Conly, Jane Leslie 1948-
CONLY, Jane Leslie 1948-
PERSONAL: Born 1948, in VA; daughter of Robert Leslie (a writer and editor) and Sally (a writer and editor; maiden name, McCaslin) Conly; married Peter Dwyer (a public-interest attorney and social worker); children: Eliza, Will. Education: Smith College, bachelor's degree, 1971; graduate of Johns Hopkins University writing seminars program, 1974. Hobbies and other interests: Gardening, cooking, reading, fishing, camping, canoeing, listening to jazz.
CAREER: Writer. Has also worked as a director of a community center, a camp director, and a mortgage counselor.
MEMBER: Children's Book Guild of Washington, DC.
AWARDS, HONORS: Notable Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies, National Council for the Social Studies/Children's Book Council, 1986, and Children's Choice, International Reading Association (IRA), 1987, both for Racso and the Rats of NIMH; Children's Choice, IRA, 1990, for R-T, Margaret, and the Rats of NIMH; Newbery Honor Book, Notable Children's Books, and Best Books for Young Adults, all American Library Association, all 1994, all for Crazy Lady!; ALA Best Book for Young Adults, and Notable Book, both 1996, both for Trout Summer; Boston Globe/Horn Book Award Honor Book, 1998, for While No One Was Watching.
Racso and the Rats of NIMH, illustrated by Leonard Lubin, Harper & Row (New York, NY), 1986.
R-T, Margaret, and the Rats of NIMH, illustrated by Leonard Lubin, Harper & Row (New York, NY), 1990.
Crazy Lady!, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1993.
Trout Summer, Henry Holt (New York, NY), 1995.
While No One Was Watching, Henry Holt (New York, NY), 1998.
What Happened on Planet Kid, Henry Holt (New York, NY), 1999.
The Rudest Alien on Earth, Henry Holt (New York, NY), 2002.
In the Night, on Lanvale Street, Henry Holt (New York, NY), 2005.
ADAPTATIONS: Several of Conly's books have been adapted for audiocassette, including Crazy Lady!, BDD Audio, 1999; While No One Was Watching, Random House Audio, 1999; and Trout Summer, Recorded Books, 2001.
SIDELIGHTS: Growing up in a family of writers, Jane Leslie Conly had no shortage of models for her own literary career. Her father, while working on the staff of National Geographic magazine, wrote children's books under the pen name Robert C. O'Brien, including the Newbery Medal-winning Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. Not only did Conly assist her father with his final novel, Z for Zachariah, but she also based her first books on the characters and situations found in her father's well-known children's novel. In Racso and the Rats of NIMH and R-T, Margaret, and the Rats of NIMH Conly continues the saga of the super-intelligent rats whose adventures are outlined in Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, "inject[ing] humor and lively action into the adventures and challenges of the younger NIMH generation," Richard D. Seiter asserted in the St. James Guide to Young-Adult Writers. Since penning her two "NIMH" books, Conly has moved to more original subjects, often focusing on children coping with difficult circumstances. Books such as the Newbery Honor Book Crazy Lady! as well as Trout Summer and In the Night, on Lanvale Street, have been praised for their vivid characters and for Conly's realistic portrayals of life's problems.
Conly was born in 1948, the second of four children, and grew up on a small farm near Leesburg, Virginia. In addition to caring for the horses, cow, and other farmyard animals, Conly and her siblings "worked in my mother's large garden and also cut wood," as the author once explained. "Our chores had to be done, but otherwise we were almost completely unsupervised by today's standards."
While the outdoor life provided lots of entertainment, Conly also enjoyed more literary pursuits, and began writing stories in the first grade. "My father … taught me to try to give my writing the cadence of spoken conversation, and to eliminate unnecessary description. (I am still working on this.) My mother taught me that good characters are the most important element in fiction." The family moved to Washington, DC, during Conly's high-school years, and following graduation she attended Smith College, graduating in 1971. Three years later she graduated from the writing seminars program at Johns Hopkins University.
Conly began her career in children's literature while helping her father on his final book, the young-adult novel Z for Zachariah. "He had asked me to finish it when he realized he was going to die from heart failure," Conly explained, adding that her mother edited the 1975 novel. While the book was successful, it produced mixed emotions for Conly: Not only was it connected to her father's early death—he was only fifty-five years old when he died—but the process of writing was a lonely one. While the isolation of writing caused Conly to reject a writing career, she changed her mind after she began raising her family. Having children around the house made for a less-solitary writing environment, and she published her first novel, Racso and the Rats of NIMH, in 1986.
