Ellis, Sarah

views updated

Sarah Ellis


Born May 19, 1952, in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada; daughter of Joseph Walter (a clergyman) and Ruth Elizabeth (a nurse; maiden name, Steabner) Ellis. Education: University of British Columbia, B.A. (with honors), 1973, M.L.S., 1975; Simmons College, M.A., 1980.


Home— 4432 Walden St., Vancouver, British Columbia V5V 3S3 Canada. E-mail—[email protected].


Toronto Public Library, librarian, c. 1975; Vancouver Public Library, Vancouver, British Columbia, children's librarian, 1976-81; North Vancouver District Library, North Vancouver, British Columbia, librarian, 1981—. Writer-in-residence, Massey College, University of Toronto, 1999. Speaker at schools, colleges, conferences, and workshops.


Canadian Society of Children's Authors, Illustrators, and Performers, Writers Union of Canada, Vancouver Society of Storytelling.

Awards, Honors

Sheila A. Egoff Award, 1987, for The Baby Project, and 1997, for Back of Beyond; Governor-General's Award for Children's Literature, 1991, for Pick-Up Sticks; Mr. Christie Book Award and Violet Downy L.O.D.E. Award, both 1994, both for Out of the Blue; Canadian Authors' Association Vicky Metcalf Award, for body of work.


The Baby Project, Groundwood Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1986, published as A Family Project, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1988.

Next-Door Neighbours, Groundwood Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1989, published as Next-Door Neighbors, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1990.

Putting Up with Mitchell, illustrated by Barbara Wood, Brighouse Press, 1989.

Pick-Up Sticks, Groundwood Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1991, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1992.

Out of the Blue, Groundwood Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1994, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1995.

Back of Beyond: Stories of the Supernatural, Groundwood Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1996, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1997.

The Young Writer's Companion, Douglas & McIntyre (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1999.

Next Stop! (picture book), illustrated by Ruth Ohi, Fitzhenry & Whiteside (Niagara Falls, NY), 2000.

From Reader to Writer: Teaching Writing through Classic Children's Books, Groundwood Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2000.

A Prairie as Wide as the Sea: The Immigrant Diary of Ivy Weatherall, Scholastic Canada (Markham, Ontario, Canada), 2001.

Big Ben (picture book), illustrated by Kim LaFave, Groundwood Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2001.

The Several Lives of Orphan Jack, Groundwood Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2003.

(With David Suzuki) Salmon Forest, illustrated by Sheena Lott, GreyStone Books (New York, NY), 2003.

Also author of column "News from the North," Horn Book Magazine, 1984-88.


Writer, columnist, and librarian Sarah Ellis has become one of the best-known authors for young adults in her native Canada with titles such as The Baby Project, Pick-Up Sticks, and Back of Beyond: Stories of the Supernatural. In addition to young adult novels, Ellis has also written for younger children and has authored several books about the craft of writing. Praised by Booklist contributor Hazel Rochman as "one of the best children's literature critics," Ellis "writes without condescension or pedantry.…Herproseisa delight: plain, witty, practical, wise."

Ellis was born in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, in 1952, the youngest of three children in her family. As she once noted, "[My] joy in embroidering the truth probably comes from my own childhood. My father was a rich mine of anecdotes and jokes. He knew more variations on the 'once there were three men in a rowboat' joke than anyone I've encountered since. My mother was always willing to stop what she was doing to tell me about growing up on the prairies, stories of making doughnuts for the harvesters or how Aunt Florence threw eggs at the horses. I have one brother who collects tales of the absurd and another who is a born exaggerator. As youngest in the family I had to become a good storyteller just to hold my own at the dinner table."

Reading and tale-telling were important in Ellis's family while she was growing up. Books were also always close at hand. "The first books I remember were a set of little yellow and black paper-bound fairy tales, sent by Great-Aunt Lou in a Christmas parcel from England. My favorite was The Wolf and the Seven Little Kids," she said. "I found the idea of hiding in a grandfather clock very comforting. Read-alouds in our house were picked to appeal to my older brothers, and that is how I first heard Tom Sawyer, in an edition with lovely pictures by Louis Slobodkin. (Later, in memory of those pictures, I gave one of my characters the last name of Slobodkin. Writers get to play these games.)

"When I got to school I discovered that you were allowed to take home one book a day from the library. So I did, every day. If it was raining (and it nearly always was in rainy Vancouver) the librarian would wrap the book in brown paper. It was like carrying home a present.

"Some of the books I read are still around—the 'Little House' books, The Secret Garden, Half Magic. I had Peter Pan read to me during a long stay in the hospital. I received The Wizard of Oz for Christmas when I was eight, and I read it all on Christmas afternoon. One summer I found a damp old copy of Little Women in the holiday cabin and for three days I lay on a top bunk, reading and weeping and happy, while the adults said, 'Wouldn't you like to go outside in the sun and play?'"

