Growing up in a bohemian San Francisco family of photographers, I was surrounded by photographs. They were pinned up on the walls, scattered across tables, drip-drying from clotheslines strung outside darkrooms. The power and beauty of photography was laid into the matrix of my bones.
My grandmother, Imogen Cunningham, turned her camera on ordinary street scenes, and beautiful, everyday things – her unmade bed, a luminescent magnolia blossom.
Dorothea Lange, my godmother, photographed the down-and-out as they struggled to hold on to their dignity in the face of tremendous adversity. She wanted her photos to stir observers into action, to encourage them to work for political and social change.
My dad, Rondal Partridge, focused on pollution, and the paradoxical, quirky way we live. All of them taught me to see, really see, the world around me, and the wonderful, difficult complexities of human nature. Dorothea’s work affected me the most deeply. “The good photograph is not the object, the consequences of the photograph are the object,” Dorothea explained. “So that no one would say, ‘how did you do it, where did you find it’, but they would say, ‘that such things could be.’”
There are tremendous pleasures to being raised in a family full of artists. Life is never boring. My parents thought nothing of piling all five of us kids and the two dogs into our second hand 1949 Cadillac limousine and camping from coast to coast. School was fairly optional, so were shoes and shirts.
Some nights I fell asleep to chamber music as my parents’ symphony friends played in the living room. Life was also contradictory and unpredictable. My mother insisted we put the milk in a pitcher on the dinner table, and every other Saturday I polished the enormous pile of silverware my mother had inherited.
Sometimes money ran out. My parents scrambled, borrowed, traded, made do. Food was basic, and in lean times, sparse. Hand me down clothes were the norm. I was both proud of my family and acutely aware of being different. At times, I longed for my father to put on a suit and go to a regular job like other fathers did. But nobody ever said “you can’t” to me. In the freeform swirl, we were always encouraged to become whoever we wanted to be.
With plenty of work-study hours and scholarships (thank you), I was the first woman to graduate in Women’s Studies from UC Berkeley. Then I was off to Oxford, England to study acupuncture. In the late seventies I was among the first acupuncturists to be licensed in California. For more than twenty years I saw patients, and my husband and I raised two curious, smart, funny boys.
While I was practicing Chinese medicine, I started writing books. For more than ten years, I had two careers, finally closing my medical practice to write full-time. I love writing picture book manuscripts. It’s a thrill to watch them spring to life under the hands of an illustrator.
With my young adult biographies, I’m fascinated by people who use their creative skills to make a difference in the world. I’ve done books on photographer Dorothea Lange, and musicians Woody Guthrie and John Lennon.
My newest book, Marching For Freedom: Walk Together Children and Don't You Get Weary (Viking, fall 2009), focuses on the courageous kids who were crucial to the success of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march for the vote.
When I look at my book list, I see Dorothea’s influence on me. I want young adults to know these intense, creative people who a found a place for themselves, and a way to bear witness. As Dorothea said of her Japanese American internment photos: “This is what we did. How did it happen? How could we?”
These amazing people I’ve written about are inspiring. I hope they will ignite the creative, brave, idealistic energy young adults have, and let them know: they too can make a difference in our crazy, turbulent world.
I love researching and writing books, both fiction and nonfiction. I'm fascinated by courageous, artistic people, and ordinary people who do something extraordinary and make a difference.
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