Tony Johnston grew up in San Marino, California. After graduating from Stanford University, where she earned a B.A. degree in history and an M.A. in education, she stayed in California to teach elementary school.
After writing stories for her fourth-grade students, and following a fellow teacher's suggestion, she decided to try to have them published. It was an intriguing idea to write for children professionally; but Tony soon discovered what a challenge it was to create simple stories. So she set herself a course of intense self-education about children's books and what makes them work.
Johnston's "education" received a big boost when her husband's banking job brought them to New York in the late 1960's. This gave Tony the opportunity to gain firsthand knowledge about children's books by getting involved in children's publishing at a time when the field was booming. Her goal was to "saturate herself" in the industry, and she got her first chance as "slush" reader at Harper & Row.
Shortly thereafter, Tony became the personal secretary to legendary children's book editor Ursula Nordstrom. She credits the experience at Harper with instilling in her Nordstrom's exceptionally high standards.
Also working for Ursula Nordstrom at the time was an editor named Charlotte Zolotow. Johnston asked her to read some of her stories. Ms. Zolotow expressed particular interest in one story called Five Little Foxes and the Snow. She did not buy the story for Harper, but Johnston says her encouragement "made me feel for the first time that I could do it!"
Johnston left Harper when her husband's job took them to Mexico City. Mexico became their home for fifteen years and was the birthplace of two of their three daughters. Johnston continued to write, and in 1970 sold her first book to Putnam, The Adventures of Mole and Troll. Moreover, in 1977 Putnam published Tony's earlier manuscript, Five Little Foxes and the Snow. In 1986, the paperback rights were bought by Harper, giving them the chance to publish the story after all.
While in Mexico, Johnston wrote in Spanish and had several stories commissioned by the Mexican government. In their free time the Johnstons traveled around the country, collecting hundreds of hand-woven Indian belts, which Johnston believes is the "largest collection in the world." Each time they made a purchase, Tony made careful records about the history and construction of the belt, including stories and anecdotes. She ultimately gathered more than sixty pages of notes and stories, which became the inspiration for her book of poems, My Mexico.
In 1985 she moved back to San Marino with her husband and their three daughters. Her home has a large, glass-walled family room where Tony writes, with her "fierce and fiendish" wire-haired dachshund, Suzi, on her feet.
In her spare time, Johnston has worked at a children's bookstore, taught a course on picture book writing at UCLA, and studied poetry writing for children with Myra Cohn Livingston. Although she has published nearly seventy-five books, Johnston never stops working. Always juggling several different story ideas, Tony is grateful for the chance to work at what has become her life's goal-to be a good storyteller.