Tag Archives: author biography

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)

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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.

A feral child raised in libraries

image via oregonlive.com

I am a big fan of Neil Gaiman’s work.  I probably don’t need to point that out in particular since it will no doubt be clear when I review The Graveyard Book, but I’ll throw it out there anyway.

My first exposure to his work was the audiobook version of Neverwhere, a book that caught my attention because of its title – after seeing that, I almost didn’t care what the description of the story was, I just knew I wanted to read it.  (Though Katie never fails to point out that when I listen to audiobooks, I am not reading.  Never mind that I have been playing the part of audiobook for the entire family for years as primary reader-alouder.)

Speaking of audiobooks, Gaiman does much of the reading of his own works, which is another thing I like about him.  Listening to him read his own stories, I am struck by how similar his prose “voice” is to his own speaking voice.  He tells his tales in a conversational, casually-sharing-information-between-friends way.  Assuming, of course, that you have a well-read friend who includes  literary allusions quite naturally as he makes wry observations about all of the curious things that surround us and who assumes that 6 impossible things will happen before breakfast.

Because of the – how do I describe it? – creepy? dark? scary? unusual? – nature of his work, I was pleasantly surprised to find that he wrote children’s books.  And that in writing for children, he uses the same tone that he uses for adult books – he just reins in the language and imagery a bit.  Or more than a bit.

I’m in favor of stories for kids that are a bit scary or weird.  Literature is an instructive and safe way for them to find out that there are weird and scary things out in the world.  It gives them a comfortable way to start thinking about them and making their plans on how to deal with the less comfortable aspects of life.  And Gaiman’s stories are quite funny and touching, and those are the bits that stand out the most in the end.  (okay, maybe some of the scary stuff sticks with you as well.)

But enough about what I think about stuff.  Here are some author details:

Neil Gaiman was born in Hampshire, UK, and now lives in the US, near Minneapolis.  The title of this post is from a quotation on his own website (cleverly named neilgaiman.com) regarding his own childhood.  He says, “I wouldn’t be who I am without libraries. I was the sort of kid who devoured books, and my happiest times as a boy were when I persuaded my parents to drop me off in the local library on their way to work, and I spent the day there. I discovered that librarians actually want to help you: they taught me about interlibrary loans.”  It’s the type of thing that many people reading this blog might be happy to hear their children say.  Gaiman is married to singer/songwrite Amanda Palmer, and has three children from a previous marriage.

It’s actually pretty easy to find information on Neil Gaiman since as his own site tells us, he has achieved “cult status” and receives a goodish bit of media attention, so if this post doesn’t answer any questions you may have, you can check out his blog, or follow him on twitter (@neilhimself).  I’m sticking to a brief summary of the bio information on his website.

He began his career in England as a journalist.  His first two books were biographies (of Duran Duran and Douglas Adams).  He first collaborated with artist Dave McKean (illustrator of The Graveyard Book) on the graphic novel “Violent Cases”, which led to the series “Black Orchid”, which was published by DC Comics.  His groundbreaking series “Sandman” followed, which ran for 75 issues and collected a lot of awards along the way.  In 1991, “Sandman” became the first comic ever to receive a literary award (World Fantasy Award for Best Short Story).   I checked “The Sandman” out of the library once, but couldn’t really read it.  I used to be a huge reader of comics, but I seem to have lost the rhythm of it.  I feel like I need to give it another chance.

Not only does he write for children and adults, comics and novels, Neil Gaiman also writes poetry, short stories, screenplays (television and film), song lyrics, and drama.  Some of his other titles for kids include Coraline, The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish, The Wolves in the Wall and The Dangerous Alphabet.  Katie and I have both read Coraline multiple times.  Some of the others I will have to read because I like the titles.   

Works for grownups include the aforementioned Neverwhere, Stardust, American Gods, Anansi Boys and short story collections Smoke and Mirrors and Fragile Things.  I have read most of these, several more than once.  And just as a word of caution for parents, be aware of which Gaiman books your children are reading.  His books for adults are definitely not appropriate for young children – some of it is language, a little bit of sexual references, but mostly heavier thematic elements that really wouldn’t appeal (or make sense) to kids younger than late high school anyway.

We’ll be getting on to a little bit about the illustrations later this week and then our reviews of The Graveyard Book, which we have both finished.  I promise it won’t take us weeks to get to it this time!