Lunch with Mimi: Martha Freeman
On the Write Track
Martha Freeman is one of State College’s most prolific author of children’s book. Her first book, Stink Bomb Mom, was published in 1996, and since then she has written 20 more children’s books. Originally from southern California, she graduated from Stanford University in 1978 with a degree in history. After college, she pursued a career in newspaper reporting before finding her true calling at age 38 as an author of children’s book.
The inspiration behind all of her books comes from her everyday life. The Year My Parents Ruined My Life was loosely based on her family’s move from California to Central Pennsylvania. In addition to writing, she has taught children’s literature in the College of Education at Penn State and enjoys speaking to young readers and aspiring writers during visits to schools and bookstores.
At this year’s Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts, Freeman will present a story workshop emphasizing the joys of reading, writing, and imagination, July 13-14 at the State College Municipal Building Community Room.
Town&Gown founder Mimi Barash Coppersmith sat down with Freeman at Cozy Thai Bistro in State College to discuss her children’s books, divorce, and education.
Mimi: When did you arrive in State College?
Martha: We moved here in 1995 as a young family. We came from Sonora, California.
Mimi: And what were you doing there?
Martha: I had gotten a job as a newspaper reporter right out of college. I was there by myself for 16 years. And I came from Los Angeles, so it was quite a shock to be in such a small town, but I liked it.
Mimi: Why did you come to State College?
Martha: Well, my husband at the time, Russell Frank, got a job as the features editor at the Centre Daily Times. They flew me out, paid for us to move, and it was great. We wanted to go someplace different, and we had three young children.
Mimi: So, you made the giant leap across the country. Was it a culture shock?
Martha: It was in some ways. It is funny, when you move, every little thing seemed strange. Even the ATM machines were weird because you pressed the buttons in a different order. But our neighbors were friendly right away and the school was very easy to integrate into for the kids.
Mimi: Did you see that they received a good education?
Martha: Yeah, they got a much better education than they would have in California because it is such a small town. I have my issues with the State College Area School District, but for the most part they did a great job and they have so many options.
Mimi: Well, speaking of so many options, a lot of them are on the cutting board right now.
Martha: I know.
Mimi: How do you feel about that?
Martha: Yikes, don’t get me in trouble. I remember when we came here and we first saw the State High course catalog, it was a like a junior college course catalog in California. I could not believe the number of things that they offered, and it was wonderful. A society that doesn’t invest in their children is a society making a huge mistake.
Mimi: We’ve been a proud community in terms of the options that the school district has given.
Martha: Well, for example, something near and dear to my heart, in California there are almost no school librarians left, and Pennsylvania still has them and this district still maintains that.
Mimi: Currently, with all the money issues, among the things that have been in the paper are these concerns of the elimination of the special programs, which is part of what defines the uniqueness of the school. And I was placing that in terms of emphasis against the planning that is going on to eventually put $16 million into the football field — and what do we, mothers of children, do and feel about that?
Martha: Most heartily I feel that we do elect the school board to make these kinds of decisions — $16 million is a lot of money. So, I’m hoping that the people whose pay grade is to make these kinds of estimations are doing their job. I think in general we overemphasize sports.
Mimi: But it’s a part of society. It’s the way it works.
Martha: But can’t we also militate against that a little bit saying let’s make sure we keep the academics and the libraries.
Mimi: Let’s make sure we keep the extracurricular activities like band. Those have a lasting value, as does competitive athletics. But there has to be a balance in society and now, in my opinion, this school district in particular will be out of balance in their funding opportunities.
Martha: And as a baseball mom, I could say football is overemphasized, too. But I don’t feel that I am enough of an expert to say that $16 million should or should not be spent on that project.
Mimi: And that’s not why we are here. We are here because you are a writer and the Arts Festival for the third year has a writers’ component.
Martha: And I’ll be speaking and giving workshops on writing for children at the Arts Festival this year.
Mimi: So children will be learning how to compose a story?
Mimi: Can adults come?
Martha: Yes, I would love that. I have done this kind of seminar at the festival for all ages. You can be 4 years old or 100 years old to participate.
Mimi: Now, have you ever ventured beyond children’s books? Have you ever imagined yourself writing anything else?
Martha: I got into children’s books via my first book, which was a romance novel. It was never published, but what it taught me was that I could write a novel and sustain a story for 300 pages, or whatever the length was. I wrote it because I didn’t know if I could write a book. I was always afraid of fiction and I thought — Well a romance novel, how hard could it be, because you know where it’s going, so I just gave it a whirl. And there is also a wonderful little book called How to Write a Romance Novel, and so I read it and then I did what it said. I wrote this 300-page book and I submitted it to an agent, and she loved it and tried to sell it, but she never could. But, happily she also handled children’s books, so when I wrote my manuscript as a children’s writer, it was actually published.
Mimi: Did you make money as a children’s book writer? Can you make a living?
