I was born in Toronto and, shortly after swallowing a poisonous mushroom under the playground slide and having my stomach pumped, my family moved to Montreal where I attended a badly lit French nursery school in the basement of an old building. My classmate, Guy, and I bonded over a French storybook about a family of hungry kittens in a park. As these cats were wiser than I, they ignored the lure of the mushroom and stole a can of sardines from a picnic basket. Only, having no opposable thumbs, they couldn’t work the can opener. It was during these scenes, mimicking the frustrated kittens, that Guy taught me how to swear in French—a skill I’m thankful for to this day. I don’t remember the name of this book, but I’ll never forget the story or the illustrations or the fun we had creating our own, edgier, version of the tale.
A couple of years later, when I was about six or seven, I remember sitting in my sister’s closet and staring at a particularly good likeness of Snoopy I’d drawn and knowing I was meant to not only quit ripping off other artists’ work or one day face litigation, but to develop characters of my own and write a novel. Right then and there, amongst her sneakers. I knew it right down to my toes. I knew it so strongly that I was deeply ashamed of myself when I thought, “I could never do that,” crawled out and went off to play. I’m ashamed still.
Later, after my parents split and I’d moved with my father to attend high school in California, I wrote a story about an overweight weasel named Otto who did everything in his power to win the heart of the town beauty, but wound up falling for a fleshy little weaselette with no eyelashes. My English teacher told me to stay after class and said I should consider writing and illustrating children’s books. I was thrilled to the core, but once again, thought, “I could never do that.”
My first son was born in Toronto in 1992, my second three years later, and I began to write and illustrate children’s stories that I first read to my boys, then submitted to publishers. No one bit. I sold a few pieces to national newspapers, but gave up on the idea of writing a novel. I could never do that. My career took me from media buyer at an ad agency to decorative painter to art gallery manager to illustrator to proofreader and, finally editor. It was in this job that I truly fell in love with “playing with words.” I worked as an editor for a few years, eventually creating an office tabloid called “The Tattler,” which featured co-workers and superiors in scandals I had great fun inventing. My coworkers loved it. My superiors did not.
One day, when I was feeling particularly mopey about the zigzagged direction my career had taken, I happened upon this Anais Nin quote on Oprah’s website. “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” I walked into my office and began writing my first adult manuscript. Well, that manuscript is packed away forever in the basement and I still don’t trust mushrooms, but I know two important things; swearing sounds way cooler in French and, although I didn’t write it in my sister’s closet, I managed to squeak out that novel after all.
If anyone besides my mother is reading this, and if you happen to have a tween girl in your life, I hope you’ll take the time to check out my middle grade books, The Invisible Rules of the Zöe Lama and its sequel, The One and Only Zöe Lama. For more on the Zöe Lama books, visit me at www.thezoelama.com