Reef, Catherine 1951–
Reef, Catherine 1951–
PERSONAL: Born April 28, 1951, in New York, NY; daughter of Walter H. Preston, Jr. (an advertising executive) and Patricia Preziosi (a teacher); married John W. Reef (a photographer), March 13, 1971; children: John Stephen. Education: Washington State University, B.A., 1983. Hobbies and other interests: Reading, music, handicrafts.
ADDRESSES: Home and Office—College Park, MD.
CAREER: Taking Care (a health education newsletter), Reston, VA, editor, 1985–90; children's book author, 1990–.
MEMBER: Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, Children's Book Guild (Washington, DC).
AWARDS, HONORS: Joan G. Sugarman Children's Book Award, 1994–95, Notable Children's Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies, National Council for the Social Studies/Childrens Book Council (NCSS/CBC), 1996, Books for the Teen Age selection, New York Public Library (NYPL), 1996, and One Hundred Titles for Reading and Sharing, NYPL, all for Walt Whitman; Notable Children's Book selection, American Library Association (ALA), and Books for the Teen Age selection, NYPL, 1997, both for John Steinbeck; Society of School Librarians International Honor Book, and Books for the Teen Age selection, NYPL, both 1997, both for Black Explorers; Books for the Teen Age selection, NYPL, 2000, for Africans in America: The Spread of People and Culture; Notable Children's Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies, NCSS/CBC, 2001, for Paul Laurence Dunbar: Portrait of a Poet; NYPL 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing list, 2001, Sydney Taylor Award, Association of Jewish Libraries, 2001, Voice of Youth Advocates Nonfiction Honor List, 2001, NYPL Books for the Teen Age, 2002, National Jewish Book Award Finalist, 2002, and Bank Street Best Children's Books of the Year, 2002, all for Sigmund Freud: Pioneer of the Mind; Society of School Librarians International Honor Book, 2002, for Childhood in America: An Eyewitness History; Recommended Title, American Council of Teachers of English, NYPL Books for the Teen Age, Voice of Youth Advocates Nonfiction Honor List, and Bank Street Best Children's Books of the Year, all 2003, all for This Our Dark Country: The American Settlers of Liberia; Junior Library Guild Selection, 2005, Kansas State Reading Circle Recommendation, 2006, and CCBC Choices, 2006, all for Alone in the World: Orphans and Orphanages in America; Junior Library Guild Selection and Junior Library Guild Premier Selection Award, both 2006, both for E.E. Cummings.
Washington, D.C., Dillon Press (New York, NY), 1990.
Baltimore, Dillon Press (New York, NY), 1990.
Albert Einstein: Scientist of the Twentieth Century, Dillon Press (New York, NY), 1991.
Arlington National Cemetery, Dillon Press (New York, NY), 1991.
Monticello, Dillon Press (New York, NY), 1991.
Ellis Island, Dillon Press (New York, NY), 1991.
Rachel Carson: The Wonder of Nature, Twenty-first Century Books (New York, NY), 1992.
Henry David Thoreau: A Neighbor to Nature, Twenty-first Century Books (New York, NY), 1992.
Jacques Cousteau: Champion of the Sea, Twenty-first Century Books (New York, NY), 1992.
Gettysburg, Dillon Press (New York, NY), 1992.
Mount Vernon, Dillon Press (New York, NY), 1992.
Benjamin Davis, Jr., Twenty-first Century Books (New York, NY), 1992.
Colin Powell, Twenty-first Century Books (New York, NY), 1992.
Buffalo Soldiers, Twenty-first Century Books (New York, NY), 1993
Civil War Soldiers, Twenty-first Century Books (New York, NY), 1993.
Eat the Right Stuff: Food Facts, Twenty-first Century Books (New York, NY), 1993.
Stay Fit: Build a Strong Body, Twenty-first Century Books (New York, NY), 1993.
Think Positive: Cope with Stress, Twenty-first Century Books, 1993.
Black Fighting Men: A Proud History, Twenty-first Century Books (New York, NY), 1994.
The Lincoln Memorial, Dillon Press (New York, NY), 1994.
Ralph David Abernathy, Dillon Press (New York, NY), 1995.
