Shreve, Susan Richards 1939–
Shreve, Susan Richards 1939–
PERSONAL: Born May 2, 1939, in Toledo, OH; daughter of Robert Kenneth (a broadcaster and writer) and Helen Elizabeth Richards; married Porter Gaylord Shreve (a family therapist), May 26, 1962 (divorced); married Timothy Seldes (an agent), February 2, 1987; children: Porter Gaylord, Elizabeth Steward, Caleb Richards, Katharine Taylor. Education: University of Pennsylvania, B.A. (magna cum laude), 1961; University of Virginia, M.A., 1969.
ADDRESSES: Home—Washington, DC. Office—Department of English, George Mason University, 4400 University Dr., Fairfax, VA 22030. Agent—Timothy Seldes, Russell & Volkening, Inc., 50 West 29th St., New York, NY 10001.
CAREER: Writer and educator. Teacher of English in private schools in Cheshire, England, 1962–63, Rosemont, PA, 1963–66, Washington, DC, 1967–68, and Philadelphia, PA, 1970–72; Community Learning Center (alternative school), Philadelphia, cofounder, 1972–75; George Mason University, Fairfax, VA, associate professor, 1976–80, professor of English Literature and founder of MFA Creative Writing Program, 1980–. George Washington University, Washington, DC, Jenny McKean Moore Chair in Creative Writing, 1977–78; visiting professor, Columbia University, 1983–87, and Princeton University, 1991–94; Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, West Virginia Wesleyan, 1994, and Bates College, 1997. Also conducted summer writing workshops at Bennington College in Vermont, 1980–87; writer in residence, Kratz Center's Spring, Baltimore, MD, 2002; has served on several literature panels for the National Endowment for the Arts.
MEMBER: PEN/Faulkner Foundation (president, 1985–90), Authors Guild, Authors League of America, Washington Independent Writers (member of advisory board), Children's Book Guild, Phi Beta Kappa.
AWARDS, HONORS: Jenny Moore Award, George Washington University, 1978; Notable Book citation, American Library Association (ALA), 1979, for Family Secrets: Five Very Important Stories; Best Book for Young Adults citation, ALA, 1980, for The Masquerade; Notable Children's Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies, National Council for Social Studies and the Children's Book Council joint committee, 1980, for Family Secrets: Five Very Important Stories; Guggenheim award in fiction, 1980; National Endowment for the Arts fiction award, 1982; Edgar Allan Poe Award, Mystery Writers of America, 1988, for Lucy Forever and Miss Rosetree, Shrinks; Lila Wallace Readers Digest Foundation grant.
A Fortunate Madness, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1974.
A Woman like That, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1977.
Children of Power, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1979.
Miracle Play, Morrow (New York, NY), 1981.
Dreaming of Heroes, Morrow (New York, NY), 1984.
Queen of Hearts, Linden Press (New York, NY), 1986.
A Country of Strangers, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1989.
Daughters of the New World, Nan A. Talese/Doubleday (New York, NY), 1992.
The Train Home, Nan A. Talese/Doubleday (New York, NY), 1993.
The Visiting Physician, Nan A. Talese/Doubleday (New York, NY), 1996.
Plum & Jaggers, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (New York, NY), 2000.
A Student of Living Things, Viking (New York, NY), 2006.
Family Secrets: Five Very Important Stories, illustrated by Richard Cuffari, Knopf (New York, NY), 1979.
The Bad Dreams of a Good Girl, illustrated by Diane de Groat, Knopf (New York, NY), 1982.
The Flunking of Joshua T. Bates, illustrated by de Groat, Knopf (New York, NY), 1984.
How I Saved the World on Purpose, illustrated by Suzanne Richardson, Holt (New York, NY), 1985.
Lucy Forever and Miss Rosetree, Shrinks, Holt, 1986.
Lily and the Runaway Baby, illustrated by Sue Trues-dell, Random House (New York, NY), 1987.
Joshua T. Bates Takes Charge, illustrated by Dan Andreasen, Knopf (New York, NY), 1992.