Using what a critic for the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books described as "short, fast-paced chapters [that] make this an excellent classroom readaloud," Racso and the Rats of NIMH finds Timothy, a field mouse, walking back to the school at Thorn Valley after summer vacation. On the way, he meets Racso, a city-slicker rat who wants to learn how to read and dreams of performing heroic deeds. The wise rats at Thorn Valley consider cooperation and living in harmony higher goals than conventional heroism, however. However, when it is discovered that humans plan to flood Thorn Valley in order to construct a resort area for vacationers, the time may be ripe for a hero after all.
Many reviewers compared Conly's "NIMH" book to her father's original novel. In Horn Book Ann A. Flowers observed that Racso and the Rats of NIMH "is cleverly and gracefully built upon both the philosophy of self-sufficiency and the details of the plot of its predecessor," while Booklist critic Ilene Cooper wrote that the author "does a superb job of imbuing her animals with the originality of character and wry wit they displayed in the earlier book." Some found Conly's sequel lacking, however. Yvonne A. Frey noted in School Library Journal that the new novel "lacks the light touch of O'Brien's work, as well as the richness of character development and description," and Sarah Hayes similarly observed in the Times Literary Supplement that Conly's tale, "with its love interest and teenage preoccupations, superimposes a human way of life on to the rat world and blurs the distinction between animal and man." Other critics commented favorably on what Margery Fisher described in Growing Point as the book's "affectionate, shrewd humour, racy action, a background of mountain, river, and underground tunnels, the emotional force of friendships and rivalries … [and] a consistently rhythmical, rich prose style." Racso and the Rats of NIMH stands as "another potential classic to set beside its forerunner," concluded Fisher.
Conly returned to Thorn Valley once more for R-T, Margaret, and the Rats of NIMH, in which two unhappy children become separated from their parents while camping in the valley and are taken in by the rat community. Due to their relative height, the children are able to help accomplish tasks impossible or time-consuming for the much shorter rodents, and through their service the children gain a healthy dose of self-respect. When Margaret and Artie—known as R-T by the rats—return home, the secret of the rats' existence inadvertently leaks out, forcing the children to find a way to save their rodental friends.
As with her previous "NIMH" book, reviewers debated Conly's inclusion of human characters in the fantasy world created by her father. Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books reviewer Roger Sutton wrote that while R-T, Margaret, and the Rats of NIMH "is fast-moving and easy to read,… the addition of human characters renders the fantasy less convincing." In contrast, School Library Journal contributor Susan M. Harding was not troubled by this twist, writing: "This new adventure about the rats of NIMH does not disappoint. The characters are full and rich." As Alice M. Johns concluded of the final "NIMH" book in the Voice of Youth Advocates, Conly's "sensitive, modern fairy tale is a good choice for leisure reading."
Leaving the world of "NIMH" behind, Conly has created a number of well-received children's books, including the Newbery Honor-winning Crazy Lady! The book centers on Vernon Dibbs, who, in addition to mourning the loss of his mother three years earlier, feels lost in the seventh grade. Too old to play games like he used to, he is still too young to get a job. With time on his hands, Vernon begins to hang around street-corners with other young teens, stealing from local businesses and joining in the harassment of Maxine, the neighborhood "crazy lady," and Maxine's mentally impaired son, Ronald. When his bad grades threaten to keep Vernon in the seventh grade for another year, he gets help from a retired teacher, who requests as payment that he run errands for Maxine and Ronald. Vernon quickly becomes emotionally involved with the family he used to torment; now he even raises money to buy Ronald shoes so that the boy can run in the Special Olympics. Despite his help, however, the alcoholic Maxine is eventually ruled to be an unfit mother by the state, and Ronald is placed in foster care. Vernon's grief over the loss of his new friends brings him closer to his own family and helps him deal with his mother's death.
