Born in Ridgewood, NJ; daughter of Charles Eugene Chambers (an engineer) and Marjorie (a teacher; maiden name, Pierce) Johnston. Education: Montclair College, B.A. Religion: Reformed Church in America.
Office— Dryden Harris St. John, Inc., Box 299, 103 Godwin Ave., Midland Park, NJ 07432. Agent— McIntosh & Otis, 310 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10017.
Writer and freelance editor, 1961—; Glen Rock, NJ, public schools, English teacher, 1970-72. Chairman of Rutgers University Council on Children's Literature, 1988-89; president of St. John Institute of Arts and Letters, Inc., Dryden Harris St. John, Inc., and Geneva Players, Inc. (a religious drama group). Has also worked as a retailer, producer/director, actress, instructor, and businesswoman.
Pride of Lions: The Story of the House of Atreus was a Horn Book honor list book; several of Johnston's books have been included on the New York Public Library's Best Books for Young Readers lists.
FOR YOUNGER READERS ; AS ELIZABETH BOLTON
The Case of the Wacky Cat, Troll (Mahwah, NJ), 1985.
Ghost in the House, Troll (Mahwah, NJ), 1985.
The Secret of the Ghost Piano, Troll (Mahwah, NJ), 1985.
The Secret of the Magic Potion, Troll (Mahwah, NJ), 1985.
The Tree House Detective Club, Troll (Mahwah, NJ), 1985.
"ADVENTURES IN FRONTIER AMERICA" SERIES ; AS CATHERINE E.CHAMBERS
California Gold Rush: Search for Treasure, Troll (Mahwah, NJ), 1984.
Daniel Boone and the Wilderness Road, Troll (Mahwah, NJ), 1984.
Flatboats on the Ohio: Westward Bound, Troll (Mahwah, NJ), 1984.
Frontier Dream: Life on the Great Plains, Troll (Mahwah, NJ), 1984.
Frontier Farmer: Kansas Adventures, Troll (Mahwah, NJ), 1984.
Frontier Village: A Town Is Born, Troll (Mahwah, NJ), 1984.
Indiana Days: Life in a Frontier Town, Troll (Mahwah, NJ), 1984.
Log-Cabin Home: Pioneers in the Wilderness, Troll (Mahwah, NJ), 1984.
Texas Roundup: Life on the Range, Troll (Mahwah, NJ), 1984.
Wagons West: Off to Oregon, Troll (Mahwah, NJ), 1984.
"DIANA WINTHROP" SERIES ; AS KATE CHAMBERS
The Case of the Dog Lover's Legacy, New American Library (New York, NY), 1983.
Danger in the Old Fort, New American Library (New York, NY), 1983.
The Secret of the Singing Strings, New American Library (New York, NY), 1983.
The Legacy of Lucian Van Zandt, New American Library (New York, NY), 1984.
The Secrets of Beacon Hill, New American Library (New York, NY), 1984.
The Threat of the Pirate Ship, New American Library (New York, NY), 1984.
FOR YOUNG ADULTS ; AS LAVINIA HARRIS
Dreams and Memories, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1982.
The Great Rip-Off ("Computer Detectives" series), Scholastic (New York, NY), 1984.
Soaps in the Afternoon ("Computer Detectives" series), Scholastic (New York, NY), 1985.
A Touch of Madness ("Computer Detectives" series), Scholastic (New York, NY), 1985.
Cover Up! ("Computer Detectives" series), Scholastic (New York, NY), 1986.
FOR YOUNG ADULTS ; AS NORMA JOHNSTON
The Wishing Star, Funk & Wagnalls (New York, NY), 1963.
The Wider Heart, Funk & Wagnalls (New York, NY), 1964.
Ready or Not, Funk & Wagnalls (New York, NY), 1965.
The Bridge Between, Funk & Wagnalls (New York, NY), 1966.
Of Time and of Seasons, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1975.
Strangers Dark and Gold, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1975.
A Striving after Wind (sequel to Of Time and of Seasons), Atheneum (New York, NY), 1976.
If You Love Me, Let Me Go, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1978.
The Swallow's Song, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1978.
The Crucible Year, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1979.
Pride of Lions: The Story of the House of Atreus (myth), Atheneum (New York, NY), 1979.
The Days of the Dragon's Seed, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1982.
Timewarp Summer, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1982.
Gabriel's Girl, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1983.
The Watcher in the Mist, Bantam (New York, NY), 1986.
Shadow of a Unicorn, Bantam (New York, NY), 1987.
Whisper of the Cat, Bantam (New York, NY), 1988.
The Potter's Wheel, Morrow (New York, NY), 1988.
