by Sharron L. McElmeel

As a child, Judy Sierra created books, but when she found out she had no way to copy them to sell, she created a "theater" so she could charge admission. That love of theater and storytelling carried through to her career as a children's librarian as she continued creating stories and puppet shows for her young patrons. By 1978, she and her husband were touring with the puppet theater that the two of them formed. After seven years, however, she tired of setting up and taking down the puppet theater. Sierra was living in Los Angeles, where the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators hold their annual conference. Her association with some of those writers and her attendance at many of the seminars and writing classes at UCLA helped her to think about writing as a profession. At first she wrote books about puppetry and storytelling. In 1986, Sierra attended a lecture by Uri Shulevitz, who left her with the idea that "a picture book is a small theater." Because she knew all about small theaters, she was inspired to turn her efforts to writing for children. After only four attempts, she got her first book published.

Most of her first books, for teachers and librarians, were written while she was earning a Ph.D. in folklore and mythology from UCLA. Twice Upon a Time: Stories to Tell, Retell, Act Out, and Write About (H.W. Wilson, 1989) and Multi-Cultural Folktales . . . Stories to Tell Young Children (Oryx Press, 1991) were co-authored with her husband, Robert Kaminski.

Sierra soon realized that several of the folklore texts included in those books had potential as picture books. These tales, according to Sierra, "had never been published in [picture book] form before." In 1992, the first of those tales was published as The Elephant's Wrestling Match with scratch-board illustrations by Brian Pinkney (Dutton, 1992). One of her most recent, The Beautiful Butterfly: A Folktale from Spain (Houghton Mifflin, 2000), is illustrated by Victoria Chess. Sterra began retelling single tales as picture books and creating other books with poetry.

A Writer and Poet Grows Up

Judy Sierra was born on June 8, 1945, to Jean and Joseph Strup and grew up as an only child in Falls Church, Virginia. Sierras mother tells the story about two-year-old Judy going to her doctor and reciting a Robert Louis Stevenson poem for him. Sierra says, "As a child, I was a great fan of Dr. Seuss and Wanda Gag and shared my parents' enthusiasm for Ogden Nash, Cole Porter, and Gilbert and Sullivan." Her father paid her a dollar for every poem she learned by heart. She memorized poems by many poets, including Lewis Carroll and T.S. Eliot. Second-grade reports were written in rhyme. Judy did word puzzles and loved reading the dictionary. She wrote poetry, drew, made books, and wrote, costumed, and directed plays. Judy's imagination took her to places far away. On the way to school she crossed one creek on a log and walked through a woods, which became a place to play--a place where she could pretend she was in Oz or Narnia.

Sierras love of words has taken her from child writer and poet, to children's librarian, to folklorist and puppeteer, and now, in her adult life, back to writer and poet. All of her experiences have brought an added dimension to her writing. She expresses the hope that in her writing, readers will find that her "years as a children's entertainer are evident .... My picture books are meant to be performed." She wrote The House That Drac Built by using the rhythm of a traditional rhyme, and while she was writing Antarctic Antics: A Book of Penguin Poems, she imagined them "to be Broadway show tunes sung by dancing penguins." She retold a classic Balinese story, The Dancing Pig (Harcourt/Gulliver, 1999), a story first encountered while studying and traveling in Bali. She tracked down a well-known folktale about a clever little trickster who outwits a group of sea creatures and retold it in Counting Crocodiles (Harcourt/Guilliver, 1997). After Counting Crocodiles was published, Sierra realized that the rhythm of Lewis Carroll's "The Lobster Quadrille" had become an integral part of her retelling.

Even those of Sierras books that seem to be rather ordinary in terms of topic turn into something quite different from what their titles suggest. For example, in There's a Zoo in Room 22 (Harcourt/Gulliver, 2000), Sierra has replaced storybook characters with their scary alter egos. Instead of Mary having a little lamb, in Sierras version "Mary has a Vampire Bat." "Cannibal Horner" eats off his own thumb and declares, "A tasty morsel am I!" The book borders on dark humor but has just the right balance between hilarious and ghastly.

