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Schwartz, Virginia Frances 1950–

Schwartz, Virginia Frances 1950–

PERSONAL:

Born December 14, 1950, in Stoney Creek, Ontario, Canada; married Neil Eric Schwartz (an educator), January, 1978. Education: Waterloo Lutheran University (now Wilfrid Laurier University), B.A.; Pace University, M.S. Politics: Democrat.

ADDRESSES:

Home—Flushing, NY. E-mail—[email protected]

CAREER:

Children's book author and educator. Registered nurse in New York, NY, and in Canada, 1975-88; elementary school teacher in New York, NY, 1988-94; elementary school writing teacher in New York, NY, beginning 1994.

MEMBER:

Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators.

AWARDS, HONORS:

Gold Award in fiction category, Parents' Choice, 2000, Best Book for Young Adults selection, American Library Association, Notable Book for a Global Society selection, International Reading Association, Top Shelf Fiction for Middle School Readers selection, Voice of Youth Advocates, and Books for the Teen Age selection, New York Public Library, all 2001, all for Send One Angel Down; Silver Birch Award for Historical Fiction, for If I Just Had Two Wings.

WRITINGS:

YOUNG-ADULT HISTORICAL FICTION

Send One Angel Down, Holiday House (New York, NY), 2000.

If I Just Had Two Wings, Stoddart Kids (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2001.

Messenger, Holiday House (New York, NY), 2002.

Initiation, Fitzhenry & Whiteside (Markham, Ontario, Canada), 2003.

Four Kids in 5E and One Crazy Year, Holiday House (New York, NY), 2006.

SIDELIGHTS:

Born in eastern Canada, Virginia Frances Schwartz now makes her home in New York, State, where she has taught elementary grade students since the late 1980s. In her historical novel Messenger Schwartz draws on family history to tell a story about an immigrant farming family moving from Eastern Europe to rural Canada during the early twentieth century, while other novels focus on slavery and the lives of Native Americans prior to the arrival of Europeans. In a change of pace, Schwartz's middle-grade novel Four Kids in 5E and One Crazy Year is a humorous story in which a special teacher changes the lives of four special-ed students during their fifth-grade school year. Framed as a journal that interweaves entries by Gio, Max, Destiny, and Willie, Four Kids in 5E and One Crazy Year was cited by School Library Journal contributor Carly B. Wiskoff as "a promising motivational book for reluctant readers." In Kirkus Reviews a reviewer asserted that, in a text that "goes straight to the heart," Schwartz tells a story that will provide "inspiration to … those who struggle with life or literacy," while Booklist contributor Hazel Rochman dubbed Four Kids in 5E and One Crazy Year a "beautiful story" about the enduring legacy of an inspiring teacher.

Based on the experiences of Schwartz's mother and grandmother, Messenger follows a widowed Croatian woman as she brings her family to Canada in the hopes of giving her children a better life. Set in central Ontario during the depression years of the late 1920s and 1930s, the novel finds narrator and oldest daughter Frances attempting to help her overworked mother while also helping to raise her two younger brothers. Threading her story with Croatian customs and folklore, Schwartz follows her young heroine as Frances attempts to hold the fragile family together as they move from farms to the boarding house her mother runs in an Ontario mining town. In Kirkus Reviews, a critic noted the novel's uplifting ending and praised Messenger as a "lyrically written" tale that is "rich in emotional nuance," and a Publishers Weekly critic cited prose that is "strongly atmospheric" despite Frances's "detached" narration.

Other historical novels by Schwartz include the award-winning Send One Angel Down and If I Just Had Two Wings, as well as Initiation, a story about Kwakiutl twins Nana and Nanolatch as they reach adulthood in west-coast Canada during the 1440s and accept the destiny that awaits them as the children of a chieftain. "Schwartz is able to weave" Kwakiutl culture and history into "a compelling, mythical" coming-of-age tale, noted Resource Links critic Teresa Hughes in her review of Initiation. Reviewing If I Just Had Two Wings, which finds two three slaves determined to escape from their life picking cotton via the Underground Railway, Kliatt critic Paula Rhorlick praised Schwartz for crafting a "well-written and exciting story" that includes numerous facts about what it was like to make this historic flight to freedom. Schwartz draws on actual slave recollections gathered by the Federal Writers Project during the 1930s in her novel Send One Angel Down, which also introduces readers to the day-to-day life of Southern slaves. The winner of numerous awards, Send One Angel Down was also praised by Resource Links critic Gail de Vos as "a strong novel with authentic, charismatic characters."

Schwartz once commented: "I knew I wanted to be a writer by the time I went to school. School gave me the written word, but, long before that, the environment in which I was raised prepared me to write. It provided me with certain qualities: beauty, space, endless time to daydream, storytelling, and access to books.

"I grew up in Canada in the heart of the fruit belt that stretched across southern Ontario from Niagara Falls to Toronto. When I was young, it was completely rural, ‘like a slice of heaven’ as my grandfather says in my latest novel about my family, Messenger. My backyard was a twenty-acre orchard of blossoming fruit trees where I played, daydreamed, and read. My mind traveled to a million places as I dangled upside down, played dress-up, and spent every moment I could, even throughout the long, snowy winters, outside. Beauty and space were essential for me to become a writer.

