Mary Jane (MJ) Auch
Books were a part of my life from a very early age. My mother, Hattie Stanley Springer, had been a second grade teacher and made sure there were always plenty of books in the house. She is the one who taught me how to read way beyond my grade level when I was in second grade. I loved all kinds of books -- even comic books. I read them in the prescription room of my father’s drug store, when I was supposed to be checking in the new shipment of magazines each week. I began to draw and write my own comics, with speech balloons for the dialogue. I filled dozens of notebooks with my illustrated stories.
I was also fascinated with chickens. On my father's side of the family, my Grandma Springer, Uncle Ray, and Uncle Bill had a big chicken farm on Long Island, NY. We had a two week vacation on the farm every summer. Since I was an only child, and my bachelor uncles didn't have any children, my only playmates on vacation were the chickens. There were chickens on my mother's side of the family, too. My great grandmother -- we called her Little Grandma -- had a small flock of chickens in a woodsy patch named the hen park. From a very young age, I loved watching the chickens interact with each other. They had real personalities, much like a group of kids. There was always a shy one, a bully, and a nosey hen who had to poke her beak in everybody else's business. I think my chicken picture books had their first inspiration way back then.
I took ballet lessons from the age of three through high school. The yearly recitals were a big event. My mother was an expert seamstress and made all of my costumes. The tutus were a work of art, with layers and layers of ruffles made of a stiff fabric called tarleton. My favorite part of every recital was just before the curtain opened, when the dancers waited breathlessly in their places, bathed in the lavender glow of the red and blue overhead lights. Years later, I tried to reproduce that lighting effect when I illustrated HEN LAKE, one of the poultry picture books.
My interest in drawing and painting grew stronger over the years. My parents even finished off a small section of the attic as an art studio where I could make as big a mess as I wanted with my projects. The fact that they took my art seriously was a huge encouragement to me. I wanted to become a magazine illustrator.
I hadn't given any thought to writing, but when I reached fifth grade at #42 School in Rochester, I was given the best possible teacher a future author could have -- Miss Dworetsky. She made us diagram sentences from September through June. I hated it at first, but as I started to understand how a sentence was put together, I loved the challenge of putting the various parts of speech in the right places. Because of all the repetition, writing became second nature to me. Even though I was still aiming for a career as an artist, I was given all the tools I would need to become a writer in Miss Dworetsky's fifth grade class.
During high school, I won blue ribbons in the Rochester Scholastic Art Exhibits for realistic paintings and drawings. After graduation, I became an art major at Skidmore College. Unfortunately, I arrived in college at a time when only abstract art got any respect. I got a wonderful foundation in color theory and composition, but we were told that illustration was the lowest form of art, and were discouraged from pursuing it as a career. So I gave up on my dream to be an illustrator and concentrated on textile design.
After graduation from Skidmore, I headed for New York City to find work in textiles, and landed a job designing prints for men's shirts and pajamas in the Empire Sate Building. Of course when I told friends at home about my new job, the first thing they wanted to know was what floor I worked on. It was the fifth floor -- not very exciting. But I loved living in New York. I went to as many plays and dance concerts as my limited funds would allow. Some of my friends were going off to work in the Peace Corps, which made me think I should be doing something more meaningful with my life. It was time to go back to school for more training. I got a full scholarship to the Occupational Therapy graduate program at Columbia University, which led to some wonderful years of working in a children's hospital in Newington, Connecticut.
On a brief stop home to visit my parents before starting a new job in Denver, I met Herm Auch, a graphic artist and editorial cartoonist for the Rochester Gannett newspapers. It was love at first sight, and I never made it to Denver! We were engaged on our third date and married within a year of my return home.
I continued to work as an OT until our children were born. Our daughter, Kat, arrived in 1971, and our son, Ian, in 1973. We moved from the city to a small farm, complete with chickens, ducks, and geese. Armed with a huge collection of Mother Earth News and absolutely no practical experience, we tackled farm life with gusto. That's where I got some of the comedy material for future books. As the children grew older, I began to look for work in my original field of art. Like Jenna's mother in Mom Is Dating Weird Wayne, I had a brief stint as a “zit zapper” at a school picture factory. Then I got a freelance illustrating job for Pennywhistle Press, a national children's newspaper, and this sparked my interest in illustrating children’s books.
At the urging of some friends who were writing for children, I attended a week-long children's writing conference on Cape Cod taught by Natalie Babbit. When Natalie talked about starting out as an artist and finding she could paint better pictures with words, something clicked. I finally knew thatwanted to a writer. It wasn't as easy as I had hoped, though. I wrote four full-length novels before I sold the first two books, CRY UNCLE! and THE WITCHING OF BEN WAGNER to two different publishers in the same week. It had taken two years and thirteen rejections to reach my goal.
Still hoping to use my art training, I asked the editor of CRY UNCLE! if I could try doing the jacket illustration. She agreed, and the picture on the left was my attempt. It showed the main character trying to catch some chickens. My editor said the illustration wasn't good enough to be onthe book. First, there was no background. (I'm not good at painting buildings and landscapes, so I just made it blurry.) Second, the boy looked stiff. (No kldding. I had used Ian as a model, haviing him draped over a hassock to get the right sprawling position. Of course he looked stiff!) But the editor said she loved my chickens. So I wrote seven more novels, but kept trying to think up a story about chickens that I might be able to illustrate. Finally I came up with THE EASTER EGG FARM, which set in motion a series of picture books featuring poultry in the arts.