The Writing

Sierra says, "I always begin writing by hand on Embassy quadrille writing paper with a Uniball Micro Pen and revise with Le Pens of various colors. I switch to the computer as soon as I think that a computer printout will make revising easier. I wish I could say that I adhere to a schedule, but the truth is that I don't. I do my best creative work at the beginning of the day.

"The time from beginning a manuscript to holding a picture book in my hands is three to five years, so I absolutely must work on more than one book at a time. I may be doodling and brainstorming about one book, for example, while writing and rewriting another, and at the same time working with editors on revisions of accepted manuscripts. One project is usually on the front burner, receiving the greatest part of my attention."

Sierra uses end-rhyme in her poems and searches for just the right words for every poem. She says she plays with the words, with their sounds within a line. The interplay between the words and the surprises each one brings are very important. She writes and then sets aside the writing for days or even weeks. When she picks the work up again, she can view it with a "fresh and critical eye."

A Fascination with Folklore

Folklore fascinates Sierra. As a puppeteer, she explored the traditional oral tales. Later, as a serious student of the genre, she was puzzled by the same story told in so many different regions of the world. She has authored several collections of tales, many containing stories that have never appeared in children's books before. An anthology of 18 folktales from around the world, Silly and Sillier: Read-Aloud Tales from Around the World (Random House, 2002) contains "teaching tales" those tales that grab children's attention by using a familiar and favorite theme--small characters becoming successful, or adults or large, frightening creatures making fools of themselves. Because these tales are intended for sharing with very young children (from ages 3 to 8) they use "a fair amount of repetition, amusing and onomatopoetic names and words, and participation [elements]." Her single-tale picture books include a retelling of an Indonesian Cinderella story, The Gift of the Crocodile: A Cinderella Story (Simon & Schuster, 2000), and of a traditional Momotaro tale, Tasty Baby Belly Buttons: A Japanese Folktale (Random House, 2002). The Cinderella story features a crocodile "fairy godmother"; the retelling of the Momotaro story has a female hero who is born from a melon rather than the peach that is part of most retellings.

Judy Sierra is not content in retelling single tales for the picture book set but also shares her scholarly research and love of folklore in collections meant for reading aloud to the young child. In Nursery Tales Around the World, she places 18 tales into six groups: Runaway Cookies, Incredible Appetites, The Victory of the Smallest, Chain Tales, Slowpokes and Speedsters, and Fooling the Big Bad Wolf. The Runaway Cookie section includes runaway stories from Norway ("Pancake"), Russia ("The Bun") and America ("Gingerbread Man). Her sequel to the Nursery Tales volume, Can You Guess My Name? Classic Tales Around the World (Clarion, 2002), shares three little known variants of "The Three Pigs," "Rumplestiltskin," "The Frog Prince," "Hansel and Gretel," and "The Bremen Town Musicians." Each of these variant versions will contribute to a body of work that can be used to examine story grammar--the critical elements in the plot, the characters' traits, and setting. Monster Goose (Harcourt/Gulliver, 2001) includes wacky versions of traditional verses.

Judy Sierra has many stories to tell, and she delights when others enjoy them. "The most satisfying single moment of my career occurred one Sunday morning in April, 1998. I awoke to the voices of Scott Simon and Daniel Pinkwater reading my penguin poems from Antarctic Antics. Such bliss!" Another exhilarating moment came when Sierra watched the animated video of that book. More books are on the way. Stories are "always bothering me, whining 'Choose me! Choose me!' I find it difficult not to get carried away by new book ideas." Readers who wish to know more about Sierras books as well as those that are forthcoming will find details on her Web site at <>.


Sharron L. McElmeel is director of McBookwords (a literacy organization) and an instructor of children's literature and young adult literature at the University of Wisconsin Stout's online education programs. She often writes and speaks about authors/illustrators and their books.

This article first appeared in  Library Talk (first publication rights only). Copyright for all other uses copyright by Sharron L. McElmeel.  The contents of this article may not be copied or e-mailed to multiple sites or posted to a listserv without the copyright holder`s express written permission. However, users may print, download, or e-mail articles for individual use.
This article was first published in Library Talk, May/June2002, Vol. 15, Issue 3.    Current Source:

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