Crazy Lady! was warmly received by critics. In Horn Book Nancy Vasilakis focused on the book's believable, three-dimensional characters, writing that "Vernon's instinctive ability to connect with Ronald has an authentic ring to it, as does the narrative's first-person voice and its description of the dilapidated but cohesive urban neighborhood." "Vernon's story is an interesting and involving one," School Library Journal contributor Alice Casey Smith noted, adding that Conly's protagonist reflects "the enormous capacity of teens for both cruelty and compassion." Hazel Rochman similarly praised the novel in Booklist, writing: "this story transcends formula. Right up until the very last line, the drama is in the characters, their sadness and their surprise." As Richard D. Seiter commented in the St. James Guide to Young-Adult Writers, Vernon's "point of view gives authenticity, immediacy, and readability to the plot without being preachy."
Echoing the plot of Crazy Lady!, in Trout Summer two siblings forge a friendship with an older outsider. After their father abandons the family, Shana and Cody Allen move with their mom from their rural Virginia home to a Maryland suburb. Unhappy with the change, the children jump at the chance to spend the summer at a rustic cabin near the Leanna River. There they meet Henry, a crotchety old man who claims to be a ranger. Henry teaches Cody and Shana about the river's ecosystem, and also voices his belief that "you can't trust people." After tragedy strikes the old curmudgeon and he is tossed into the river's rapid current, however, he is rescued by his new friends and begins to question his isolating attitudes. In a Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books review, Deborah Stevenson praised Conly's evocation of the river environment, noting that it "never bogs down the story … but allows readers to understand and share Henry's, and, eventually, Shana's, feeling for the Leanna." School Library Journal contributor Joel Shoemaker similarly hailed the "quirky character" of Henry and added that in Trout Summer "Conly succeeds in telling a good story while demonstrating the value of knowing and learning from someone who most people call 'crazy.'" "Major and minor characterizations in this quietly affirming novel are revealing and especially well drawn," wrote Horn Book contributor Nancy Vasilakis, "and the intelligent, probing first-person voice lifts it a notch above the typical survival story." As Mary Hedge concluded of Conly's novel in Voice of Youth Advocates: "The general theme of dealing with changes in life makes this an important book in today's world."
In While No One Was Watching the author "once again explores vivid characters living on the fringe of society," as a Publishers Weekly critic described it. Siblings Earl, Angela, and Frankie Foster are living with their Aunt Lula while their father is away earning enough money to purchase a house for his family. Aunt Lula proves to be a poor caretaker, however; as her drinking problem escalates, the children are left mostly to themselves, and oldest brother Earl soon joins scheming eighteen-year-old cousin Wayne in stealing bicycles. Soon seven-year-old Frankie is tagging along on these bike-stealing jaunts, and his own thievery causes two children from a more affluent family to attempt to stop the Fosters.
Told from the viewpoints of the three Foster children, While No One Was Watching creates "a riveting immediacy and a wistful sense of irony," according to a Publishers Weekly reviewer. School Library Journal contributor Cindy Darling Codell praised Conly's portrayal of the siblings, and stated that while novel's upper-class characters are "flat and stereotypical" at times, "Conly is at her best when depicting the working poor in their struggle for survival." Deborah Stevenson wrote that Conly "astutely depicts" the clash of these two worlds, and concluded in a Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books review: "The cultural contrast and the eventual benefit of the relationship to both sides of the track is an interesting and unusual exploration."
Set in the late 1950s, What Happened on Planet Kid introduces another pre-teen who is ignored by adults and left to her own devices. With her mother in the hospital, Dawn is spending the summer on her aunt and uncle's Virginia farm, and much of her time is spent strengthening her pitching arm by practicing against a barn wall. Piano-practicing is much less fun, but Dawn manages to convince her aunt that she is keeping to her practice schedule by letting talented friend Delbert sit in for her. Another friendship, this one with the daughter of a down-on-his-luck fundamentalist deacon, opens Dawn's eyes to hidden domestic violence, while issues of racial prejudice also educate the young girl in the realities of life in a novel that is enriched by what School Library Journal contributor Judith Everitt dubbed "Conly's skillful, lyrical writing." Also praising the novel, Horn Book contributor Martha V. Parravano noted that in What Happened on Planet Kid "era and place are vividly yet subtly evoked"; the critic also added that Conly's protagonist, "a child who loses her innocence while grappling on her own with adult issues," is "entirely believable."
