Marsden, Carolyn 1950–

Updated About content Print Article Share Article
views updated

Marsden, Carolyn 1950–

PERSONAL: Born August 14, 1950, in Mexico City, Mexico; daughter of Wesley Matzigkeit (a minister) and Winifred (a teacher) Marsden; married Panratt Manoorasada (an electrician), August 8, 1987; children: Maleeka, Preeya. Ethnicity: "White." Education: Attended University of Arizona; University of Colorado, B.A., 1972; Prescott College, teaching credential; Vermont College, M.F.A., 2000. Religion: Buddhist. Hobbies and other interests: Watercolor painting, hiking, traveling, boogie boarding.

ADDRESSES: HomeSan Diego, CA. E-mail—carolyn [email protected]

CAREER: Children's book author and educator. Former bilingual (Spanish-English) elementary and preschool teacher in Tucson, AZ, Chula Vista, CA, and National City, CA; worked variously as a maid, paralegal, bartender, and care provider. Arizona Commission on the Arts, writer-in-residence, 1978–85.

MEMBER: Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators.

AWARDS, HONORS: Candlewick scholarship to Vermont College, 2000.


The Gold-threaded Dress, Candlewick Press (Cambridge, MA), 2002.

Mama Had to Work on Christmas, illustrated by Robert Casilla, Viking (New York, NY), 2003.

Silk Umbrellas, Candlewick Press (Cambridge, MA), 2004.

Moon Runner, Candlewick Press (Cambridge, MA), 2005.

The Quail Club, Candlewick Press (Cambridge, MA), 2006.

(With Virginia Shin-Mui Loh) The Jade Dragon, Candlewick Press (Cambridge, MA), 2006.

When Heaven Fell, Candlewick Press (Cambridge, MA), 2007.

Bird Springs, Candlewick Press (Cambridge, MA), 2007.

(With Thay Phap Niem) Tinh's Bamboo Boat, Candlewick Press (Cambridge, MA), forthcoming.

Sahwira, Candlewick Press (Cambridge, MA), forthcoming.

SIDELIGHTS: While poet, short-story writer, and novelist Carolyn Marsden began publishing multicultural children's books in 2002, as a teacher of bilingual students she was active in helping children appreciate the wonders of language for many years. More importantly, her own life had presented her with the hurdles faced by children attempting to adapt to a new culture: born in Mexico, Marsden eventually married a Thai immigrant and has raised Thai-American daughters. The Gold-threaded Dress, which introduces readers to Thai culture, is geared for readers in the upper-elementary grades, as are its sequel, The Quail Club, and the novels Silk Umbrellas and Moon Runner. Marsden also introduces younger readers to children of different cultures in her easy chapter books Mama Had to Work on Christmas and, with co-author Virginia Shin-Mui Loh, The Jade Dragon. Reviewing The Jade Dragon for School Library Journal, Terrie Dorio commented that, in their story about second-grader Ginny Liao and her attempts to befriend an adopted Chinese classmate, Marsden effectively highlights "the push/pull between American and ethnic culture … that many children of immigrants feel."

"I first embarked on the adventure of writing when I was thirteen years old," Marsden once recalled of her initial attempt at writing a novel. "Inspired by the movie Twenty-Thousand Leagues under the Sea, I adapted Jules Verne's classic tale and created my own fantasy set in outer space. Instead of underwater excitement, the crew of my spaceship experienced the dangers of a Mars-like planet. While I was writing this story, I made the attic of my house into a spaceship. In my dark blue school uniform, I pretended that I was the gloomy, charismatic captain of the spaceship. In Verne's story, the submarine was elegantly furnished, so I borrowed my mother's fine china and real silverware. She couldn't figure out where it had disappeared to!"

After earning her bachelor's degree in philosophy at the University of Colorado, Marsden went on to study with poet Steve Orlen in the M.F.A. program at the University of Arizona. With the support of the Arizona Arts Commission, she taught poetry writing in classes ranging from kindergarten through high school. The author also studied poetry at the University of Arizona. For Marsden, these were fulfilling activities; as she once explained, "I gain inspiration and courage from the children with whom I spend my days." Her poetry took on a new form when she began inventing stories for the oldest of her two daughters. As Marsden remembered, "I made up bedtime stories about a family of rabbits. My little girl always giggled when the baby rabbit drove the green car very fast! Picture books seemed like another form of poetry and my interest in writing for children grew."

