Asher, Sandy 1942–
Asher, Sandy 1942–
(Sandra Fenichel Asher)
PERSONAL: Born October 16, 1942, in Philadelphia, PA; daughter of Benjamin (a doctor) and Fanny (Weiner) Fenichel; married Harvey Asher (a professor), January 31, 1965; children: Benjamin, Emily. Education: Attended University of Pennsylvania, 1960–62; Indiana University, B.A., 1964; graduate study in child development at University of Connecticut, 1973; Drury College (now Drury University), elementary education certificate, 1974.
ADDRESSES: Home—328 Church St., Lancaster, PA 17602. Agent—Wendy Schmalz, Wendy Schmalz Agency, Box 831, Hudson, NY 12534. E-mail—[email protected]
CAREER: WFIU-Radio, Bloomington, IN, scriptwriter, 1963–64; Ball Associates (advertising agency), Philadelphia, PA, copywriter, 1964; Spectator, Bloomington, drama critic, 1966–67; Drury University, Springfield, MO, instructor in creative writing, 1978–85, writer-in-residence, beginning 1985. Instructor, Institute of Children's Literature, 1986–92; instructor in creative writing for children's programs, including Summerscape, 1981–82, Artworks, 1982, and Step-Up, 1998–2002; cofounder and co-host Missouri Writes for Kids! (television program), 1997–2002; cofounder and manag-ing director, Good Company Theatre for All ages, 1997–2003; cofounder and director, American Writes for Kids and USA Plays for Kids, 1997–. Member of board of directors, National Association for Young Writers, 1989–91, Missouri Center for the Book, 1993–98, and Writers Hall of Fame, 1994–98. Speaker at conferences, workshops, and schools.
MEMBER: American Alliance of Theatre and Education, International Association of Theatre for Children and Young People (U.S. chapter), Authors Guild, Dramatists Guild, Association for Jewish Theatre, National Council of Teachers of English Assembly on Literature for Adolescents (member of board of directors, 1989–92), Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (Missouri advisor, 1986–89; member of board of directors, 1989–97), New England Theatre Conference, Phi Beta Kappa.
AWARDS, HONORS: Award of excellence, Festival of Missouri Women in the Arts, 1974, for Come Join the Circus; honorable mention, Unitarian Universalist Religious Arts Guild, 1975, for play Afterthoughts in Eden; creative writing fellowship grant in playwriting, National Endowment for the Arts, 1978, for God and a Woman; first prize in one-act play contest, Little Theatre of Alexandria, 1983, and Street Players Theatre, 1989, for The Grand Canyon; first prize, Children's Musical Theater of Mobile contest, and first prize, Dubuque Fine Arts Players contest, both 1984, both for East of the Sun/West of the Moon; Mark Twain Award nomination, 1984, for Just like Jenny; Outstanding Books for Young Adults citation, University of Iowa, and Best Books citation, Child Study Association, both 1985, both for Missing Pieces; best new play of the season designation, Maxwell Anderson Playwriting Series, 1985–86, and Ellis Memorial Award finalist, Theatre Americana, 1988, both for Little Old Ladies in Tennis Shoes; first prize, Center Stage New Horizons contest, 1986, first prize, Mercyhurst College National Playwrights Showcase, 1986–87, and first prize, Unpublished Play Project of the American Alliance for Theatre in Education, 1987–88, all for God and a Woman; Iowa Teen Award nomination, and Young Hoosier Award nomination, both 1986–87, both for Things Are Seldom What They Seem; Children's Theatre Indianapolis Children's Theatre Symposium playwriting awards, Indiana University/Purdue University, 1987, for Prince Alexis and the Silver Saucer, 1989, for A Woman Called Truth, and 1995, for The Wolf and Its Shadows; Joseph Campbell Memorial Fund Award, The Open Eye: New Stagings for Youth, 1991–92, and American Alliance of Theatre and Education (AATE) Distinguished Play Award, 1994, and Outstanding Play for Young Audiences designation, U.S. Center of the International Association of Theaters for Children and Young People, 1993, all for A Woman Called Truth; New Play Festival Award, Actors' Guild of Lexington, 1992, for Sunday, Sunday; first prize, TADA! play-writing contest, 1991, and first prize, Choate Rosemary Hall play-writing contest, 1993, both for Dancing with Strangers; AATE Unpublished Play Project winner, 1994, and IUPUI/Bonderman Award, 1995, both for The Wolf and Its Shadows; Kennedy Center New Visions/New Voices Forum selected play, 1995, and AATE Unpublished Plays Project National Award, 1996, both for Across the Plains; honorary life membership, Missouri Council for the Social Studies, 1998; Celebrate Literacy Award, International Reading Association, 1998–99; Pittsburgh One-Act Play Festival winner, 1999, for Thunder Mountain; IUPUI/Bonderman semi-finalist and AATE Unpublished Play Project National Award, both 1999, both for Joan of Ark; Pick of the Lists and National Jewish Book Award, both 1999, both for With All My Heart, with All My Mind; Aurand Harris Playwriting fellowship, Children's Theater Foundation of America, 1999; Charlotte Chorpenning Award for body of distinguished work in children's theater, American Alliance for Theatre and Education, 1999; IUPUI/Bonderman Award, 2001, and Aurand Harris Playwrighting Award, 2003, both for In the Garden of the Selfish Giant.
PLAYS; UNDER NAME SANDRA FENICHEL ASHER
Come Join the Circus (one-act), produced in Springfield, MO, at Springfield Little Theatre, 1973.
Afterthoughts in Eden (one-act), produced at Los Angeles Feminist Theatre, 1975.
A Song of Sixpence (one-act), Encore Performance, 1976.
The Ballad of Two Who Flew (one-act), published in Plays, March, 1976.
How I Nearly Changed the World, but Didn't (one-act), produced in Springfield, MO, 1977.
Witling and the Stone Princess, published in Plays, 1979.
Food Is Love (one-act; produced in Springfield, MO, 1979), published in A Grand Entrance, Dramatic Publishing (New York, NY), 1999.
The Insulting Princess (one-act; produced at Interlochen Arts Academy, 1979), Encore Performance, 1988.
The Mermaid's Tale (one-act; produced at Interlochen Arts Academy, 1979), Encore Performance, 1988.
Dover's Domain, Pioneer Drama Service, 1980.
The Golden Cow of Chelm (one-act; produced in Springfield, MO, 1980), published in Plays, 1980.
Sunday, Sunday (produced at Purdue University, 1981), Dramatic Publishing (New York, NY), 1994.
The Grand Canyon (one-act), produced in Alexandria, VA, 1983.
Little Old Ladies in Tennis Shoes (two-act; produced in Philadelphia, PA, 1985), Dramatic Publishing (New York, NY), 1989.
East of the Sun/West of the Moon (one-act), produced at Children's Musical Theatre, Mobile, AL, 1985.
God and a Woman (two-act), produced in Erie, PA, at National Playwrights Showcase, 1987.
Prince Alexis and the Silver Saucer (one-act), produced in Springfield, MO, 1987.
A Woman Called Truth (one-act; produced in Houston, TX, 1989), Dramatic Publishing (New York, NY), 1989, revised as A Woman Called Truth: A Play in Two Acts Celebrating the Life of Sojourner Truth, 1993.
The Wise Men of Chelm (one-act; produced in Louisville, KY, 1991) Dramatic Publishing (New York, NY), 1992.
Blind Dating (one-act), produced in New York, NY, 1992.
Perfect (one-act), produced in New York, NY, 1992.
Where Do You Get Your Ideas? (adapted from book of same title; also see below), produced in New York, NY, 1992.
All on a Saturday Morning (one-act), produced in Columbia, MO, 1992.
Dancing with Strangers (three one-acts; produced in Wallingford, CT, 1993), Dramatic Publishing (New York, NY), 1994.
Once, in the Time of Trolls (produced in Lawrence, KS, 1995), Dramatic Publishing (New York, NY), 1995.
Emma (two-act; produced in Springfield, MO, 1995), Dramatic Publishing (New York, NY), 1997.
Across the Plains (produced in Kansas City, MO, 1996), Dramatic Publishing (New York, NY), 1997.
The Wolf and Its Shadows (produced in Omaha, NE, 1995), Anchorage Press, 1999.
I Will Sing Life: Voices from the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp (produced in Springfield, MO, 1999), Dramatic Publishing (New York, NY), 1999.
Little Women: Meg. Jo, Beth, and Amy, Dramatic Publishing (New York, NY), 2001.
Blackbirds and Dragons, Mermaids and Mice (one-acts; includes A Song of Sixpence, Country Mouse and the Missing Lunch Mystery, The Little Mermaid [adapted from the story by Hans Christian Andersen], Thunder Mountain, and The Insulting Princess), Dramatic Publishing (New York, NY), 2003.
(With Joseph Robinette and Kent Brown) 125 Original Audition Monologues, Dramatic Publishing (New York, NY), 2003.
Somebody Catch My Homework, Dramatic Publishing (New York, NY), 2004.
Romeo and Juliet Together (and Alive!) at Last, Dramatic Publishing (New York, NY), 2004.
In the Garden of the Selfish Giant, Dramatic Publishing (New York, NY), 2004.
We Will Remember: A Tribute to Veterans, Dramatic Publishing (New York, NY), 2005.
Contributor of plays to anthologies, including Center Stage, Harper (New York, NY), 1990, and Scenes & Monologues for Young Actors, Dramatic Publishing (New York, NY), 1999.
FICTION; FOR CHILDREN
Summer Begins, Elsevier-Nelson, 1980, published as Summer Smith Begins, Bantam (New York, NY), 1986.
Daughters of the Law, Beaufort, 1980, published as Friends and Sisters, Gollancz (London, England), 1982.
Just like Jenny, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1982.
Things Are Seldom What They Seem, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1983.
Missing Pieces, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1984.
Teddy Teabury's Fabulous Fact, Dell (New York, NY), 1985.
Everything Is Not Enough, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1987.
Teddy Teabury's Peanutty Problems, Dell (New York, NY), 1987.
Princess Bee and the Royal Good-Night Story (picture book), illustrated by Cat Bowman Smith, Albert Whitman (Morton Grove, IL), 1990.
Stella's Dancing Days, illustrated by Kathryn Brown, Harcourt (New York, NY), 2001.
Why Rabbit's Nose Twitches, LeapFrog School House, 2004.
Too Many Frogs!, illustrated by Keith Graves, Philomel (New York, NY), 2005.
What a Party! illustrated by Keith Graves, Philomel (New York, NY), 2007.
"BALLET ONE" SERIES
Best Friends Get Better, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1989.
Mary-in-the-Middle, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1990.
Pat's Promise, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1990.
Can David Do It?, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1991.
Out of Here: A Senior Class Yearbook, Dutton/Lodestar (New York, NY), 1993.
(Editor) But That's Another Story: Famous Authors Introduce Popular Genres, Walker (New York, NY), 1996.
(Editor and contributor) With All My Heart, with All My Mind: Thirteen Stories about Growing up Jewish, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1999.
(Editor and contributor) On Her Way: Stories and Poems about Growing up Girl, Dutton (New York, NY), 2004.
(Editor with David Harrison) Dude!: Stories and Stuff for Boys, Dutton (New York, NY), 2006.
The Great American Peanut Book, illustrated by Jo Anne Metsch Bonnell, Tempo, 1977.