In contrast to What Happened on Planet Kid, In the Night, on Lanvale Street moves forward in time, and finds its young teen protagonist dealing with a different sent of problems in her gritty urban reality. Thirteen-year-old Charlie lives in Baltimore, where her father chooses to ignore the fact that the family's bluecollar neighborhood is increasingly becoming overrun by drug traffickers. After an elderly neighbor is murdered, Charlie and her little brother Jerry are asked by an official-looking adult to find out what they can about the crime; when the information they provide points to the older brother of Charlie's best friend, tragedy results from neighborhood frustration and vigilantism. Noting that the novel's plot is "sprinkled with escalating, unsettled moments of fear, uncertainty and dread," a Kirkus Reviews critic praised In the Night, on Lanvale Street as a "poignant and perturbing" novel. The book presents readers with a "riveting tale" of frustration and revenge, according to School Library Journal reviewer Maria B. Salvadore, the critic adding that readers will join Conly's young protagonist as she learns that "coping that death and violence is something that everyone does in a unique way."
In addition to writing, Conly tutors young writers and also enjoys participating in middle-grade writing workshops. As she once commented: "most of my 'free' time has been spent writing. There are some aspects of writing that I really enjoy, and some that I don't like. However, I've noticed that if I don't write a certain amount each week, I lose my overall sense of contentment."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
St. James Guide to Young-Adult Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999, pp. 185-186.
Booklist, June 1, 1986, Ilene Cooper, review of Racso and the Rats of NIMH, p. 1458; May 15, 1993, Hazel Rochman, review of Crazy Lady!, p. 1691; March, 15, 1996, p. 1289; May 15, 1998, GraceAnne A. DeCandido, review of While No One Was Watching, p. 1626; September 1, 2002, Todd Morning, review of The Rudest Alien on Earth, p. 122.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, June, 1986, review of Racso and the Rats of NIMH, pp. 182-183; June, 1990, Roger Sutton, review of R-T, Margaret, and the Rats of NIMH, p. 235; January, 1996, Deborah Stevenson, review of Trout Summer, pp. 153-154; September, 1998, Deborah Stevenson, review of While No One Was Watching, p. 11.
Growing Point, November, 1986, Margery Fisher, review of Racso and the Rats of NIMH, pp. 4696-4697.
Horn Book, September, 1986, Ann A. Flowers, review of Racso and the Rats of NIMH, pp. 588-589; July-August, 1993, Nancy Vasilakis, review of Crazy Lady!, p. 465; March-April, Nancy Vasilakis, review of Trout Summer, 1996, p. 195; July-August, 1998, Nancy Vasilakis, review of While No One Was Watching, p. 484; May, 2000, Martha V. Parravano, review of What Happened on Planet Kid, p. 310.
Kirkus Reviews, May 1, 1993, p. 595; September 1, 2002, review of The Rudest Alien on Earth, p. 1306; April 15, 2005, review of In the Night, on Lanvale Street, p. 470.
Publishers Weekly, April 20, 1998, review of While No One Was Watching, p. 68; June 22, 1998, review of Trout Summer, p. 94; September 30, 2002, review of The Rudest Alien on Earth, p. 72.
School Library Journal, April, 1986, Yvonne A. Frey, review of Racso and the Rats of NIMH, p. 85; June, 1990, Susan M. Harding, review of R-T, Margaret, and the Rats of NIMH, p. 118; April, 1993, Alice Casey Smith, review of Crazy Lady!, pp. 117-118; December, 1995, Joel Shoemaker, review of Trout Summer, p. 102; July, 1998, Cindy Darling Codell, review of While No One Was Watching, p. 92; May, 2000, Judith Everitt, review of What Happened on Planet Kid, p. 171; October, 2002, Catherine Threadgill, review of The Rudest Alien on Earth, p. 160; June, 2005, Maria B. Salvadore, review of In the Night, on Lanvale Street, p. 152.
Teaching and Learning Literature, May-June, 1997, pp. 29-32.
Times Literary Supplement, September 19, 1986, Sarah Hayes, "Following On," p. 1042.
Voice of Youth Advocates, December, 1990, Alice M. Johns, review of R-T, Margaret, and the Rats of NIMH, p. 295; June, 1993, p. 87; February, 1996, Mary Hedge, review of Trout Summer, p. 369; February, 2003, review of The Rudest Alien on Earth, p. 485.
Children's Book Guild of Washington, DC Web site, http://www.childrensbookguild.org/ (September 15, 2005), "Jane Leslie Conly."