Returning to school, Marsden studied writing for children at Vermont College, earning her M.F.A. in 2000. While there, she "got to study with the giants of contemporary children's literature," as she recalled. "I also made many close writer friends. We call ourselves 'The Hive' because we are always buzzing with ideas!" Marsden's hard work there paid off in several ways. In 2000 she won Vermont College's Candlewick scholarship, and shortly after she graduated Candlewick Press bought the rights to her first novel, The Gold-threaded Dress.

A middle-grade novel, The Gold-threaded Dress tells the story of Oy, a shy fourth grader whose family has immigrated from Thailand, as she attempts to find acceptance from the students in her predominately Mexican-American school. In Booklist, Carolyn Phelan praised Marsden for her "keen observation" and her understanding of school children, and a Publishers Weekly reviewer noted that the author deals with the subject matter "squarely and truthfully." Deborah Stevenson noted in her review for the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books that, while the topic is common, Marsden's focus on a Thai family is "unusual" in middle-grade fiction. Several reviewers also complimented Marsden's narrative style, Alison Follos describing it in School Library Journal, as representing a "natural voice" and Stevenson praising its "straightforward sweetness." Remarking on the "forceful message" contained in The Gold-threaded Dress, a Kirkus Reviews critic maintained that readers can learn important lessons about friendship from its pages, and a New York Times critic deemed it "a fine novel for newly independent readers."

In writing The Gold-threaded Dress, Marsden borrowed from her personal experiences as well as those of other people she knew. The novel "was inspired when my younger daughter was teased about being Chinese at school," the author explained (Marsden's husband is Thai). "I mulled over her situation in my mind. I combined her story with experiences that I had had with a Vietnamese immigrant family when I taught preschool. Also, my husband's brother was considering coming over to the United States to work as a cook." She put her experiences as a classroom teacher to use as well; as she explained, "the making and breaking of friendships, bullying and teasing, and an increasingly diverse United States are all an integral part of school experience."

"Like The Gold-threaded Dress, The Quail Club was inspired by events at school involving my young daughter," Marsden noted. "I transposed the characters of The Gold-threaded Dress onto this situation. [Her] friends want her to dance a rock-and-roll song with them in the talent show, but Oy longs to perform her Thai dance instead. Once again, she is faced with the difficult decision of choosing between friendship and culture." Oy's ability to share her culture with Liliandra, the bossy leader of a group of fifth graders known as the Quail Club because they have been charged with monitoring quail eggs until they hatch, provides readers with a solution to what a Kirkus Reviews writer called "classic school dilemma, enriched by … cross-cultural notes." "Thai words add much to the cultural authenticity" of the novel, noted School Library Journal critic Alexa Sandmann, the critic concluding that in The Quail Club a common predicament among multicultural students is "handled with poignancy and grace."

"In 1994, while visiting Thailand, I learned of the electronic factories located in the northern part of the country," Marsden recalled. "These factories operate without regulations for the protection of the environment or worker safety. On returning home, I began Silk Umbrellas. This book is about a young girl, Noi, whose older sister works in a radio factory. Noi must work against time to fulfill her dream of becoming an umbrella painter, like her grandmother, instead of joining her sister as a factory worker." Praising the work as a "graceful, compact novel" that "captures the exotic smells, tastes and sounds" of a different culture, a Publishers Weekly reviewer wrote that in the story of eleven-year-old Noi, Marsden presents readers with an "affecting portrait of a family coping with the changes thrust upon it." Marsden's "gentle and exotic story" about a young artist features "language [that] is soft and clear as rainwater," according to a Kirkus Reviews writer, and in School Library Journal, Susan Oliver praised Silk Umbrellas as "a simple but inspiring story of a child with talent, desire, and belief in herself."

The act of enjoying brunch at a fancy hotel restaurant on Christmas Day sparked the idea for Marsden's short, illustrated chapter book Mama Had to Work on Christmas. "I became uncomfortable thinking of the families of the people who were working," the author recalled. "Drawing upon my knowledge of California Latino culture, I wrote a book from the point of view of a little girl whose mother works in the ladies' restroom of a sumptuous hotel." The story, which focuses on nine-year-old Gloria as she experiences the condescension of a more affluent child while serving the well-dressed guests in the hotel dining room, "will be an eye-opener for many youngsters," according to a Publishers Weekly reviewer. Praising the black-and-white illustrations by Robert Casilla, Hazel Rochman wrote in Booklist that Marsden's short chapter book "bring[s] home the painful truth about class differences, a subject seldom addressed in children's books."

