Isenberg, Jane Frances 1940-

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ISENBERG, Jane Frances 1940-

PERSONAL: Born August 27, 1940, in Paterson, NJ; daughter of Hymen and Marian Alma (Spitz) Siegendorf; married Donald Windham Isenberg, August 19, 1962 (died June 1985); married Phil Thompkins; children: Rachel, Daniel. Education: Vassar College, B.A. (English), 1962; Southern Connecticut State College, M.A. (English), 1971; New York University, Ph.D. (applied linguistics), 1993.

ADDRESSES: Agent—c/o Author Mail, HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022.

CAREER: James Hillhouse High School, New Haven, CT, teacher, 1962-69; South Central Community College, New Haven, CT, teacher, 1969-77; Outreach Program Human Resources Administration, New Haven, director, 1976-77; Goddard College, Plainfield, VT, teacher, 1975-77; English Hudson Country Community College, Jersey City, NJ, associate professor, 1979—. Yale University, teacher, 1977, 1978; Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, NJ, teacher, 1982. Member, board of trustees of Jewish Family and Counseling Services, Bayonne, NJ, 1994—; Hudson School, Hoboken, NJ, 1979-89; and Stevens Cooperative School, Hoboken, 1978-84.

MEMBER: Modern Language Association, National Council of Teachers of English, Hudson County Community College Professional Association, Hudson Reading Council, Language Educators Applying Reflection Now, New Jersey Education Association, New Jersey Reading Association, New York Metropolitan Association for Developmental Education; New York State TESOL.

AWARDS, HONORS: James N. Britton Award, National Council of Teachers of English, 1994.


Going by the Book: The Role of Popular Classroom Chronicles in the Professional Development of Teachers, Bergin and Garvey (Westport, CT), 1994.

The M Word, Avon (New York, NY), 1999.

Death in a Hot Flash, Avon (New York, NY), 2000.

Mood Swings to Murder, Avon (New York, NY), 2000.

Midlife Can Be Murder, Avon (New York, NY), 2001.

Out of Hormone's Way, Avon (New York, NY), 2002.

WORK IN PROGRESS: "The Proof Is in the Patch," a mini-mystery to be published in the anthology Motherhood Is Murder. Also a sixth "Bel Barret" mystery in which a fellow professor is murdered.

SIDELIGHTS: Jane Frances Isenberg has enjoyed a long career in teaching. She has taught on both the high school and the community-college level in several different states. She has also written several books, all of them containing reflections of her professional teaching career. Her first book, Going by the Book, is a memoir of her teaching experiences when she was fresh out of college. Her subsequent books have stretched the truth of her experience, however. Although Isenberg calls on her experiences of teaching community-college students in this second series of books, they are purely creations of her imagination. They are all murder mysteries in which Bel Barrett, a menopausal professor of English, has a knack for solving crimes.

In 1962 Isenberg had just graduated from Vassar and had accepted a job as an English teacher at a local high school in urban New Haven, Connecticut. Her first years of teaching were both difficult and rewarding, and Isenberg was glad to have books written by other teachers who had similar experiences. These works acted as mentors for her, and she devotes a chapter to each in Going by the Book. These influential books include Teacher, by Sylvia Ashton-Warner; Up the down Staircase, by Bel Kaufman; To Sir, with Love, by E. R. Braithwaite; How Children Fail, by John Holt; and Thirty-six Children, by Herbert Kohl.

In addition, Isenberg shares her own classroom experiences: her fears, her doubts, and frustrations as well as her reflections after having re-read these same books many years later as a veteran teacher. Some of the concepts that helped her the most were Ashton-Warner's suggestion that rigid planning is not necessarily a key to success. From Braithwaite, she learned to become aware of racism. Holt taught her to take time to get to know her students in order to understand why they might not be doing so well in the classroom.

She was inspired to become an educational activist after reading Kohl. Despite the fact that Bonnie Ericson, in an English Journal review of Going by the Book, did not concur with all of Isenberg's conclusions, she highly recommended the book to all teachers because "teacher narrative authors serve a vital role as change agents."

In a more entertaining vein, Isenberg has also written several mystery novels. Her protagonist sleuth Bel Barrett, who, according to Isenberg on her Web site, has "never been able to resist an underdog in distress" and thus often finds herself involved in solving murders. Isenberg has made her female protagonist a fifty-something who is out-of-the-closet menopausal. When asked by Julia P. Allen, in a interview for the online publication A Friend Indeed, why she made her female lead so obviously menopausal, Isenberg replied that sometimes she and her friends want to see women in literature with whom they can identify. "The passage that is midlife is significant, and to ignore it or pretend it is not happening is as ludicrous as ignoring adolescence in a teenager." She went on to add: "Midlife is certainly not unspeakable in reality and it should not be so in fiction."

Each of the five mysteries have titles that not only insinuate murder but also symptoms of menopause. In the first, 1999's The M Word, college president Altagracia Garcia drops dead at a school function after eating some of the food offered at the affair. A culinary student is the accused murderer, but Bel Barrett cannot accept this. When the student asks Bel to help him, she cannot resist, even when in the midst of the investigation she discovers that someone is trying to kill her.

In Death in a Hot Flash Bel agrees to teach writing to a class of future undertakers. One night her co-teacher, Vinny the undertaker, does not show up. Bel later finds out that he has been murdered and once again become involved in finding the killer. Mood Swings to Murder, also published in 2000, and covers the death of a Frank Sinatra wannabe. Bel is distracted by an adult son who returns to live at home and an adult daughter who comes home pregnant. However, this will not stop her from solving the crime.

Midlife Can Be Murder finds Bel involved in what some people are trying to claim was an accident at an indoor rock-climbing wall. However, former student Ashley Roberts believes it was murder. Bel becomes more involved that she wants as she uncovers corporate espionage and some unethical practices at a new Internet company. In 2002 Isenberg's Out of Hormone's Way was published. A Publishers Weekly reviewer stated that in this novel watching Bel deal with some very interesting personal problems is "nearly as compelling as watching her unravel the mystery. In this book, one of Bel's students is murdered while out on a kayaking trip that Bel is overseeing."

On her Web site, Isenberg commented on her protagonist, Bel Barrett. Is Bel her alter ego? Isenberg maintained that Bel is both her and not her. Some of Bel's strengths, Isenberg stated, are reflections of some of her strongest female friends. Her weaknesses, however, Isenberg identified with. "Her vices," Isenberg added, like "overworking, over worrying, and over eating, are mine alone."



English Journal, March, 1995, Bonnie Ericson, review of Going by the Book, pp. 83-84.

Publishers Weekly, August 5, 2002, review of Out of Hormone's Way, pp. 57-58.


A Friend Indeed, (December 9, 2002), Julia P. Allen, "A Conversation with Jane Isenberg."

Jane Isenberg Web site,, (December 9, 2002).*