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Keepsake that Educates!

Mymcbooks Interview Author Catherine Urdahl


Catherine Urdahl is the author of Polka-dot Fixes Kindergarten (ill. by Mai Kemble and published by Charlesbridge in 2011) and Emma’s Question, (ill. by Janine Dawson and published by Charlesbridge in 2009).  In addition to her writing, Catherine conducts school visits and teaches classes at the LoftLiteraryCenter.  For more information,


We welcome Catherine Urdahl author of Polka-dot Fixes Kindergarten. I want to thank you for being my guest here on Mymcbooks Blog


What is the last book you read?  I just read Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos.  It’s easy to see why this book won the Newbery medal.  I loved the voice of the narrator, the fabulous humor and the cast of quirky characters. 


What was your favorite children’s book?  I loved Russell and Lillian Hoban’sFrances books.Frances has to be the world’s funniest and spunkiest badger, plus she makes up wonderful rhymes.  These books show childhood and family life in such an honest and humorous way.  They made me laugh—and, years later, they made my daughters laugh.


What were your earliest memories of writing?  I wrote and illustrated my first book when I was seven or eight.  In the book, a sailboat gets stuck in the middle of the lake, where it cries gigantic tears that slide down its sail and splash into the water.  I tied the book together with yarn.  When I was about ten, I wrote a short story and sent it into a magazine.  I received a letter back, telling me that submissions needed to be typed.  Unfortunately, I didn’t know how to type.


Were you encouraged to write or was it something that came naturally?  My parents always encouraged me to pursue my passions—and they gave my early books (like the sailboat story) rave reviews.  My mom was a fabulous first grade teacher and had a great love of reading.  She read to me from the time I was a baby, and I believe that’s at the root of my love for reading and writing.


Do you generally get a story idea first or does the main character develop first?  This really varies.  Sometimes I get the idea for the main character first, as I did with Polka-dot Fixes Kindergarten.  For some reason—don’t ask me why!—I had wanted to write a book about a young girl named Polka-dot.  I saw her as spunky and fun (kind-of likeFrances), with a vulnerable side as well.  I also imagined her being cared for by her grandpa, who was a bit quirky and had creative fixes for life’s many problems.  With my first book, Emma’s Question, both the plot and the characters came from my real life, so they developed together.  My other manuscripts are a mix, and sometimes it’s hard for me to remember whether the character or story came first.


What inspired you to write Polka-dot Fixes Kindergarten?  I was quite shy, especially during my early elementary years, so I struggled to adjust to school and other social settings.  Because of this, I remember this time of my life very well, and my early experiences often creep into my writing.  Also, there was a girl in my neighborhood who was quite mean to me.  (Not-so-coincidentally she was named Liz, like in the book!)  In real life, I was afraid to stand up to her.  However, Polka-dot is braver.  She does stand up to Liz—and performs an unexpected kindness that ultimately leads to friendship.  It was quite satisfying to re-write my personal history in this way.  Also, the grandpa in the book is like my dad, who really can fix anything, though he does things the right way and hardly ever uses duct tape!


Are you working on a new book?  I’m working on several new manuscripts, but I’m focusing mostly on an early chapter book series about two pigs—Ava and Ruby—who become best friends despite significant differences in temperament and fashion choices.


What is the most difficult part of writing?  For me the hardest part is sitting in my chair long enough to write a first draft of a new project.  I find the blank computer screen pretty intimidating; sometimes I feel like it is whispering you’ll never have a good idea again, as long as you live.  When that happens, I find it easier to dust my bookshelves or clean out my desk drawers.  So I have to push myself to stay in the chair and write something, even if it isn’t very good.


Do you write full time or do you still have a day job?  I used to work in corporate communications, plus I taught swim lessons for a while.  Now I focus on my writing and on visiting schools and teaching children about the writing process.


How do you react to a bad review—and have you ever suffered from writer’s block?  I am grateful that I haven’t had many bad reviews, but I did have one that really bothered me.  I talked to my writing friends and other people in the literary community, and they told me that a bad review was just one person’s opinion.  Of course, they had to tell me a lot of times!  I often suffer from writer’s block.  I think it comes from fear of failure and from preoccupation with other demands of life.  If I attend to my writing life by reading, visiting schools and meeting with other writers, I have more story ideas and more commitment to getting them down on paper.  Also, leaving my office and writing in a café or coffee shop often helps.


What do you hope readers will take away from your book?  I hope children reading Polka-dot Fixes Kindergarten will better understand both the causes and the effects of mean behavior.  I hope readers will see how mean behavior can hurt another person, and I hope they will think about other ways to vent their frustration or solve their problems.  I also hope readers will see that a person might talk or act mean because he or she is having a hard time and is feeling frustrated or sad.  Saying or doing something mean in return is not the answer.  However, it is appropriate to tell someone to stop being mean.  Also—making mistakes is okay.  On one of my first days of kindergarten I (like Polka-dot) broke a kindergarten rule by dipping the blue brush in the red paint.  I thought it was a BIG DEAL, but, of course, it was not.


