Fletcher, Susan (Clemens) 1951-
FLETCHER, Susan (Clemens) 1951-
PERSONAL: Born May 28, 1951, in Pasadena, CA; daughter of Leland Phipps (a chemical engineer; in sales) and Reba Gail (a teacher; maiden name, Montgomery) Clemens; married Jerry Fletcher (a
CAREER: Campbell-Mithun (advertising agency), Minneapolis, MN, and Denver, CO, media buyer, 1974-77, advertising copywriter, 1977-79; Portland Community College, Portland, OR, lecturer, 1988-90; writer, 1990—. Vermont College, teacher of writing for children.
MEMBER: Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, Authors Guild, Authors League of America, Phi Beta Kappa.
AWARDS, HONORS: Mary Jane Carr Young Readers Award, Oregon Institute of Literary Arts, 1990, for Dragon's Milk; "young adults' choice selections,"
International Reading Association, 1991, for Dragon's Milk, and c. 1993, for Flight of the Dragon Kyn; American Library Association, citations among "best books for young adults," c. 1993, for Flight of the Dragon Kyn, and c. 1998, for Shadow Spinner, and citation among "notable books for older readers," c. 1998, for Shadow Spinner; citation among "notable children's trade books in the field of social studies," Children's Book Council, blue ribbon, Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, and "best book" designation, School Library Journal, all c. 1998, for Shadow Spinner.
novels for children
The Haunting Possibility (mystery), Crosswinds, 1988.
Dragon's Milk (fantasy), Atheneum (New York, NY), 1989.
The Stuttgart Nanny Mafia, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1991.
Flight of the Dragon Kyn ("prequel" to Dragon's Milk), Atheneum (New York, NY), 1993.
Sign of the Dove (sequel to Dragon's Milk), Atheneum (New York, NY), 1996.
Shadow Spinner, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1998.
Walk across the Sea, Atheneum Books for Young Readers (New York, NY), 2001.
Contributor to periodicals, including Ms., Woman's Day, Family Circle, Mademoiselle, and New Advocate.
SIDELIGHTS: Susan Fletcher is the author of children's novels, including the fantasy novel trilogy containing Dragon's Milk, its "prequel," Flight of the Dragon, Kyn, and its sequel, Sign of the Dove. Dragon's Milk, whose imagined setting was derived from pictures of Wales, specifically revolves around a babysitting adventure. Kaeldra, the protagonist, is an adopted child whose green eyes identify her as a descendent of the dragon-sayers, humans who are able to communicate with dragons telepathically. When her younger sister becomes ill and can only be healed by dragon's milk, Kaeldra must search for a dragon. She finds one and agrees to babysit for its three offspring, called draclings, in exchange for the milk. The mother goes out to find food, planning to return in a short while; unfortunately, she is killed, leaving Kaeldra to protect the draclings from men who want to destroy them. Critics found Dragon's Milk entertaining and imaginative. Focusing on the novel's blend of action, suspense, magic, and romance, they also noted Fletcher's clever and convincing portrayal of the draclings.
In the Something about the Author Autobiography Series (SAAS), Fletcher remembered the genesis of Dragon's Milk, her second novel for children. "While I was sending out The Haunting Possibility, an idea began to tease at the edges of my mind…. [The lo cal librarian] had directed me to some really fine fantasy novels for children, and I began to be drawn to that genre. I envisioned a book consisting of ten or twelve feminist fairy tales. [Although a life-long fan of fairy tales,] I began to be troubled by their messages for girls. It seemed to me that the typical fairy-tale heroine … would sit around being beautiful, singing nicely, and being kind to birds and animals until her boyfriend—The Prince—came along and solved all her problems for her…. So I decided to write a story about a girl who had the courage to solve her own problems. I thought back to my childhood and tried to remember what I ever did that required courage.
Fletcher drew on her own experiences as a babysitter in crafting Dragon's Milk. The author recalled how hard it was to babysit for four unruly little boys, commenting in SAAS: "Now, that took courage. Or stupidity—I'm not sure which. So I envisioned a short fairy tale in which a spunky, fairy-tale girl would babysit something fairy-taleish, like … dragons!" The tale was initially imagined as a short story, however that changed after she first told the story to her then-young daughter. "She was enthralled—and her enthusiasm infected me," Fletcher stated in SAAS, "I decided that I wanted to spend more time with this story—that I would make it into a novel. Little did I suspect that it eventually would turn into a trilogy and take up nearly a decade of my life."
