Savitz, Harriet May
Harriet May Savitz
Born May 19, 1933, in Newark, NJ; daughter of Samuel and Susan (Trulick) Blatstein; married Ephraim Savitz (a pharmacist; deceased); children: Beth, Steven. Education: Attended evening classes at Upsala College, one year, and Rutgers University, one year. Religion: Jewish.
Writer. Teacher of writing, Philadelphia Writer's Conference; University of Pennsylvania, guest lecturer in English literature. Holds workshops in novel writing; helped organize workshop at Philadelphia's Free Library for the Blind to sensitize the media to the needs of the disabled.
Children's Reading Round Table, Philadelphia (co-founder, 1965; member of steering committee, 1966—), Disabled in Action, National League of American Pen Women, National Wheelchair Athletic Association, Pennsylvania Wheelchair Athletic Association, VEEP (Very Exciting Education Program).
Dorothy Canfield Fisher Memorial Children's Book Award nomination, 1971, for Fly, Wheels, Fly!; The Lionhearted listed in University of Iowa's Books for Young Adults, 1975-76, among the most popular books read by teenagers; Outstanding Author Award, Pennsylvania School Library Association, 1981; received recognition for Wheelchair Champions: A History of Wheelchair Sports, 1981, from the President's Committee for the Handicapped in celebration of the International Year of Disabled Persons; California Young Reader Medal nomination, high school category, 1983-84, for Run, Don't Walk.
(With Maria Caporale Shecktor) Peter, and Other Stories, John Day (New York, NY), 1969.
Fly, Wheels, Fly!, John Day (New York, NY), 1970.
On the Move, John Day (New York, NY), 1973.
The Lionhearted, John Day (New York, NY), 1975.
Run, Don't Walk, Watts (New York, NY), 1979.
Wait until Tomorrow, New American Library (New York, NY), 1981.
If You Can't Be the Sun, Be a Star, New American Library (New York, NY), 1982.
Come Back, Mr. Magic, New American Library (New York, NY), 1983.
Summer's End, New American Library (New York, NY), 1984.
Swimmer, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1986.
The Cats Nobody Wanted, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1989.
(With K. Michael Syring) The Pail of Nails, illustrated by Charles Shaw, Abingdon (Nashville, TN), 1990.
The Bullies & Me, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1991.
A Girl's Best Friend, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1995.
Consider—Understanding Disability as a Way of Life, Sister Kenny Institute (Minneapolis, MN), 1975.
Wheelchair Champions: A History of Wheelchair Sports, Crowell (New York, NY), 1978.
The Sweat and the Gold, illustrated by David C. Page, VEEP (Philadelphia, PA), 1984.
Growing Up at 62: A Celebration, Little Treasure Publications (Ocean City, NJ), 1997.
Messages from Somewhere: Life after 60, Little Treasure Publications (Ocean City, NJ), 2002.
Dear Daughters and Sons: A Tribute: Three Essays on the American Spirit, Little Treasure Publications (Ocean City, NJ), 2003.
Contributor of short stories to collections, including Short Story Scene; contributor of essays to Encyclopaedia Britannica, Chicken Soup for the Sport's Fans Soul, Chicken Soup for the Soul of America, Chicken Soup for the Grandparent's Soul, and Chicken Soup for the Golden Soul. Contributor of articles to magazines and newspapers, including Philadelphia Inquirer, Denver Post, Scholastic, Boys' Life, Children's Friend, Jewish Voice, Senior Life, Boomer Times, American Legion Site, and Ranger Rick.
Author's manuscripts and written works are housed in the de Grummond Children's Literature collection at University Libraries, Hattiesburg, MS.
Run, Don't Walk was adapted and produced as an ABC Afterschool Special by Henry Winkler's production company.
Caring for others—for the handicapped, the lonely, or the disadvantaged—is a theme that runs through most of Harriet May Savitz's books for young adults. Her motivation may be an unfair law or lack of protection for a significant part of the population. From childhood, she was especially sensitive to the needs of others, as she once explained: "I was always looking at life with a third eye, an eye that I sometimes wished were closed. Why did I have to see the unhappiness in someone's face, or hear the pain in his voice?" But eventually this empathy helped Savitz create believable characters in her fiction:" I learned to use this third eye.…Dialogue became more than just words. It became words mixed with movement and expression and atmosphere. Characters had to be molded like pieces of clay, only instead of being objects that were set on a bureau, or shelf, they were meant to move about and come to life and I had the ability to make them do so."
Childhood during the Depression
Savitz was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1933. Her father lost all of his savings during the Depression, so she spent much of her childhood living in a third-floor walk-up apartment in Hackensack, New Jersey. During these years, she found a sense of security in books and in her imagination. She began writing poems at age nine, and discovered at this early age—when the neighborhood bully took her scrapbook and was so impressed by her poetry that she never bothered Savitz again—that she could touch people with her words.