Return to Morocco, Four Winds (New York, NY), 1988.
Such Stuff as Dreams Are Made Of, Morrow (New York, NY), 1989.
The Five Magpies, Four Winds (New York, NY), 1989.
The Delphic Choice, Four Winds (New York, NY), 1989.
Summer of the Citadel, Bantam (New York, NY), 1989.
A Small Rain, Four Winds (New York, NY), 1990.
The Time of the Cranes, Four Winds (New York, NY), 1990.
The Dragon's Eye, Four Winds (New York, NY), 1990.
Louisa May: The World and Works of Louisa May Alcott, Four Winds (New York, NY), 1991.
Harriet: The Life and World of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Four Winds (New York, NY), 1994.
The Image Game, BridgeWater Books (Mahwah, NJ), 1994.
Remember the Ladies: The First Women's Rights Convention, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1995.
Lotta's Progress, Avon Books (New York, NY), 1997.
Over Jordan, Avon Books (New York, NY), 1999.
Feather in the Wind, Marshall Cavendish (Tarrytown, NY), 2000.
"KEEPING DAYS" SERIES ; AS NORMA JOHNSTON
The Keeping Days, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1973.
Glory in the Flower, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1974.
A Mustard Seed of Magic, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1977.
The Sanctuary Tree, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1977.
A Nice Girl Like You, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1980.
Myself and I, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1981.
"CARLISLE CHRONICLES" SERIES ; AS NORMA JOHNSTON
Carlisles All, Bantam (New York, NY), 1986.
Carlisle's Hope, Bantam (New York, NY), 1986.
To Jess, with Love and Memories, Bantam (New York, NY), 1986.
FOR YOUNGER READERS ; AS ADRIAN ROBERT
The Awful Mess Mystery, Troll (Mahwah, NJ), 1985.
Ellen Ross, Private Detective, Troll (Mahwah, NJ), 1985.
My Grandma, the Witch, Troll (Mahwah, NJ), 1985.
The Secret of the Haunted Chimney, Troll (Mahwah, NJ), 1985.
The Secret of the Old Barn, Troll (Mahwah, NJ), 1985.
GOTHIC NOVELS; AS NICOLE ST. JOHN
The Medici Ring, Random House (New York, NY), 1975.
Wychwood, Random House (New York, NY), 1976.
Guinever's Gift, Random House (New York, NY), 1977.
(As Pamela Dryden) Mask for My Heart (young adult), New American Library (New York, NY), 1982.
(As Pamela Dryden) Riding Home (for younger readers), Bantam (New York, NY), 1988.
Also author of several books ghostwritten for publication under other names. Author of columns on cooking and entertaining, "Keeping Days Cooking," and on writing. Johnston's manuscript collection is housed at the Rutgers University Library, New Brunswick, New Jersey.
"There are moments when everything's so sharp and bright it almost seems I cannot bear the pain and beauty of the world. But whenever I find myself thinking that way, I cross my fingers quick and take the wish back. Because if I wasn't sensitive, I would never have stumbled onto being a writer," wrote Norma Johnston in one of her most popular books (and her own personal favorite), The Keeping Days. To Johnston, the idea of "keeping days" is more than a book title; it is a concept that is important to her life and to every one of her many books. She explained what she means by a "keeping day" in her Something about the Author Autobiography Series (SAAS) entry: "None of us remembers our life just as a one-after-the-other series of events. What we remember are moments, some enormous, some small, in which everything comes together—moments which (in our conscious or unconscious) remain with us forever. Like fleeting images in a music video, or the way sight and sound and taste and touch and smell suddenly stand out sharp and clear, for a brief instant, when we have a high fever, or are very very tired, or spaced out on medications. Those come-together, make-a-memory moments are our Keeping Days."
Author's Life Reflected in Fiction
Johnston's life has been packed with such memorable times, and her fiction books are largely drawn from her own experiences. Before becoming a full-time writer, she worked extensively in the worlds of theater and fashion, taught art and dramatics, attended debutante balls, and also endured times when she was so poor that she had to go without stockings in a snowstorm. In addition to her own rich life, she has used her family's history in her books and series, many of which take place in historical settings.
