Holt, Kimberly Willis 1960-
Holt, Kimberly Willis 1960-
Born September 9, 1960, in Pensacola, FL; daughter of Julian Ray (a data processing manager) and Brenda (a teacher) Willis; married Jerry William Holt (director of Amarillo CVC), February 23, 1985; children: Shannon. Education: Attended University of New Orleans, 1978-79, and Louisiana State University, 1979-81.
Home—Amarillo, TX. Office—P.O. Box 20135, Amarillo, TX 79114. Agent—Flannery Literary Agency, 114 Wickfield Ct., Naperville, IL 60563.
Radio news director, 1980-82; worked in advertising and marketing, 1982-87; interior decorator, 1987-93; writer, 1994—.
Boston Globe/Horn Book Award for Fiction, 1998, and American Library Association (ALA) Notable Book selection and Top Ten Best Books for Young Adults selection, both 1999, all for My Louisiana Sky; National Book Award for Young People's Literature, 1999, for When Zachary Beaver Came to Town.
My Louisiana Sky, Holt (New York, NY), 1998.
Mister and Me, Putnam (New York, NY), 1998.
When Zachary Beaver Came to Town, Holt (New York, NY), 1999.
Dancing in Cadillac Light, Putnam (New York, NY), 2001.
Waiting for Gregory, illustrated by Gabi Swiatkowska, Holt (New York, NY), 2006.
Part of Me: Stories of a Louisiana Family, Holt (New York, NY), 2006.
Skinny Brown Dog, illustrated by Donald Saaf, Henry Holt (New York, NY), 2007.
Piper Reed, Navy Brat, illustrated by Christine Davenier, Holt (New York, NY), 2007.
Holt's novels have been adapted as audiobooks.
Kimberly Willis Holt writes poignant coming-of-age fiction for young readers, and her novels and short stories hum with the sleepy rhythms of small-town life. Since publishing her first novel, My Louisiana Sky, in 1994, she has continued to expand her focus, moving from the American South west to Texas, and including picture books as well as the anthology Part of Me: Stories of a Louisiana Family in her list of published works. Holt has won a number of awards, including two American Library Association citations and a prestigious National Book Award for Young People's Literature, the last for her novel When Zachary Beaver Came to Town. Her fiction has been praised for its realistic depiction of life in the rural South, and for the iconoclastic, but sympathetic characters she creates within her fictional world.
Holt was born in 1960, in Pensacola, Florida, the site of a large naval base. Her father worked for many years as a chef for the U.S. Navy, and her mother was a teacher. Julian Willis's job took the family to several far-flung places during Holt's young life, including France and the Pacific Ocean territory of Guam. They also lived in a number of American states, but always made Forest Hill, Louisiana, their spiritual home. Holt's grandmother lived there, and the future author loved spending time in a place where her roots ran so deep. She began to consider writing as a career at the age of twelve, when she read Carson McCullers's The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. This 1940 work, like others by the Georgia native, explored human isolation and life in the South through the vantage point of an eloquent outsider, and the style of fiction moved the young Holt. "It was just life-changing because of the characters," she told School Library Journal writer Kathleen T. Horning. "That was the first time I read a book where the characters seemed like real people to me."
Holt studied broadcast journalism at the University of New Orleans in the late 1970s and Louisiana State University until 1981, but left school to work as a news director for a radio station. The work was far from challenging, however, and so she took another job at the station selling advertising time. She also worked as an interior decorator for six years before thinking about writing for publication. As a teen and young adult, she had always envisioned a life as an author, but never pursued it in earnest. Part of the reason she abandoned her calling was due to a tough writing teacher she once had, who refused to provide her with any encouraging feedback. "In all fairness to her, she was a great teacher, but she would praise other people's writing but not mine," Holt told Horning in the School Library Journal interview. "I was very shy and insecure and I took it as though I really wasn't meant to be a writer."
