|Joanne Oppenheim, Author|
I was born on May 11,1934 to Helen and Abe Fleisher. Our home was in Monticello, New York, a little town in the Catskills. My big brother, Roy was four years older than I was. We lived in the country, but we lived on the main street in a brick building over our store. My mom was a city girl and didn't want a house on a street that had no sidewalks.
My brother and I played on the main street- our sandbox was outside my parents' store. As we got older we had roller-skates and bikes. In the winter the snow used to get piled up into mountains. The store merchants shoveled the snow off the sidewalk and we kids used to climb the mountains that lasted most of the winter. These days they take the snow away with backhoes and trucks. It was more fun then.
We walked to school and at lunchtime we walked home for hot soup and a sandwich. The only kids who ate in school came from farms outside of town- we called them bus kids. After school we would stop for penny candy at the shop across from the school or at the corner drug store where we could buy ice cream cones for a nickel or a dime.
When war came to Monticello it was scary. A lot of the fathers went off to war. My father was too old, but he was an engineer, so he went away to teach soldiers in the Signal Corps. He was away for only one year. We were lucky. When he came home he became the head of Civil Defense and we would test the radio emergency system in his car on Sundays. We kids did our best for the war effort by collecting scrap paper, tin foil from our chewing gum wrappers, and doing without a lot of things. We had no meat two times a week, not much candy because sugar was scarce and we bought defense stamps to help buy supplies for the soldiers. My uncles who were in the service used to send home bubble gum and tootsie pops for all of us kids. My cousins all lived in New York City and getting to see them was hard because of the gas and tire shortage. We wrote letters and visited each other during school vacations. Our mothers spoke on long distance, but only for three minutes, because it was expensive to speak longer.
On Saturdays we went to the movies and saw a cowboy picture and the newsreels. They could be pretty scary, too. We listened to shows on the radio at night. Most people didn't have TV yet, but my Dad was an engineer and he built a tower and bought two TVs when there was not much to see except test patterns and the news. They even had first aid shows on how to take care of someone if we were attacked and wounded. Once in a while there would be a boxing match or the circus or the rodeo and RCA would send post cards to the few hundred people who owned a TV. A few years later I discovered that President Roosevelt had the exact same TV in his house in Hyde Park. We had one in the store so people would line up and watch the fights on the street. We had one in our living room and lots of company. I wish my dad had kept that old TV or even the post cards about what was coming on. They would be collector's items!
When peace came, we marched up and down Broadway in our little town. Pretty soon people had new cars- there were no new cars or trucks available during the war. When the soldiers came home there were lots of new houses built and people bought new appliances, and before long, TV's.
As a girl I took dancing lessons and piano, too. I never played well, but I still enjoy playing for myself. Later on I took horseback riding and tennis lessons. I liked the clothes for riding better than sitting up on top of a horse and my wrists were way too weak for tennis. I was afraid of water till I was 12 and learned to swim with two swimmers who had been in the Olympics. For the next few summers I was determined to become a champion swimmer. But there were no indoor pools in Monticello. Every weekend I took a bus to NYC - that was 90 miles each way. I not only discovered how many really good swimmers there were, I caught a cold by rushing to the bus with wet hair in October. I had to give that up.
I never thought of becoming a writer, although I loved to write. Not papers for school. I would freeze when I had to do that. But I collected pen pals. I was trying to collect someone named Joan or Joanne from every state in the United States and I was pretty close. I don't know why my mom didn't save those letters. I think I thought all the books in the world were written by people who were dead- like the composers of the piano music I played.
A few years later I decided I had to be an actress. I started traveling to NYC on weekends again. Only this time I took drama lessons with Frances Robinson-Duff, a famous teacher who taught Katherine Hepburn and other stars. I did not want to go to college, but Miss Duff said I had to go because an actress must be educated. She promised that she would help me when I finished school. Sadly, she died the year I went away and I discovered in college that you have to live with a lot of rejections in the theatre. I decided it was not for me.
At the end of my junior year of college I married Stephen Oppenheim, a boy I had know since our school days in Monticello. He was in the class ahead of me, but we were great friends long before we started dating. We were married in 1954 and I didn't finish college until after I had two little boys, James and Tony. We lived in the same town we had grown up in and they went to the same schools. When I went back to college I decided to take a teaching degree and that was when I discovered children's books. In fact, I wrote my big paper in my senior year on children's literature. It was perfect, I could read to my sons and do my homework all at one time. My teacher encouraged me to join the writer's lab at the Bank Street College in New York City. So once a month I went to the City to read my stories and to listen to others and to the criticism. That is how I started working on becoming a writer.
During those busy years I had a third child, my daughter Stephanie and I was busy with acting in community theatre, running story hours in the library, and working for the PTA. When Stephanie was ready for school I signed on as a full time teacher of first and second grade. By then I had sold my first picture book, Have You Seen Trees? To Young Scott Books by then and for the next ten years I wrote a new picture book every summer and then switched to chalk and red pencils for the school year. I also started doing my Masters degree by commuting to NY once a week and taking courses on TV in the early morning hours before school started.
In 1979, when Stephanie graduated and my sons had left for college, I was offered a job at Bank Street College in the publications department. It meant living in New York and I was ready! During those years I wrote articles for national magazines on child development, picture books, and material for teachers. Then I was asked to write a book called Kids & Play, about the importance of play to learning and development. The book was a success and then I was asked to write another book on play called Buy Me! BuyMe! about specific products to help parents make good choices in the big toy supermarkets like Toys'R Us that were just opening. After that I wrote the Bank Street ElementarySchool Handbook and was the lead author of a book called Choosing Books for Children. I also write many beginning readers for our Ready to Read series. My favorite was Not Now, Said the Cow, it won a Mott Literacy Award..
In 1989 my daughter, Stephanie got the idea that we should start a business that would review children's products. She and her friends were just starting their families and had begun to realize how confusing it can be to find good choices that are fun as well as worthwhile.
So we started the Oppenheim Toy Portfolio. Every year we write an annual guide to the best products. But first, we have to play with all the toys, read all the books, look at the videos and write about the best of them. We really like working together and now she corrects my writing- as I used to correct hers when she was in school. We are also writing a new series of Read It! Play It! books to help parents build their children's literacy skills.
I love living in New York and switching hats to write about so many different things.
This year my book Dear Miss Breed is the culmination of four years of work that I have loved. I met so many interesting people and discovered a new writer's voice, one I never imagined I could use. I'm sorry I didn't try writing young adult books sooner, but as the librarian used to say when my book was overdue- better late than never!
- Joanne Oppenheim, January 2006