Category Archives: Author information

The author of Blackbird Pond

As we might hope, our current author, Elizabeth George Speare, was an avid reader as a child.  She was born and raised in Melrose, Massachusetts in the early decades of the 20th century (b. 1908).  She spent her summers “devouring books” and spending quality time with the characters she met in those books, and making up her own stories along the way.  She was writing those stories down by the time she was in high school.

Miss George attended Smith College and Boston University and taught high-school English in Massachusetts after she finished graduate school.  She married Alden Speare in 1936 and moved to Connecticut.  Son Alden, Jr.,  was born in 1939, and three years later his new sister Mary came along.

The Speares were the hardy, outdoor types and spent a good deal of time hiking, camping and skiing.    And while her first published work was a magazine article about skiing with her kids, Ms. Speare reported that she didn’t have enough hours in her days for writing her own stories until her children reached their early teens.  Still, before she published any novels, she had articles in Better Homes and Gardens, Woman’s Day and Parents.

She published her first book – Calico Captive – in 1957.  Our current book, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, came next, in 1959.  This tale of a young girl who travels from sunny Barbados to Connecticut in 1687 – when someone with different ways of looking at things might be suspected of witchcraft – won a Newbery Medal.

Just a few years later in 1962, she followed up with a book that was also on Katie’s summer reading list (but not on the top 100 list), The Bronze Bow, set in first-century Judea at the time of Jesus (who makes an appearance in the story).

Speare evidently didn’t lose her touch over the years – in 1984, she won a Newbery Honor and the Chris O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction for The Sign of the Beaver, which features early settlers in Maine and relationships with the Native Americans there.  This story, like The Witch of Blackbird Pond, includes a subplot of teaching someone to read – an irresistible theme for those of us who do things like read through the top 100 children’s novels.

With all of her admirable additions to historic fiction for children, it should be no surprise that Speare received an award named after the author of the first book we read from this list – Laura Ingalls Wilder – awarded for her distinguished and enduring contribution to children’s literature.

Elizabeth George Speare is recognized by literary critics as one of the best writers of historical fiction for children, and in addition to our own top 100 list, she is considered among the top 100 most popular children’s authors overall.  As we could easily have predicted from Katie’s summer reading list, her work is considered mandatory reading in schools throughout the US.  (I remember reading The Witch of Blackbird Pond when I was Katie’s age, come to think of it.)  She died in 1994.

(Information from Children’s Literary Network and Wikipedia.)

(wikipedia)

Keeping stories close to home

Image via wikipedia

Sorry for the long absence!  End of school stuff, business trip, blah, blah, blah.  Ready for summer to begin!  So here is a bit about the author of our most recent book.

Christopher Paul Curtis was born and raised in Flint, Michigan – which, probably not so coincidentally – is the setting of our book, The Watsons Go to Birmingham: 1963.   And interestingly enough, his age just about matches that of our first-person narrator in this book about a pleasant African-American family.

It is satisfying to me to learn that he bears a resemblance to the book’s narrator because though it is a novel, it reads very much like a personal reminiscence.  He does a great job of drawing us into the life of the Watson family – but more on that in the review.

The Watsons Go to Birmingham: 1963 was his first novel – a book that he took time off from work to write, and which he wrote out in longhand at the public library.   And with that began a string of awards.   He won the Newbery Medal for Watsons – not a bad start!  He also wrote Bud, Not Buddy, a story that includes characters modeled off of both of his grandfathers – Earl “Lefty” Lewis, a Negro league baseball pitcher, and 1930s bandleader Herman E. Curtis, Sr., of Herman Curtis and the Dusky Devastators of the Depression.  Bud, Not Buddy was the first novel to receive both the Coretta Scott King Award and the Newbery Medal.  His book Elijah of Buxton, about a free Black community in Ontario that was founded in 1849 by runaway slaves, won the Scott O’Dell Historical Fiction Award, the Coretta Scott King Award and  Newbury Honor.   This year, he came out with a Depression-Era story, The Mighty Miss Malone.

Curtis’ father was a chiropodist and factory worker/supervisor, and his mother an educator.  He attended public schools in Flint, and at McKinley Junior High, he was the first African-American student to be elected to student council.  He later graduated from University of Michigan-Flint, and was the speaker at his own commencement.  As in his life, Flint plays an important role in many of his stories.

After high school, Curtis spent time developing artistic talents, performing with a traveling musical theater group  called Suitcase Theatre, and he also put in a lot of time on a factory assembly line hanging doors on big cars.  Since 1998, however, he has been a full-time author and lecturer, and was also able to strut his stuff as a rapper (stage name L-Toe – couldn’t find any more information on that – but I tried!).

Since 2008, each year Curtis returns to the University of Michigan-Flint to host the Christopher Paul Curtis Writing Challenge, a program instituted by Dr. Rose Casement and Dr. Fred Svoboda.  In this program, every fourth-grade student in Flint comes to UM-Flint’s auditorium to hear a presentation by Curtis, are provided with a story starter that he has written, and are given the challenge of finishing the story.  A winner is chosen from each of the city’s elementary schools, and they attend an ceremony at the university where an overall winner is announced.  The stated goal of the challenge is to expose Flint’s youth to the university environment and to encourage writing as a means of expression.  Sounds like a great creative-writing idea to me!

Christopher Curtis and his wife, Habon live in Detroit with their baby daughter.  Curtis also has two grown children from a previous marriage.

Another little house full of little women

Sydney Taylor – author of All-of-a-Kind Family –  was born Sarah Brenner in 1904 to Jewish immigrant parents who had come to New York City in 1900.  Like many other Jewish families at the time, they settled in the Lower East Side of Manhattan – which just happens to be the setting of this novel about a Jewish family.

Taylor graduated from New York University with a degree in drama, and was an actor with the Lenox Hill Players in NYC from 1925 to 1929, then moved on to become a dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company from 1930 to 1935.  She married businessman Ralph Taylor in 1925 and became a full-time wife and mom in 1935 after her daughter Joanne (Jo) was born, though she continued exercising her skill and interest in the arts by serving as a dance and dramatics counselor at the nonprofit Cejwin (Central Jewish Institute) summer camps.

Taylor wrote several children’s stories as well as plays, but she is easily best known for the All-of-a-Kind stories, which were stimulated by recollections of her own childhood.  She was the middle child in a large family that was rich in love, learning and tradition.  The stories began as a way to comfort her daughter – an only child – who sometimes got lonely at bedtime.  I’m sure young Jo was glad to keep company with the five sisters who shared their storytime bedroom with her.

Taylor wrote the stories down for her own satisfaction, as a way to record the history of her parents and her childhood at the beginning of the 20th century.  She tucked the manuscript away, but her husband submitted it – unknown to her – for the Charles W. Follett Award for writing.  It won the award and launched her career as a writer in the early 1950s.  The book also won the 1952 Jewish Book Council Award.  The All-of-a-Kind Family story continues through five books, giving a look not only at a large, loving family, but also at the day-to-day routines and holiday traditions of a religious Jewish family.

Sydney Taylor died of cancer on February 12, 1978.  Her husband Ralph established the Sydney Taylor Book Award in her honor.  The award is presented annually for outstanding books for children and teens that authentically portray the Jewish experience.

I couldn’t find much about Helen John, the illustrator of this book (other than the fact that she was the illustrator for this book – duh).  So we will just have to be satisfied with knowing that she did a fine job of portraying this happy family with her nicely-detailed drawings, which also show us a bit of the Jewish community on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the early 1900s.

Rich, happy drawings to illustrate a rich, happy story.  Not a bad combination.

(biographical info from Jewish Women’s Archive)