Although she was an only child, Johnston's extended family was very large, as the families she writes about tend to be. On her mother's side, she is descended from Dutch colonists who settled what is now New York and New Jersey. This branch of the family tree is fictionalized in the "Keeping Days" series. The "Carlisle Chronicles" series is based on her father's side of the family—English and Scottish settlers from the Middle Atlantic region. Family stories that were passed down through the generations are woven into these books, along with Johnston's own perceptions. "I was frequently dragged to family reunions," she remembered in SAAS, and for a long while these gatherings were quite dull—until "I discovered I could get my great-uncles to tell tales about each other; Uncle Elmer (Ben in Keeping Days) and Uncle Joe were both newspapermen, and they and Uncle John knew how to tell good stories. My school compositions livened up after that, too. My grandmother had ten fits when I wrote about how John and Elmer once got their father drunk on year-old cider as a sort of scientific experiment, but my eighth-grade classmates liked it fine. That story got recycled … in Keeping Days, and then my mother had the ten fits."
Creative activities were a primary focus of Johnston's life from an early age. She started ballet at the age of three, and the thrilling experience of wearing makeup, being applauded, and being handed flowers after her performance gave her a love of the stage that would stay with her for a lifetime. Art was also a great joy to her, and she wrote poetry all through her elementary school years. In the eighth grade, poor health kept her out of school for many weeks, and during that time she wrote her first full-length book. It concerned an Abolitionist girl living in Maryland in the 1850s whose home served as a station on the Underground Railroad, and who fell in love with the son of a slave-catcher. "I never showed the book to anyone, unless maybe Mrs. Cadman, my English teacher, but I still have it," the author stated in SAAS. "I may do something with it yet someday."
Despite her precocity in writing, in her teens Johnston still planned to go to art school in New York and study design. When her father died unexpectedly that plan dissolved, and she realized that writing was her great love. Although she was repeatedly told that there was no future in it, she finished another book and began submitting it to contests and publishers. It was a long time and many rewrites later before it was accepted, but Johnston clung to her faith in her own talents. "That's one of the major things I want to pass on through my books: It is possible to make things happen. It is possible to make it. Especially with the encouragement and faith of friends and family, of blood or of spirit," she wrote.
One of Johnston's earliest role models in writing was Maud Hart Lovelace, author of the "Betsy-Tacy" books. She began corresponding with Mrs. Lovelace while in college and received a great deal of encouragement from her. In fact, when told by a college writing instructor that she would never, ever be a successful author, Johnston sat up all night writing a letter to Lovelace begging for advice. The older woman advised her protege to quit the professor's class immediately, to refuse advice from anyone who was not a professional in her chosen field, and to keep on writing.
First Novel Published
Several more years passed, with Johnston involved in theater groups, working in the fashion industry, and running her own dress shop, before her first book was finally published. It was a book she'd originally written at the age of sixteen—rewritten many times since then—and that was based on her memories of her church youth group and the various "crowds" she was involved with at the time. An agent sent the manuscript to the publishing company Funk and Wagnalls, which agreed to buy it if the author would cut one hundred pages from it. That was a valuable experience, for it forced Johnston to reduce The Wishing Star to outline form in order to see what was really necessary and what was not. Since then, she has written all her books from outlines.
Over the next several years, Johnston continued to publish about one book a year, while also working as an assistant editor at a religious publishing house and founding the Geneva Players, a theater company. The purpose of the dramatic group was to allow young actors to perform in classics and major Broadway plays as a means to helping them speak out on the issues and conflicts in their own lives. The first production put on by the group was Arthur Miller's The Crucible. It opened on the night of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The events surrounding that unforgettable night became the basis of another of Johnston's books, The Crucible Year. In that book, the protagonist is sixteen-yearold Elizabeth Newcomb, who has recently transferred from a private to a public school. In her new environment, Elizabeth struggles with many problems, new ideas, and new people. All of life seems to be taking unpredictable, disturbing new turns, and the murder of President Kennedy greatly increases Elizabeth's sense of confusion and disillusionment with the world. Horn Book reviewer Karen M. Kleckner praised the author's probing questions about personal values, religion, prejudice, and stereotypes. Although Kleckner felt the book was written more to "recollect and understand" a troubled time in history than to develop a story, the reviewer noted that Johnston has a "fluid style" and that the stage scenes where Elizabeth's personality blends with that of her character are "particularly effective." According to Johnston, these excerpts were taken directly from her real-life journal.
Demand for Books Increases
Several years after the events related in The Crucible Year, the publishing industry underwent a dramatic change when young adult books suddenly became popular, and Johnston's life changed as well. Respiratory and arthritis problems that had plagued her since her youth became much worse, limiting her activities just as the demand for her books greatly increased. Her writing increased so much that she began publishing under eight different pseudonyms: Norma Johnston, Nicole St. John, Catherine E. Chambers, Kate Chambers, Elizabeth Bolton, Lavinia Harris, Adrian Robert, and Pamela Dryden. All the names were taken from ancestors on one side of the family or another, or both. Although serious illness would usually be considered a drawback, it led Johnston to write so much that she is now able to support herself completely from her writing. She wrote philosophically about her health in SAAS: "If I hadn't been out of school so much when I was little, I wouldn't have read so much, I wouldn't have hung around so much with adults and had my horizons widened. I know I wouldn't have had as much empathy for others. Perhaps I wouldn't even have been a writer.…So this is something else I want to pass on through my characters—you can't control what life dishes out to you, but you can control how you react to it and what you do with it. You can use your gifts—if not one way, then another."