The Supreme Court, Dillon Press (New York, NY), 1995.
Walt Whitman, Clarion Books (New York, NY), 1995.
John Steinbeck, Clarion Books (New York, NY), 1996.
Black Explorers, Facts on File (New York, NY), 1996.
Africans in America: The Spread of People and Culture, Facts on File (New York, NY), 1999.
Working in America: An Eyewitness History, Facts on File (New York, NY), 2000.
George Gershwin: American Composer, Morgan Reynolds (Greensboro, NC), 2000.
Paul Laurence Dunbar: Portrait of a Poet, Enslow (Berkeley Heights, NJ), 2000.
A. Philip Randolph: Union Leader and Civil Rights Crusader, Enslow (Berkeley Heights, NJ), 2001.
Sigmund Freud: Pioneer of the Mind, Clarion Books (New York, NY), 2001.
Childhood in America: An Eyewitness History, Facts on File (New York, NY), 2002.
This Our Dark Country: The American Settlers of Liberia, Clarion Books (New York, NY), 2002.
William Grant Still: African-American Composer, Morgan Reynolds (Greensboro, NC), 2003.
African Americans in the Military, Facts on File (New York, NY), 2004.
Alone in the World: Orphans and Orphanages in America, Clarion Books (New York, NY), 2005.
Poverty in America, Facts on File (New York, NY), 2006.
E.E. Cummings, Clarion Books (New York, NY), 2006.
SIDELIGHTS: Catherine Reef is a nonfiction writer for children and young adults whose biographies, social histories, health books, and descriptions of famous buildings and monuments both inform and entertain young readers. Notable among her biographical subjects are writers such as E.E. Cummings, John Steinbeck, and Walt Whitman, scientists such as Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud, and outstanding African Americans from Colin Powell to the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. Adressing the spirit of place in America, Reef has also written about such historical monuments as Monticello, Mount Vernon, and the Lincoln Memorial. Among her books of social history are those dealing with African Americans, such as Africans in America: The Spread of People and Culture, as well as several detailing the African-American military contribution, including Buffalo Soldiers and Civil War Soldiers.
Reef once commented about her childhood: "I grew up in Commack, New York, a flat, spreading Long Island town, during the 1950s and 1960s. It was a town where most people lived in clean, new split-level or ranch houses on treeless land that had been farmers' fields. My house was different. I lived in one of Commack's few old houses, a place with carved woodwork and a yard full of trees. That backyard seemed enormous, and it beckoned my friends and me to imaginative play. There was an ancient apple tree, bent-over and climber-friendly, where we acted out stories of loss and rescue. There was a sky-high pine tree from which a tire hung on a rope. We often would swing, heads leaning back and faces pointing up through the branches, and imagine that we could fly.
"Sometimes I played indoors on my bedroom floor with my dolls and stuffed animals lined up in front of me. The game was school, and it could last for hours. The dolls and toys were the pupils, and I was their teacher. If there ever was an energetic teacher, I was she! I planned lessons and lectured to my students on science and geography. I taught them to form letters and numbers, and to add and subtract. I made all of their textbooks and work sheets by hand, and I completed every assignment for everyone in my class. Then I corrected all of the work and handed it back."
Such childhood games fostered an early love of reading in Reef, as she once explained: "I read to my class, too, because I loved to read stories and poems. Literature never meant more to me than when I was a child. Dr. Seuss's books were among my early favorites, and I read them so often that I committed them to memory. (I can still recite long sections of The Cat in the Hat and Happy Birthday to You!) I loved the poems of English fiction writer and playwright A.A. Milne and turned my favorites into songs. I delighted in the silly, unreal characters of American journalist and playwright L. Frank Baum's Oz stories. Books brought scenes and characters to life in my imagination. They expressed wonder, love, humor, and sorrow. They taught me that language is a powerful tool. Words are an artist's medium. Like clay, they can be molded into something beautiful."