Wait for Me, illustrated by de Groat, Tambourine Books (New York, NY), 1992.
Amy Dunn Quits School, illustrated by de Groat, Tambourine Books (New York, NY), 1993.
Lucy Forever, Miss Rosetree, and the Stolen Baby, illustrated by Eric Jon Nones, Tambourine Books (New York, NY), 1994.
The Formerly Great Alexander Family, illustrated by Chris Cart, Tambourine Books, 1995.
Zoe and Columbo, illustrated by Gregg Thorkelson, Tambourine Books (New York, NY), 1995.
Warts, illustrated by Thorkelson, Tambourine Books (New York, NY), 1996.
Jonah, the Whale, Arthur A. Levine (New York, NY), 1997.
Joshua T. Bates in Trouble Again, illustrated by Roberta Smith, Knopf (New York, NY), 1997.
Ghost Cats, Levine (New York, NY), 1998.
Blister, Levine (New York, NY), 2001.
Trout and Me, Knopf (New York, NY), 2002.
FOR YOUNG ADULTS
The Nightmares of Geranium Street, Knopf (New York, NY), 1977.
Loveletters, Knopf (New York, NY), 1978.
The Masquerade, Knopf (New York, NY), 1980.
The Revolution of Mary Leary, Knopf (New York, NY), 1982.
The Gift of the Girl Who Couldn't Hear, Morrow (New York, NY), 1991.
The Goalie, Tambourine Books (New York, NY), 1996.
Goodbye, Amanda the Good, Knopf (New York, NY), 2000.
Under the Watson's Porch, Knopf (New York, NY), 2004.
Kiss Me Tomorrow, Arthur A. Levine Books (New York, NY), 2004.
(With Marita Golden) Skin Deep: Black Women and White Women Write about Race, Nan A. Talese/Doubleday (New York, NY), 1995.
(With Porter Shreve) Outside the Law: Narratives on Justice, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1997.
(With Shreve) How We Want to Live: Narratives on Progress, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1998.
(With Shreve) Tales Out of School: Contemporary Writers on Their Student Years, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 2000.
Dream Me Home Safely: Writers on Growing Up in America, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2003.
Contributor of short stories and essays to periodicals; contributor of documentary essays for MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour.
ADAPTATIONS: A Country of Strangers has been optioned for film; The Visiting Physician is in development as a new series for NBC television.
SIDELIGHTS: In books for both juvenile readers and adults, novelist Susan Richards Shreve has earned critical respect for tackling ambitious themes. Her books for young people are prized for their memorable characters who achieve understanding against the backdrop of a changing society. Like the author, who suffered from polio and two other major illnesses before attending kindergarten, her protagonists manage not only to survive against the odds—sometimes after making trouble for themselves—but also to discover their capacity to affect the lives of people around them and the importance of learning to handle that power responsibly.
In Children of Power, the protagonist Natty Taylor, a teenage polio survivor, resists being defined by her limitations. The story involves a group of Washington, DC, teens who band together against a man who has compassionately befriended the deposed senator Joseph McCarthy. Natty learns about abuses of power while watching her friends commit the same sins against McCarthy that they have judged in him as terribly wrong. Their arrogant belief that they are doing something good for their country keeps them from seeing their own errors.
Lucy Forever and Miss Rosetree, Shrinks features two sixth-graders who set up their own psychiatric "practice," patterned on that of Lucy's child-psychiatrist father. Intrigued by one of their father's patients, a mute five-year-old named Cinder, the girls begin meddling in what soon develops into a suspenseful mystery. "It soon becomes clear that Lucy's well-meant efforts are endangering her as well as Cinder, and there is a denouement, both dramatic and logical, that ends the novel with fine flair," noted Zena Sutherland of the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books.
Many of Shreve's stories focus on parent-child relationships. The Bad Dreams of a Good Girl presents nine-year-old Lotty, youngest sibling of three ill-behaved brothers, who feels that her parents expect her to be perfect. Shreve returns to this theme in Goodbye, Amanda the Good, which features a thirteen-year-old protagonist who, tired of her super-good image, is attracted to some rebellious friends. Reviewers admired the sensitivity with which Shreve depicted Amanda's confused attempts to forge a more grown-up identity.