Around 1994, Holt—by then married and raising a young child—moved to Amarillo, Texas, for her husband's job. In the sudden isolation, she discovered a surprising opportunity to begin writing for children. "I didn't know a soul there and I thought, ‘If I'm ever going to do it, this is the time,’" she told Horning. The result was My Louisiana Sky, published by Holt in 1998. Set in a small town in central Louisiana, the story was inspired by a memorable incident that occurred when Holt was just nine. She had been traveling through rural Louisiana with her parents, and saw a woman carrying groceries walking on the side of the road. "This lady looked strange to me," Holt recalled in the interview with Horning. "She just had a different look about her on her face and I mentioned her to my mom and my mom said, ‘That lady's mentally retarded and her husband is mentally retarded and they have a lot of kids.’ It haunted me for the rest of my life."
Tiger Ann Parker is the unlikely heroine of My Louisiana Sky, which takes place in a town called Sait- ter in 1957. Tiger, who is twelve years old, does well in both school and athletics, but feels a certain degree of social ostracism because of her parents. Her father, who works in a local plant nursery, cannot even do simple math and Tiger's mother is even more developmentally challenged. As a young child, it used to delight Tiger that her mother played games with her so enthusiastically, but entering adolescence and yearning for a more "normal" life, the girl begins to feels embarrassed by her parents' limitations. She knows that some townspeople view the family as odd and are of the opinion that the Parkers should have never been allowed to marry and start a family. Fortunately, Tiger also lives with her astute, practical grandmother, who helps the teen face the teasing of others. Things begin to change in sleepy Saitter, however: Tiger's baseball-playing pal surprises her with a kiss one day, and then her beloved grandmother dies. Tiger's sophisticated aunt comes to Saitter in the midst of the crisis, and offers to take the teen with her to live in the city of Baton Rouge. Tiger is torn between staying with her parents, who love her dearly, and going with the glamorous Dorie Kay and experiencing a world of new opportunities far from the town's small-mindedness. When a natural disaster strikes, Tiger begins to realize the more positive aspects of life in Saitter.
Betsy Hearne, reviewing My Louisiana Sky for the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, wrote that in Tiger, Holt creates a character "with a distinctive voice" as well as "a credible resolution showing Tiger's values to be as strong as her family ties." In her School Library Journal review, Cindy Darling Codell asserted that "Holt has nicely portrayed the rhythms, relationships, and sometimes harsh realities of small-town life." Marilyn Bousquin, reviewing the novel for Horn Book, found that Holt "eases the action along with a low-key, unpretentious plot, never resorting to over-dramatization or sentimentality in developing her uncannily credible characters." In Booklist Hazel Rochman opined that "all the characters, including Tiger's parents, are drawn with warmth but no patronizing reverence," while a Publishers Weekly critic asserted that Holt "presents and handles a sticky dilemma with remarkable grace."
Just eighty pages in length, Mister and Me is aimed at readers aged seven to eleven, and won praise for its depiction of a time and place that had long passed. The book's protagonist, Jolene Johnson, knows no other world except the sometimes-challenging, segregated South of the World War II era. An African-American child, Jolene lives with her widowed mother and grandfather in a Louisiana logging town. Life begins to change a bit too quickly for the girl when Mister Leroy Redfield, a logger new to town, begins courting Jolene's mom. Dealing with a rival for her busy mother's affection makes Jolene miss her deceased father even more. Although the girl attempts to rid the man from their lives, her strategies only backfire. When her mother and grandfather leave on a hurried trip to New Orleans, Jolene is left with Leroy for caretaking, and a truce between the two leads to a new beginning. Lynda Short, writing in School Library Journal, called Mister and Me a "touching short novel" that depicts Jolene's coming to terms with the presence of a "man whose love and patience allow her to expand her notion of family." A Publishers Weekly review wrote that "the warmth and love in the Johnson household envelops the novel," and Kay Weisman noted in Booklist that Holt's "heartfelt story is filled with richly developed characters who deal with all-too-real problems."