From a love of reading, it was a short jump to experimenting with writing. "I also wrote poems and stories of my own," Reef once remarked. "Some high-school boys I knew printed a small newspaper. How proud I was when they published one of my stories—the all-but-forgotten 'I Am a Dishwasher!' I kept on reading and writing as I got older, but I developed other interests as well. As a teenager I loved to draw with pastels, pencils, and charcoal. I acted in two school plays. I listened to music for hours at a time. I learned to knit and sew."
However, Reef was about to learn the truth of the old adage "Jack of all trades, master of none." "By the time I reached college, I had so many interests that I couldn't decide what to do—and so I did nothing," Reef once recalled. "I felt bored with college and left after my first classes ended. I took a job as a secretary and soon got married. Then, nearly a decade later, when I was twenty-eight years old and the mother of a young son, I decided that I wanted an education. I was finally ready to go to college. I still didn't know what to choose as a major, or main subject of study, but this time I didn't worry about it. I took classes in a variety of subjects, and I developed even more interests than I already had. I studied history, psychology, anthropology, and science. I also took courses in literature and writing, and I found that I liked writing best of all. Creating with the English language offered greater possibilities and deeper satisfaction than working with pastels or yarn or fabric. I realized, too, that my many interests stem from the fact that I love to learn—and so writing was right up my alley.
"I never became the classroom teacher that I pretended to be as a child, but I work as a teacher through my writing. For five years I wrote a newsletter about health for adults called Taking Care. My articles gave people information they needed to stay healthy. It was an interesting job that taught me a lot, but I wanted to do something more. When I tried writing a book for children, I liked it right away. Here was something that would enable me to keep on learning—about all kinds of subjects—for the rest of my life. By writing children's books, I could remain a teacher and share what I had learned with a very important group of readers."
Reef began her writing career with Washington, D.C., a "brief history and description of the nation's capital with emphasis on the federal government and its buildings," as Margaret C. Howell described the book in the School Library Journal. She followed this early portrait with other books dealing with monuments, memorials, and buildings. In Mount Vernon, Reef tells the story of George Washington and his famous home. Reviewing several books in the "Places in American History" series, including Mount Vernon, School Library Journal critic Pamela K. Bomboy called the books "attractive and informative glimpses of the past." Reviewing Reef's Arlington National Cemetery and Monticello, Susan Nemeth McCarthy noted in the School Library Journal that they would be useful "as supplements to encyclopedia information for reports." Another School Library Journal contributor, Joyce Adams Burner, felt that Reef's The Lincoln Memorial is a "clearly written and well-illustrated" introduction to this famous American landmark. In other books, such as The Supreme Court and Ellis Island, Reef blends history with architecture and even tour information to introduce young readers to some of the famous places in American history.
"To me, one of the best parts of writing nonfiction is doing the necessary research," Reef once explained. "I feel lucky to spend my time gathering information on the lives and work of famous people, learning about life in years gone by, talking with scientists and historians, and traveling to historic places. Writing lets me learn in other ways as well. As I organize and evaluate the facts that I have gathered, I gain insights into human nature and my own beliefs. I better understand the time in which I live by understanding times gone by. As I write, I continue to learn about using the language. I continue to become a more competent, more creative writer."
Reef has also written many biographies, dealing with writers, composers, scientists, military figures, and civic leaders. One of her earliest biographical efforts is Albert Einstein: Scientist of the Twentieth Century, "a smooth and balanced integration of Einstein's life and accomplishments," according to Tatiana Castleton in the School Library Journal. Another twentieth-century intellectual revolutionary is presented in Reef's Sigmund Freud: Pioneer of the Mind. A reviewer for Horn Book felt that Reef "depicts a complex, brilliant, and human man," and also "presents his seminal ideas and the objections, refinements and alternatives to them … [with] admirable clarity."
American writers and composers are presented in several further biographies. Reef's John Steinbeck chronicles the life and works of the Nobel Prize-winning writer of such classics as The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden. "Reef captures the quintessential twentieth-century American writer," observed a reviewer for Booklist. A Publishers Weekly contributor called John Steinbeck a "thoughtful story" and as "nonjudgmental and upbeat as Steinbeck himself strove to be." Mary M. Burns, writing in Horn Book, found the biography to be "an accessible introduction to a significant literary figure" despite the "somewhat sporadic" documentation. Another blend of image and text is Reef's Walt Whitman, chronicling the life of that nineteenth-century bard and author of the ever-expanding Leaves of Grass. Burns felt this title was "handsomely produced" and a "thoughtfully composed introduction to Whitman's work and life that neither sensationalizes nor diminishes the controversial aspects of his oeuvre." A writer for Publishers Weekly noted that even readers already familiar with Whitman "will find much to ponder in this forthright biography."