Where Do You Get Your Ideas? Helping Young Writers Begin, illustrated by Susan Hellard, Walker (New York, NY), 1987.
Wild Words! How to Train Them to Tell Stories, illustrated by Dennis Kendrick, Walker (New York, NY), 1989.
Discovering Cultures: Mexico, Benchmark Books (New York, NY), 2003.
Discovering Cultures: China, Benchmark Books (New York, NY), 2003.
Contributor of stories and articles to books, including Performing the Text: Reading, Writing, and Teaching the Young Adult Novel, edited by Virginia Monseau and Gary Salvner, Heinemann-Boynton/Cook, 1992; Authors' Perspectives: Turning Teenagers into Readers and Writers, edited by Donald Gallo, Heinemann-Boynton/Cook, 1992; Collins Book of Ballet and Dance, edited by Jean Ure, HarperCollins, 1997; Theatre for Young Audiences: Twenty Great Plays for Children, edited by Coleman Jennings, St. Martin's Press, 1998; and Two Decades of the ALAN Review, edited by Patricia P. Kelly and Robert C. Small, Jr., NCTE Press, 1999. Contributor of stories and articles to magazines, including Highlights for Children, Humpty Dumpty, Parents, ALAN Review, Journal of Reading, Spark!, Theater for Young Audiences Today, Writers Digest, Writer, and National Geographic World.
WORK IN PROGRESS: Editing Oh, Not! Not Again!, for Institute of Children's Literature; editing an anthology for boys, with David Harrision, for Dutton; What a Day! for Philomel.
SIDELIGHTS: Sandy Asher, a playwright and children's author, is probably best known for her young-adult novels and other prose works for young readers. Drawing many of the ideas and characters for her writings from her childhood memories, Asher has earned critical praise and numerous awards for novels such as Just like Jenny, Things Are Seldom What They Seem, and Everything Is Not Enough. In addition to fiction, Asher has also edited the story collections On Her Way: Stories and Poems about Growing up Girl and the award-winning With All My Heart, with All My Mind: Thirteen Stories about Growing up Jewish, which collect works that address many of the same adolescent concerns Asher confronts in her fiction.
Asher was raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, surrounded by the abundant sights and sounds and varieties of people in her neighborhood. Still, as a child she discovered the world of books early on, and while growing up she developed interests in writing, drama, and dance, despite the concerns of her parents who viewed marriage and family as a young woman's most important focus. As a teen she masked her typical adolescent discomfort with a sarcastic sense of humor. Asher noted that adolescents are often socially isolated at just the time they are developing their deepest concerns about identity. A young child, she once explained to Contemporary Authors (CA), can take his or her questions to a parent, an older adolescent can talk to a boyfriend or girlfriend, an adult can confide in a spouse, close friend, or psychiatrist. But friendships in early adolescence are often tenuous. "So you're alone with your fears and confusions at the very point in life when frightening and confusing changes are happening to you every day," she noted. "You tell no one the truth about how you feel, no one tells you, and everyone ends up thinking, 'I am the only person this crazy in the whole world.'"
However uncomfortably, Asher thrived in her adolescence, pursuing youthful dreams into challenging experiences in ballet, the theater, and finally into writing professionally. She credits teachers and role models from books—Jo March of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women in particular—for her perseverance in the things she loved. But she also believes that adolescence is not just a difficult time, it is a "time of hope," she once told CA. "You can solve problems. You can learn how to live well. No one can tell children that life is not worth living. They just got here and they're rarin' to go."
After an eventful high school and college career that included performing in plays with La Salle College Masque and Indiana University Theatre, musicals on the traveling showboat, the Majestic, and ballet with the Philadelphia Civic Ballet Company, Asher graduated from Indiana University and married her husband, Harvey Asher. Within a span of several years, her parents and her grandparents died, and her husband's job necessitated a move to Missouri. During these years she worked as a scriptwriter for a radio station, an advertising copywriter, and a drama critic for an alternative newspaper before having two children and beginning graduate studies in child development.
In 1969, a year after the birth of her second child, she began to write her first novel, Daughters of the Law, a story about a young girl trying to understand her Jewish heritage in light of her mother's unexpressed but painful memories as a survivor of the Holocaust of World War II. As Asher became more familiar with her genre, she reworked the novel many times over the next ten years before its publication. During these years she also began to write the award-winning plays that she has seen produced throughout the United States.
Before she finalized Daughters of the Law, Asher wrote and published Summer Begins, a novel about an eighth-grade girl named Summer who submits an article to her school newspaper suggesting that the holiday celebrations at her school should include Buddhist and Jewish traditions along with the exclusively Christian ones currently observed. Summer finds herself the unwilling center of attention when the principal demands that she retract her article, and her teacher resigns in protest of this violation of Summer's civil rights. Summer Begins raises important issues of censorship and religious freedom, but many critics noted that the book's strength lies in its focus on Summer's development toward maturity, related in invitingly human and often humorous terms. A Washington Post Book World reviewer commented that "Summer is a winningly self-aware 13-year-old and her reluctance to take on the heroine's role is often very funny."
In her 1982 novel, Just like Jenny, Asher explores the friendship between Stephie and Jenny, two talented young dancers. When they are both asked to audition for a semi-professional dance group, Stephie, who is under pressure from her parents and envious of Jenny's classic skills, decides that she is not good enough to try out. The resolution of Stephie's loss of nerve, according to Judith S. Baughman in a Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1983 essay, entails lessons in "the nature of real friendship and the motivation underlying commitment to hard but fulfilling goals." A Times Liter-ary Supplement reviewer, while criticizing Just like Jenny for "relying on inevitable disappointments and triumphs," commended Asher for her knowledge of teenagers, claiming that the author "knows about the dreams and aspirations of young people…. She understands also the stubborn crises of confidence which afflict adolescents who do not know how they compare in ability and maturity with others."
In her more recent novels Asher has continued to raise social issues while focusing on her adolescent characters' personal development. In her award-winning 1983 book Things Are Seldom What They Seem she examines the effect a teacher's sexual abuse—and the silent response within the adult world to what he has done—has on some of his students. Baughman noted that the significant focus in this story is "how these complexly developed fourteen and fifteen year olds deal with their discovery that things are seldom what they seem, that deceptions or misperceptions do undermine relationships."
In Missing Pieces, noted Virginia Marr in a School Library Journal review, Asher "deals with such adolescent concerns as lack of communication within families, loss, loneliness and the constant need for emotional support." Asher's 1987 novel, Everything Is Not Enough, the story of a seventeen-year-old boy's move toward independence, tackles the theme of violence against women in a similar manner. In this story, a supportive friendship arises between a young man and a female coworker at a restaurant when, together, they confront the fact that a friend is being beaten by her alcoholic boyfriend. In her 1993 work Out of Here: A Senior Class Yearbook, Asher uses nine interconnected stories about a series of problems such as teen pregnancy, abusive parents, and alcoholism to highlight dilemmas faced by graduating seniors at a high school in a small town. "The cumulative effect," School Library Journal reviewer Doris A. Fong concluded, "is an accurate portrayal of high school, with concerns and activities that give Asher's work the texture of a yearbook."
Asher includes other short fiction in the fiction anthologies she has edited for pre-teen and older readers. In With All My Heart, with All My Mind she joins with contributors Jacqueline Dembar, Phyllis Shalant, Eric Kimmel, and Susan Beth Pfeffer to introduce Jewish teens attempting to come to terms with adulthood as well as with their Jewish heritage. Stories range in time period from Masada to World War II to the near future, but in each young men and women are presented with a conflict that involves the obligations of their faith and culture. Each story is followed by an interview with the author in which the story's message is discussed. Similarly, writers Miriam Bat Ami, Bonny Becker, Patricia Calvert, and Donna Jo Napoli join Asher in contributing tales about young, independent-minded women to On Her Way. Stories range in focus from the realistic to the fantastic: in one tale a girl discovers a magical make up that makes anyone who wears it popular, while in another, a new girl at school who is not as physically mature as others her age is mistaken for a boy by her new classmates. In School Library Journal Janet Hilbun explained that the "entertaining and engrossing" volume "celebrates growing up female as the protagonists tackle and embrace new experiences." The critic also cited Asher's selections as editor, noting that readers of the short fiction and verse collected in On Her Way are introduced to "likeable characters who learn valuable lessons on their journeys to womanhood." Noting that some of the poems contain "sophisticated, challenging imagery," Booklist reviewer Gillian Engberg felt that most selections are accessible to teen readers, "and many girls will recognize their own challenges" in the "accessible and often inspiring" stories.
In addition to plays and novels for older readers, Asher has also written for the early elementary grades. Her picture book Princess Bee and the Royal Good-Night Story takes a lighthearted look at separation anxiety, a common plight of smaller children. Princess Bee cannot go to sleep when her mom, the queen, goes out of town. When Bee's siblings attempt stories but come up short, the princess has to look within herself to solve the problem. In a review for Booklist, Julie Corsaro called the work a "soothing offering with potential for repeat late-night performances." Stella's Dancing Days introduces a gray kitten named Stella, whose talent for dancing charms her human owners, as well as the family dog. However, as the kitten grows into a cat, she sets aside her dancing in favor of raising a litter of her own six kittens … dancers all, of course! Noting that the book will "please cat lovers and ballerinas of all ages," Shawn Brommer wrote in School Library Journal that in this story about maturation, "Asher's text has a natural, graceful rhythm." The "cat's-eye view reflected in the family members' names"—Tall One, Gentle One, and Littlest One with the Loudest Voice are the children's names—"is just one example of the light, precise language in this well-crafted picture book," noted Booklist contributor Carolyn Phelan, while a Publishers Weekly reviewer dubbed Stella's Dancing Days "a charmer."
Asher has also aided the efforts of budding authors by penning the companion nonfiction books Where Do You Get Your Ideas? Helping Young Writers Begin and Wild Words! How to Train Them to Tell Stories. These books, suited for children in grades three to eight, tackle the problems of how to begin writing and then how to edit stories to make them more effective. In Where Do You Get Your Ideas? chapters alternate between idea-generating activities and "stories behind the stories," with quotes from popular children's authors. Wild Words! gets more specific, offering advice on shaping plots and characters, then explaining the editing process that allows authors to "tame" words. "The examples," commented Martha Rosen in School Library Journal, "are right on target, and the original writing samples by junior-and senior-high-school students provide interest and incentive for others who are trying to hone their writing skills." Asher has also edited But That's Another Story: Famous Authors Introduce Popular Genres, which includes adventure, suspense, horror, and science fiction stories, creating a book useful for "language arts teachers who have dreamed of an accessible collection of genre explanations, short stories, author interviews, and story commentaries all rolled into one pleasure-reading package," according to Patti Sylvester Spencer in the Voice of Youth Advocates.
AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL ESSAY: Sandra Fenichel Asher contributed the following autobiographical essay to CA:
That's where I spent my childhood, in a neighborhood called Strawberry Mansion (for a mansion nobody I knew had ever actually seen), in the City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia. That's where I first dreamed the dreams meant to last me a lifetime. I've always liked the name "Diamond Street." It fits the old neighborhood, not the genteel, slightly shabby place it actually was, but the way I saw it as a child and remember it now: sparkling with hope and promise.
Thirty-twenty West Diamond Street was a three-story row house. It stood at about the center of the block, facing more row houses just like it across the wide, busy city street. A few scraggly trees grew out of squares of earth set in the pavement along the curb.