Johnston's strong feeling for family traditions and her positive beliefs are always reflected in her writing. The "Carlisle Chronicles" series, which includes The Carlisles's Hope, To Jess, with Love and Memories, and Carlisles All, revolves around the life of the large and loving Carlisle family. In these books, excitement and uncertainty comes from the father's job in the foreign service, which requires many moves around the world. Jess, the central character, looks for stability by clinging to her family history. In the first book in the series, Jess's security is challenged when she learns that her father was actually adopted—the family she has so revered is not, by blood, really hers to claim after all. By the end of the book, however, Jess has learned that family means more than blood ties.
In Carlisles All, which Katharine Bruner called in School Library Journal "a smoothly written and swiftly flowing, hold-on-tight tale of adolescent adventure," the Carlisles are enjoying an idyllic Christmas holiday together when their father is sent on an emergency trip to the Middle East. Mrs. Carlisle accompanies him, leaving the children home alone. The young Carlisles are horrified when they see that the embassy where their parents were scheduled to be is the target of a bomb attack. Again, Jess is the anchor of the story. Because her father's mission was a secret one, she must put up a charade for the public, pretending that her family is intact and enjoying the holidays. Meanwhile, she waits tensely to field phone calls from overseas that will reveal if her parents are dead or alive. The young Carlisles handle "everything with remarkable dexterity," while still remaining flawed and human enough "to bond with readers," noted Bruner.
The Middle East again provides the background in the novel The Delphic Choice. Like so many of Johnston's books, this one carries a message about moral responsibility. A "Delphic choice" is a "choice between public and private duty," explained Linda L. Lowry in the School Library Journal. This is exactly what the heroine, seventeen-year-old Meredith Blake, faces in Istanbul, Turkey, where she has been acting as caretaker for her aunt's two children. Her uncle is kidnapped by terrorists, who want Meredith to deliver messages between them and the United States government. Cooperating with them might save her uncle, but could endanger many other lives. Lowry complained that some parts of the book become too "didactic," but admitted that Johnston has created a strong heroine in Meredith. She also praised the author for weaving an exciting story full of Middle Eastern color: "Teens … will be intrigued by the excitement and mystery of the plot."
Return to Morocco combines Johnston's taste for stories of espionage and suspense with her deep feeling for family relations. In this story, Tori Clay accompanies her genteel grandmother to the Mediterranean. Once there, Tori discovers that her "Nannie" actually worked for the French Resistance as an agent in World War II. The corpses, poisonous snakes, and other physical dangers that lie in wait for Tori are nothing compared to her struggle to understand and accept her grandmother's secret past.
Not all of Johnston's mysteries are set overseas. Shadow of a Unicorn is a mystery, a horse story, and a romance all in one. It takes place in Kentucky bluegrass country, although the house is modeled on the beautiful New Jersey mansion the author lived in as a young girl. In the story, orphaned Sarah goes to live at Unicorn Farm, where thorough-breds are raised and raced by her cousin Rowena. But the farm has been struck by one disaster after another, including the deaths of Rowena's parents and several horses. Rumors arise that Unicorn Farm is cursed, but Sarah and Rowena dig deep to find out the truth. A Publishers Weekly contributor noted that the story is "lively" and "unfolds slowly and satisfyingly," while calling Johnston "deft in evoking the Kentucky landscape."
Time of the Cranes springs from Johnston's involvement in acting, especially as it pertained to her affection for her acting teacher. In the novel, Stacy's drama teacher passes away and names Stacy her sole beneficiary, much to the girl's surprise. In investigating the woman's death, Stacy finds it to be suspicious and eventually realizes that her teacher took an intentional overdose of painkillers. She must struggle to come to terms with this death and with the death of her mother. In doing so, she reaches a breakthrough point in her own acting. Susan F. Marcus, writing in School Library Journal, called Time of the Cranes "a satisfying read for fans of fast-moving soap operas, acting enthusiasts, and mature readers who can grapple with the issue of elderly suicide."