After graduating from high school, Ellis enrolled at the University of British Columbia, then went on to earn her degree in library science. After working for several years as a children's librarian in North Vancouver, she traveled to Boston and earned an advanced degree in children's literature from Simmons College. While studying this curriculum as an enhancement to her work as a librarian, Ellis also did some of her first writing for children. However, it would be four more years before she would seriously undertake writing a children's book. In 1984 she took a leave from her job at the library and wrote, first articles, then short fiction, and finally a picture book. Although the picture book was rejected when she submitted it to a publisher, the publisher encouraged her to continue her efforts. Her next undertaking became The Baby Project, Ellis's first published work and the winner of the Sheila K. Egoff Award in 1987.

The Baby Project

With The Baby Project, Ellis creates "one of the most appealing and moving family stories to come along in ages," according to Horn Book Magazine contributor Hanna B. Zeiger. The Baby Project—published in the United States as A Family Project—is the story of how a young girl and her family deal with the expectation and ultimate loss of a new baby. Eleven-year-old Jessica eagerly awaits her new sister and, with her best friend Margaret, even prepares a school project around the expected arrival. "Minute details of characterization and convincing dialogue sketch the members of Jessica's family, their renter downstairs, and Margaret and Jessica themselves. With humor and laughter communicated through subtle anecdotes, Ellis chronicles the family's adjustment to the pregnancy and eventual birth of Baby Lucie," according to a contributor to the St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers. After the baby dies of crib death, Jessica must deal not only with her own feelings, but her family's grief as well. Ellis creates a realistic and moving picture of a family in crisis, according to many critics. "She successfully focuses on the details of change, and in so doing creates an honest portrayal of family life," David Gale wrote in School Library Journal. The result, Gale added, is "a credible depiction of important family events, in turn funny and sad."

Much of the success of The Family Project is due to the lifelike characters of Jessica and her family. Her parents and brothers are portrayed as quirky, lovable people with a sense of humor. And "although Jessica's point of view is consistently maintained, each complex character develops in a different way," Betsy Hearne observed in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books. Overall, she added, "the cast is subtly portrayed." Voice of Youth Advocates contributor Mary Hedge also found the characters believable, and praised "Jessica's courageous and cooperative attitude" in particular as "inspiring." Hedge added that with its realistic treatment of a family's dilemma, A Family Project is "one of the best young adult problem novels."

Novels Dealing with Prejudice and Homelessness

Ellis's second novel, Next-Door Neighbors, is also distinguished by "plausible characters in real life situations," according to Maria B. Salvadore in a review for School Library Journal. The story takes place in 1957, when Peggy, the daughter of a minister, has just moved from the country to the city with her family. There she slowly makes friends with George, the son of a refugee, and with the Chinese gardener of a wealthy, prejudiced neighbor. In telling the story of how Peggy learns about racism and responsibility, Ellis "has a deft descriptive touch, a way with a quirky phrase, and a convincing child's-eye view of hypocritical adults," Joan McGrath commented in Quill and Quire. The author "etches personalities that are likable amid their strengths and weaknesses and creates family dynamics that fit smoothly and believably into the plot," Barbara Elleman likewise wrote in Booklist, making her "ever in touch with her theme, her characters, her plot, and her audience."

Ellis's third novel, Pick-Up Sticks, was inspired by a radio interview she heard in which a homeless woman expressed her fear and frustration at not being able to care for her family. In the story, thirteen-year-old Polly must leave her single mom and go live with a financially secure uncle while her mother searches for proper housing in between holding down jobs. In her new circumstances, Polly is confronted with the life she wished she could have had: a stable, comfortable home, in a nice neighborhood, where opportunities for friends and after-school activities are provided. Through her spoiled cousin and her new friends, she comes to learn that people of all walks of life experience discontent of some type, and that even her financially impoverished life with her mom is rich in many things. The contributor to the St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers commented: "Again, Ellis's characters are vividly and realistically drawn: Polly's scatterbrained, spontaneous mother; Stephanie, her overindulged cousin who turns to petty theft and vandalism for fun; Eric, the mentally handicapped neighbor; and Vanessa, Polly's best friend. A detectable maturing of perception and attitudes in the context of these relationships rounds out Polly's character and sustains the strong narrative drive."

In a change of pace, Ellis incorporates elements of fantasy into her 1997 book Back of Beyond, which contains twelve stories written for older teens. Although her stories are based on traditional British folk tales, Ellis garbs them in modern dress, with the Internet, Mr. Potato Head, cults and gangs, and chat rooms figuring prominently. As John Burns noted in an article in Canadian Materials, in Back of Beyond "mundane and magical worlds overlap. Ellis's protagonists have one foot in childhood and the other in adulthood; their transitional role means that anything can happen, and does." Praising the narrative voice as, by turns "funny, cheeky, or probing," Horn Book contributor Marilyn Bousquin added that Back of Beyond is about "contemporary kids with … ordinary problems (who) realize new dimensions of themselves through their bone-chilling, sometimes heartwarming encounters with the otherworld."

