Heidi Schulz is a wannabe muggle. And don’t get her started on giraffes! This New York Times Bestselling author pens books for children and middle grade readers where she writes about rum-swigging pirates (though she’s never tasted the stuff, herself), and rain puddles with attitude. Now, she’s teamed up with Child Aid as a spokesperson, helping our organization raise awareness about the literacy needs of Guatemalan children in some of the poorest communities in the world. Read our interview and learn about the one thing most likely to drive this writer utterly insane (hint: UPS uses loads of the stuff), and why Schulz wants every child to fall in love with a book.
Child Aid: What book was your first love? We usually reserve that kind of talk for people, right? But we’re all friends here. We can admit that books often steal our hearts WAY before people do. Agree? Disagree?
Heidi Schulz: Oh, absolutely! Would you be surprised to hear that Treasure Island was my first book love? I remember my mom reading it aloud to my brother and me at bedtime when I was very young, maybe 4 years old. My body was lying in bed, warm and cozy, but my mind was far away, searching for pirate gold on a tropical island. I loved it.
Around the same time, my mom was teaching me to read using photocopied pages from the Read With Dick and Jane series, given to her from a teacher friend. (Pirating seems to be a theme in my life, doesn’t it? But, um, don’t steal books, kids.) I remember holding those stapled-together pages and feeling so powerful when the letters began to turn into words. It was like I had been given a set of keys that would unlock an entirely new world.
Since that time, I have been lucky enough to fall in love with new words and new stories, over and over again. It’s still a great feeling.
CA: Do you secretly want to be a pirate? Because you write about them a lot. Just sayin’.
HS: Ha! Now I’m rethinking my answers to your first question. Maybe I should have talked about other bookish loves of mine, like magic, and mysterious strangers, and fairytales come to life. What I really love is adventure and freedom. Pirate stories certainly offer those things.
But would I want to be a pirate? No. I don’t like the sticky feeling of saltwater drying on my skin or sand getting everywhere. And I’ve never even tasted rum. I think I’d rather tell stories, or read them, than live in one.
CA: What gave you the idea to turn the classic Peter Pan story on its ear? In Hook’s Revenge, Hook’s daughter Jocelyn makes for an interesting antidote to the traditional narrative of the Lost Boys and Peter Pan. What surprised you most about writing this classic tale from another angle?
HS: I have a nearly-grown-up daughter, but when she was small, she loved Peter Pan. I read the original J.M. Barrie book to her when she was not quite 3, and it captured her imagination. Peter Pan became her sometimes-imaginary friend, sometimes-alter-ego. For me, that meant many, many happy hours playing on the shores of Neverland, a place I thought I had left behind in my own rush to grow up. Hook’s Revenge was my attempt to preserve forever those hours of play. Perhaps one day, if she chooses to have children of her own, we will all go back and visit the island together, but if not, Jocelyn will be there, and I will remember.
As I wrote Jocelyn’s story, I was surprised to find my loyalties shift from Peter Pan to Captain Hook. Hook is such a sad character—still murderous and wicked for certain—but with such a melancholic tragedy to him. I grew to dearly love him as I tried to see him through his daughter’s eyes.
CA: You worked in accounting before becoming a successful writer. Did you always want to be a writer, deep down? Were you hiding behind a ten-key calculator, dreaming of writing stories? Or did you discover writing as a second career?
HS: I have mentioned my love of books already, but I hope you won’t mind if I diverge a bit from your question to tell you about a time when they became more to me than entertainment and enjoyment.
When I was 11, I liked to go to my town’s roller-skating rink with my friends, where we would skate, buy candy, and giggle and whisper about boys. One night a boy asked me to “couple-skate” with him—holding hands and skating while the DJ played a slow song. I agreed, and thoroughly enjoyed myself. Only, another girl there thought I shouldn’t have.
This other girl secretly liked the boy and seeing us skate together made her very angry. By Monday, when I got to school, she had convinced all the other girls in my class that I was not someone to be friends with. I didn’t have a single friend for the rest of the school year, but I had books. Reading about the difficulties characters faced, and overcame, made me feel brave and connected and seen in a way that I couldn’t find anywhere else at that time in my life.
Knowing that someone out there understood me enough to tell stories that spoke to my heart was such a comfort—but it also meant that I developed a reverence for writers that kept me from believing I could ever be one. It wasn’t until I was in my 30s and the right story grabbed me in the right way that I realized writers are not a bunch of mountaintop mystics, but are people, like me, who were once regular kids, like I was, often staying up way too late crafting stories from their messy kitchen tables, while wearing pajamas.
Being a writer isn’t an exclusive club. It just requires a love of storytelling and the dedication to see the work through.
CA: You are an adviser to the Portland Book Festival through Literary Arts. What do you love most about the annual festival? Who would you love to see in 2019 reading from a PBF stage?
HS: The festival is such a special event, and I feel incredibly lucky to be involved with it. I’m always thrilled to connect with so many people, readers and writers alike, that love books and enjoy talking about them. That’s my favorite part. Next to that, I’d say the venue—the Portland Art Museum—is a favorite aspect. I’ve been to several book festivals, but the setting is one thing that helps make this one truly spectacular.
