When I was a little girl, I remember very clearly looking at the minute hand of the clock, and the door of my classroom, and then wishing with all my heart that a duck would come marching through that door. Why a duck? Well, I suppose a pig or gila monster or zebra would have done just as well, but just something, anything to prove that in the midst of the most ordinary day, unexpected things can happen.

Well, lots of minutes did pass, and unexpected things did happen. When I wrote my first grown-up book, Educating Esmé: Diary of a Teacher's First Year, I got to travel all over the country and talk to educators about how important it is to teach using children's books. That was a great adventure, but I had to give up my teaching position to do it, and I got really lonely for the children who made every day so different. I realized, though, that writing is a kind of teaching, and that I could use my books to share with children all that I ever dreamed of, communicating not only with a single classroom but with children all over the country. Then I didn't feel so lonely and was able to write Sahara Special, my first novel. My wish was that this story would help children be hopeful that no matter where they live or how they live or what's in their file, there is always a chance that a duck, or a person, or an idea may come marching in that door to make life a little bit more interesting.

Here are a few frequently asked questions about me and my book, Sahara Special.

What's your book about?
Sahara Special is a story about a little girl who has what I believe every child has: a talent. There are all sorts of talents, and some fit in well at school and some are more useful other places. In Sahara's case, her talent is writing. This is a book about a person who has something unique to give to the world, but needs to believe that people like her before she really has the heart to give it. This book is also about a boy named Darrell who also is unique and living a kind of parallel life to Sahara. Both of them have had problems at home and are receiving special education services at the Chicago Public School they attend, but while Sahara deals with her troubles by getting quieter and quieter and more to herself, Darrell deals with his troubles by being louder and louder and driving everyone crazy. Both of the children are lonely. I noticed this when I was a teacher: a lot of kids are lonely, even when they are standing right next to someone else who might be lonely, too. That's a bad situation, but it can be fixed in real life and in stories. So that was my job, to get these two difficult kids to like themselves enough so other people could like them, too. I hope you do.

Did you write when you were a kid?
I always liked to write. I have kept diaries since I was 7, and hid them in the cushions of my doll buggy. When there was no more room, I cut a hole in my boxspring mattress in shoved them in there. When I was eight years old, one of my teachers got me a gig writing columns for a small independent newspaper, In These Times, where I was sent to review movies from a kid's-eye view. I remember there was a famous dog actor named "Benjy," and I got to interview his owner. I thought that was very exciting. I also enjoyed writing poetry and plays, and sometimes dreamed of being a sportswriter. When I was around twelve, I started an underground newspaper at my school and I got in a lot of trouble. That was exciting, too. When I was a teenager, I had about two hundred pen pals and was often absent from school so I could write to them. I also had a regular column in a national collector's magazine, Stickers & Stuff. I always found writing non-fiction to be easier than writing fiction, because it's pretty "cut and dry." With fiction, you have to make a lot of choices.

What influenced your writing while you were growing up?
Comic books influenced my love for dialogue and strong characters, and lyricists from old showtunes (like Frank Loesser, Jerome Kern, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin) made me see the crazy things that language could do. My parents and grandparents were all gifted writers and readers who had strong opinions about the potential of words, and I was always encouraged, which I see now was a great blessing. I also was lucky to have a marvelous teacher in high school named Mrs. Robinson who showed me how to organize my ideas.

What are your hobbies besides writing?
Besides being with my family, my favorite thing to do is read. I have a personal collection of about 8,000 children's books that took fifteen years to build, which I someday hope to turn into a children's reading room and teacher center. The other thing I love to do is dance and sing in my living room. I listen to jazz music and showtunes, and I especially like to sing gospel music and bang my tambourine very loudly. What I lack in talent I make up for in noise. (Some people have said the same about my writing.) I have always admired authors and illustrators and collected their autographed pictures. My first autograph was from one of my favorites, Roald Dahl, who wrote Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I also enjoy cooking (but not cleaning, no, not cleaning at all), working on my website, studying the Chinese zodiac and gardening.

What other jobs have you had besides writing?