We moved in when I was not quite three years old. World War II was over, and my father, Benjamin Fenichel, a doctor, was due back after five years in the army. (I was born on October 16, 1942, a "war baby," as my classmates and I were called, promises of immortality in case our fathers didn't make it home from overseas.) They say I was sitting on the cement front steps of 3020 with my grandfather, Barnett Weiner, when a taxi pulled up and dropped off the father I'd never met before. I have a clear picture in my head of that scene, but I think it comes more from the many times my mother, Fanny Weiner Fenichel, told the story than from actual memory.
Sitting on the steps with my grandfather was something I did a lot, though, and remember well. There was no air-conditioning in those days, and row houses tend to block out each other's light, so everyone took to the steps and sidewalks for "a breath of fresh air and some sunshine" as often as possible. "Zayda," as I called him (it's the Yiddish word for "Grandpa"), smoked a well-worn, smelly black pipe—one he'd probably brought with him from Russia when he and my grandmother, Molly, immigrated before the turn of the twentieth century. Sometimes he let me take a puff. It tasted pretty much the way it smelled—vile. But it belonged to my gentle, funny Zayda, so I loved it anyway.
Our block swarmed with children, war babies and the baby boomers who came after them. Lynne and Judy lived next door, Judy's family downstairs and Lynne's up. Lynne and I met on those same front steps, soon after we moved in. Our mothers loved to tell the story of finding the two of us seated close together, chatting amiably, even though we were barely old enough to string words into sentences.
Judy's father was a butcher. When he came home from work, his clothes were smeared with blood and he smelled sour. It would have been scary except that he was a soft-spoken, kindly man, which always struck me as an odd thing in a butcher.
Katie lived directly across the street. She was small, solid, and dark, with an accent that was hard to understand. She and her family were from Germany or Poland, I think. (Almost every child in the neighborhood who wasn't an immigrant had parents or grandparents who were.) Katie was younger than my friends and I, but always begged to hang around with us. Sometimes we let her, but basically, we considered her a pest.
David, who lived next door, believed that if he cut himself and bled, he'd shrink down to nothing and die. I remember a group of us trying to comfort him one day after a tiny scratch scared him silly.
George lived near the corner and owned a large, nasty mongrel dog. George was also an immigrant and spoke with a thick German accent. He was in my class at school and had a crush on me. I was the only kid in the neighborhood he allowed to pat his dog, which would growl and snap viciously at everyone else. Sometimes George had other people deliver candy bars to me. He put love notes on them, signed, "The Phantom."
Just beyond George's house was the bakery, on the corner of Thirtieth and Diamond. Wonderful smells drifted up from the iron grates in the pavement as you passed by early in the morning: fresh bread, cake, cookies. Across Thirtieth Street from the bakery was the candy store where warm summer evenings often found us ordering double-dip chocolate ice-cream cones with chocolate sprinkles (we called them "jimmies"). I suppose this is where my lifelong addiction to chocolate ice cream began.
A right turn onto Thirtieth and a few blocks down was my first dancing school, Miss Eva's. Miss Eva owned the studio and played the piano; Miss Sydney was our dance teacher. I was four-and-a-half when I began dance classes, and I've never stopped. Every class at Miss Eva's began and ended with hugs and kisses. Miss Eva was glamourous, especially compared to all of our mothers. Her blond hair was always beauty-parlor stylish and she wore makeup and lots of gold jewelry.
I loved Miss Eva, but, to me, Miss Sydney was the most beautiful woman in the world, with her classic dancer's grace, large eyes, and long, dark hair. Once, on recital night, she wore a full-length, shimmering gown and looked just like a storybook princess. The first book in my "Ballet One" series is dedicated to Miss Sydney and Miss Eva, and the children in that book feel toward their first dance teacher exactly what I felt toward mine: total adoration.
If you turned left at the corner of Thirtieth and Diamond, instead of right, you came to the shops my grandmother visited almost every day: the kosher butcher, the fish store with its live fish swimming in a huge, murky tank, the green grocer, the fruit stand, the delicatessen, and so on. This was no well-lit, spotless supermarket, but a crowded, noisy place, where shoppers and shopkeepers haggled over prices and quality in loud, angry voices and more than one language, and the smells of fish, freshly plucked chicken, pickles, and produce were almost overwhelming. Children who got in the way were yelled at, too. Thirtieth Street was no place for the faint of heart.
Thirty-first Street, back the other way from my front door, was the daily route to and from James G. Blaine Elementary School. Morning and afternoon, my friends and I had to pass the Catholic church on the corner. Although our neighborhood was thoroughly integrated, ethnic and religious groups remained ignorant of cacti other's lives. Ridiculous stereotypes and superstitions were passed on from parent to child and friend to friend. Catholic children confessed in whispers that they were forbidden to attend services at our synagogue; many of their elders believed we practiced human sacrifice. Rumor among my Jewish friends was that if you looked directly at a nun, you would die. I cannot imagine, thinking back on it now, what the nuns who often hurried along the sidewalk on their way to the church thought of the children lined up facing the walls of houses, hiding their eyes and quaking in fear.
There were three cross streets between Diamond Street and school: Fontaine, Page, and Norris. And on each street lived one of my three best school friends: Joyce, Eileen, and Barbara, all of them temptations to dawdle on the way home. I was often discovered, by frantic motherly phone call, in front of or inside one or another of their houses, row houses like mine, playing "A My Name Is Alice," trading photographs of movie stars, or admiring the latest litter of kittens.
Other after-school distractions included the little wagon that waited on a corner for us every day with Philadelphia's famous pretzels, thick, hot, and delicious, topped with gobs of bright yellow mustard. And there was the candy store and restaurant right across from school where you could get penny candies or Philadelphia's other culinary masterpiece: a cheese-steak sandwich. Restaurants all over the country now claim to make Philly cheese-steak sandwiches, but they're not at all like the original. Legend has it that people born and raised in Philadelphia MUST return for the real thing once in a while or, like E.T. far from home, they lose strength and the will to live.
For wider-flung adventure, we had two choices: across Thirtieth and several blocks straight ahead on Diamond was Fairmount Park, the largest city park in the nation, where my friends and I spent many hours running, sled-ding, slipping, and sliding up and down the hills leading to the edge of the water reservoir. We fed squirrels, played tag, screamed a lot, skinned our elbows and knees, cried, got up, and did it all again. I liked Fairmount Park best when the green grass was freckled with yellow dandelions. Dandelions were my favorite flower. I was shocked, later, when I learned they were considered weeds.
A band of Gypsies came to our neighborhood now and then, settling in over on Ridge Avenue for a few months at a time. Many of them visited my father's office for their medical needs and sent their children to Blaine School. A boy we called John the Gypsy showed up in my class. He informed us that John was his school name, but that his Gypsy name was Four Roses, and he knew what the wind that blew around the reservoir was saying. It said "Go where you must go, and be what you must be," he told us, in hushed tones that sent shivers along our spines. I've always wanted to put that scene into a book, but it's never quite fit. Maybe someday it will.
The other door to adventure was the movie theater, on Diamond, across from the bakery, next to the candy store, barely half a block from my house. The Park Theatre showed a new double feature every week. My friends and I disappeared into its red plush interior every Saturday morning at about eleven and didn't come out again till very nearly dinnertime. Besides the double feature, you got several cartoons and coming attractions, a newsreel, and an episode of an ongoing adventure serial. And you could stay and watch the whole show over again all evening, if you wanted. All that for twenty-five cents, plus your popcorn and Jujubes and Goldenberg's Peanut Chews and soda.
Everyone, adult and child, was crazy about the movies in those days (no television, remember), and we kids were all planning to be movie stars. On the way home from the show, blinking our eyes against the sudden light, we'd act out the stories we'd just witnessed. The boys would fly up porch steps and leap over railings, brandishing pretend pirates' swords or shooting each other with bows and arrows from the backs of imaginary Indian ponies.
The girls would sing and tap-dance, picture themselves in elegant spangled and beaded costumes, and imagine falling in love in Rome and Paris. We spent our allowances on fan magazines, wrote away for autographed photos, and kept our prized collections in boxes under our beds to dream on. We held talent contests right there on the sidewalks in front of our houses and argued about which of us was truly meant for stardom. We acted out movies over and over again, in backyards, in basements, in bedrooms, and the schoolyard. We fought over the best parts, went home angry, called each other on the phone, made up, and fought some more. The movies promised us lives of endless adventure, and we believed them.
If life in the Park Theatre and on the streets of Strawberry Mansion was colorful and noisy, life inside 3020 West Diamond was something else entirely. It was a house meant for adults: quiet, sedate, sedentary adults. Basically I was raised by seven of them who lived there with me: my grandparents, parents, Aunt Becky and Uncle Jack, and my brother, Bobby, eight years my senior and not much interested in small sisters. When I was six, my cousin Lynn was born, and I relished the company of another little girl, but she and I were both expected to be quiet—and we were, for the most part, and still are.
The grown-up seriousness of our house was broken now and then by eagerly anticipated visits from my rambunctious cousins Richie and Stevie Weiner and their parents, Uncle Harry, my mother's younger brother, and Aunt Bea. They are four of my favorite people. Not until I was grown did I realize that, for some people, family Passover seders are solemn religious occasions. With my cousins cracking jokes beside me at our table, as they did year after year, I laughed until tears rolled down my face.
My father's office took up most of our first floor, dominating and setting the mood for the entire house. Behind it were the living room, a small dining area, and the kitchen. My brother had the big front bedroom on the second floor; my parents, the "master bedroom" at the back, and mine was the cramped room near the stairs, with its one tall, skinny window looking out over a narrow passageway between our neighbor's backyard and ours. My grandparents, aunt, uncle, and cousin all shared the third floor, which had bedrooms, a bathroom, and another kitchen. I spent many happy hours on the third floor, helping my grandmother bake crescent-shaped cinnamon rolls and poppyseed cookies or playing endless games of "Let's Pretend" with Lynn and Aunt Becky.
My father was a general practitioner, a common calling for doctors before specialties became the norm. He had no nurses, secretaries, or receptionists, just an endless stream of human misery crowding his postage stamp of a waiting room and often spilling out onto our front steps and into the street. His office hours, posted on a sign in the front window as 1-3 P.M. and 6-8 P.M. daily, actually began with the first ring of the phone or bell at any time of day or night and went on until the last person in line was patched up and sent home. He also made house calls, and I have vivid memories of him heading toward the stairs outside my bedroom, buttoning street clothes over his pajamas as he rushed out into the night on an emergency call.
While there were patients in the office, we were not supposed to make distracting noise. If my brother and I got into a fight, as we often did, with the usual shouts, punches, and tears, the door connecting our living room to the office would burst open and my father would appear, furious, and command us to be quiet.
The easiest way to stay out of trouble was to spend a lot of time in my room, alone. I had my books and fan magazines, dolls, puppets, radio, and imagination. I learned early that inner space is worth exploring and that even when alone, you can find yourself in fascinating company. Much of the time was spent in a fantasy world where I grew up to be the people I saw in movies and read about in books: a dancer, actor, circus juggler, magician, world traveler, puppeteer….
I saw no reason why I couldn't be whatever I wanted to be, and all of those things at once. I made up poems and songs, stories and plays, to fill my fantasy world and entertain myself. I read whole volumes of the Book of Knowledge encyclopedia and pages at a time out of the dictionary, eager to know everything about everything. Little did I know what excellent training for a writer those solitary hours up in my room would prove to be.
