I give a different answer to this question every time, probably because there is no real answer. Today’s answer: I think ideas come from paying attention, listening, observing.

One thing I pay attention to is what I’m passionate about.  A lifelong passion for music (I grew up playing several musical instruments) inspired Lives of the Musicians: Good Times, Bad Times (and What the Neighbors Thought). The point of view in all the Lives of books comes from my fascination with neighbors– which is common, I think, though I did go to extremes and marry one of mine, Paul Brewer.

Around the house we had lots of Little Golden Books and inexpensive editions of classics.  The first book I can remember reading is Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, beautifully illustrated by Alice and Martin Provensen.

Weekly visits to the library with my mom were a highlight of childhood.  I loved librarians so much I wanted to be one, but alas.

Favorites included historical fiction (Laura Ingalls Wilder; Elizabeth Speare’s Calico Captive and The Witch of Blackbird Pond), biography (the Landmark Book series on people like Helen Keller, Elizabeth Blackwell, Susan B. Anthony; anything on queens), mysteries (the Famous Five series by Enid Blyton was thrilling), romance (Mary Stolz, Betty Cavanna), adventure (Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins), fun books like Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy and Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking. Above all, fantasy– especially Edward Eager’s magical books, and Carol Kendall’s.  I would have adored the Harry Potter books.

My earliest works include A Garden Book (second grade), Hairdos and People I Know (fifth), and The History of Queersville (sixth).  I created a series of weird little books about people.  My first short story was Death Waits Until After Dark (eighth grade)–about a teacher who jumps out the window. Diaries!  Very important to keep a diary or journal.  I started in sixth grade, but didn’t really get the hang of it till high school.
My teachers in third and eighth grades (Sister de Maria and Sister Della) stand out as being particularly encouraging of my writing.  Sister Della (now Marie Tollstrup) gave me an “A” on Death Waits Until After Dark, even though its plot was absurd and nasty.  She was the first person who told me I might be a writer when I grew up, and she remains an important person in my life.
Basically, I’m nosy. But I’m also intrigued by the shape and structure of a person’s life–the arc, the story of it. As stories, biographies are some of the very best–people have definite beginnings, middles, and demises. I’m motivated by the challenge of trying to write about a life in a pithy, meaningful way–sculpting with words a portrait that conveys the essence of a person–accurately yet dramatically.
I play detective, by which I mean I’m a heavy user of the library.  I read mostly secondary sources and scour them for juicy details that make information come alive.  I’m taking the fruits of other people’s labors, the most scholarly biographies I can find, and looking for the “good parts.”  I research tons of material, gleaning a mountain of stuff I think is most interesting, and then revise, tinker, revise, edit, whittle, and then do some more revising to get what I hope is the very tiptop of the mountain.  If there is a magic key to what I do, it’s this:  After I soak up all the information, I don’t use it all.  Being selective is the trick. Because children’s books are short, the text must get to the point so quickly that all the “boring parts” must go.
To hold their own against all the competition for a child’s time, nonfiction books have to reflect something special.  As with fiction, every sentence in nonfiction is there for a reason, reflecting endless choices within a structure designed to meet some challenge.  For me, mixing in fictional elements would seem like cheating.  Instead I try to make fresh, contemporary choices from my research–little ironies, amusing juxtapositions, concrete details, strengths and weaknesses. I use a “warts and all” approach because I want to write biographies for kids living in the real world.  I know readers have to survive all kinds of hurts and traumas; my way of helping is to dramatize how people in the past have done it.
They know me as someone who plays my piano and my radio too loud, asks nosy questions, goes in and out of my house with huge armloads of books, plays with toys, and makes noisy splashes in my pool.  I’m always sharing books with the neighbors–whether they want me to or not–so they think of me as a book person.