If you enjoy the works of Sarah Ellis

you might want to check out the following books:

Kate Dicamillo, Because of Winn Dixie, 2000.

Ralph Fletcher, A Writer's Notebook, 1996.

Kevin Henkes, Olive's Ocean, 2003.

Picture books by Ellis include Next Stop!, about a young girl named Claire and her weekly Saturday trip on the town bus. During her trip, the outgoing and imaginative Claire helps the driver, calling out the stops one by one, and greeting other regular riders. Ellis's text evokes the soothing regularity of a daily bus route; as School Library Journal contributor Steven Engelfried noted, "the repetitive pattern of the text suits the stop, start rhythm of a bus ride." In Big Ben, a little brother's frustration over being too little to do all the things older siblings Joe and Robin can do is intensified by report-card day "Ben is a little kid in preschool. There are no subjects in pre-school"—until he gets a homemade report card of his own in which Joe and Robin show how good he is at being a little brother. Joe and Robin's "affirmation is meaningful but not patronizing, and their delight in the remedy is as apparent as Ben's," noted a Horn Book reviewer.

To aid budding writers, Ellis has published The Young Writer's Companion, which contains a host of suggestions about starting a clipping file and a writing notebook, and also contains a number of exercises for writers-to-be. She has also written From Reader to Writer: Teaching Writing through Classic Children's Books, a guide for learning how to write by studying the best in children's literature.

Ellis devotes seven hours a day to her writing, and each of her young-adult novels takes about a year to complete. "When I was young I never once thought of becoming a writer," Ellis once noted. "Now, when I'm digging in the vegetable patch and I realize that I'm making up phrases for my gardening journal, or when I'm traveling and I find myself composing postcards at every new place, I wonder how I could ever not be a writer. Maybe I do want to record the events of my ordinary life, after all."

Biographical and Critical Sources


Children's Literature Review, Volume 42, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1997.

St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers, 2nd edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.


Booklist, March 1, 1990, Barbara Elleman, review of Next-Door Neighbors, p. 1340; January 1, 1998, Chris Sherman, review of Back of Beyond, p. 794; October 15, 2000, Hazel Rochman, review of FromReader to Writer: Teaching Writing through Classic Children's Books, p. 449; December 1, 2000, Hazel Rochman, review of Next Stop!, p. 718; December 1, 2003, Ilene Cooper, review of The Several Lives of Orphan Jack, p. 1668; December 15, 2003, Gillian Engberg, review of Salmon Forest, p. 755.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, April, 1988, Betsy Hearne, review of A Family Project, p. 154.

Canadian Materials, March 28, 1997, John Burns, "Sarah Ellis."

Childhood Education, spring, 2004, Christina Foehl, review of The Several Lives of Orphan Jack, p. 161.

Horn Book Magazine, May-June, 1988, Hanna B. Zeiger, review of A Family Project, p. 350; November-December, 1997, Marilyn Bousquin, review of Back of Beyond, p. 680; May, 2001, Cathryn Mercer, review of From Reader to Writer, p. 289; March-April, 2002, review of Big Ben; November-December, 2003, Christine M. Hepperman, review of The Several Lives of Orphan Jack, p. 742.

Kirkus Reviews, September 1, 2003, review of The Several Lives of Orphan Jack, p. 1122.

National Post, November 3, 2000, Elizabeth MacCallum, review of Next Stop!, p. B9.

Publishers Weekly, August 11, 2003, review of The Several Lives of Orphan Jack, p. 280.

Quill and Quire, September, 1989, Joan McGrath, review of Next-Door Neighbors, p. 23; December, 2001, Joanne Findon, review of Big Ben.

Resource Links, December, 2003, Joanne de Groot, review of Salmon Forest, p. 9; February, 2004, Laura Reilly, review of The Several Lives of Orphan Jack, p. 12.

School Library Journal, March, 1988, David Gale, review of A Family Project, p. 188; March, 1990, Maria B. Salvadore, review of Next-Door Neighbors, p. 217; January, 2001, Steven Engelfried, review of Next Stop!, p. 93; September, 2001, Mary Lankford, review of From Reader to Writer, p. 262; December, 2003, Sharon Korbeck, review of The Several Lives of Orphan Jack, p. 149.

Voice of Youth Advocates, June, 1988, Mary Hedge, review of A Family Project, p. 85.


Canadian Children's Book Centre Web Site,http://collections.ic.gc.ca/ (November 29, 2001), "Sarah Ellis."*