The family's finances would not allow Savitz to attend a four-year college, so she tried many types of work, but "I lost just about every job I acquired after graduating high school," she explained. "I always wrote short stories, poems, and articles on the job." Still not willing to give up the idea of college, two nights a week after work she studied poetry, philosophy, and logic at Rutgers University, but without earning credits. Even after she married and became a mother, she continued to write. "I wrote a newsletter for the community where I lived, a short children's story for a religious organization, and many, many long letters, almost short stories in themselves, to friends, to politicians, to editors in the newspaper, to whomever would listen. The words were fighting their way out," she related.
After her mother's death Savitz discovered that her mother had treasured every bit of writing she had done from the age of nine. About that same time she received in the mail an advertisement for a creative writing class. "Always one for believing that fate should not be denied, I felt it was a sign of what I was to do. I enrolled in the course and sold the first interview that we were assigned," she once recalled. "After ten years of floundering, I had my foot on the first rung of the ladder. All those years I had felt like a writer. Now I was being treated like one." She went on to complete numerous interviews, meeting all kinds of interesting people, learning her craft, and getting paid for it. Soon she began collaborating with Maria Caporale Shecktor, the teacher of her fiction course, on short stories and poetry for children. Together they published The Moon Is Mine in 1968 and Peter, and Other Stories in 1969.
An Introduction to the Disabled
At an autograph party for Peter, and Other Stories, Savitz's editor, Mary Walsh, introduced her to a person who became very important to the direction of her writing career: Charles L. Blockson, a black-history scholar and a promoter of wheelchair sports for the disabled. Through their interest in wheel-chair sports, and with the input of quadriplegic Edward B. Davenport, Savitz became deeply involved in making the public more aware of the disabled—a dynamic but almost ignored segment of the population. She began by publishing several fiction books based on the lives of handicapped teenagers, including Fly, Wheels, Fly!, On the Move, and The Lionhearted. After researching the subject intensively, attending wheelchair sporting events and traveling with the teams, Savitz wrote her landmark nonfiction book Wheelchair Champions: A History of Wheel-chair Sports, published in 1978. Besides the compelling stories of champions, the book contains a list of goals for the future and a list of questions for readers to consider under the heading "If You Were Suddenly Disabled." A contributor to the St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers noted that Savitz "shows that there is little danger involved in wheelchair sports, but that the real danger is the physically handicapped person sitting at home, inactive, not trying to do anything at all, withdrawn and despondent." The essayist added that the book is "very informative" and that "young adults will learn a great deal about the physically disabled from reading it."
Savitz's involvement with the disabled resulted in one particularly memorable event that served to inspire all who participated in or witnessed it: her "incredible journey," when she accompanied Davenport on a 110-mile trip at three miles an hour from Norristown, Pennsylvania, to the state capitol in Harrisburg—he in his motorized wheelchair and she following in a car. Davenport organized the journey to call public attention to the need for Transbus, a low-floored, ramped bus that handicapped and senior citizens could easily board. On the way they learned how treacherous the route really was—especially for Davenport, who braved weather, insects, traffic, railroad tracks, exhaust fumes, and dust. Savitz noted, "We (also) learned about love, the love of the people waiting for us at the next stop, with food, with lodging, with hope. The disabled followed our route and often would be there on the side of the road, waiting to join Ed for a while." By traveling eleven hours a day they made it to Harrisburg on September 6, 1978. The newspaper headline the next day read "Wheelchair Odyssey Ends with Invitation to Speak," and Davenport concluded his mission by speaking before the State Transportation Commission.
In 1979 Savitz published Run, Don't Walk, the story of two teenagers who use wheelchairs, one with a golden retriever as a helper dog. Savitz was pleased when the book was made into an American Broadcasting Company (ABC) "Afterschool Special" produced by Henry Winkler. A reviewer from Reader's Guide for Parents of Children with Mental, Physical, or Emotional Disabilities cited the book as "a gripping, contemporary story" about the personal, social, and political barriers that the handicapped must overcome. This and Savitz's other works make it clear that "Savitz knows what she is writing about and has researched her material thoroughly," the St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers contributor commented. "She portrays her characters realistically and vividly, filling her stories with humor while touching the reader's heart with the frustrations and heartaches of her protagonists, and finally conveying the joyful feelings of their accomplishments."
Eventually Savitz moved to the New Jersey shore, which has been a healing and restoring influence since her family vacationed there during her childhood. But at the time, "I didn't know the ocean would become my next story. I didn't know that the waves would begin vomiting medical waste upon the beaches—syringes, bottles of blood instead of starfish and sea glass. I didn't know there would be oil slicks and garbage, all kinds of garbage left upon the beaches," she admitted. "My poor friend was ill and suffering and the human population was responsible and I could not sit silently by while my friend suffered." Savitz addressed this problem by writing a young adult novel about ocean dumping.
Savitz once commented, "I find that the books walk into my life.… Sometimes I just stand some where, sit somewhere, walk somewhere, and I feel it. The book. It's around me, and if I look carefully, listen intently, and let myself feel its presence, the book introduces itself. 'How do you do,' I say. 'Let's get on with it,' it answers. From that moment on there is no other world."