Shreve's award-winning Family Secrets offers five first-person accounts of such problems as suicide, old age, and divorce, all related by young middle-grader Sammy. Divorce also confronts fourth-grader Liam in The Formerly Great Alexander Family. Calling Shreve's middle-grade novel "understated, poignant, but appealingly matter-of-fact," Martha V. Parravano of Horn Bookpraised the author's characterization of Liam, noting that, although Shreve takes him "through some universal reactions to divorce: helplessness and guilt; denial; fear of losing a parent's affection," he remains "not a statistic but an individual."
The Masquerade offers a compassionate presentation of a family coping with the disgrace of their father's imprisonment for embezzling funds. Critics commented favorably on the strength of Shreve's characterizations in this novel. Paul Heins of Horn Book asserted that Shreve "shows her greatest skill in dramatizing the interrelationships among the acutely limned members of the family."
Sibling rivalry and concerns over identity play a part in Shreve's Lily and the Runaway Baby, Wait for Me, and Zoe and Columbo. Directed to primary graders, Lily and the Runaway Baby features "funny, sharply observed dialogue, and a firm grasp of the effects of sibling rivalry," according to a Kirkus Reviews critic. In this fast-moving adventure, eight-year-old Lily runs away from home after feeling neglected following the birth of her sister Muffin, who is abducted when Lily takes her along on the train.
Wait for Me is the sensitive portrait of fifth-grader Molly Lottmann, the youngest of four children whose siblings are entering their teen years and no longer seem to have time for her. To make matters worse for the child used to being the center of attention, Molly's two best friends have seemingly formed a new trio with another girl. Deborah Stevenson of the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books noted that Wait for Me is "a thoughtful and reassuring treatment of the kind of childhood social dynamics that many adults dismiss and all kids experience."
Zoe and Columbo examines sibling rivalry and identity from the perspective of an adopted child. Zoe and Columbo are nine-year-old siblings who together must make an adjustment to a new home, a new school, and new friends. Things seem to go a little smoother for Zoe, while Columbo is forced to confront some of the insecurities commonly experienced by adopted children in unsettling situations. "Shreve explores the ways in which a family deals with the facts of adoption while maintaining the charm of her young characters," noted School Library Journal contributor Susan Oliver.
Shreve further explores childhood growing pains in a number of well-received books centering on school activities. The Flunking of Joshua T. Bates is a humorous yet sensitive and reassuring account of the plight of young Joshua, who suffers the embarrassment of having to repeat the third grade. In Joshua T. Bates Takes Charge, fifth-grader Joshua must overcome a new problem: he has become the target of bully Tommy Wilhelm and his gang of NOs (Nerds Out). Praising the "well-drawn school backdrop" and "believable main character," The Gift of the Girl Who Couldn't Hear offers "a compact, tender look at the awkwardness of adolescence," according to a Kirkus Reviews contributor. In the story, thirteen-year-old Elizabeth decides to abandon her longtime dream of performing in the seventh grade musical because she has gained weight and has skin trouble, while her deaf friend Lucy determines to audition despite her handicap and the sarcasm of classmates. Calling the work "a lively and intelligent story," a Publishers Weekly commentator asserted that "the girls' characters are skillfully contrasted, and their tale is chronicled with a fresh, exuberant and upbeat style." Warts offers a similarly thoughtful depiction of young Jilsy's mortification over the unsightly lesions covering her hands. "The story is strong, the characters are sympathetic, and the warts are just gross enough to appeal to every third grader," maintained Maeve Visser Knoth of Horn Book.
In Ghost Cats, Shreve introduces a new element to her juvenile fiction: fantasy. The story centers on eleven-year-old Peter Hall, who is having trouble adjusting after his family moves to Boston. He finds some solace in caring for the family's five cats, but the pets mysteriously begin to disappear or die. Booklist contributor Ilene Cooper judged the novel only partly successful, pointing out that Shreve's decision to have the pets reappear as ghosts leaves the novel with a confusing message. A Publishers Weekly reviewer, however, found the novel "memorable" and "emotionally honest."