Turning to musicians, Reef presents the life of a composer in George Gershwin: American Composer. Creator of the opera Porgy and Bess and the symphonic Rhapsody in Blue, among other well-known pieces, Gershwin comes alive in Reef's biography because "the writing gives a sense of [his] personality, his family, and his times," according to Booklist reviewer Carolyn Phelan.
Movers and shakers in ecology and the environment are dealt with in other biographies from Reef. Rachel Carson: The Wonder of Nature takes a look at the author of Silent Spring, a book that awoke the world to the dangers of the pesticide DDT. In Henry David Thoreau: A Neighbor to Nature, Reef introduces the great nineteenth-century nonconformist and writer, author of the classic description of living the simple life, Walden. Reviewing both these titles in the School Library Journal, Burner called them "two nicely drawn and organized biographies that convey their subjects' personal philosophies, politics, and actions in a highly readable manner." In Jacques Cousteau: Champion of the Sea, Reef plumbs the depths of the man who explored the ocean's underworld using diving inventions he himself created. "The story this book begins will continue to be written by the generations to come," wrote James H. Wandersee in Science Books and Films, for Cousteau "is one champion of the biosphere whom every child should learn to know."
"I have always been interested in the human side of history," Reef once commented. "I prefer to read about how people lived and thought in the past than to memorize dates or pore over accounts of battles. I try, in my books, to bring the human stories in history to life. When I write about a famous person, whether it's George Washington … or French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, I try to give a complete portrait of the person. I emphasize not just his or her outstanding accomplishments, but his or her activities outside of public life as well—how the person played as a child, what he or she was like as a parent, what kinds of hobbies the person enjoyed."
Additionally, Reef has penned a number of biographies of eminent African Americans. Looking at military men, she wrote Benjamin Davis, Jr. and Colin Powell. In the latter, Reef traces the future secretary of state's life from his South Bronx youth to his rise to chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in a narrative "simply phrased and clearly organized," according to a critic for Kirkus Reviews. In Ralph David Abernathy Reef takes a look at that civil rights leader with a book that "fills a void," according to Kay McPherson in the School Library Journal. In Paul Laurence Dunbar: Portrait of a Poet, Reef presents a portrait of a black poet whose life ended early because of tuberculosis. Janet Woodward, reviewing the biography in the School Library Journal, felt it provided an "accessible introductory biography of this African American writer" who later influenced the works of Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou, among others.
Reef has also written more broadly about African Americans in several more volumes. In Civil War Soldiers and Buffalo Soldiers, she details the military contributions of black soldiers during and after the Civil War, while in Black Fighting Men, she gives an overview of African Americans in the military. Reviewing Civil War Soldiers and Buffalo Soldiers in the School Library Journal, David A. Lindsey noted that these "concise works," written in "clear, interest-holding prose … bring to life two little-known aspects of American history." Booklist contributor Janice Del Negro called the same two titles "engagingly written." In Black Fighting Men, Reef chronicles the acts of fourteen black soldiers in the major conflicts America has fought, from the American Revolution to the Gulf War. "Reef's appreciation for her subjects comes through loud and clear," wrote a critic for Kirkus Reviews. African Americans in the Military contains alphabetically arranged entries profiling more than 125 black men and women who served during wartime, including nurses, soldiers, and chaplains. Reef includes their biographies and a bibliography and Web sites for further reading.
Of more sociological interest is Reef's Africans in America: The Spread of People and Culture, a book "written with clarity and depth," according to Booklist critic Hazel Rochman, and an "excellent account of the 'African diaspora.'" Blending general history with individual accounts, Reef follows the history of Africans in America from the slave trade through emancipation and northern migration to the present.