On Sundays, my parents dropped me off at the Children's Reading Room entrance of the monumental Free Library of Philadelphia at Logan Square.
They drove off to visit their friends; I raced down the long ramp and through the tall glass doors to visit mine: books. I adored their worn, dingy bindings all in neat rows and their musty, age-old smell. I believed wholeheartedly in the people I met within their covers: Jo March, Peter Pan and Wendy, Dorothy and the Scarecrow. I remember thinking how wonderful it would be to write a book someone would enjoy as much as I enjoyed those I read. I wondered if I would ever see one of my own books on those library shelves, and how it would feel when I did. Not long ago, I visited the Children's Reading Room for the first time in over thirty years, and my books were on those same beloved old shelves. It felt just fine.
I actually think my fate as a writer of books and plays was sealed for all time somewhere between second and sixth grades, among the library shelves at Logan Square and at James G. Blaine Elementary School. I discovered two strong role models, long before I'd ever heard the expression "role model." One was real; the other, fictional. Truth being stranger than fiction, I'll save the real one for last.
The fictional model was Jo March in Little Women. Jo wanted to be special, and so did I. She wanted to do it by writing stories. Perfect! I loved to write stories; I was born that way. Until I read Little Women, I had no idea that people got paid to do it. Jo March succeeded in making her dream come true. And that gave me hope. Information, a dream, a plan, and hope: books can provide all of that and more.
The other role model, the real-life one, was Mrs. Lomozoff, my second-grade teacher. Mrs. Lomozoff was young, pretty—or at least, I thought so—and madly in love with the theater. She owned a set of beautiful oriental rod puppets. We used them to act out the tragic Blue Willow Plate legend about star-crossed young lovers who jump off a bridge and drown themselves rather than be parted. Their spirits then rise from the water and become a pair of doves, reunited in the sky. You can sometimes still see the Blue Willow Plate legend on the dishes used in oriental restaurants. Mrs. Lomozoff loved the story, so we loved it too.
From time to time, she acted out portions of the play Arsenic and Old Lace for us, gallumphing around the room as the crazed character who thinks he's Teddy Roosevelt, blowing on a pretend bugle, screaming "Charge!" and galloping up San Juan Hill. We were crazy about that part of the story, although we also liked the two old ladies who poisoned old men and buried them in the basement.
Star-crossed lovers and arsenic. In second grade! Is it any wonder Mrs. Lomozoff stands out in my memory?
I remember from those days a recurring conversation that went something like this: "Teacher, can I take Joycie and Eileen and Barbara and Paul into the cloakroom with me to rehearse our play?"
We had large cloakrooms in those days, walk-in closets that ran the length of the classroom, separated by a heavy wooden door. Inside, two rows of iron hooks ran the length of both walls to hold our hats, coats, and book bags, top row for the tall kids, bottom for the short, boots on the floor. Those cloakrooms were windowless, as I recall, practically airless, except for a transom, but perfect for a huddle of half-a-dozen kids or so working on important extracurricular projects. I have ever since linked creativity with the smell of wet wool.
Inspired by Mrs. Lomozoff's theatrical bent, I began making up skits, little stories and dances woven around popular songs of the day: "The Shrimpboats Are Comin'," "How Much Is That Doggy in the Window?," and "The Tennessee Waltz," are three I remember. When my collaborators and I had finished our regular work, we'd rehearse my skits for a while and then perform them for the rest of the class.
As playwright-in-residence, I was always in charge of asking: "Can we? Can we go in the cloakroom? Can we?"
"I'm sure you CAN," would come the reply. "But I'm not sure you MAY."
A slump of small shoulders, a communal sigh.
"Teacher, MAY I take Joycie and Eileen and Barbara and Paul into the cloakroom with me to rehearse our play?"
"Yes, you can and you may."
An early lesson in the power of the word. Such TINY words, can and may, first grade, baby words! And yet, one got you the cloakroom, and the other did not. I didn't realize it at the time, of course, but the lesson was not lost on me. Words are powerful things, especially when you know the proper way to wield them.
Another lesson also took hold, even though it seemed to go unnoticed in our headlong rush for the cloakroom: "Yes, you can and you may." You have ability; you have approval. Anything, everything, is possible. That message is as inseparable from my teacher's voice in my mind as our bolted-down desks were from the floor. "Yes, you can and you may."
You have to understand that I grew up in a very traditional family. My father was one of only two in his family of seven siblings to go beyond high school. My mother, who loved books, theater, ballet, travel, and any kind of ethnic restaurant, and who hated cleaning, cooking, mending, washing, ironing, and raising children, never graduated from high school and was a housewife, very much because she was supposed to be.
She did manage to get my father to take ten days off from work every summer. I recall endless car rides (no superhighways in those days; no car air-conditioning, either) and happy arrivals in Boston, Cape Cod and Martha's Vineyard, the Blue Ridge Mountains, Norfolk, and Virginia Beach. And for several weeks every summer, she, my brother, and I left the city's oppressive heat and polio scares for a rooming house in Atlantic City. There, the same gang of summer friends, hers and ours, always waited, fellow Philadelphians whom we never saw at any other time of the year. Husbands and fathers joined their families on the weekends, arriving after work on Friday night and leaving before daybreak on Monday morning for the sixty-mile drive back to the city. My mother and I loved the ocean, the beach, and the boardwalk (and I returned to them in my imagination by inventing Braden's Port, on the Jersey Shore, for Everything Is Not Enough), but except for these annual excursions, my mother was a housewife in true post-World War II fashion: she was married, for life, to the house.
My brother was to follow in my father's footsteps and become a doctor. 1 was to go to college and earn, as we all said then, my M.R.S. degree; that is, find a husband, settle down, and start a family. The purpose of higher education for a woman was to make her a better housewife. My brother attended medical school and went on to become a psychiatrist; it took me two major universities in two states to do it, but I eventually found a husband—oddly enough, a professor, like Jo March's husband! We settled down, and raised a family. But I also became a writer.
That I wrote constantly, practically from infancy, was considered amusing by my family, but certainly not significant. That I had dreams of becoming a profes-sional writer struck them as a safe enough way for me to pass the time until marriage and children came along.
I can't blame them for the way they saw me. They were products of their time. They were good, decent people trying to raise a good, decent female child. The full impact of their beliefs didn't hit me until later, after we left Strawberry Mansion. For the length of my stay at Blaine School, there were no limits to what was possible.
Jo March, my teachers, and I had big plans. Mrs. Lomozoff was the first to take my little plays and poems and stories seriously. She found ways for me to show them off. She knew that young writers, like young athletes, need cheerleaders. She was my first. There's a little of Mrs. Lomozoff in many of my books, but she's most obvious in the flamboyant Mrs. Deveraux in Just like Jenny.
Third grade brought an abrupt about-face. Mrs. Lazowick was very strict. She had a temper and was not above smacking kids around occasionally. Her idea of teaching writing was to have us practice circles and loops, sides of our hands up off the page, until our muscles ached. I never could do it right, and I don't think anyone else in the room could either, but for some reason it was very important to her, so we kept trying and she kept yelling and smacking.
I don't recall being very creative in that room. I do recall being terrified. That, too, has served its purpose in my being able to write for young readers. I can understand children who aren't as comfortable in a classroom as I generally was. Mrs. Lazowick taught me that. All teachers teach, but not always what they think they're teaching.
Our principal at the time was Mr. Meyers, who could barely circle the schoolyard even once in a recess period, so many of us clung to his hands, his sleeves, his pockets, jostling each other for a turn at his side. He was a quiet man, with graying hair, kindly pale eyes behind glasses, a ready smile. I can't tell you exactly why we loved him so much, except that somehow we knew he loved us.
Mr. Meyers was transferred to another school. For many of us, that was a first brush with mortality. Nothing, we learned, is forever, not even if you give your whole heart to it. Through writing, I later learned, you can hold on to some of what's been taken from you: Mr. Meyers inspired Mr. Crane, the strict but loveable third-grade teacher in my "Ballet One" series.
I understand there's a school named for Mr. Meyers in Philadelphia now. I don't think there's a school named for his replacement, who was everything we loathed: stern, humorless, brusk, loud. He never seemed to quite focus on you when you talked to him, and you never talked to him unless you had to.
"Always remember," he often intoned, "your principal is your pal." It was meant as a spelling lesson, we knew that. It was taken, however unconsciously, as our first taste of hypocrisy. Our principal was not our pal, no matter how many times he said it. Eventually, he became Dr. Kyle, the principal in Summer Begins, but 1 reformed him by the end of the story. You can do that, too, when you write fiction—make people and events come out your way. You can dispense justice, reap revenge, and even show a little mercy, if you've a mind to.
Mr. Leggieri was our fourth-grade teacher, and possibly the handsomest man any of us had ever seen off the movie screen. He taught us a lot more than he realized, too, and turned up years later in one of the first short stories I ever published, "Friends Forever," about a teenager in love with her teacher. Mr. Leggieri got married, and we swore we'd never forgive him, but his new bride baked us a huge batch of sugar cookies with multicolored sprinkles on them, so we did.
In fourth grade, many of us were handed instruments, mine was the violin, and sent into the cramped auditorium in the basement of the school building to learn how to play them—more or less—and to join the school orchestra. I don't remember the music teacher's name. I know he was energetic and funny and we liked him. Except that he hugged and tickled us too much, and we didn't care for that. One day he just wasn't there anymore, and nobody would tell us why.
I was an adult when I finally figured out why, and I thought somebody should have told us then and somebody ought to be telling young people now, so I wrote a book called Things Are Seldom What They Seem, in which Mr. Carraway, a charismatic drama teacher, molests some of his students. And while trying to warn young people to protect themselves and to seek help for situations they can't handle alone, I also tried to make the point that the Mr. Carraways of this world aren't monsters. They aren't aliens. They're human beings, just like the rest of us. They're complex, and the emotions they evoke in young people are complicated. We didn't like everything our music teacher did, but we did like him. We shouldn't have been left alone with our confusion after he left. He wasn't the only one who betrayed our trust.
And he's still not. Things Are Seldom What They Seem was removed from library shelves by school librarians and hidden under tables at book fairs by teachers and PTA members. It's now out of print. I suppose those adults think the world is a safer place for their children without my book and others like it. They're in for some cruel surprises. Unfortunately, so are their kids.
Mrs. Spector taught sixth grade, a split class—6A and 6B—overflowing with more than forty of us war babies, some packed two to a desk in those immovable wooden seats.
Mrs. Spector was unflappable. She had one ironclad rule in that maelstrom of a room: We could talk to one another and move around the room as much as we wanted to, a revolutionary concept in those days of buttoned lips and folded hands, but when she spoke, everything had to stop. We each took that rule as a personal challenge; at the parting of her lips, we froze. Not one more step was taken, the raised foot wasn't even put down. Words broke off in midsyllable. The jamming of a pencil sharpener, the uncontrollable final click of a looseleaf notebook seemed to us a mortal failing, a loss of honor.
How did she manage such devotion? Well, she had great personal dignity, and a no-nonsense approach to schoolwork, but she had something else that I think kept us in thrall to her: She knew each and every one of us better than we knew ourselves. She knew what we needed and saw to it that we got it, and for that we pledged to her our total allegiance, to the oldest and the tallest of us in the last seat of the last row.
