WON TONGet to know Lee…

Lee Wardlaw’s first spoken word was ‘kitty’. Since then, she’s shared her life with 30 cats (not all at the same time!) and published close to 30 award-winning books for children, tweens and teens, including Won Ton – A Cat Tale Told in Haiku, winner of the 2012 Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award, and the enormously popular middle grade novel 101 Ways to Bug Your Parents.

Lee has a B.A. in education, and taught school for five years before deciding to write full-time. She earned her AMI Primary Diploma from the Montessori Institute of San Diego, and will receive her M.Ed. from Loyola University, Maryland, in 2013. She still enjoys teaching, and presents a variety of lively programs each year for students, educators, librarians, parents and writers at schools, workshops, and conferences.

Lee’s books, which have sold more than a million copies world-wide, have been honored by the American Library Association, the International Reading Association, the National Council of Teachers of English, the International School Librarians Association, and more. Lee is an active member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators, the Authors Guild, the California Reading Association and, yes, even the Cat Writers’ Association!

Lee lives in Santa Barbara, CA with her husband, teen-aged son, and three former shelter cats. Her newest books include 101 Ways to Bug Your Friends and Enemies (ages 10-14) and Red, White and Boom! (ages 2-7). For more info, visit her website and Facebook!

Let the conversation begin! 

What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received? 

Everything between page 1 and The End (page 118) of  Art and Fear – Observations of the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland.  This brilliant little book is, uh, brilliant! I re-read it at least twice a year.  One of my favorite quotes:  “ …[remember that] becoming an artist consists of learning to accept yourself, which makes your work personal, and in following your own voice, which makes your work distinctive.”

What is the worst advice you’ve ever received?

Years ago, an editor-who-shall-not-be-named advised I remove what I thought was an important subplot in my middle grade novel Seventh-Grade Weirdo.  I balked.  She insisted. We discussed. We argued. I pleaded. She won.  Publisher’s Weekly gave the novel a scathing review, complaining it was “…scanty on plot.”  ARGH!  (The book went on to win the Florida Sunshine State Young Reader Award and was on the Texas Lone Star Recommended Reading List, so nyah, nyah, but still…I miss that subplot!  Even my readers sometimes say:  “You know, it seems like there’s something missing here…”)

Most embarrassing moment?

I’m too embarrassed to tell you!

What do you miss most about being a kid?

How loooooooong summer vacation seemed!  Three whole months. Wow. An eternity.  Now, June feels like Friday; July, Saturday; and August a quick Sunday. Pfffffft – – gone!

BUGSWhat’s your favorite outdoor activity?

I love bodysurfing in Hawaii. The waves!  The warm water!  But ten years ago, I ruptured a disc in my neck that required surgery.  Doctor’s post-op orders?  No more bodysurfing!  Now, beachcombing for sea glass is my only ‘extreme sport’.

Ever had something happen that you thought was bad, but it turned out to be for the best?

Yes, yep, oh yeah!  My first contract was for Corey’s Fire, a Y.A. novel based on my family’s experiences when our home and neighborhood were destroyed in a California wildfire. A small hardcover publishing house bought the manuscript and set the pub date for the 10th anniversary of the fire. I told everyone the fantastic news –friends, family, neighbors, even the mailman (he was all-too-familiar with my SASEs!).  A local bookstore coordinated a big book launch.  Our local paper did a huge story on me. Then, a month before publication, my editor was fired.  Her replacement canceled my contract. Devastating?  Yup.  I hit the ground like a safe. My career was over before it had even started!  Fortunately, my agent resold the book to Avon/William Morrow. The novel debuted three years after the original pub date, received excellent reviews, several awards and honors, and is still in print (with a different publishing house) 22 years later!  As for the company that dumped me: it was eventually absorbed into a larger house, then disappeared altogether…

If you could meet anyone, living or dead, who would it be?

Dead:  Thomas Jefferson.  Alive:  Hugh Laurie. Both are fascinating Renaissance men.

When you have 30 minutes of free time, how do you pass the time?

I nap!  Napping is highly under rated.  Just ask any cat.

If you were reincarnated as an ice cream flavor, what would it be? 

Vanilla.  No question.  See, I’m a clotheshorse.  I love wearing different kinds of outfits, colors, styles, fabric, jewelry, etc., depending on my mood.  Vanilla ice cream is similar.  It’s delicious plain – – but you can also dress it up with hot caramel sauce or fresh raspberries or a gooey, chocolate-y brownie, and voila!  Even yummier than before.


What story does your family always tell about you?

My mom likes to relate the details of the morning I decided to visit my friend Patrick, who lived at the end of the block. This was in Erie, PA; it was seven a.m., the middle of winter, snowing, I was three years old, and wearing only a nightgown and my bare feet. I still remember Mom standing at the front door in her bathrobe, face frozen with shock, disbelief and horror as she watched me trot down the dirt road. I tried to reassure her with a wave, but…

What mischief did you get into growing up?

See above paragraph, which is just the tip of the iceberg. (I was fond of early-morning ‘adventures’.)

What’s the worst gift you’ve ever received?

A lamp in the shape of a purse. And the purse fabric was faux tiger fur!

What age did you become an adult?

Fifty. Ish. (Still working on it.)

Ever written a book that never got published? Ever think you’ll give it a second chance?

I’ve written a bunch of ‘em!  Some will never be rescued from the Black Hole (my file cabinet); others I’ve cannibalized, using bits and pieces of them in different stories.  There’s one book, though, a Y.A. mystery-romance-thriller (similar in style and tone to the old TV show “Moonlighting”) that I wrote in 1987. It’s been rejected something like 62 times! Judy Blume read and critiqued it at an SCBWI conference in the early 1990’s; she loved it and couldn’t understand why it hadn’t sold. She even graciously allowed me to use her name in my query letters.  I received one nibble after that, but the editor wanted the book to be part of a series of romantic thrillers. That sounded great, until I learned I’d have to write a new book every six weeks.  Talk about panic!  I practically had a coronary just thinking about it.  I’m not a fast writer, and tend to freeze up when faced with those kind of deadlines.  So I passed on the offer.  I revisit the novel every now and then. I still like it, and have considered turning it into a middle grade. Maybe someday…

Outliner or Seat-of-the-Pantser?

Both.  With novels, I outline.  I have to know where I’m going, how I’ll get there and with whom I’m traveling – and WHY – before I back the car out of the garage.  With picture books, though, I start out seat-of-pantsing. Then I outline. Then I SOP again.  And then I revise.

Which celebrity do you get mistaken for?

In the late 1980’s, I had a hairstyle similar to Princess Di’s.

My husband and I honeymooned in Barbados, which is where Di often vacationed. Boy, did I get a lot of double and triple takes!  And numerous people, especially waiters, approached me with:  “Are you….?”  or  “Has anyone ever told you, you look just like…?”  When I hit my 60’s, I would love to be mistaken for Helen Mirren.