Judy Sierra grew up in a creative, book-loving family. Her mother was a school librarian and her father was a photographer.
As her parents read books aloud to her, Judy fell madly in love with poetry, beginning with Mother Goose. By third grade she was writing some of her school reports in rhyme.
When Judy was seven, her father built a wooden puppet stage and her mother helped her make puppets out of cloth. Judy and her cousin charged kids twenty-five cents to see their shows, and learned that it is possible to make money in the arts.
Artists often need day jobs, so Judy went to college and got a degree in library science. She combined library work with a career as a children's entertainer, performing on a San Francisco children's television series, as a street artist, and at schools and Renaissance fairs. As an artist-in-the-schools, she taught children how to make puppets, write scripts, and put on shows. She named her puppet troupe after the nearby Sierra mountains of California, and later took the name of the troupe as her performing name and pen name.
Judy studied folklore and mythology at UCLA and earned a Ph.D. She wrote her first picture books while she was a graduate student, retelling some of the folktales she found during her research.
Over the years, Judy Sierra has worked with exceptional editors and illustrators to publish more than 35 books for children. These books have won many awards, including the Aesop Prize from the American Folklore Society and the E.B. White Read-Aloud Award from the Association of Booksellers for Children. Two of her books were on the New York Times picture book bestseller list. The honors she values most highly are the state and national Children's Choice Awards that are voted on by young readers. Her latest Children's Choice Award, in 2020, comes from the state of Louisiana, for Imagine That! How Dr. Seuss Wrote 'The Cat in the Hat', illustrated by Kevin Hawkes.
Today, Judy lives and writes in Portland, Oregon, with her husband, Bob, and their parti-poodle, Keiko.
Q & A
How did you begin writing children's books?
I never thought about writing children's books until I attended a talk by picture book author and illustrator Uri Shulevitz. He said that a picture book is like a small theater.
I thought to myself, I know a whole lot about small theaters—puppet theaters. I should write a picture book! The words would be like the script, and the page turns like scene changes.
Within a year I'd sold my first manuscript, The Elephant's Wrestling Match, published in 1992 with illustrations by Brian Pinkney.
Is it fun being a children's author?
Some parts of being a children's author are very enjoyable. For example, even though I'm a shy person I love standing on stage and speaking to teachers and librarians, or telling my stories to an auditorium filled with kids. Creating a book that kids will like, though, is a long and sometimes frustrating process.
How do you get your ideas?
Ideas for books arrive in different ways. Sometimes I give myself a challenge. For example, I wondered if I could I write a funny, exciting story about a rather boring subject. Good manners. That challenge resulted in Mind Your Manners, B.B. Wolf, illustrated by J. Otto Seibold.
The idea for my bestselling book, Wild About Books, came from a poster I saw at a library of wild animals reading books. How did they learn to read? I asked myself. Where did they get those books?
An important thing to know about good writing ideas is that they can appear suddenly, then disappear from memory just as suddenly. I try to write down any new ideas asap. A phone is helpful. Later, I transfer them to my idea notebook, one idea at the top of each page. Later, I peruse the notebook and brainstorm.
What were your favorite books as a child?
When I was a preschooler, my favorite book was The Golden Book of Poetry. I asked my parents to read the poems so often that I knew every one by heart long before I could read.
Later on, I read and re-read the Oz books and Nancy Drew mysteries. I devoured the books in the school library and the public library. My favorite of all favorites, the book that swept me away, was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis.
Which picture books inspired you as a writer?
I was inspired by the picture books that made me a read-aloud star when I worked at the public library. I liked books that were easy to memorize, so that I could perform them and bring them to life. Some favorites were Pierre, by Maurice Sendak, and Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst, and also the folktale picture books of Gerald McDermott and Ashley Bryan.