Here is a cake I made for my son's 4th birthday!
I used to be a "doughnut finisher" at Dunkin Donuts, which means I got to put the frosting and sprinkles on the doughnuts. I still like to decorate cakes for my little boy on his birthdays. I used to work at children's bookstores, selling books, storytelling and organizing programs that would attract people to the stores. I did that for about seven years and enjoyed it very much. Then I became a teacher because I thought it was a job like being a bookseller, but with better pay. I liked that pretty well, but I just wanted to read aloud all day and talk about great books and do puppets and artwork and science experiments without anyone bothering me about test scores, so I worked as a school librarian instead. That was a great job. I even learned the Dewey Decimal system.

Then I wrote that book for grown-ups called Educating Esmé: Diary of a Teacher's First Year, and many people liked it, so I left that job and got to travel all around the country talking about my experiences and about how important it is to teach using what's in yourself and not just what's in a textbook. Helping grown-ups see how important it is to share the best children's books with children is still my favorite job. I do it by trying to write decent children's books myself and by recommending books through my website.

I use the skill of writing every day in my work as an author, but I also used it as a children's bookseller, an elementary school teacher, a librarian and a website designer, and for pleasure and to help my friends. You don't have to be an author to use that skill.

Working is one of my favorite parts of being a grown-up. When I grow up some more, I would like to have long white hair and be a witch and have a little gingerbread house in the woods with central air and heating. Please come and visit.

How old are you?
I was born on October 5, 1968. So that makes me …uhhh… 218 years old?
One of the reasons I became an author was so I wouldn't have to do as much math.

Can you tell about your family?
My family all lives in Chicago, just a stone's throw away, which is very convenient in case we feel like throwing stones at each other. They are all hard-working people. My mother is a secretary and my father is an activities director at a nursing home, and my younger brother is a professional rapper who runs a record store. When I was a little girl my parents got divorced, but then they remarried each other about five years later. That does not usually happen, as you may have already noticed. Sorry.

I am married to a great artist and social activist, Jim Pollock, a printmaker who is famous for his poster art for the band Phish. He also plays excellent bossa nova guitar, which is Brazilian music, and he practices so often that sometimes I tell him if he loves his guitar so much, why doesn't he marry it? But it's too late, he already married me. We try to live in a manner as close to Gomez and Morticia of the "Addams Family" as we can, and surprisingly, this has resulted in living happily ever after for the past 16 years. In 1995 our son Russell moved in, named for one of my favorite authors, Russell Hoban. He would like to be an elf or a janitor when he grows up, which I think are both very helpful choices.

What sort of name is Esmé Raji? What country are you from?
My parents named me after a girl in a short story, "For Esmé with Love and Squalor" by a man named J.D. Salinger. Since then I have learned it is a common name in England for both boys and girls, and that it is also an English version of the French Aimée, or Amy, which means "beloved." My middle name is from India, I think it means something like "goddess of the moon." I like my name now, but when I was little I wished my name was Maggie. I am from America, and I consider that to be my ethnicity. I know that isn't the answer kids like, but I will say my great-grandparents came a long way and had a very hard time just so someday I could call myself American, so that's the answer I have.

What is your favorite food?
Chocolate, of course, and cheese. I love cheese. Whenever people ask me what I would like for a present, I always say, "oh, some nice cheese, please." Then they laugh and think I'm kidding. But I'm not. Since I live in Chicago, there is lots of wonderful food represented from all over the world. I try to be a vegetarian and I like Mexican and Vietnamese food the best.

What are your pet peeves?
I hate when teachers say books have to be at least 100 pages in order to do a book report, because many books are 96 pages. I made Sahara more than a hundred pages so at least you can read it for a book report if your teacher makes you. I also hate worksheets. Please tell your teacher that there is no evidence that worksheets help to teach reading. If she gets mad, blame me.

Another one of my pet peeves is envy. I think if you celebrate other people's achievements as well as your own, you'll have more to celebrate and have a happier life. I try to make successful things happen to characters in my books so that readers can be happy for them.

What are your pets?
There are no pets allowed in my apartment building, but we managed to sneak in two frogs, named Frog and Toad. If I could have any pet, I would like a skunk, a friendly one without the stink. A skunk would look so pretty with a pink bow around it, don't you think? I also would love an octopus, I hear they are very smart animals, but I also hear they don't like to be kept as pets, they prefer to live in the ocean. That seems reasonable.