And that was Clinton, rumored to be fourteen instead of the standard-issue sixth grade eleven or twelve, a good head taller than the other boys, well-muscled, and not much of a talker. School-yard gossip had it that Clinton had done time in reform school. None of my crowd had the guts to ask him.
By Mrs. Spector's edict, Clinton, and only Clinton, could take the long window pole with its menacing iron hook from its hallowed place in a corner at the hack of the room and use it to raise and lower the sashes—at her request and also whenever he felt it was needed. Clinton smiled a lot, and we were never sure what to make of that smile, but I now think it had a lot to do with the simple but important responsibility of raising and lowering window sashes.
On the far side of the room from Clinton, Murray and I were enrolled in Mrs. Spector's makeshift gifted education program. Elfin, mischievous, half my height and weight, Murray was my inspiration and my nemesis. He sat right in front of me and turned every move we made into a competition. "Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better" was Murray's theme song—how fast could we get our math done, how many extra spelling sentences could we do, how much longer was one of our reports than the other?
Murray really got on my nerves, but he kept me busy. And of course, my picking up on every challenge kept him busy, too. Bored? Never. Not with Murray two book reports ahead of me and crowing, his jack-o'-lantern grin hanging over my desk as I struggled to get one up on him.
Thanks to Mrs. Spector's strategic seating arrangement, Murray is goading me on still. He's my personal gadfly; I cannot get rid of him. He's Murray Gordon in Things Are Seldom What They Seem, Ralph Major in the "Ballet One" series, Cory Sedgwick in the "Teddy Teabury" books, forever the kid in the seat in front of you who turns around and drives you nuts even as he makes you try harder.
"I had this weird premonition about starting high school," Debbie Palermo says in Things Are Seldom What They Seem. "I felt sure it was going to be a disaster. And why not? Junior high had been two years of boredom highlighted by severe attacks of loneliness. That really came as a surprise to me after elementary school, which was not bad at all. It was okay to be smart in elementary school. In junior high, smart went out. Pretty and popular came in. Due to circumstances beyond my control, I stayed smart."
Guess where she got those sentiments?
When I was ten, my parents bought a house in Mount Airy, not-quite-but-close to the suburbs and also to the historic Germantown section of Philadelphia, with its stone-walled houses dating back to before the Revolutionary War. Our house was fairly new, a one-story, red brick bungalow sitting high on its one-fifth acre of lawn and trees. Its unfinished attic actually had a little raised platform at one end, like a stage. Always ready for adventure, I was eager to move in and start doing plays up there.
Little did I know that the attic lacked insulation and would be freezing cold half the year and breathtakingly hot the other half. Little did I know that both the best and the worst of times awaited me in that house, along with the pretty ballerinas on the wallpaper in my new room.
My father discovered gardening in Mount Airy, and we had daffodils in the spring, roses, pears, cherries, and figs in the summer. We joked about the dwarf Japanese maple he planted on the front lawn. He took such good care of it, it grew to full size. He and our part-Shepherd mutt, Nero—never the greatest of friends but out of each other's way on Diamond Street—now had long, loud territorial disputes about the backyard.
My grandparents, Aunt Becky, Uncle Jack, Cousin Lynn, and my father's office remained on Diamond Street. This left my mother isolated from both family and friends, but I was allowed to attend Blaine School through sixth grade, so my ties to Strawberry Mansion held for one more year. My brother finished high school the year we moved, left for college, and all but disappeared from our lives. Then seventh grade found me in an alien world.
They say everyone feels like the one true misfit in secondary school, including the quarterback and cheerleaders, and I was certainly no exception. My friends back in Strawberry Mansion were still playing movie star and tag, boys and girls together; the kids at Leeds Junior High in Mount Airy were talking about parties, clothes, beauty parlors, jewelry, and makeup. People of the opposite sex were for dating, not friendship. Friday and Saturday nights were weekly appointments with humiliation if you weren't paired off.
I never quite got the hang of it. Oh, I went through the motions, with passable clothes and a regulation boyfriend, but I was a reluctant satellite orbiting the edges of the "in" crowd. It's not that anyone teased me or that I was particularly unpopular. I simply felt uncomfortable all of the time, a lump of protoplasm that couldn't seem to mold itself into the shape of its container.
I envied the relaxed, flirtatious banter of the more popular girls, even though I resented the way their values controlled everyone, and confounded me. Most of the unwritten social rules, I could never figure out. Those I figured out, I didn't much like. I've tried to write about that confusion in a book of short stories called Out of Here. It's set in a fictional high school, supposedly in Springfield, Missouri, of the 1990s, but it's grounded in my years at Leeds and Germantown High.
For my first three years at Germantown, the school day felt like a forced visit to a strange planet, as did the afternoons and evenings of hanging out at bowling alleys, ice-skating rinks, Howard Johnson's, and classmates' houses. I grew more shy and withdrawn with each passing day, except for a sarcastic sense of humor cultivated to cover my lack of confidence.
Looking back now, I suspect potentially good friends were more afraid of my sharp tongue than I realized, and their gossipy chatter probably masked insecurities much like my own. This difference between surface impressions and inner vulnerability has been a rich area of exploration in all of my writing for young-adult readers. I hope those who find secondary school an unnatural habitat find comfort in my books, among people like themselves—and like me—struggling to make sense out of strange, difficult, and often painful situations.
Away from the school crowd, I was another person, with another life. The summer after we moved to Mount Airy, a day camp opened at nearby Allens Lane Art Center, and I enrolled. It turned out to be my idea of paradise: five days a week devoted to art, dance, drama, and music, with some of the finest instructors in Philadelphia. We performed all the time, impromptu shows we campers made up, and gala productions of Oklahoma and Gilbert and Sullivan operettas directed by our teachers.
The friends I met at Allens Lane day camp loved the same things I did, and many, like me, flourished at camp and withered in the more restrictive atmosphere of junior high. We tried to get together during the school year, on weekends, often for "pajama parties" filled with ghost stories, and we reunited joyfully each summer at camp. My lifelong friend, Honey, the inspiration for many of the good and caring best friends portrayed in my novels, still shares memories of those summers with me.
My father taught a first-aid class at Allens Lane, allowing me to see a new side of him: the teacher. He was terrific at it, and confessed that he'd always wanted to be a teacher, but had become a doctor out of a sense of duty. His mother had decided his fate for him, and he felt he owed it to her. Those words struck me hard. The idea of spending an entire lifetime doing something you didn't want to do, even something as worthwhile as practicing medicine, seemed a tragic waste of what little time is given us, especially when you knew where your heart really longed to be. One of my father's favorite sayings was, "Do the unpleasant willingly and it won't seem so bad." Maybe not, I always thought, but it won't seem good, either!
Teachers. Call me a "teacher's pet," but I've always liked them, my husband and my father-at-his-happiest included. It's not for nothing that teachers fare well in my novels. Mrs. Rossman in junior high, Miss Gold-berg and Miss Hirschfield in senior high blended into Mrs. Morton, Summer's English teacher in Summer Begins. Mr. Krimmins, Germantown's tough-but-tender vice principal, became Mr. Hutton in Missing Pieces. Other favorites, like Mr. Santner (French) and Mr. Glantz (math), are still waiting in the wings, but my guess is they'll find their way into books eventually. To this day, when I hit hard times at the typewriter, I recite, like a litany, the names of teachers who believed in me, who considered "smart" a fine thing in a young woman, and I bask in their remembered smiles of approval.
During the school year, I lived for my evening and weekend dance classes and performances with the Philadelphia Civic Ballet and the Philadelphia Civic Theater. Few of my school friends knew of or cared about these activities, but from my point of view, the real me came alive then, while the person they thought they knew was actually a body wandering in their midst without a soul.
My sixteenth summer, I won a place in the dance apprenticeship program at Williamstown Summer Theater in the magnificent Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts. This was my first summer away from home, and my first close-up experience with professional theater. Never before had I been with people so dedicated to their art, people whose lives and livelihood were one and the same thing: labors of intense love.
I discovered in the course of the summer that I was not of professional dance calibre and probably never would be. I lacked the extraordinary physical strength and endurance dance requires. (I later gave those traits to Stephie and Jenny in Just like Jenny, so they could live out that dream for me.) But the dance training I received at Williamstown was far less important than what 1 learned about life and how to live it well.
Thornton Wilder visited Williamstown that summer, and starred in his own play, Our Town, as the Stage Manager. He attended a rehearsal of a program the dance apprentices were working on and spoke to our group of a dozen or so afterward. I don't remember his exact words, but they were about the importance of what we were doing—the value of art and of being part of an ongoing cultural tradition.
Wilder was in his sixties at the time, and seemed quite ancient to me, with his wrinkled, jowly face and white hair—until he spoke. Never in my life had I seen someone his age so enthusiastic about his work, so passionate about the life he had chosen to lead. No "Do the unpleasant willingly" here. His face seemed to radiate light and energy. Until his visit, I had no idea that kind of excitement could last a lifetime. He was dazzling.
When I visit schools now, I think of Thornton Wilder's visit then. I know I don't generate half the voltage of his electric presence, but I hope his message passes through me to my audience: Follow your dreams. Dedicate yourself to work you love doing, be it medicine, or teaching, or writing—or whatever. If you can't do it professionally, do it as a hobby. Connect the best in yourself to the best in any positive, ongoing human effort—and watch the sparks fly!
During my junior year of high school, my mother noticed a short article in the newspaper calling for female actors and dancers to audition for a play to be presented by the La Salle College Masque. La Salle was, at that time, an all-male school. Kerry, a friend from dancing school, and I decided to give it a try.
We were both cast in the old-fashioned musical comedy Leave it to Jane, and went on to fall in love with the La Salle College Masque, the bright, talented young men associated with it (Kerry eventually married one), and their inspiring director and choreographer, Dan Rodden and Jean Williams. I performed in three more plays at La Salle before leaving Philadelphia permanently: High Button Shoes, Take Me Along, and Romeo and Juliet. To this very day, springtime makes me think of La Salle, where every spring meant a new play and where I often wished spring evenings could go on forever.
Unfortunately, it was at this point, while I was involved in the La Salle shows, that it suddenly struck my parents that I wasn't just playing at plays—I was serious. Well, a life in the theater was not a serious pursuit for their daughter! Suddenly, curfews were levied, and the time spent at rehearsals and cast parties was strictly rationed. Even my choices of college were limited to those I could attend while living at home.
Arguments and tears only convinced my parents that I'd become too involved for my own good. My mother, the one who had taken me to ballets and plays even when I was too young to stay awake for the second act, feared she had created a monster. Girls could dabble in the arts, but only marriage and children were to be played for keeps. Any other route to adulthood was unknown and therefore too dangerous to contemplate.
At about the same time, my father suffered the first of a series of eventually fatal heart attacks, and my mother responded with flare-ups from her own heart, which had been damaged by rheumatic fever when she was a teenager. Fearful for themselves and determined to protect me, my parents resented and resisted my need to grow up my own way. Wanting freedom, I fought what I saw as their attempts to weigh me down with restrictions, obligations, and guilt.
I gave my overprotective parents to Michael Paeglis in Everything Is Not Enough, but toned them down considerably. And Michael is far more compassionate than I was at that age. His coming to terms with his parents is the resolution I wish I'd had. Our red brick bungalow never again knew any peace. The "Dark Ages" of my teen years were long and hard.
