When Lynne Rae Perkins signs copies of her first novel, All Alone in the Universe (Greenwillow), she inscribes "Eat pie and be kind," and draws a piece of pie. This is inspired by one of the final scenes of her book, in which her main character, Debbie, tries to imagine her perfect life and sees herself eating pie. "It's just a nice thing to do," Perkins says. So is being kind, she says. Perkins wants children who read this inscription--and her book--to realize that "there are a lot of people out there who are willing to care about you, but that you have to be willing to care about people, too."
Perkins admits that she based the coming-of-age story on her own junior high school experience. Like Debbie, Perkins had a close friend who ditched her to start hanging out with someone else. "It took me a long time to figure out," she says. "I tried for years to make the friendship go back to the way it was before." Later, she says, she started to wonder what would have happened if someone had shown her how to let go and enjoy the friendship for what it was. Debbie d s this, beginning to heal after a few months of falling apart, and she realizes what a large supportive network of family, friends and neighbors she has.
Perkins never intended to become a writer. She earned a bachelor's degree in printmaking from Penn State in 1978, and a master's degree in the same subject from Wisconsin University in 1981. While she was looking for work, she attended a children's book conference and signed up for a portfolio review with Greenwillow art director Ava Weiss. "Ava was really encouraging," she remembers. She suggested that Perkins submit some ideas, one of which turned into Home Lovely, a 1995 picture book about a girl who brightens her new trailer home with a beautiful garden. "Then," she says, "I started thinking of myself as a writer."
Even with two picture books under her belt (Greenwillow published Clouds for Dinner in 1997), Perkins still found it difficult to tackle a novel. "With drawing, I could work on it and know right away if it was good or bad," she says. "It took me a lot longer to figure that out with writing." She credits editors Virginia Duncan and Susan Hirschman for guiding her through All Alone in the Universe.
Hirschman told her, after reading the first draft, that she was having trouble caring about Debbie, so Perkins tried to balance the book's humor with serious emotion. She says that this was typical of the way they worked: Duncan and Hirschman would make observations and suggestions, but would leave the solutions up to her. "They gave me a lot of freedom," Perkins says. She jokes that "sometimes I wish they would give me more direction."
Making visual art also helped Perkins work through her creative blocks. She did all the book's illustrations, tiny ink drawings inserted amid the text that provide many of the book's humorous moments. "I would work on the drawings to free myself up--just to use some other part of my mind," she says. "And when I came back to [writing], sometimes something would start to happen."
Perkins lives in Cedar, Mich., with her husband, who designs handmade furniture, and two children, ages eight and six. She gets up at 5:30 each morning to head to her studio to draw, and then takes over what she calls the "afternoon shift" at home.
Perkins's novel was chosen as one of the New York Public Library's "100 Titles for Reading and Sharing" for 1999, was one of Booklist's Best Books of 1999, and is among the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books' 1999 Blue Ribbons for fiction. Even so, she insists, it's the reactions from friends and fans that has been the most fun. "People in my community know who I am," she says. "And my family thinks it's really exciting."
She says she thinks it's pretty exciting, too, and is eager to start working on her next projects. She recently submitted an idea for a new picture book to Greenwillow, the theme of which, she says, is equally positive: "Things get better." She also has "a bunch of little fragments" that she hopes to work into her next novel. "I really like the possibility that this is what I get to do," she says. "I hope that things go well enough that I can keep doing it."