I was born in Norsjö, a very small
town not too far from the arctic circle in Sweden in September, 1959. My parents and I lived in Vargforsen, a name which means
Wolf Falls, but we did not live there for long. Here I am, in a
Same (Lapplander) hat, on my sparkstötting, in the land of winter
When I was not quite two, I moved across the ocean
to Montreal, Canada. This photo of me on my mother's lap was taken
just before we emigrated. My neighborhood in
the Town of Mount Royal was full of children. In the late afternoons,
we were always outside, playing games of tag, hide-n-seek, and screechy-boo-boo
(a totally made up game, involving running and screeching). One
of my best friends was Erika. She loved reading and drawing, too.
It bothered Erika when I drew people with wild colored (in Canada,
you spell that "coloured") hair, so of course I did it a lot. She
grew up to be a wonderful landscape artist who now lives in Belgium.
Here are some of the kids from my old neighborhood:
I went to Carlyle Elementary School, in my black tunic and white shirt. We girls wore bloomers under our uniform for gym class. I forget what the boys wore, but I'm sure it was more dignified than bloomers. Winters were impressive in Canada. We tromped to school (and home for lunch!) on the tall snowbanks, wearing galoshes over our shoes. I don't remember doing much creative writing at school. In fact, my memories of writing in school bring back my shame at my not-too-terribly-good cursive. I'd press so hard that my pencil would go straight through the paper, and when we used ink, I embarrassed myself with splots and blots. But I did like to write. Here's a passage from Tommy Pickle, "written by Charlotte Agell, aged 8 ¾, pictures by C. Agell also." I remember writing it at our kitchen table, which was a door on sawhorses, and therefore long and great for spreading out on. My mother managed to save this little book, despite all our travels.
My sister and brother are younger than I am. Their
names are Anna and Karl. We spent summers in Sweden where we sailed
a lot, which was hard for my sister who got sea-sick
(not anymore!). I read hundreds of books and made pictures at a
long table in front of a big window. The view looked something like
Later in life, I put the island
from that view in a book, Welcome Home or Someplace Like It. There
are often islands in my books. Ö is how you write "island" in Swedish.
Isn't that the best word ever? It even looks like an island, with
two small rocks.
When I was almost eleven years old, we moved back
to Sweden not to be confused for Switzerland. I went to school in Stockholm until the Christmas break. In January,
we got on an airplane and flew east…far east…to Hong Kong. (On the
way, we stopped in Bangkok, Thailand, to change planes. It was very
hot. My father left his hat on the transit bus. After
that, I never saw anybody wearing such a hat again! I lived in Hong
Kong until I graduated from the Hong Kong International School.
Although many of my friends were Chinese, I am sorry to say that
I never learned Cantonese (beyond counting and swearing and useful
stuff like that) or Mandarin (at all), much to my regret later in
We lived in Turtle Cove, on the south side of HK
island. At the time, it was quite rural. I used to comb the hillsides
with my half chow dog, Krissie. Once, we came upon a beautiful urn
sitting by itself on a hillside overlooking the South China Sea.
Krissie sniffed and sniffed. I flipped the lid
off with a stick, worried that I'd see a snake. Inside was a human
skeleton, the skull on top! I replaced the lid and scurried off,
and later learned a little about burial customs. Hong Kong was an
eye-opening place to live, a place full of surprises for all of the
senses. The very name means fragrant harbor, and fragrant it was,
the recipe being something like: salt air, floating dead pig, hibiscus,
fried squid, garbage, noodles and sunshine. My favorite Hong Kong
memories involve sailing, hiking, and food (sometimes a combination
of all three!).
It was a great place in which to grow up. Anything and everything seemed possible. It was also a great place in which to be a writer, since I so often felt like an outsider, trying to figure things out.
In Chinese art, there is no difference between pictures and words; they come from the same source - or at least so I heard somewhere. As someone who both writes and illustrates, this notion makes sense to me.
Here is a link to some random Hong Kong memories, including some from my teen years (reader beware).
In the summer of 1977, I left Hong Kong to go to
Bowdoin College in Maine. I'd never really been to the United States,
except for three days in New York City (when, as I recall, I was
mostly writing a fifth grade school report on Inuit transportation).
Landing in Portland, I had the strange feeling that I had come home
after many years. This must have been true, since so many years
later, I still live in Maine. As well as writing and illustrating,
I teach three days a week in the Yarmouth, Maine public schools. My degree from Bowdoin was in studio art. Besides
illustrating my own work, I love to draw faces. I can often be found
at local art festivals, doing very quick portraits of kids. I earned
my teaching certificate from the University of Southern Maine, and
later completed a master's degree at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Teaching and writing have a great deal in common:
they are both about asking questions.
My own kids are grown. Anna is a wonderful artist (and can wiggle both of her ears, independently!). Find out about Anna's art: www.annaeasimmons.com. Jon is a writer and a musician. Listen to one of his bands! My husband, Peter Simmons, runs the Bowdoin International Music Festival, although he'd prefer to spend more of his time in the garden or hiking. Our gardens are full of his amazing sculptures. It's a stretch to call them "our" gardens actually, since what I mainly do is admire them. My mother, Margareta McDonald, is a fine painter. Visit her at metamcdonald.com.
When I was seven, I told my mother that when I grew up, I wanted to live in the country, have horses, and write and illustrate children's books. Well, I live in a town and am a bit afraid of horses - they're so big! But I feel fortunate to say that my book hopes came true.