That time, of course, was not entirely without its lighter moments. One of my favorites was the senior play, an opportunity for my writing ability, theater training, and sarcasm to unite in an effort I called My Fair Bear, after the currently popular My Fair Lady and the Germantown High School mascot. The script practically wrote itself in one afternoon. In it, a character goes from her freshman to senior years at Germantown High, enduring everything I'd had to endure: the cliques, the unreasonable regulations, even the agonies of gym class. My main character survived—as had I—to poke fun at all of it. Ah, revenge was sweet! And successful. The other kids loved it, and the faculty let me graduate in spite of it.
After graduation, I attended the University of Pennsylvania for two years. I liked college, especially my English, French, and psychology courses, but the Ivy League, fraternity-sorority atmosphere made Penn seem even more cliquish than high school. And it wasn't much fun living at home while everyone else was having a great time in the dorms. Finally, after my sophomore year, my parents relented and allowed me to go away to school. My cousin Richie was leaving for Indiana University (IU) to get his master's degree in music, and they felt he'd keep an eye on me while I was out from under their wing.
Hah! Richie had no intentions of baby-sitting, and I had no intentions of letting him. But we solemnly assured our parents that we'd take good care of each other, and hit the road early the next fall. He was reluctant to go; his fiancée, Jackie, was being left behind. But I was exuberant. Freedom. Go west, young woman! I was on my way.
Roughly eighteen hours of driving later, we reached Bloomington, Indiana, and rolled onto the IU campus. Neither one of us had ever seen anything quite like it. Used to city-bound campuses, we were awed by the rolling hills, trees, and endless blue sky over IU. Everything—buildings, grounds, and people—looked so fresh-scrubbed and clean! We decided it was some kind of Midwestern Fantasyland by Walt Disney.
The road to Oak Hall, in something called Trees Center, wound past sleek, new, high-rise dormitories toward the far end of campus. There, to our amazement and amusement, was my dorm: one of a cluster of whitewashed, wooden, two-story barracks buildings left over from World War II!
Never mind. Inside Oak Hall were my kind of people: Spring, Rose, Peggy, Jim, Kenny—theater and dance people, all of them defiantly proud of their scruffy little barracks tucked away in the shadow of high-rises.
The true wonder of IU and its thousands and thousands of students was its diversity. If you wanted fraternities and sororities, they were there. If you didn't, they were safely out of sight, way over on Fraternity Row. And there in Oak Hall, and in IU's classrooms, and in the dance studio, and in the University Theatre building, it was once again okay to be smart. Pretty and popular, clothes and dates, had nothing to do with anything that really mattered. Talent helped. Dedication and hard work helped even more. Love of what you were doing mattered most of all. I felt right at home.
I couldn't get enough of what was suddenly available to me. I took twenty-two hours a semester of writing courses, theatre courses, dance classes, psychology, French, anything I could squeeze in. I stayed up half the night talking with friends in the dorm about books and plays and The Meaning of Life. There were nights I hated to fall asleep for fear of missing something.
I performed in great plays, including The Way of the World and Long Day's Journey into Night. There were also great-fun plays, such as the hilarious Charley's Aunt and melodramatic East Lynne. These last two were done during the summer of 1963, when I lived and performed on the Majestic, the last real traveling showboat in the United States.
IU owned the Majestic at that time. Along with thirteen other undergraduates, two grad students, a captain, a cook, and Mr. William Kinzer, a beloved faculty member, we traveled down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, selling tickets, scrubbing decks, peeling potatoes, popping popcorn, and performing at cities and towns along the way.
It was an extraordinary experience: the fog turning the river milky white at night, the hot, humid, mosquito-ridden closeness of our quarters, the town so small that we were the only riverboat at its Riverboat Festival. It was so unlike anything else in my life, it now seems impossible, unreal. But it was possible and it was real, and I wouldn't trade the memories for anything.
I wrote two stories about the Showboat: one was based on the day a group of kids from a special camp came—a study in silver crutches, braces, wheelchairs, and radiant smiles. The other had to do with the time our elderly—and not always sober—captain fell asleep and Mr. Kinzer's son, about eight at the time, took over the wheel by himself until help came.
One semester at IU, in addition to other classes, rehearsals, and so on, I took three different writing courses. That meant I had to write a poem, a one-act play, and a chapter of a book almost every week! I managed to do it, too, on a tiny, tiny, nonelectric Olivetti portable typewriter.
I was at that typewriter, working on a story, shortly after lunch on Friday, November 22, 1963. Suddenly someone down the hall was screaming, and I rushed out to find her collapsed against the wall. "The president has been shot!" she announced. "What president?" someone else yelled. "The president of the United States! President Kennedy!"
I ran back to my room and turned on the radio. The news was confirmed. Our handsome, young president was dying … the president I'd just turned old enough to vote for in the next election was dead. Without thinking twice, I called Harvey Asher, a graduate student in history I'd been dating for a while. He came over immediately and we went for a long, sad walk. It was a typical November day, gray and raining, but it seemed extraordinary, as if the earth were mourning with us.
My friend Rose later commented that she knew on that day that I'd marry Harvey, because he was the first person I thought to call when tragedy struck. She was right. But marriage was still over a year away, and there would soon be nearly a thousand miles between us. During that semester, I wandered into the registrar's office to see what credits I still needed to graduate and was informed that I already had enough. I could leave in December, although I wouldn't actually get my diploma until the rest of my class caught up with me in June.
So home I went, leaving IU behind and relegating Harvey to a courtship by mail and phone. "If it's meant to last, it will last," my mother said of our long-distance romance. It did.
At my parents' urging, I accepted the first job I was offered, as a copywriter for a small advertising firm, where writing meant coming up with headlines for real estate ads: "Honeymoon Hideaway!" and "Handyman's Dream!" I hated it. "A job is a job," my father said. "Do the unpleasant willingly, and it won't be so bad." I still hated it.
On a terribly hot June afternoon in 1964, not long after my classmates in Indiana had tossed their graduation caps into the air without me, my father and I met downtown in Philadelphia for lunch. He had recently had surgery and had not fully recovered, but he was making his rounds anyway, before joining my mother for a month in Atlantic City. It would have been the longest vacation of his life—except that he never got to take it. After lunch, he kissed me good-bye and drove off to make a house call, climbing three flights of stairs, back in one of those Strawberry Mansion row houses, to give an elderly woman an injection she needed to have before he left town the next day. I hadn't been back at the advertising company long when the phone rang. It was my brother. "Daddy died," was all he said. "I'm coming home," was all I could think to reply.
Somehow I had gone over twenty-one years without experiencing a death any closer to me than President Kennedy's. That, my father's age, fifty-six, and the fact that the whole family depended on him as a doctor as well as a relative, meant the loss hit us hard, and we were given no time to recover. Within the next several years, my grandfather, mother, and grandmother died. My brother and his wife separated and then divorced.
During this same period, Harvey and I got married, moved back to Indiana, where our son, Benjamin, was born, and then on to Springfield, Missouri, where Harvey began teaching at Drury College and our daughter, Emily, soon arrived. My twenties, in short, were a decade of turmoil, and I had to learn how to deal with it, how to sort it all out and survive it, far from old friends and what little was left of my family.
Writing helped. While thoughts and feelings swirl and collide, written words stand still on the page. They allow the writer to take control, puzzle things through, and work them out. Missing Pieces, for instance, deals with my feelings after my father's death. While I am not Heather Connelly, and her parents are not much like Ben and Fanny Fenichel, you can see some of the grieving process I went through in Heather's reactions to her father's death. In Summer Begins, Daughters of the Law, and Missing Pieces, there are mother/daughter relationships not really like my mother's and mine, but related to our struggle to understand one another, a struggle that ended too soon when she died, leaving me to work out the resolution on my own.
It's been said that all writers write the same story over and over again, the story of the one thing in life they were born to understand. I have mixed feelings about that. The stories we write may have more to do with those things in life we can never quite understand, the hard rocks we keep trying to wear away with the constant drip, drip, drip of words. I have more than a slight suspicion that I write books for young adults because I'm still trying to figure out what happened, what went wrong, after Diamond Street.
In a word, what happened was "adolescence," but there don't seem to be enough words in the world to illuminate that murky tunnel. To reach adulthood, a child must become more like his or her parents. To establish an individual identity, that same child must become lesslike his or her parents. It's a difficult passage, hard on parents and young people alike. Slowly but surely, as I write my books and plays, I find I've repaired broken bridges to my past and laid old sorrows to rest. I hope I also show readers that this does happen, that it can be done in their own lives. It takes time and understanding, and a willingness to forgive—oneself and others—and move on. A sense of humor also comes in handy.
As I write this, Harvey and I are still living in Springfield, Missouri, in an old, genteel but slightly shabby neighborhood, with good friends all around. He continues to teach at Drury, and I write and do some teaching, too, along with visiting schools and speaking at conferences all over the country. When I can, I garden, bake bread and anything chocolate, and go to Jazzercise classes to work off the calories. Ben is about to graduate from law school; Emily is finishing up college. One dog, Jo, and one cat, Toby, remain at home, after years of children, dog, cat, many gerbils and a guinea pig.
Emily asked me not long ago if my life had turned out the way I expected. I had to answer "yes and no." Yes, I expected to be married and have children, and to have books published and plays produced, and to travel to far-off places like Alaska, Great Britain, France, and Denmark, and I've done all that and plan to continue.
One thing I didn't expect was that it would all require a considerable amount of hard work. Somehow the movies back at the Park Theatre didn't mention that. Music swelled, scenes changed, and wonderful things just happened. In real life, wonderful things require effort.
But that's okay. Because the other thing I didn't expect was that being an adult is fine. My upbringing taught me that all fun ended with childhood, but it's not so. Not at all. For one thing, the social constraints that limited my parents' lives no longer exist. For another, I've discovered that, as an adult, you can dream every bit as well, maybe even better, than you did as a child, but you also have the power to make dreams come true.
Nearly-fifty is a good time to pause and look around. It pleases me to find that the eager little dreamer of Diamond Street, the La Salle College dancer who wished spring would last forever, and the IU student who couldn't sleep for fear of missing something are still very close by. Am I turning out the way they hoped I would? I'd like to think so.
Sandra Fenichel Asher contributed the following update to CA in 2005:
So what's new?
It's been a dozen years since I wrote my autobiographical essay, and much has changed. My husband, Harvey, retired from teaching in 2003 and we moved from Springfield, Missouri, to Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Our travels have also taken us to Seattle, where our son, Ben, now lives; to Montreal, where our daughter, Emily, and her husband, Greg, live; and to France, Russia, Latvia, China, and Israel. And here at home, our household menagerie now consists of two cats, Stanley and Natasha, and a lab-mix puppy named Rudy.
But some things haven't changed at all. I'm still writing books and plays for young people, and I continue to teach workshops and visit schools all over the country. I still love playing with language, and I'm more fascinated than ever with the beauty and power of story.
Do I come from a family of storytellers? I'm frequently asked that question, and I know authors who can make that claim, but I'm not one of them. I've heard them reminisce about long, summer evenings spent under the stars, listening to grown-ups spin yarns about "way back when," and I have to admit I've been envious of those memories.
I didn't grow up with family stories because my parents, grandparents, uncles, and aunts were not storytellers. Oh, they had stories to tell, all right: about their lives in "the old country"—Russia and Poland—and about leaving everything familiar and crossing the ocean to start over in America. About being immigrants and the children of immigrants. About living through two world wars and the Great Depression. About relatives left behind and lost in the Holocaust.
