I was born in Iowa, where I grew up in a small farm town called Dysart. It was a great place for kids, a safe island in a sea of corn and beans. Summers were spent at the pool and on bikes all over town, and I was blessed with the best friends anyone could ask for.
For as long as I can remember, I have loved telling stories. The first I ever wrote was in first grade and was about Lion who realized that a Bad Man had stopped time, thereby preventing the arrival of Easter. Lion went to the Bad Man's castle, threw him off the drawbridge (The word "drawbridge" takes about two hours to print in first grade.) and then flipped the switch to restart time. Only years later did I begin to ask the tough questions about how Lion was still able to move when all of time was stopped and how the Bad Man was able to stop time with just the flip of a switch. Thanks to a lot of hard work and patience from many great teachers and librarians, I learned a lot more about reading and writing stories as I grew up. After high school, I went to the University of Iowa to major in English, determined that I would one day be a writer. To pay for college, I joined the Iowa Army National Guard, serving one weekend a month and two weeks a summer as a combat engineer.
In the National Guard I learned about discipline, rifles, machine guns, and all kinds of stuff about explosives. In college, I learned about Shakespeare, Chaucer, poetry, and novels from different time periods. I also learned one of the most important lessons about writing. Writing is difficult.
I didn't give up on trying to make a book. In fact, as I graduated from college I thought I was doing reasonably well with the first draft of what I believed would be my first novel. Someone had told me to "write what you know," and I knew about boys growing up in the small towns of Iowa. I was sure that I was about to get an offer for publication. What I received instead was a phone call from my Army National Guard company. The first word of that call was the dreaded code word. Stampede. The message was real. I was going to war, and life as I had known it, was over.
I had very bad feelings about going to the war in Afghanistan. Most of all, I missed my wife and home, but I also felt like my entire life, including my writing career, had been put on hold. Some people might think that war is exciting or even fun, but I was terrified! I was certainly not having fun. At any time I could have been shot or a roadside bomb could have killed me. Firing machine guns on practice ranges and rigging explosives is kind of fun, but all of that gets old very quickly.
At one of my lowest points during my time in the war, when I was feeling particularly miserable, when I had real doubts about returning to Iowa alive, I received in the mail a copy of Katherine Paterson's beautiful novel Bridge to Terabithia. This story of the most special friendship between Jesse Aarons and Leslie Burke reminded me that there was still hope, beauty, and love, even in the face of the most difficult circumstances. Katherine Paterson's story brought me hope when hope was in short supply.
Reading Katherine's book had two other great effects on me. First, it helped me begin to realize that I wanted to write books for young people. It also helped me begin to really take my reconstruction mission in Afghanistan to heart. I loved traveling to different villages in western Afghanistan, working to help the people and establish elections. In particular, I loved giving school supplies, toys, and candy to the children we'd encounter.
One of these children was a young girl named Zulaikha, who had suffered since birth from a cleft lip, with the two halves of her upper lip unjoined and badly crooked teeth. One of our great Army doctors was able to provide her the needed corrective surgery, and I was amazed and inspired, both before and after the surgery, by Zulaikha's quiet courage and dignity. Although she could not understand my words, I promised, the last time I saw her as she rode on a truck off of our base, that I would tell her story.
When my time in the war was over and I returned to Iowa, I taught high school English and directed the school plays. Still, I wanted to improve my writing, and I had this important story to tell. That brought me to the Vermont College of Fine Arts, where I earned a master of fine arts degree in writing for children and young adults. These days I live with my wife and with my dog Wiggles in the state of Washington, where I am hard at work writing more books.