Savitz once explained: "There is something very similar about young people and older adults. We both do not know exactly where we are headed—or what we want to do when we grow up—in this later part of our lives. We both have trouble getting dressed; the very young getting used to dressing themselves, the very old having bodies that do not cooperate with their clothes. The very young are learning each day about growing up and the older are learning each day about growing older. Neither knows quite what is expected of them. The child listens to the parent, and later the parent finds himself listening to the child. When I talk to my eight-year-old granddaughter, or my grandsons—eleven, four, and two—I find we understand each other perfectly. We understand each other's nightmares, insecurities, and the discovery in each new day. We are also not certain what is expected of us or what we will deliver. And we both can study an ant hill for an hour, or a squirrel running up a tree, or the shades of a rainbow. Older people and young children have that in common.
"I think my writing asks questions more than it gives answers. I hope the reader seeks the answers after reading my work. I tell writers to read other writers and to write, write, write. I have never been able to teach anyone to write in any course I've given. The talent comes from within. I can inspire writers, encourage them, explore the writing process, the mystery of it … but talent is talent and it takes a bit of that to do this thing all your life. I tell writers, 'don't wait until the time is right … or you feel like writing … or it's the perfect day or hour. Every day, write—whether you're happy or miserable, whether you have a pain in the gut, whether you can't figure out today or tomorrow—write it out.' I have a workshop … for seniors many of whom are over 70—some over 80—they are journaling on what they see that I do not … what each of us sees the other does not … that's what writing is about.…So don't tell me, new writers, about writer's block. I have written books with my soul split in half—and my heart breaking—I have written them with dark shadows all about.… I have written when I was afraid the book might kill me or I might kill it. My essays have appeared in Mature Years, Art Calendar, Attitude Magazine, Modern Maturity … and in about 20 newspapers, including the Asbury Park Press. My essays have also appeared in Chicken Soup for the Golden Soul, Chicken Soup for the Sport's Fans Soul, Chicken Soup for the Soul of America, and Chicken Soup for the Grandparent's Soul.
"I never thought I would be writing for adults—certainly not in newspapers and magazines—and then … (I wrote) … Messages from Somewhere. I always thought my message was for young people, but now I realize I am still writing for young people—others call them older adults, but we know who we are and what we are … and we are young as ever, and out chasing our dreams.
"When I first started writing, I wrote on yellow legal pads with a pencil—I thought I could write no other way—then I moved straight on to the typewriter and I thought I could write no other way. My children bought me a computer.… I took one look at it and went to bed and wouldn't come out of the bedroom for three days. My son-in-law said, 'Har, nobody gets sick from a computer.' I did. But then we got to know one another slowly, and now I think I cannot write any other way. I have written on napkins in restaurants, on a piece of paper scattered on the beach, on the back of a check, and down the margins of books. I get up in the middle of the night with words and characters begging to be heard. I rush for the paper, write a word, and return to sleep. After thirty-five years, I do not understand the process any better. The mystery of it (eludes) me but that is good.…The love affair remains afire."
If you enjoy the works of Harriet May Savitz
you might want to check out the following books:
Daniel Keyes, Flowers for Algernon, 1966.
Rodman Philbrick, Freak the Mighty, 1993.
Terry Trueman, Stuck in Neutral, 2000.
Biographical and Critical Sources
Moore, Cory, A Reader's Guide for Parents of Children with Mental, Physical, or Emotional Disabilities, 3rd edition, Woodbine House (Rockville, MD), 1990.
St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers, 2nd edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Savitz, Harriet May, Growing Up at 62: A Celebration, Little Treasure Publications (Atlantic Highlands, NJ), 1997.
Savitz, Harriet May, Messages from Somewhere: Life after 60, Little Treasure Publications (Glen Mills, PA), 2002.
Something about the Author Autobiography Series, Volume 9, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1990.
Weiss, Jaqueline Shachter, Profiles in Children's Literature, Scarecrow Press (Lanham, MD), 2001.
Weiss, Jaqueline Shachter, and Carolyn W. Field, Values in Selected Children's Books of Fiction and Fantasy, Library Professional Publications (Hamden, CT), 1987.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, November, 1973; November, 1978.
English Journal, September, 1989, Martha D. Rekrut, review of Run, Don't Walk, p. 89.
Publishers Weekly, February 18, 2002, review of Messages from Somewhere: Life after 60, p. 90.
School Library Journal, May, 1981, Robert E. Unsworth, review of Run, Don't Walk, p. 27; January, 1982, review of Wait until Tomorrow, p. 90; September, 1982, Rachel L. Crary, review of If YouCan't Be the Sun, Be a Star, p. 142; September, 1985, Christine Denk, review of Summer's End, p. 149; April, 1987, Elizabeth LeBris, review of Swimmer, p. 103.
Harriet May Savitz Home Page,http://www.harrietmaysavitz.com/ (April 15, 2002).*