But they never told those stories. So there's a gaping hole in my life where all the people and places and events that came before me ought to be. By the time I realized what I was missing, and grew old enough to ask the right questions, there was no one left who remembered the answers.
Because of that empty space in my life, I've spent much of the last twelve years encouraging other people to tell their stories, the stories that will die with each of us if we fail to pass them on. Much of my recent work has been about adding as many different voices to the story-sharing chorus as possible, through the anthologies I've edited and in the plays I've written.
Not all stories are publishable, but all are worth telling. Many will be of interest only to the writer—and maybe a relative or two, or possibly someone not yet even born. You just never know. When Anne Frank was writing in her diary, did she have any idea of the impact it would have on the world? Certainly not.
But impact on the world isn't the point.
The point is that our stories are unique. No one else has ever lived the life each one of us is living right now. No one else has experienced this house, this street, this community/country/planet/universe from exactly the same vantage point. Each and every storyteller has something special to add to the vast, unfolding saga of human existence.
There's another point: Our stories define us. They spell out who we are as individuals and as members of society. I began to understand this when Professor Charles Estus visited Drury University (then called Drury College) several years ago and presented a lecture on a topic he'd been studying for some time: the importance of stories. If we don't tell our own stories, he said, they will either never be told, or others will tell them for us, defining us in their terms—and we may not like what they choose to say. This, he pointed out, has long been true in our society for women, the poor, and minorities. Until very recently, history remained exclusively "his story," and "he" was white, rich, and powerful.
Though I was no expert like Professor Estus back in the days of my high-school and college history classes, I often grew impatient with all those tsars and emperors and kings and presidents we were studying. What about everybody else? I wondered. What were they doing while the "big guys" battled over money and borders and power?
But ordinary people weren't encouraged to share their stories; many were illiterate and couldn't write them down. So, all too often, those stories were ignored and forgotten. It was as if the people who had lived them never existed at all.
Dr. Estus's words brought into focus for me an experience I'd had only days before hearing him speak. A colleague and I had just designed a three-year program at Drury called STEP-UP. Each Tuesday afternoon, for four or five weeks per group, at-risk students from neighboring elementary and middle schools arrived on campus for sessions of creative writing and creative dramatics.
As soon as I announced to the first group of fourth and fifth graders that they were going to be writing stories based on their own lives, a boy on the first row shouted out, "I can't write!"
That was the first story Evan told: He defined himself as a non-writer.
Fortunately, the program was set up so that there was a Drury student aide for every two or three schoolchildren, so I was able to tell Evan, "No problem. Just grab yourself a secretary and he or she will write down whatever you dictate."
Evan went on to dictate a story that described how he and a friend had learned to build wooden club houses, and how they'd gathered free materials and worked together to construct several of them in the neighborhood.
I was amazed! As a child growing up in the city, I'd dreamed of a real, life-sized clubhouse to play in with my friends—and here was someone who knew how to build them and had done it, more than once!
Now, Evan had redefined himself: By sharing his story, he'd revealed that he was an accomplished builder of clubhouses.
On our last day with this group, parents and teachers came to see the children read and perform their work. Afterward, one of the teachers came up beside me, nodded toward Evan, and whispered, "He's in a B.D. class, you know."
That was the story she had to tell about Evan, her way of defining him—a boy with behavioral disorders. Fortunately, Evan got to me with his story first, and I will always remember him as a builder of clubhouses.
Our stories define us, as individuals and as members of society.
In my books, I've found collections of short stories to be an excellent way to spotlight the uniqueness of individual points of view. When I wrote Out of Here: A Senior Class Yearbook, I wanted middle-grade and high-school readers to become aware of the people they pass in the halls every day for four years. I wanted them to look more closely at the popular students they admire (or fear), at the people on the edges of the "in" crowd, and at those they might scarcely notice at all. The best way to do that, I decided, was to recreate one class's senior year, from the first day of school to graduation. The events of that year would be experienced by the all of the book's characters. But through stories told from several different points of view, I could show that common events are not the same for everyone living through them, and that what seems to be happening to each person on the surface may not be what's really going on at all.
Why did I think it was so vital that students truly be aware of the people around them? Because, as Walt Hightower, the class valedictorian, says in my book, "For better or worse, we've touched one another's lives here, on purpose or accidentally, sometimes without even realizing it."
We play significant roles in one another's stories.
Over the past several years, in addition to my own writing, I've been editing anthologies of stories (and, in some cases, poems and plays) by other people. That's because there have been topics I've wanted to see addressed, but I knew they were far bigger than my own experience of them. For instance, after writing a book about finding ideas (Where Do You Get Your Ideas?) and another about how to develop ideas into stories (Wild Words!), I wanted to show how many different kinds of stories could be written.
But I don't write sports stories or mysteries or science fiction or any number of other genres. Most of my work is contemporary realistic fiction. So I invited other authors to contribute their work to But That's Another Story: Favorite Authors Introduce Popular Genres, and I interviewed each of them on how they wrote in those genres. I learned a lot, and hoped the book's readers would, too.
My husband and I both grew up Jewish and raised our children in the Jewish tradition, but I knew that even that experience could be very different for different people. Once again, I asked other writers to contribute their stories, this time to With All My Heart, with All My Mind: Thirteen Stories about Growing up Jewish. I credit the combined effect of all of our stories for the book's winning the National Jewish Book Award in children's literature. Together we presented a much fuller, more colorful picture than I could have painted alone.
Growing up female was another topic that interested me, for obvious reasons, and it made me wonder what other female writers might have to say about it. That's how I got the idea for On Her Way: Stories and Poems about Growing up Girl, which led to a companion book I'm currently co-editing with my friend and colleague David L. Harrison. This new project has no title yet, but it will contain stories, poems, memoirs, and plays about "growing up boy." (Even though I "grew up girl," I have a brother and I've raised a son, so I'm no stranger to that process!)
The life-stories of historical figures have formed the basis for two of my plays: A Woman Called Truth and Across the Plains: The Journey of the Palace Wagon Family.
I was working toward my elementary education certificate at Drury University in 1973 when I came across an impassioned speech once delivered by Sojourner Truth, a slave in upstate New York who became a free woman before the U.S. Civil War and traveled the country speaking out against slavery and for women's rights. Immediately I thought, This speech is so dramatic, it needs to be onstage! Even though this remarkable woman is long gone, her words and the story of how she came to speak them are still relevant.
When I began my research for the play, there was very little information about Sojourner Truth available. My best sources were a biography for young readers called Journey toward Freedom, by Jacqueline Bernard, and Truth's autobiographical narrative, which she dictated to a woman named Olive Gilbert because she could neither read nor write.
Published in 1989, A Woman Called Truth has won many awards and been produced several hundred times. More importantly, many new books about Sojourner Truth have become available since I first went in search of her story. That story, of her tireless pursuit of justice, has a life of its own now, in literature and on stage, and it continues to impress and enrich all who hear it.
Soon after their successful production of A Woman Called Truth, Kansas City's Coterie, a professional theater for young audiences, asked me to write a play about the Westward movement. This time my research led me to letters written by Virginia Reed, a young girl who left Illinois with her family to travel by covered wagon to a new life in California. The year was 1846, and the group with whom she traveled became known as the Donner Party. Trapped in the Sierra Nevada mountains by terrible blizzards during the brutal winter of 1846–47, the Donner Party went down in history for the cannibalism that kept some of them alive.
According to her letters and an article she wrote years later, all of Virginia Reed's family survived, and none of them were forced to resort to cannibalism. I felt very strongly that her story needed to be told. She and her companions on that journey, labeled by others for the worst moment of their lives, needed to redefine themselves as human beings who loved, fought, worried, prayed, sang, laughed, hoped, dreamed, and cared for one another, even under disastrous conditions. Across the Plains: The Journey of the Palace Wagon Family is the Donner Party's story told from Virginia Reed's point of view.
I think my love of story began with the folk tales and fairy tales I read as a child. In my plays, I've enjoyed using some of them to develop new stories of my own. The Wise Men of Chelm takes many strands from the East European Jewish tradition of "fool tales," and ties them together to bring Chelm, a village entirely made up of fools, to the stage in all its hilarious silliness.
Once, in the Time of Trolls uses several Norwegian tales, including the most famous, "East of the Sun, West of the Moon," to explore the idea of happiness and how it may mean different things to different people.
If ever an animal has been unfairly defined by stories, it's the "big, bad wolf." My favorite animal and a symbol of our precious wilderness, the wolf has also been a long-time victim of widespread hatred. It pains me to see this beautiful, intelligent creature misunderstood and maligned. After reading about horrible slaughters that still go on around the world, including the United States, I knew I had to find some way to use my skill as a writer to tell the wolf's story from the wolf's point of view. In my play, The Wolf and Its Shadows, I've used folk tales to show how human beings have created a false and frightening image of the wolf that's nothing at all like the real animal in its natural world.
In my work over the last dozen years, I've also had the privilege of gathering real-life stories from people all over the country and shaping them into plays. Many of those people never thought they'd get to share their stories, let alone see them performed on stage. My first play of this kind—called a "community-based play" because it draws on material from a particular group of people—began when I read a book called I Will Sing Life: Voices from the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp. It told of the overnight camp in Connecticut that was founded by actor Paul Newman for children with life-threatening illnesses. Two of the camp's counselors, Larry Berger and Dahlia Lithwick, ran a creative-writing project with the children one summer, and also lived with and interviewed seven of the campers who participated in that project. I Will Sing Life was the result of their efforts, and the book is filled with delightful stories told by young people who have suffered illness with great courage, and who are often very wise and very funny.
Once again, I felt these were stories that needed to be onstage and shared with audiences everywhere. I applied for and received permission to adapt the book as a play—and quickly realized that I couldn't do a good job of it without experiencing the Hole in the Wall Camp first-hand.
I applied again, this time to be a volunteer for one of the summer, 1995, sessions. I filled out lengthy forms, answered question after question during two interviews by phone, and finally got word that I'd been accepted into the program. I was overjoyed—and terrified! Though I'd read the book several times, I arrived at camp totally unprepared for what I found. Yes, there were sick children, dozens and dozens of them. And, yes, they were seriously ill, with sickle-cell anemia, hemophilia, AIDS, and several forms of cancer. A few required wheelchairs to get around. One or two walked with crutches. Several covered their chemotherapy-balded heads with caps or scarves; others left them bare. Some had catheters implanted in their chests to save wear and tear on their blood vessels from the medications they received every day.
At this point, you may be imagining the place I expected to see: dismal and silent, draped in dreary shades of gray and black, with the smell of death lingering in every corner.
Picture, instead, what's really there: brightly colored banners and sprightly music, spic-and-span cabins, a crafts room, theater, swimming pool, basketball court, lake, stables, and dining hall. Then fill all of that with children—circles and lines and huddles and swarms of them—shouting, laughing, fishing, swimming, singing, dancing, cheering, and hugging. Oh, yes, lots and lots of hugging. Though they dealt with illness every day, those children really knew how to enjoy themselves! And the staff who worked with them were determined to help them do exactly that every waking moment.
One of the most important lessons I learned in the nearly two weeks I spent at the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp is that children who are ill are still children. They are not the disease that plagues them. Too often, when we hear a word like "cancer," we know the story of the disease, so that's what we tend to focus on. But what about the story of the child?
In his talk about the importance of stories, Dr. Estus also pointed out that we need to face, honestly and courageously, our negative stories as well as our triumphant ones. Either we take full ownership of our problems, shortcomings, and mistakes, or others may do so, to our regret.
