As a child
Phyllis picked up an early affinity for colloquial language whilst growing up in Indiana and southern Illinois, “where people actually say things like, ‘I got a hitch in my git-along’!” She decided to be a writer in the fifth grade, but it wasn’t until she was thirty that she took a writing course with an influential teacher who gave her “the tools” she says she needed. “That’s when I figured out that you could learn to be a writer,” she says.
As an adult
When she’s not writing, Phyllis teaches at Vermont College’s MFA in Writing for Children programme. She lives with her two daughters and two cats in a 100-year-old house in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and loves to read (mostly mysteries with female protagonists) or spend time outdoors gardening, camping, sailing or travelling. “One of the things I’ve learned about myself,” she confides, “is that when I get really stuck and can’t seem to get writing, it’s because I’ve forgotten to take time out to play.”
As an artist
“Picture books are performances,” says Phyllis, quoting some sage advice she once received. “They’re performances that involve a child – something both of you do. And once I started thinking of them that way, I started getting much looser about making up words and playing around with rhythm.” The author does “endless rewriting” before a book is finished, but often starts out by writing her stories in her head, a trick she learned as a time-pressed mother when her two daughters were very young. For example, Rattletrap Car – a joyful celebration of perseverance – began with her playing around with sounds (“clinkety clankety, bing bang pop!”) and calling up bits of old camp songs. A master of rhythmic read-alouds, Phyllis exhibits a range many writers would envy. Her counting book Ten Sleepy Sheep is as serene and lulling as One Duck Stuck is rambunctious. “Counting sheep isn’t always easy,” she notes. “Once, while we were farm-sitting, my daughter and I had to chase down two runaway lambs in the growing darkness, then count twenty-seven frisky lambs to make sure they were all safe for the night. Luckily, they were.”