Where do you get your ideas?
At Target.
No, that's a joke. I get my ideas from my real life. Most of my life has probably been the same as yours: school, work, friends, enemies, family, neighborhood, thrills and disappointments. You don't need to have a fancy life to be a good writer. You just need to have fancy senses. You need to feel and taste and touch and listen and look at everything around you, in stereo. You need to do all those things to the point where they become special, to the point where you realize no one is experiencing them the same way you do. Then you write down everything. It's not what you write about that's important. It's how you write about it. That's called voice, and everyone has one. Some people are able to put that voice into written words, and those people are called writers. You might be one of them. Wouldn't that be fun? It's like finding out you're Spiderman or something.

How long did it take you to write Sahara Special?
About two years, not including editing, which took another two years. Sometimes it takes a long time to write a book.

What is true about Sahara Special?
Sahara Special is fiction, which means it comes from my imagination. All stories start in real life, though. I was inspired by children I went to school with, and children I taught. Inspiration is a kind of starting point that comes from thinking about people that have qualities that attract you or interest you. When I wrote this book, I started by thinking about these people, and had a picture in my mind of what they looked like. For some characters, I looked at old class photos that belonged to friends, so those were children I didn't know, and I tried to imagine what they might be like on the inside.

Sahara started with remembering one particular girl I knew who was very, very quiet but a very good reader and writer. She liked collecting stickers and had a hard time making friends, and people didn't see all that was good in her right away. I always wished that I was a kid again so I could be her friend, but I was a teacher, so I was her ally instead.

Paris's character started with a very smiley girl I knew who really had those pigtails like Mickey Mouse. Her mother died and she was very brave about it, so I tried to make her character very strong and heroic as well, and surrounded her with people who loved her.

Luz was inspired by my own buddy in fifth grade who had pretty, long black hair like a shampoo commercial and really did say "esteekers."

Darrell was also inspired by a boy from my childhood who always made a lot of noise whenever the teacher asked him to do something. One day this teacher told our class a long story about a boy who cut off his nose to spite his face. I thought it was a very moving story and listening to it made me want to be extra good, but this boy did not seem very interested and he never stopped driving her crazy. I imagined that boy in my head whenever I wrote about Darrell, though I really did meet quite a few boys like Darrell when I was a teacher and a librarian.

When I was writing about Miss Pointy, I sometimes imagined my friend Liza Tursky, a very glamorous fifth grade teacher I know who really did paint her classroom yellow. I like how Miss Tursky speaks in a very straightforward, helpful way to her students, and how she reads aloud to her class, so I tried to bring her spirit into the book. When Miss Pointy loses her temper, though, I know I am imagining myself. Many of the ways Miss Pointy manages her classroom is the way I managed mine in real life, because that's what I knew. When I was a teacher, I really did teach time traveling and puzzling and funny subjects like that, and we really had a trouble basket.

Questions can be an inspiration, too. When I was a student teacher, I often saw kids out in the hallway playing board games with their teachers. I noticed that most of them were black boys, and that seemed strange to me. Why were they out in the hall playing games when everyone else was learning to do math in the classroom? I had many other questions that affected the story. For instance,What if two kids are having problems, and one kid acts out really loudly, but the other kid kind of curls up inside and is extra quiet? Do they get the same kind of treatment? Should they?
What if something really hard is happening at home. Does that make it hard for a kid to do work at school? Should a teacher pay attention to that, or teach like nothing is really going on?
A lot of kids I grew up with and taught were from families where there was just one parent. What is it like when a parent is absent on purpose? Can a kid still love herself when she's not sure if that parent loves her? What does that do to the relationship with the parent that remains?
What's important to learn at school?
What makes a difference in people's lives?

But these people and questions were just starting points. The things in the story didn't actually happen as they did in the story, at least not to anyone I know. The things that are really true in this fictional book are the things Miss Pointy is trying to share; those are things I really want to share. The questions may translate into real life, even though the answers may be different for different people. The feelings are real, too.

Why did you dedicate Sahara Special to Beverly Cleary?
I never met Beverly Cleary and she was not directly involved in the writing of my book. But I think reading is one of the most important parts of learning how to write, and I learned a lot about writing from reading her books. I like the way she made everyday events in the lives of children important by writing about them very carefully. I like how she cared about what's going on inside of her characters as well as what's going on outside. Reading her books also gave me a lot of pleasure when I was growing up, making me laugh and feel less lonely. I also dedicated the book to her because I think she represents a time in publishing (or the making of books) when what went into books was not so influenced by what would sell on t.v. and in toy stores and what was "trendy." I wanted to show that I valued that kind of writing that puts children first.