Every year, I look through publishers’ catalogs and poll my friends about upcoming children’s books. When I discover something that I think attendees would be really excited about, I add it to a big spreadsheet. I feel like my recommendations for whom I think should be considered grows larger every year. Honestly, I’d love to see them all!
CA: If you could be ANY character in a book, who would you be? Why?
HS: While they are wonderful to read about, characters in books have far too much conflict and danger in their lives for me to want to actually become one. If I absolutely had to choose, I’d probably pick someone like a random muggle Harry Potter once sat next to on a bus. Someone just quietly living their life, away from it all.
CA: With Giraffes Ruin Everything, you went from writing middle-grade books to stories for younger children. What prompted this literary choice? What did you love about writing a picture book? What did you miss about writing middle-grade level books?
HS: When I was 4 years old, a giraffe at the Portland Zoo ambled up to the fence for a visit. At that time, you were able to feed the giraffes those little pellets you can get at petting zoos, so they were able to get very close. Too close. The giraffe reached its long neck over the fence, stuck out its long tongue, wrapped it around my baby doll’s head, and popped it right off. I carried a grudge. That is how Giraffes Ruin Everything eventually came to be.
Picture books are a completely different art form than middle grade books. In one way, it’s nice to be able to tell a complete story in just a few hundred words, but my goodness, it’s hard. I like writing both, but middle grade is my favorite. I think I relate best to that age of reader.
CA: Do you ever struggle to come up with your next project? Or do you have lots of ideas and find it a challenge to narrow your ideas down to one workable title?
HS: All the time. I always have ideas, but it’s not always easy to determine what I will want to spend a year or more working on. I find it’s best to pick what most sparks my curiosity.
CA: You have hobbies. We snooped you on Twitter and discovered your passion for circle skirts. Would you like to comment?
HS: Ha! Yes, I did go through a circle skirt phase this past fall. For my birthday last year, I got a new serger—which is a special kind of sewing machine that, among other things, can make really neat, durable seams. Sewing cute new skirts was a fun and easy way to practice using it.
I think it’s really important to have creative hobbies, maybe especially when you work in a creative industry. It helps to keep burnout at bay to have ways to engage your imagination and maker-heart that aren’t tied to any kind of pressure or financial expectations.
I also enjoy miniatures. I’ve been building a dollhouse for the last few years and have done everything from installing tiny hardwood floors (made from popsicle sticks), to wiring a tiny light system, to building tiny furniture. It’s so much fun! (You can find pictures on my Instagram @heidischulzbooks or under the hashtag #heididollhouseproject.)
CA: Pair of new shoes vs. hot grilled cheese sandwich and chocolate milk. Choose only one.
HS: New shoes (Fluevogs, please) will win against 90 percent of the things they could be paired against.
CA: Animal most likely to steal your heart: llama vs. hedgehog Choose only one.
HS: Hedgehogs are much quieter than llamas and would therefore make better heart thieves. That is why I always keep my heart locked away in a hedgehog-proof safe.
CA: In this digital age, why do you think books are still important for kids?
HS: Books do so much. They open our hearts and minds to possibility and teach us more about other people and ourselves. But I think, in today’s world, the most important job they can do is instill empathy—that has been scientifically proven. And empathy is an essential, maybe even the most essential, character trait people can develop.
CA: Name one thing that makes you angry. (We really hope it isn’t a Q&A).
HS: There are so many big things I could and probably should name here, like injustice and inequality and unkindness, but I’ll name something smaller, and probably weirder.
Thanks to the internet, I have learned that something I thought was always just a strange quirk of mine is an actual condition called Misophonia that means certain sounds trigger the anger center in a person’s brain. Some people feel it when they hear others chewing, for example.
I feel it when I hear pieces of Styrofoam rubbing together. It makes me both suddenly, irrationally angry and incredibly anxious. The sound has made me yell, brought me to tears, and at least once, has caused me to actually run away from it. (Please do not ever rub it together in front of me.) So, Styrofoam makes me angry. Aren’t brains neat?
CA: Name three things that bring you joy.
HS: My family, puppies, and the first sunny day after a month of rain.
CA: What about Child Aid’s mission is important to you?
HS: I want all children, everywhere, to have access to good books and the ability to learn. Those children will grow into educated, empathetic adults and they will change the world.
CA: If you could be on a super-secret mission of some kind, what would it be?
HS: If I told you, it wouldn’t be a secret, now would it?
Editor Note: New York Times Bestselling author and self-proclaimed giraffe suspicioner, Heidi Schulz, lives in Salem, Oregon with her husband, their teen daughter, a terrible little dog, and several dozen dust bunnies. Her debut novel for middle grade readers, Hook’s Revenge, published by Disney•Hyperion, is a New York Times Bestseller, a Bank Street Best book, among the New York Public Library’s Top 100 Titles for Children in 2014, a Scripp’s National Spelling Bee book club selection, and an OCTE Oregon Spirit Honor Book. A sequel, Hook’s Revenge: The Pirate Code, was published in 2015. Bloomsbury Kids published her picture book debut, Giraffes Ruin Everything, in August 2016. Her short story for children, The Day the Puddles Stomped Back, can be found in Oregon Reads Aloud, an anthology to benefit S.M.A.R.T. (Start Making A Reader Today). Heidi lies to children for fun and profit.