Who are some of your favorite authors you would like to dine with? I am especially fascinated by the processes authors use to get inside the heads of characters unlike themselves.  Recently, I’ve read three wonderful books written from the point of view of characters on the autism spectrum—The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd, Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork and Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine.  I would love to talk with them about how they created these characters and made their voices so powerful and authentic.


What author inspires you the most and why?  This is a difficult question because often the author inspiring me is the one whose book I’m reading at the moment.  I do, however, always find inspiration inCharlotte’s Web by E.B. White.  The characters are quirky, lovable and unique. Plus the idea of a spider solving the problem by weaving words into her web is so wonderfully creative.  The book also contains one of the most heartwarming endings in all of literature:  “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.”


What discipline do you impose on yourself regarding schedules, goals, etc.?  I have tried a number of methods: requiring myself to write at least 500 words a day, writing at least two hours a day, etc.  Of course, the actual writing is only part of the job—though it is the most important part.  A writer also spends time reading; communicating with editors and agents; doing school, library and bookstore visits; and being part of the on-line community.  I am in the process of coming up with a daily schedule that incorporates all those elements.  We’ll see how that goes!


What advice would you give parents on selecting the right books for their children?  First, pay attention to the kinds of books your children like to read, and try to support their choices.  Sometimes we get too concerned about making sure our children read “good” literature—the books that win awards or get lots of attention in the literary world.  If those aren’t the kinds of books that interest a child, he might decide that he just doesn’t like to read; in reality, he might love to read as long as no one tells him that comic books, sports magazines, joke books or books of fun facts aren’t “real” reading.  Also, be careful about forming judgments about books based on the concerns of other adults—especially when those adults haven’t actually read the book!  Instead, if possible, read the book along with your child and talk about what she likes about it, why the characters acted as they did, whether your child agrees with the characters’ actions, etc.  You might be surprised what you learn about the book and about your child.


What advice would you give to new writers?  Spend lots of time reading, especially in the genre in which you’d like to write.  Also, push aside your fears and doubts and put your story on paper.  For many years, I spent a lot of time dreaming about becoming a writer without actually spending time writing.  That didn’t get me anywhere!  If you are able, take writing classes at a local literary center or college.  You’ll learn a lot about writing and meet other writers who share similar goals and challenges.  Often writers who meet in class form critique groups that provide valuable support and manuscript feedback. 


Thank you for this interview.






June 8, 2012 - Posted by | Meet the Author | , , , ,


  1. Catherine, I love the whole idea behind your book. With the Bullying going on today it’s so important for kids to realize the impact of being mean and hurtful. I love the Title, Polka Dot Fixes Kindergarten. Thanks for the interview post and I wish you every success with your book.
    Carol L.
    Lucky4750 (at) aol (dot) com

    Comment by carol L | June 8, 2012 | Reply

  2. I thoroughly agree with the idea that children should be free to read what they want, even if it isn’t great literature. I grew up reading formulaic books and it gradually led into other better quality books. The most important thing is that children are reading. (Note: that doesn’t mean parents shouldn’t keep an eye on what their children are reading, there is much that may not be age appropriate.)

    Heidi G.
    hg195 at yahoo dot com

    Comment by Heidi Grange | June 9, 2012 | Reply

  3. Great point on choosing books for our kids. I am one who is guilty of making sure that I have the “good” or “classic” literatures around my house that I sometimes forget that there are so many good authors. I found this out as I had ordered a book for my then 1 year old that was a “good” book to have. In doing so I got a second book, that I didn’t know anything about, from an author I was unfamiliar with for a drasticly reduced price. So I got it. My son loved that book so much more than the book I originally intended for him. I had to replace the book 3 times because he read it so much. Just goes to show.
    bournmelissa at hotmail dot com

    Comment by Melissa Bourn (@MelCamino5) | June 9, 2012 | Reply

  4. I like your inspiration of re-writing your childhood history – I wonder where Liz is now?

    Comment by tmy56 | June 9, 2012 | Reply

  5. My daughters and I love the Frances books too. I especially loved the way in one of the books she was making up the spelling of different words. Both my stepson and my younger daughter used to do that. They thought if you put any combination of letters together it would make a word.

    Comment by Jeryl M. | June 9, 2012 | Reply

  6. This book looks really great, I love to instill love of reading with my little grandchildren!

    Comment by Marilyn H | June 11, 2012 | Reply

  7. I love Russel’s books too =) I can’t wait to have my baby girl and read her some

    Comment by timesurge | June 20, 2012 | Reply

  8. I would love to read about Ava and Ruby. Thank you for your valuable encouragement and advice for new writers.

    Comment by likwan | June 22, 2012 | Reply

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