William Grant Still: African-American Composer is Reef's biography of a musician who overcame the setbacks of poverty and prejudice to succeed in creating his own style of classical and operatic form from traditional blues, jazz, and black folk music. Still was a composer, arranger, and director who also played several instruments, and little was written about him previous to the publication of Reef's book. Reef includes sources, a list of Still's compositions, a bibliography, and notes relevant Web sites.
In Alone in the World: Orphans and Orphanages in America, described as being "exhaustively detailed" by Horn Book contributor Ed Sullivan, Reef provides a history of the changing attitudes toward the treatment of orphaned children in the United States. She begins in 1729 with the founding of the first orphans' home in New Orleans and notes that children often lived in filthy crowded institutions and almhouses, where they sometimes shared quarters with criminals and the mentally ill. It was a century later that attention was paid to providing safer and more appropriate refuge. Homes for the children of soldiers who died in the Civil War were opened, and in 1909 a White House conference concluded that widowed and deserted mothers should be given support so that the children could remain with them. Reef concludes with a discussion of contemporary problems in the United States and the increasing numbers of neglected, abused, and homeless children. Included are archival photographs and prints. Sullivan concluded by writing that the volume "offers a perceptive look at American society's evolving views of childhood."
Reef once remarked: "I like to think about the many young people I've never met who will gain knowledge and pleasure from my books. But I also write for another person—the girl who climbed the crooked apple tree and read out loud to her dolls. I get to know her better as I think about what she would like to read; at the same time, I get a deeper understanding of the woman I am today."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, August, 1993, Janice Del Negro, reviews of Buffalo Soldiers and Civil War Soldiers, p. 2056; April 1, 1997, review of John Steinbeck, p. 1305; February 15, 1999, Hazel Rochman, review of Africans in America: The Spread of People and Culture, p. 1058; February 15, 2000, Carolyn Phelan, review of George Gershwin: American Composer, p. 1110; July, 2004, review of African Americans in the Military, p. 1860.
Horn Book, September-October, 1995, Mary M. Burns, review of Walt Whitman, pp. 622-623; September-October, 1996, Mary M. Burns, review of John Steinbeck, p. 624; July-August, 2001, review of Sigmund Freud: Pioneer of the Mind, p. 475; July, 2003, Carolyn Phelan, review of William Grant Still: African-American Composer, p. 1880; July-August, 2005, Ed Sullivan, review of Alone in the World: Orphans and Orphanages in America, p. 489.
Kirkus Reviews, July 1, 1992, review of Colin Powell, p. 854; May 15, 1994, review of Black Fighting Men, p. 705.
Kliatt, September, 2004, Anthony Pucci, review of John Steinbeck, p. 42.
New York Times Book Review, August 12, 2001, Patricia McCormick, review of Sigmund Freud.
Publishers Weekly, May 8, 1995, review of Walt Whitman, p. 298; May 6, 1996, review of John Steinbeck, p. 82.
School Library Journal, April, 1990, Margaret C. Howell, review of Washington, D.C., p. 137; December, 1991, Tatiana Castleton, review of Albert Einstein: Scientist of the Twentieth Century, p. 127; March, 1992, Susan Nemeth McCarthy, reviews of Arlington National Cemetery and Monticello, p. 250; May, 1992, Joyce Adams Burner, reviews of Henry David Thoreau: A Neighbor to Nature and Rachel Carson: The Wonder of Nature, p. 126; August, 1992, Pamela K. Bomboy, review of Mount Vernon, pp. 171-172; August, 1993, David A. Lindsey, reviews of Buffalo Soldiers and Civil War Soldiers, p. 201; August, 1994, Joyce Adams Burner, review of The Lincoln Memorial, p. 166; October, 1995, Kay McPherson, review of Ralph David Abernathy, p. 150; September, 2000, Janet Woodward, review of Paul Laurence Dunbar: Portrait of a Poet, p. 254; September, 2003, Carol Jones Collins, review of William Grant Still, p. 236; June, 2005, Ginny Gustin, review of Alone in the World, p. 186.
Science Books and Films, August-September, 1992, James H. Wandersee, review of Jacques Cousteau: Champion of the Sea, p. 173.