"I lived in a multicultural neighborhood of immigrants who came from all areas of Europe—Croatia, Serbia, Italy, England, Scotland, Italy, Sicily, France, and Ireland. They spoke with strong accents, ate delicious foods, looked and dressed differently, all of which mesmerized me. Their traditions, like ours, were shared orally. Something in their voices sparked so many images in my mind about their characters and the countries they had left behind. In the afternoons, when our neighbors dropped over for a scone and tea, they spilled their stories into my ears. We had no television in our house until I was twelve, but we always had entertainment. On hot summer evenings, spread out on a blanket beneath the cherry trees and the Milky Way, my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and parents competed to tell the stories of their lives: spooky stories like my grandmother's, funny stories like my father's, and of course, great fishing stories and jokes from Uncle Phillip. I became a listener, a sponge, at an early age.

"Storytelling was the fuel. Reading provided the fire. By sheer luck, the one library in the whole county was built a block away from my house. I had a new place to explore then. When I read everything in the juvenile section, the librarian secretly allowed me access to that intermediary section, on a landing between the kids' books in the basement and the real adult books on the sunny upper floor. This was ‘young adult,’ for teenagers, a collection of historical fiction and mysteries that fed my imagination. I had reached a new land, and the best part was getting there while I was still a fourth-grader.

"Although I did write as a child, I did not take writing all that seriously. Perhaps that was because it came easily to me to write the required essays and assignments. But I didn't venture out on my own much. The stories were still locked in my head. It wasn't until I was an adult that I could finally focus on writing. I began a teaching career in the fourth and fifth grades. I loved teaching writing and reading the most. I used to say to my fellow teachers, ‘If only I could just teach writing all day!’ My wish came true. I was sent by my district to Columbia University to be trained as a teacher of ‘The Writing Process.’ Each day, I visited classrooms to inspire and train young writers from kindergarten to grade six. Side by side with the children, we read great stories from Cynthia Rylant, Gary Paulsen, Eloise Greenfield, and Donald Crews. We wrote in writers' notebooks every day and learned the steps of drafting, revision, editing, and proofreading. You can't imagine how lucky I felt working each day to transform children into writers. It fed something deep inside. I felt as if I was facing the child in me who dreamed of becoming a writer, but had no idea how to do it. It was during my tenure as a writing teacher that my first book was accepted for publication.

"In life, I always root for the underdog, the one who is left behind in some way, the one I recognize as having so much potential that is covered or perhaps crushed. They often sat in my classroom: girls so shy they never looked up, boys who stuttered, new immigrants lost without the words and friendships to make them feel at home, kids who stumbled over math, students who, at eight years of age, had dark worry-circles beneath their eyes. I wanted them to succeed and realize the tremendous power they had inside them. I wanted the other children to learn tolerance, to know that others can be different from you on the outside, but that inside we are all the same. It is no surprise to me that I write about slaves, immigrants, and Native Americans. These groups suffered tremendous hardships and injustices. In my novels I give them hope and a different life.

"One of the ways in which I have dealt with suffering in my own life was developing into a spiritual person. That means that I look to a higher place than just my own mind for everyday guidance. The songs and prayers of the slaves in Send One Angel Down and If I Just Had Two Wings mirror the spiritual belief that helped slaves endure centuries of degradations. In Messenger, the fatherless narrator is soothed by prayer, literature, poetry, and a belief in the afterlife. These books explore ways to nourish a spirit that has been crushed by abuse and overwhelming family or social problems. Spirituality, or thinking about God, helps us recognize our true selves and develop our potential.

"As a writer, I sit down at my desk, or lie in a field studying clouds in the sky, and listen carefully to the words in my head, the same way I did as a child. I try to get them down as fast as I can at first and do a lot of revision later. The words often come in a rush and my hand moves so fast that it hurts. I keep a notebook by my bedside because ideas often come just before I fall asleep. My characters seem to find me. I did not decide, for instance, to write about slavery. One evening, as I was falling asleep, a girl's face appeared in my mind. At once I knew she was a slave. What drew me into her was her extreme pain and urgency. She had a story to tell. All I had to do was listen. That character was Phoebe and her story became If I Just Had Two Wings. Slavery is obviously something that needs to be talked about in the new millennium. America needs racial healing.

"What I realize is that to be a children's author today is to take responsibility for the ways in which children think and grow. I'd like to help make the world a healing place for all races, religious, and cultures."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

Booklist, June 1, 2000, Debbie Carton, review of Send One Angel Down; December 1, 2001, Michael Cart, review of If I Just Had Two Wings, p. 638; December 1, 2006, Hazel Rochman, review of Four Kids in 5E and One Crazy Year, p. 50.

Canadian Review of Materials, September 19, 2003, review of Initiation.

Horn Book, July, 2000, review of Send One Angel Down, p. 465.

Kirkus Reviews, October 1, 2002, review of Messenger, p. 1480; October 1, 2006, review of Four Kids in 5E and One Crazy Year, p. 1024.

Kliatt, January, 2002, Paula Rohrlick, review of If I Just Had Two Wing.

Publishers Weekly, May 1, 2000, review of Send One Angel Down, p. 71; October 21, 2002, review of Messenger, p. 77.

Resource Links, December, 2003, Teresa Hughes, review of Initiation, p. 41; June, 2005, Gail de Vos, review of Send One Angel Down, p. 23.

School Library Journal, August, 2000, Bruce Anne Shook, review of Send One Angel Down, p. 188; December, 2001, Farida S. Dowler, review of If I Just Had Two Wings, p. 143; March, 2004, Carol A. Edwards, review of Initiation, p. 220.

Voice of Youth Advocates, December, 2002, review of Messenger, p. 391.

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