Martha: If your name is J.K. Rowling you can do very well. I have had friends who have starved as published children’s authors, and I have had friends who have done very, very well. And I have friends who have labored for years, then finally became overnight sensations. I do support myself. I have children who have gone to very expensive colleges and I am paying for those as much as I can. So, subtract that from writing the children’s books and I live slightly straight and circumstantially.
Mimi: Does your ex share in the responsibility?
Martha: Oh yes. Down the middle we split it. He has a lucrative position as a professor at this university up the hill here, and I’m a little more on my own.
Mimi: Well, didn’t he always imagine he’d be in academe?
Martha: Yeah, he did. Actually his history is interesting. He received his PhD from the University of Pennsylvania, but it’s in folklore. At one point, as a PhD student, he ran out of money as he was writing his thesis, and so, figuring his only talent really was writing, he walked into the local newspaper office in California and got a job as a reporter with the ultimate result that since there is not a huge market for folklorists in academia he is actually a journalism professor here, even though his degree is in folklore.
Mimi: Now, in that conversation and in the notes I had before this interview you indicated that you and your ex-husband are friendly and I sort of sat up straight because my ex-husband and I cannot be described as friendly. Tell me how that happens.
Martha: Well, time is a great healer, and time has passed. We have these three children together that we have to raise, and at the time that we divorced they were still pretty young. At the time of the divorce, they were 12 up to 20. So, we had to be in pretty constant contact about that. And there were a lot of very badly hurt feelings at the time of the actual split, but I think we both felt that the most important thing was the kids, so we focused on the kids, and we probably started to become better friends while my middle daughter was in high school. She had some issues in high school, and we would have dinner together as a family once every few weeks to try to talk those over. We had to get along — we just had to. And it’s funny because right now we are selling our house together and it could be terribly poignant. I moved out and pretty much left the house intact because I did not want everything to change for my kids, so at least if the house looks the same and I’m only a few blocks away it won’t be horrible. But now we have sold the house, we are moving everything out, and of course we are going through these boxes together, pulling things out saying, “Oh, look at this, do you remember?” And you know it could be really painful, but actually we are both laughing about it. I mean, he has a Fulbright next year in Ukraine and I’m trying to figure out what my next move is. We both sort of feel like we are 25 and thinking, “What’s the next stage of our lives? What are we going to do now?” So we are looking forward to feeling pretty good. And the ultimate measure, I think, that we get along so well is that we have Thanksgiving together. We’ve done that for the last two or three years as a family and that’s been very healing.
Mimi: Have you ever touched on some of the experience of divorce in your children’s books?
Martha: Well, I have divorced characters in some of them.
Mimi: It seems like it could be a very helpful vehicle, but something very sensitive and difficult to do.
Martha: Yeah, I should think about that more because I don’t think it’s something I have dealt with explicitly. I deal a lot with female empowerment in a quiet little way in my books — like one of my series is called The First Kids Mysteries and the mom is the first female president of the United States. So, I was definitely thinking female empowerment there. And the books that are set in a town not unlike State College, the mom is a police detective and the dad stays home but just started his own business, which is going to be very successful by the way, making pies. So, I do subtly kind of switch the roles.
Mimi: Well, obviously your sense of humor has served you well.
Martha: I hope so.
Mimi: I’d like to explore the culture shock from coming from California to State College.
Martha: Well, I wrote a book about it called The Year My Parents Ruined My Life. It was the first book that I wrote after I moved here. The idea came to me when I was shoveling snow one day, which was not something I had to do in California, and I suddenly thought, oh my gosh, I am living a children’s book, and I made the main character, Kate, have an experience similar to my daughter’s experience, but I made Kate older.
Mimi: And how well do these children’s books sell?
Martha: They sell fine. My most successful is actually called, Who Stole Halloween? That is one that is set here. And it was a contender for the Texas Bluebonnet Award, which is the big state award in Texas, and anything that gets named to the state awards list in Texas goes very well. So that’s my top seller, which means tens-of-thousands of copies — it doesn’t mean millions. It brings in a little money every year. And now writing full-time, I’m trying to write four books a year. And that will kind of keep me in gear in skittles from the royalties from the past books.
Mimi: Do you find that if there is a dividend to divorce, one of the dividends is your freedom?
Martha: Yes. I mean sometimes I am sad about the divorce and I am sad about all the pain that went on, and I hope that none of it was irreversible for the sake of my children, but I didn’t really like that I was dependent on my husband for a paycheck. I always worked, but he was basically supporting the family and that always felt uncomfortable for me. I came of age in the post-Betty Friedan world where we were all feminists, and I still think that that really formed my intellectual and emotional self. I didn’t want to be dependent on a man. So, when I moved out, the first thought was, I’m going to pay for my own apartment and my own electricity, I’m going to support my kids halfway and help with college — and I have done it on my own, one way or another. And I am proud of myself for doing that. But I don’t know how sustainable that is.
Mimi: I believe it’s sustainable.
Martha: I hope so. We shall see.
Mimi: I wish you well as you spread your wings and realize your amazing potential.
Martha: Thank you. And yes I am working on that.