Over Jordan is set in 1836 and concerns fourteen-year-old Roxanna, who is left in charge of her family's Indiana farm when her father is called to Washington. The farm is a stop on the Underground Railroad, which brought escaped slaves out of the American South and into freedom in the North. When bounty hunters come to the area looking for escaped slaves, Roxanna must escort two black friends to safety in Ohio with the family of abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe. John Peters in Booklist found that "Johnston mixes Roxana's inner growth with plenty of melodramatic escapes, and convey[s] a clear sense of the time's manners, attitudes, and widespread turbulence."
Under the name Nicole St. John, Johnston has written three gothic novels: The Medici Ring, Wychwood, and Guinever's Gift. According to an essayist for Twentieth-Century Romance and Historical Writers, "These are novels in the classic gothic tradition. Heroines (who tell their own stories) are always young and pretty, bright, curious, spunky, and alone in the world.…All heroes in StJohn's novels are older and wiser, dark and mysterious, with flashing eyes (in short, Jane Eyre's Rochester). The standard settings are: … mansion[s].…; each with many rooms, staircases, and hallways, some of them, of course, secret. The time: the Victorian Age. The plots that unfold are captivating and suspenseful."
"Keeping Days" Series
Of all the author's writings, "The Keeping Days" series is the favorite both of readers and of Johnston herself. It includes The Keeping Days, Glory in the Flower, A Mustard Seed of Magic, The Sanctuary Tree, A Nice Girl Like You, and Myself and I. Tish Sterling is the narrator and central character in the first book, which is set in turn-of-the-century Yonkers, New York. She, like her creator, is a precocious writer with a great sense of drama who thinks of herself as "sensitive and misunderstood." Horn Book reviewer Mary M. Burns noted the first book's debt to Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, but assured potential readers that Johnston's story was "by no means a carbon copy" of Alcott's. She called The Keeping Days "nostalgic but not sentimental" and a "fresh, compelling story told with perception and spontaneity" that captures the anxieties of adolescence.
The series continued into a new generation by the time it reached A Nice Girl Like You, set in 1917. The title character is Saranne Albright, a "nice girl" who falls in love with the neighborhood's "bad boy," Paul Hodge. Saranne's large and loving family provides her with all the comfort and warmth she could ask for, but her friends scorn her when she becomes involved with Paul. The boy has been unfairly accused of many things, and by the end of the book all have learned an important lesson about making hasty judgments. "The author is a fluent storyteller; the families are as full of vitality as ever, constantly caught up in turmoil or triumph," noted Ethel L. Heins in Horn Book. Saranne's romance is complicated and continued in the next book in the series, Myself and I.
About her "Keeping Days" books, Johnston wrote in SAAS: "I write of the Keeping Days that remain in our memories forever; of the turning point in which we go from innocence to knowledge; of the abstract truths I believe to be unchanging in a changing world. And of facing change without feeling threatened by it." She readily admitted that these goals sometimes lead to what some would call "preachy" results. "I'm an author, editor, ghost-writer, entrepreneur, actress, director, designer, stylist, retailer, teacher, counselor," she concluded, "and (as some critics have said about me, and I'm proud of it) preacher."
If you enjoy the works of Norma Johnston
you might want to check out the following books:
Karen Hesse, Letters from Rifka, 1992.
Elizabeth Speare, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, 1958.
Catherine Thimmesh, Girls Think of Everything: Stories of Ingenious Inventions by Women, 2000.
Biographical and Critical Sources
Johnston, Norma, The Keeping Days, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1973.
Something about the Author Autobiography Series, Volume 7, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1989.
Twentieth-Century Romance and Historical Writers, 3rd edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1994.
Booklist, December 15, 1999, John Peters, review of Over Jordan, p. 778.
Horn Book, December, 1973, Mary M. Burns, review of The Keeping Days, p. 591; April, 1979, Karen M. Kleckner, review of The Crucible Year, p. 200; June, 1980, Ethel L. Heins, review of A Nice Girl Like You, pp. 306-307.
Publishers Weekly, May 29, 1987, review of Shadow of a Unicorn, p. 80; December 20, 1999, review of Over Jordan, p. 80; March 26, 2001, review of Feather in the Wind, p. 94.
School Library Journal, May, 1987, Katharine Bruner, review of Carlisles All, p. 112; May, 1989, Linda L. Lowry, review of The Delphic Choice, p. 126; May, 1990, Susan F. Marcus, review of Time of the Cranes, p. 122; September, 1997, Liza Bliss, review of Lotta's Progress, p. 218; December, 1999, William McLoughlin, review of Over Jordan, p. 134.
Norma Johnston Home Page,http://www.scils.rutgers.edu/~kvander/nicole.html (April 6, 2004).*