The plot of Holt's National Book Award-winning When Zachary Beaver Came to Town originated with another memorable event in the author's life. At age thirteen, she went to the Louisiana state fair and paid two dollars to see a youth billed as "the fattest boy in the world." He sat in a small trailer and, in a manner somewhat out of character for the shy Holt, she asked him several questions about himself. He answered them, but he was understandably a bit surly about it. Years later, Holt met another woman who recalled meeting the boy, but also recalled eating her lunch with him. In Holt's story, the action takes place in the fictional small town of Antler, Texas, during the summer of 1971, when young teens Toby Wilson and friend Cal watch the trailer bearing Zachary Beaver, "the world's fattest teenaged boy," drive into town. The boys dream of life outside of Antler, and when they visit the 643-pound Zachary they ask him numerous questions. Zachary seems to possess an oddly encyclopedic knowledge of the world, but relies on his legal guardian—who disappears shortly after Zachary's trailer arrives in the parking lot of the local Dairy Maid. In their sleuthing, the curious Toby and Cal discover one of Zachary's secrets, and then help him fulfill a dream while also coming to terms with their own limited reality.
In When Zachary Beaver Came to Town "Holt tenderly captures small-town life and deftly fills it with decent characters who ring true," wrote Linnea Lannon in her New York Times Book Review appraisal. "Picturesque images … drive home the point that everyday life is studded with memorable moments," stated a Publishers Weekly contributor.
Set in the late 1960s, in the small town of Moon, Texas, Dancing in Cadillac Light follows the story of Jaynell Lambert, an eleven-year-old tomboy whose life changes after her independent-minded grandfather comes to stay with her family. While Grandpap's behaviors seem odd to the girl—he lets the low-class Pickens family live in his old house free of charge, pays cash for a gaudy, green 1962 Cadillac, and shuffles around town with no destination in mind—Jaynell finds her views about character and the meaning of poverty changing after the old man's passing. Calling Dancing in Cadillac Light "a solid page-turner," School Library Journal reviewer Wiliam McLoughlin added that the story clearly showcases Holt's "remarkable gift for creating endearingly eccentric characters as well as witty dialogue rich in dialect and idiom." Jaynell is enjoyable and serves as a "spunky and tough" narrator, in the opinion of a Publishers Weekly contributor, the critic adding that Dancing in Cadillac Light "captures a child's sense that time stretches endlessly before her."
Thirteen-year-old Isabel Moreno center stage in Keeper of the Night. Living on the island of Guam with her family, Isabel must still learn to cope with tragedy and her troubled siblings after her mother commits suicide and the family starts to come apart. Noting that Isabel "comes through as a thoroughly believable eighth grader," Kathleen Isaacs described Keeper of the Night as "a beautifully written description of sorrow and recovery that should appeal to a wide audience." Kliatt contributor Michele Winship dubbed the novel an engaging coming-of-age tale.
In addition to novels, Holt has also authored several picture books. In Waiting for Gregory, which feature paintings by Polish-born artist Gabi Swiatkowska, a young girl eagerly awaits the birth of her baby cousin. After Iris asks various relatives factual questions about childbirth, she finds that everyone gives her a different answer in Holt's amusing tale. In Skinny Brown Dog, Holt's story about a stray dog who adopts a reluctant small-town baker is brought to life in artwork by Donald Saaf. Piper is sad about the prospect of moving away from school friends as well as family when her father, a Navy aircraft mechanic, is transferred to a Navy base in Pensacola, Florida. Reviewing Waiting for Gregory in Booklist, Hazel Rochman wrote that Holt's mix of the everyday and the magical … captures the longing, mystery, and joy" of childhood, while a Kirkus Reviews writer concluded that the author's "child's-eye take on the passage of time is concrete and comforting" to young readers.
