the image research and because it makes me feel as if I’ve achieved the two things I’ve aspired to be—a writer and an artist.
I just came out with a new book, a roundup of adopted heroes for middle grade. While the narrative perspective of Janis goes a bit deeper and I think it’s written from the perspective of a fan crush—a fan whose heart was broken at her death—Adopted Like Me, My Book of Adopted Heroes required me to tell many stories in brief format so it was a learning experience to write brief upbeat stories that introduce kids to 20 famous adoptees. For instance, did you know John Lennon grew up in kinship care? Marilyn Monroe had a legal guardian and Nelson Mandela was adopted by a chief in a neighboring village and grew up in a village where people cooked outside under open fires. Oh, and JRR Tolkein was adopted too! But not by Hobbits.
I think the short story I plan to include in a new anthology I’m editing is probably the tightest writing I’ve done so far. I’ve pushed myself creatively with this because “Things I’ll Never Say” is told from the perspective of a 17-year old boy who’s a good kid with a breaking heart because his refuses to acknowledge his secret. The anthology includes many well-known YA writers and is entitled Things I’ll Never Say, Short Stories About our Secret Selves and will be forthcoming from Candlewick.
What books have most influenced your life?
To Kill a Mockingbird taught me a lot about stereotypes and cultural attitudes and I vowed to work to change those attitudes for the better. Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye has helped me continue to use my writing to make people think about the way we treat one another. Really though, every book I read teaches me something about the way I should live, the way of the world, the heart and soul of our existence.
If you had to choose, which writer would you consider a mentor?
I’m a graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program and I had some amazing teachers. I’d have to say the people who still mentor me are Chris Lynch and Cynthia Leitich Smith. I’m afraid I’m missing some names here – Norma Fox Mazer was an amazingly tough mentor who always said, “Good enough isn’t good enough.” She became a close friend and we often shared emails about raising kids and writing. She died about five years ago and I still miss her. I’m afraid I’m missing some names here. So let me say there was such an amazing group of people who have helped me write and grow–to all of you, Thank you! And I’m sorry if I neglected you here.
Is there anything you find particularly challenging in writing? What comes easily?
Toughest thing? I can’t write a picture book to save my soul. I’ve tried, and it’s frustrating, but I just can’t get there. I’m loving the short story form lately because it’s forcing me to write short and tight. I love the feel of story arc as it plays out in this form. As I write and revise, I swear, I can feel the story arc rise and fall.