Another personal experience led to Moon Runner, a sports book. "When my daughter was in fifth grade, she suddenly began to excel in the long jump and fifty-meter sprint," noted Marsden. "Yet my daughter wasn't a competitor at heart and worried that by jumping too high or running too fast, she would make her athletic friends jealous and lose their friendship." When she combined her daughter's story in journal form with a plot about a sibling conflict, Moon Runner, a chapter book for seven to nine year olds, was the result. Moon Runner focuses on the close friendship of the "Fellow Friends," four fourth graders who have a special handshake and a close bond. Each of the four girls excels at a different skill, but when Mina realizes that she shares a talent for running with Fellow Friend Ruth, problems result. "With its combination of cozy and prickly elements," Moon Runner serves as "accessible and rewarding reading," wrote Booklist contributor Carolyn Phelan, while in School Library Journal Caroline Ward described Moon Runner as "a quiet, lyrical story that sensitively explores issues of friendship and being true to oneself."

Although her children are now teenagers, Marsden still gains inspiration from young people through her teaching. "I watch and listen closely in the classroom. Sometimes I carry a notebook with me to jot down a description, an interesting thing that a person says, or a conflict I see unfolding. I then use my imagination to shape these bits and pieces into stories." As the well-traveled writer noted on her home page, "through writing, I have the chance to live many lives."

A full-time writer, Marsden has several books in process at any one time, and every day she spends hours in her writer's studio: a silver Airstream trailer permanently parked just outside her California home. Regarding her intended audience, "I love the form of the middle-grade chapter book," she once enthused. "It isn't as lengthy as a full novel and doesn't have the constraints of a picture book. I write intuitively, without much of an outline. I draw upon my past experience and training in poetry for imagery and musicality of language."



Booklist, May 1, 2002, Carolyn Phelan, review of The Gold-threaded Dress, p. 1521; September 1, 2003, Hazel Rochman, review of Mama Had to Work on Christmas, p. 133; February 1, 2004, Carolyn Phelan, review of Silk Umbrellas, p. 975; March 1, 2005, Carolyn Phelan, review of Moon Runner, p. 1198; March 1, 2006, Carolyn Phelan, review of The Quail Club, p. 88; November 1, 2006, Ilene Cooper, review of The Jade Dragon, p. 61.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, June, 2002, Deborah Stevenson, review of The Gold-threaded Dress; December, 2003, Karen Coats, review of Mama Had to Work on Christmas, p. 158; March, 2005, Hope Morrison, review of Moon Runner, p. 301; May, 2006, Hope Morrison, review of The Quail Club, p. 413.

Kirkus Reviews, February 15, 2002, review of The Gold-threaded Dress, p. 262; November 1, 2003, review of Mama Had to Work on Christmas, p. 1318; February 1, 2004, review of Silk Umbrellas, p. 136; March 1, 2005, review of Moon Runner, p. 291; March 15, 2006, review of The Quail Club, p. 295; November 15, 2006, review of The Jade Dragon, p. 1176.

New York Times, July 14, 2002, Lawrence Downes, review of The Gold-threaded Dress, p. 18.

Publishers Weekly, March 4, 2002, review of The Gold-threaded Dress, pp. 79-80; September 22, 2003, review of Mama Had to Work on Christmas, p. 72; March 22, 2004, review of Silk Umbrellas, p. 86; November, 2006, Terrie Dorio, review of The Jade Dragon, p. 106.

School Library Journal, April, 2002, Alison Follos, review of The Gold-threaded Dress, p. 117; October, 2003, Eva Mitnick, review of Mama Had to Work on Christmas, p. 66; March, 2004, Kathleen T. Isaacs, review of The Gold-threaded Dress, p. 68, and Susan Oliver, review of Silk Umbrellas, p. 216; June, 2005, Caroline Ward, review of Moon Runner, p. 122; April, 2006, Alexa Sandmann, review of The Quail Club, p. 144.


Carolyn Marsden Home Page, http// (December 15, 2006).

More From

You Might Also Like