The children of I Will Sing Life took ownership of their problems, and defined themselves—their witty, affectionate, wise, and inspiring selves—through their stories. I returned from my session at camp more determined than ever to bring those stories to the stage.
I Will Sing Life premiered at the Vandivort Center Theatre in Springfield, Missouri, in March of 1999. Some of the children featured in the play and the original book eventually lost their battles against disease, but through their stories, they continue to inspire others to "sing life."
Another community-based script, I Must Walk toward Oregon, was commissioned by the Children's Educational Theatre of Salem. This project required three trips out west. During the first, I ran an all-day writing workshop with fifteen middle-school students and six senior citizens (we called them "elders") from nearby retirement villages. They all wrote poems and stories and interviewed one another about growing up in Oregon.
At the beginning of that first session, I noticed one of the middle-schoolers, Bill, sitting as far back as he could, glancing my way suspiciously and whispering to his friend, Leah, who wore a black trenchcoat and a ski cap pulled down to her eyebrows all day long, although it was not cold in that room. I was concerned about Bill's attitude and Leah's fashion statement, but went on about my business. The next time I noticed the two of them, they were sitting at the front of the room, as I'd instructed, leaning forward, eyes wide, as they listened to an older woman they had never met before regale them with her childhood memories.
Seeing groups of two and three teenagers interacting with elders that way, all around the room, was like visiting the Grand Canyon for the first time: wonderful, and I'd certainly never seen anything quite like it before. Segregation by age is an unfortunate fact in our society.
At the end of the day, Bill marched up to me, parents in tow, and told me he had known his great-grandmother, who also grew up in Oregon, and that she had written down her life story. Would I like to read it?
"You bet I would!" I told him, and he promised to mail me a copy.
After that first workshop, I took all of the day's writing back to Springfield with me, while the young people and elders went out into their Salem community and interviewed more elders. All of that material was also mailed to me and my job was to shape everything into a 45-minute script.
Which I did. On my second trip out west, the same young people and elders gathered to read the script out loud for the first time, and they were as happy to find bits and pieces of their own stories and poems woven into it as I was to witness once again generations enjoying themselves together, sharing their stories over huge slices of pizza.
On the third trip, I saw the opening performance of the play. The elders were in the audience with me, but their recorded voices were used throughout the piece to narrate some of the action onstage. It was a grand night for all of us.
Other community-based plays followed. In Springfield, I was asked to create scripts based on interviews done by students at Southwest Missouri State University (now Missouri State University) and at Drury University. The first resulted in Voices from the Kitchen, based on stories gathered from people living in a homeless shelter; the second, in The Casa Project: Stand up for a Child, about the judges, lawyers, juvenile officers, foster parents, biological parents, and children caught up in the difficult world of foster care. Both plays have been performed a number of times as fund-raisers for their organizations. The Casa Project was also made into a video presentation for national distribution as a recruiting and training tool.
When students at Pine-Richland Middle School in Gibsonia, Pennsylvania, read a story by Gary Paulsen about a Vietnam veteran's inability to talk to his family about his war experiences, they wanted to know more about the people who had lived the history they were learning about in school. Teachers in their service-learning classes arranged meetings with veterans for them and brought me in to work on developing interviewing techniques and questions during a day of classes. The next day, off we went—students, teachers, and playwright—to meet patients at a Veterans' Administration hospital and listen to their stories. The following morning, another group of veterans came to the school for more story-sharing, and, after I'd returned to Missouri, the Pine-Richland students and their teachers continued to collect stories from people in their own families, in their communities, and beyond.
At home, I received several packages with Pennsylvania postmarks, containing written and taped interviews, a grandfather's journal kept during the Normandy invasion, a mother's collection of letters from her soldier husband, another cache of letters written by a distant relative who had served in the U.S. Civil War, letters the students had exchanged with a Japanese veteran, and accounts of each interviewer's own feelings about the series of experiences we called "The Veterans Project."
The play that resulted, We Will Remember: A Tribute to Veterans, was commissioned by the school and Prime Stage, a professional theater company for young audiences, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It premiered in November of 2001, soon after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. At first, all of us involved with the play wondered whether we should go on with our telling of war stories at such a terrible time. But the subject of war had to be faced, and we decided that the stories of those who lived through other hard times could help us deal with our own enormous challenges.
In We Will Remember I tried to capture some of the intense, enlightening, and deeply moving experiences veterans shared with the students who interviewed them. I had no intentions of glorifying war as any sort of exciting adventure, but I wanted to give due respect to those who fought when they were called to do so. The majority of the words found in the script are those of real people telling real stories, but, as in my other community-based plays, the characters are composites of several people and therefore fictional.
An interesting thing happened following each performance in Pennsylvania, and was repeated after performances at Highland High School in Salt Lake City, Utah, and after a recent reading in Colorado: Veterans and their family members in each audience were inspired to continue the conversation begun on stage. More than once, audience members and the cast, who'd never met before, came together with tears and hugs, each grateful for what the other had brought to the evening's event—a history of sacrifice on the one hand, and the willingness to learn about and honor that sacrifice on the other.
It's my hope that more schools and communities will use this play as a catalyst for story-sharing—and as a way to remember their own heroes, ordinary people who braved extraordinary circumstances.
As I write this, I'm in the process of collecting stories for a new community-based script commissioned by Youth Theatre at the U (University of Utah). This one is tentatively called Mothers and Daughters/Fathers and Sons. It deals with a situation I've often written about in my novels: to grow up, teenagers have to become more like their parents; to become individuals, they need to become less like their parents. It's a tricky balancing act, and the stories I'm hearing promise an entertaining and thought-provoking script.
For me, personally, one of the most moving of my story-to-stage projects celebrated the l00th anniversary of Temple Israel in Springfield, Missouri, and was based on interviews by a professional folklorist with ten of the oldest members of our congregation. The material she gathered—all 500 typewritten pages of it!—helped acquaint me with some of the stories my own family never passed on: stories of life in "the Old Country" and of escape and of resettling in the new country.
This piece was performed as Readers' Theatre, scripts in hand, by five members of the congregation. Here are three short selections. Keep in mind that these words did not come from professional writers, but from ordinary people with stories to tell.
First, from a section about "the Old Country," in this case, Russia.
FIRST READER: I remember when I was a kid—right after the revolution—l9l8—we had a bunch of cossacks come through our little town. Of course, there was a bunch of horses; we went to see what was going on. One of them just—I was standing there—and he just took his whip and hit me right across my face. For no reason in the world.
SECOND READER: My mother told us about how they ran, and the soldiers would come in and stab beds. And Fanella's mother, she hid underneath the bed, and they didn't get her.
THIRD READER: We went hungry. We went hungry many times.
FOURTH READER: We used to get clothing from—people used to give us—who cares what size it is as long as it's something to cover our feet? Oh, it wasn't pleasant, I grant you. I was tickled to death to get out of there.
Next, a passage from "The Escape."
We had a friend who had a neighbor whose son deserted the Russian army. And he wanted to get over to Poland, because at that time, if you could get over to Poland, you were all right. So he had a sled and he made a false bottom and hid inside. Then on top of that were my two brothers, my sister, and the driver. My oldest brother and myself and my mother held onto the sled—a horse pulled it—and we walked all night long to cross the border. All night—through snow—and ice—and water. This was in February, you know.
And finally, from "The New Country."
I loved to hear my father tell the story of how they arrived at Ellis Island on either the third or fourth of July. Dad loved history, and so he knew about the Fourth of July. They landed, and that evening, they were on Ellis Island, and here came all these fireworks. And this other guy who came over with him asked, "What's that all about?" "Oh," Dad said, "it's such a great country that whenever another boatload of immigrants come, they celebrate!" And this guy believed him. Dad said he never had the heart to tell him he was kidding, and he wondered how many years it took before he found out.
Our stories define us, our place in society, and our experience of the world. They help us to reach within and without—across rooms, generations, borders, barriers, oceans and years.
There's a traditional Jewish saying that human beings were created because God loves stories. Certainly, among all the creatures on this earth, we're the only ones who can tell them, and that must mean something, to each of us individually and to all of us as a species, as well as in the great scheme of things.
And, indeed, stories are a survival mechanism, an important one: Stories are the way we make sense of our lives—and, when even that proves impossible, stories allow us to laugh.
Rather than a series of dates and facts, our lives are made up of stories, large and small: There's the story about where we bought a certain pair of shoes, and the story about who taught us to play basketball, and the story about when we got the new puppy, and the story about why we hate brussels sprouts, and the story about how we met a new friend. Or lost an old one.
Good times, bad times, happy times, sad times, all can be woven into our life-story tapestry. I appreciate being invited to write the stories of my life, and I encourage you to recognize, share, and celebrate your stories, as well.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Asher, Sandy, Where Do You Get Your Ideas? Helping Young Writers Begin, Walker (New York, NY), 1987.
Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1983, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1984, pp. 179-186.
Booklist, May 1, 1986, p. 1307; January 1, 1990, p. 907; February 1, 1990, Julie Corsaro, review of Princess Bee and the Royal Good-Night Story, p. 1084; March 15, 2001, Carolyn Phelan, review of Stella's Dancing Days, p. 1402; February 14, 2004, Gillian Engberg, review of On Her Way: Stories and Poems about Growing up Girl, p. 1057.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, February, 1981, p. 106; September, 1982; May, 1983, p. 162; June, 1984; December, 1987.
Horn Book, December, 1982, p. 654.
Kirkus Reviews, June 15, 1987, p. 921; December 15, 2004, review of Too Many Frogs!, p. 1197; December 15, 2993, review of On Her Way, p. 1445.
Publishers Weekly, February 13, 1987, p. 94; June 14, 1993, p. 72; November 19, 1999, review of With All My Heart, with All My Mind: Thirteen Stories about Growing up Jewish, p. 69; February 26, 2001, review of Stella's Dancing Days, p. 85; January 26, 2004, "On the Brink of Adulthood," p. 255.
School Library Journal, October, 1980, p. 164; February, 1983, p.72; May, 1984, Virginia Marr, review of Missing Pieces, p. 86; April, 1986, p. 83; August, 1987, pp. 88-89; September, 1987, pp. 184-185; December, 1989, Cindy Darling Codell, review of Teddy Teabury's Peanutty Problems, p. 98; January, 1990, Martha Rosen, review of Wild Words! How to Train Them to Tell Stories, p. 110; March, 1990, p. 184; July, 1993, Doris A., Fong, review of Out of Here: A Senior Class Yearbook, p. 98; July, 1996; July, 2001, Shawn Brommer, review of Stella's Dancing Days, p. 72; February, 2003, Ann W. Moore, review of Mexico, p. 127; March, 2003, Nancy A. Gifford, review of China, p. 214; March, 2004, Janet Hilbun, review of On Her Way, p. 224.
Times Literary Supplement, September 17, 1982; September 7, 1984, review of Just like Jenny, p. 1006.
Voice of Youth Advocates, June, 1984, p. 94; June, 1987, p. 74; December, 1993, p. 286; August, 1996, Patti Sylvester Spencer, review of But That's Another Story: Famous Authors Introduce Popular Genres, p. 176.
Washington Post Book World, July 11, 1982, review of Summer Begins, p. 12.
Sandy Asher Home Page, http://www.usawrites4kids.drury.edu/authors/asher (March 7, 2005).