I know my book is very different than anything Beverly Cleary might have written, but I didn't want to miss the chance to say thank you to a very fine writer who made an impact on me and on all of children's literature.

Why is there some swearing in your book?
When a writer includes strong language or other questionable behavior in a story, it doesn't always means the writer thinks it is the best thing for a person outside of the book to do. It means that the writer is trying to show a character in the most realistic way, and believes the reader can decide whether or not the character is making good choices. I worked in grade schools for about five years, and I heard a lot of kids swearing during that time. People (both kids and grown-ups) sometimes swear when they are angry of frustrated, or sometimes when they feel very comfortable and don't understand that the situation is more formal. So when I was writing the things that the characters would say, it seemed honest to suggest that a kid like Darrell might use impolite language. It also seemed honest that a teacher would correct him sometimes, and overlook it other times.

If you use profanity (or swear words) in your writing while you're a kid, you'll probably end up in the principal's office. So it's better to wait until you're a grown-up writer to make those artistic choices. By then you will have learned about the First Amendment to the Constitution that will make you brave, and you will be in a position to have a website so you can explain your choice.

Do you have any advice for aspiring young authors?
Sure! Here are a few things to keep in mind when you write (you may recognize a few of these suggestions from Sahara Special!):

1. Write what you know about. Your own real life is interesting.

2. If you don't have something nice to say about someone, change their names.

3. Don't begin with "the alarm clock rang" and don't end with "then she woke up. It was all a dream." Also, don't end stories by killing people. That's trite.

4. Let your readers know about the characters by what they say, what they do, and what other people say about them.

5. Make all the characters important to the story. If they aren't important, don't spend a lot of time describing them.

6. Have something you want to say before you write, something that you would want to say even if only one person read what you wrote. Being published and winning prizes are not the most important things.

7. Most books are either about a new person coming into the picture or a journey in life; try those out as starting points.

8. Choose your words carefully. Make every word count. Say things in your own way, not in the way others have said things before.

9. People talking in stories is fun. Listen to the way people talk and try to duplicate it in your writing.

10. Read a lot. Reading is what will teach you to write more than anything else. If you need some recommendations for great new books, check out the Don't Miss titles on my website.

What is your next book about?
I agree with Miss Pointy: if it comes out of your mouth, it won't come out of your pen. So I never talk about what I'm working on, but if you want to receive updates about my future work, you can e-mail me with "receive update requests" in the subject line. Thank you for your interest!

Would you be my penpal?
I'm sorry, I can't. Sadly, even though I love letters and reading, if I took on penpals or read all the stories kids sent to me, I wouldn't have time to write my books or kiss my family. But I do hope you get a penpal if you want one. Penpals are a great way to get better at writing, because you have to describe the people and places that you care about to someone far away. Plus, it's fun to get letters from a friend! International Youth Service or Student Letter Exchange may be able to help you; that's where I got a lot of my pen pals when I was young.

I have a report due in about a week and I was wondering if you could answer some questions for me?
I am very flattered if children (like you!) want to write letters to me (especially ones that are not assigned), and I do love to receive them. Unfortunately, even though I try to answer all my mail, sometimes it takes a very long time. Sometimes I am travelling or working on another book or just fallen behind, and sometimes I have to put my family first. Thanks for your understanding. Try to use this page and other resources for reports because unfortunately I can't answer mail by any requested date, and I don't want you to get a bad grade. If you do have a question you don't see answered here, let me know and maybe I will post the answer here in the future. Please send all correspondence to:

Attention: Sahara Special
2646 West Pratt Boulevard
Chicago, IL 60645

Please take care to include a clear return address. I am happy to send an autographed bookplate to anyone who sends me a self-addressed stamped envelope (that's an envelope with your own name and address clearly printed on it, and a postage stamp or two). Teachers, letters from you and your classroom are welcome and preferred, but please send in a batch and expect a single response. Sorry, I do not reply to mimeographed letters or homework assignments in the form of letters. I don't mean to sound unfriendly, I just don't like homework any more than you do.

Thank you very much for visiting my site and for reading my books. Happy reading always to you and yours, and keep shining like the star you are!

Yours truly,
Esmé Raji Codell