Fletcher detailed in SAAS how some other personal experiences are manifested in her writing. As an early teenager, after years of caring for her pet bird, she gave it away and it died shortly thereafter. "[Although Brecky was old], I am convinced … that she died of a broken heart. … I wonder if this is why birds play such a big part in my books. There are so many birds—doves and falcons in my dragon books, pigeons in my book about Shadow Spinner. Maybe this is my way of atoning for what I did to Brecky. Or maybe it simply reflects the affection I felt for all my birds." Another of her pets, Nimbus the cat, has also been influential. "While I wrote Dragon's Milk, Nimbus sat on my lap, purring and kneading my legs with her claws. It's no coincidence that the draclings thrum and knead Kaeldra's legs with their talons."
Other intimate details of Fletcher's life have surfaced in her stories. Although now of average height, as a child she grew faster than her peers. She reported in SAAS that "the main characters in my first two novels are tall and gawky, because that's how I still think of myself." Fletcher's daughter, Kelly, is intertwined throughout her writing. As she noted in SAAS: "Kelly has influenced my writing in many ways over the years. Bits of her life sometimes make their way into my books. After reading parts of The Stuttgart Nanny Mafia, Kelly protested, 'Mom, You plagiarized my life!'" At age thirty-nine, Fletcher was diagnosed with cancer. In her SAAS essay, she wrote: "I've never written directly about my year of fighting cancer, and I find it hard to do so even now. But the experience has infiltrated my work. Once during the time when I was writing Sign of the Dove, I heard a Jewish couple speak about the people who helped the German Jews during the Holocaust…. Suddenly, I realized that the book I was writing was about rescuers—people who help those who are in trouble, at risk to themselves and with no expectation of gain. On some level, it was about the people who helped me. And so the book is dedicated to them—my rescuers."
Fletcher's research, revisions, and writing colleagues are all important and cherished parts of her writing process. Research, as she described in SAAS, provides her "the grounding to be able to build up a believable world." Her research is based within a library as well as outside of it. "For Flight of the Dragon Kyn," she noted in SAAS, "I joined a zoo program and worked with birds of prey, cleaning the mutes and castings from their cages, cutting up baby chickens and mice for them to eat." She further revealed in SAAS: "I play for awhile—with my research and stray ideas—before I begin [writing]…. Then when I do start writing I allow myself to write really badly at first if I need to. … I know it will get better when I write the next draft. I do re-write—compulsively. … I wish I could get it right in the first or second draft but I just can't. So I rewrite … until the words sound right." As for her writing colleagues, which she considers "dear friends," Fletcher commented in SAAS: "The nurturing and concrete help I've received from these friends has fed my growth as a writer. Ellen Howard, for instance, connected me with my editor and christened my baby dragons 'draclings.' But there's something even more—an energy, a synergy. At our meetings, ideas are kicked up like dust on a country road. And I love listening to my friends' stories! They show me what is possible, and the excitement I feel about their work spurs me to better my own."
More recently, Fletcher told CA about her inspiration for writing Shadow Spinner. "One day, as I was reading the book review section of our local newspaper, I found a review of a book written by a woman who had grown up in a Middle Eastern harem. She was about my age, and something about this just intrigued me. It wasn't the idea of women in harems. It was the idea of children growing up there. What must that be like?
"I read everything I could get my hands on about children and Middle Eastern harems. I remember going to bookstores and libraries, just hungry. While I was on this obsessive reading binge, I bumped into Shahrazad.
"Of course, I knew about Shahrazad. But somehow I hadn't thought about her for a long time. What an amazing character! She saved her life, and the lives of all the young women in the city where she lived, not by any physical feats she performed, not even by her death-defying nightly storytelling act, but by the virtue of the life-affirming nature of storytelling itself. This led me to a meditation on what are good stories? Why are they valuable? How can they save our lives, in more than the physical sense?"