When asked by School Library Journal interviewer Horning about the eccentricity of her characters, Holt replied: "I'm attracted to people like that. I like the flaws in people…. And I also love the people that seem normal on the surface and then they're really not. I find that a high compliment when people say that they think my characters are eccentric or quirky, because I guess that's what I love about life."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, April 15, 1998, Hazel Rochman, review of My Louisiana Sky, p. 1438; November 15, 1998, Kay Weisman, review of Mister and Me, p. 590; January 1, 2000, review of When Zachary Beaver Came to Town, p. 820; February 1, 2001, Hazel Rochman, review of Dancing in Cadillac Light, p. 1053; February 1, 2006, Hazel Rochman, review of Waiting for Gregory, p. 55; September 1, 2006, Carolyn Phelan, review of Part of Me: Stories of a Louisiana Family, p. 128.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, June, 1998, Betsy Hearne, review of My Louisiana Sky, p. 364; March, 2001, review of Dancing in Cadillac Light, p. 263; August, 2006, Karen Coats, review of Waiting for Gregory, p. 502; November, 2006, Karen Coats, review of Part of Me, p. 127.
Horn Book, July-August, 1998, Marilyn Bousquin, review of My Louisiana Sky, p. 489; November, 1999, Marilyn Bousquin, review of When Zachary Beaver Came to Town, p. 741; March, 2001, Susan P. Brabander, review of Dancing in Cadillac Light, p. 207; May-June, 2003, Lauren Adams, review of Keeper of the Night, p. 349; November-December, 2006, Christine M. Heppermann, review of Part of Me, p. 713.
Kirkus Reviews, May 1, 2003, review of Keeper of the Night, p. 677; April 1, 2006, review of Waiting for Gregory, p. 348; August 15, 2006, review of Part of Me, p. 843.
Kliatt, May, 2003, Michele Winship, review of Keeper of the Night, p. 10; September, 2006, Claire Rosser, review of Part of Me, p. 13.
New York Times Book Review, December 19, 1999, Linnea Lannon, review of When Zachary Beaver Came to Town.
Publishers Weekly, May 4, 1998, review of My Louisiana Sky, p. 213; August 31, 1998, review of Mister and Me, p. 76; November 1, 1999, review of When Zachary Beaver Came to Town, p. 85; January 29, 2001, review of Dancing in the Cadillac Light, p. 90; May 12, 2003, review of Keeper of the Night, p. 68; April 24, 2006, review of Waiting for Gregory, p. 59; July 17, 2006, review of Part of Me, p. 158; May 28, 2007, review of Skinny Brown Dog, p. 60.
School Library Journal, July, 1998, Cindy Darling Codell, review of My Louisiana Sky, pp. 95-96; November, 1998, Lynda Short, review of Mister and Me, p. 122; February, 2000, Kathleen T. Horning, "Small Town Girl," pp. 43-45; March, 2001, William McLoughlin, review of Dancing in the Cadillac Light, p. 250; May, 2003, Kathleen Isaacs, review of Keeper of the Night, p. 153; March, 2006, Marianne Saccardi, review of Waiting for Gregory, p. 194; September, 2006, Melissa Moore, review of Part of Me, p. 208; May, 2007, Elizabeth Willoughby, review of Part of Me, p. 74.
Texas Monthly, December, 1999, Mike Shea, review of When Zachary Beaver Came to Town, p. 34.
Voice of Youth Advocates, August, 1998, Lynn Evarts, review of My Louisiana Sky, p. 202; February, 1999, review of My Louisiana Sky, p. 411; April, 2001, Diane Tuccilllo, review of Dancing in the Cadillac Light, p. 42; June, 2003, review of Keeper of the Night, p. 405; April, 2007, Lisa A. Hazlett, review of Part of Me, p. 50.
Kimberley Willis Holt Home Page,http://www.kimberlywillisholt.com (June 10, 2007).