Fletcher continued: "There were several seeds of inspiration for Walk across the Sea. First, for some reason, I was haunted by lighthouses. For years before I began to write the book—a decade at least—I had been fascinated with them. I honestly can't explain why. The smell of the kerosene, the heat of the beacon as it passes, the raging storms, the inevitable suggestion of ghosts, the romantic image of a guiding light in the dark—I don't know what it was. For ten years, while I was writing other things, I explored the lighthouses up and down the Oregon and Washington coasts at every opportunity. One day, when I went to visit my parents in Brookings, Oregon, they arranged an outing just south of the Oregon border to the lighthouse in Crescent City, California.
"As soon as I saw it, I knew it was the one. It looked just like a house, a cute little house, only with a tower rising up out of it. Children had actually lived there, actually helped tend the light. Also, it was on a tidal island. During low tide, you could walk out to it; during high tide, it was surrounded by water. There was something about that place that drew me, something I couldn't quite get hold of. Eleanor Cameron has said that fantasy novels have a sense of 'the compelling power of place.' So, of course, do historical novels. Part of what was drawing me about this particular place was a characteristic concern of fantasy writer: borders, thresholds, the permeable membrane between seen and unseen worlds, in this case the above-water world and the undersea world.
"Second, when I was researching the history of the lighthouse, I caught sight of a little index card on the wall of the historical museum in Crescent City. On that card was typed, with a faded ribbon, the bare outline of the events of the expulsion of the Chinese from Crescent City in 1886—taken from their homes; loaded into carts; put on a boat and shipped to San Francisco. I was shocked. Given what I knew about the history of racism in this country, I probably shouldn't have been. But I was—shocked also that I had never heard about it. It seemed to me that, if I didn't know about this, probably a lot of other people might not, either. It seemed to me that we all ought to know about it—that, like the interning of the Japanese Americans during World War II, this chapter in our history should be laid out onto the air.
"Finally, I wanted to revisit and explore the intense and lonely experience I had when I began to question my religious faith. It would have helped me at the time to have company, to know that other young people might be having the same questions and doubts."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Something about the Author Autobiography Series, Volume 25, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1998.
Booklist, January 15, 1994, Deborah Abbott, review of Flight of the Dragon Kyn, p. 931; May 1, 1996, Sally Estes, review of Sign of the Dove, p. 1506; June 1, 1998, Hazel Rochman, review of Shadow Spinner, p. 1746; November 1, 2001, Hazel Rochman, review of Walk across the Sea, p. 476.
Book Report, March-April, 1990, Sylvia Feicht, review of Dragon's Milk, p. 31; March-April, 1994, Sylvia Feicht, review of Flight of the Dragon Kyn, p. 34; January-February, 1997, Sylvia Feicht, review of Sign of the Dove, p. 34; January-February, 1999, Vickie Hoff, review of Shadow Spinner, p. 60.
Horn Book, January-February, 1990, Ann A. Flowers, review of Dragon's Milk, p. 69; January-February, 1994, Ann A. Flowers, review of Flight of the Dragon Kyn, p. 73; September-October, 1996, Ann A. Flowers, review of Sign of the Dove, p. 595; July-August, 1998, Mary M. Burns, review of Shadow Spinner, p. 488.
Kirkus Reviews, October 15, 2001, review of Walk across the Sea, p. 1482.
Kliatt, July, 2003, Claire Rosser, review of Walk across the Sea, p. 20.
Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, May, 1993, Orson Scott Card, review of Dragon's Milk, p. 39.
Publishers Weekly, August 16, 1991, review of The Stuttgart Nanny Mafia, p. 58; November 5, 2001, review of Walk across the Sea, p. 69.
School Library Journal, April, 1988, Kathy Fritts, review of The Haunting Possibility, p. 119; November, 1989, Susan M. Harding, review of Dragon's Milk, p. 106; October, 1991, Judie Porter, review of The Stuttgart Nanny Mafia, p. 122; November, 1993, Margaret A. Chang, review of Flight of the Dragon Kyn, p. 108; May, 1996, Lisa Dennis, review of Sign of the Dove, p. 112; June, 1998, Patricia A. Dollisch, review of Shadow Spinner, p. 145; November, 2001, William McLoughlin, review of Walk across the Sea, p. 154.