Shreve's Under the Watson's Porch is a young adult novel about twelve-year-old Ellie, who makes an exciting and slightly dangerous new friend, Tommy, who does not meet with the approval of Ellie's mom. "The author tenderly evokes the thrill and anxiety of first love," wrote a Publishers Weekly contributor. Trout and Me focuses on Benjamin Carter, a grade-school student diagnosed with ADD who makes a new friend in Trout, a new kid in town who may be sent to a school for troubled boys unless Ben can intervene. "The interaction between Trout and Ben is boyishly authentic," noted a Kirkus Reviews contributor. Kiss Me Tomorrow follows Blister and Jonah as they begin seventh grade, with Blister wondering if she will stay best friends with the popular Jonah as he gets into trouble with a group of mischievous boys. Cliare Rosser, writing in Kliatt, called the book "wonderful."
Merri Rosenberg and other reviewers have occasionally criticized Shreve for wrapping up her novels with happy endings. The author's aversion to tragedy has been with her since childhood, when she replaced tragic endings in an opera book with the words "AND THEY ALL LIVED HAPPILY EVER AFTER." Shreve once told CA: "I do not believe in false promises but I do believe that in life as well as in books, we owe our children as well as ourselves the promise of a future."
Family relationships and strong, sometimes quirky, characters are also typical features in Shreve's novels for adult readers. Miracle Play covers more than a century in the life of the Howells family, a prominent clan of Quakers from Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Over the years, the family deals with interpersonal issues against a backdrop of historical events, including the Great Depression, McCarthyism, and World War II. Though Washington Post Book World reviewer Suzanne Freeman suggested that the novel "gives us a family in love with its own mythology," she showered praise on Shreve's deft plotting and "unabashedly intense" characters. "This could easily be 'saga' material," she commented. "But the Howells' lives don't fall into formulas. They are real and messy lives, played out in a thousand small episodes" that shine through as "everyday miracles." Julian Moynahan, in the New York Times Book Review, was equally enthusiastic. "In the best parts of Miracle Play," he wrote, "Susan Shreve can suggest how particular family events reflect significant social and cultural trends without losing the rich specificity of individual character and motive." In addition, he cited the novel's "technical excellence" and Shreve's "brilliant" handling of narrative and chronology.
Dreaming of Heroes also covers several decades and refers to large historical issues. A family drama, it tells of the young widow, Elizabeth Waters, who moves with her daughter to Washington, DC. Involving themselves with church and social service groups, the women follow their personal paths: Elizabeth marries a Supreme Court justice; her daughter, Jamie, enters a convent but leaves it to become an Episcopal priest. All the while, events such as the Brown v. Board of Education desegregation case, the freedom riders civil rights campaign, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and antinuclear protests provide a concrete social context. Indeed, reviewer Tom Edwards, in the New York Times Book Review, complained that this approach suggests a "fevered delusion that private experience matters only when attached to public events and persons." Though he acknowledged a freshness in Shreve's use of women and established religion, Edwards objected that "ordinary people just won't do for Mrs. Shreve, it seems."
Shreve's sixth novel for adults, Queen of Hearts, drew stronger praise. Set in a fictional town on the coast north of Boston, Queen of Hearts offers a complex plot, complete with romantic betrayal and two murders. Its cast of characters includes protagonist Francesca Woodbine, a voice student who has inherited from her fortune-telling Sicilian grandmother the ability to "see into the lives of people she knew"; the sexy and reckless Colin Mallory; and Will Weaver, with whom Francesca eventually falls in love. In People, though, Kim Hubbard found such excess exhilarating. "The story is for the most part improbable," Hubbard observed. "But so skillful is Shreve at bringing to life this fictional world that … resemblance to reality seems beside the point. Queen of Hearts is a delight."
Shreve confronts incest, adultery, and racism in A Country of Strangers; the flow of time and a family's emotional legacy over several generations in Daughters of the New World; and the plight of a small town struggling to survive within a mass culture in The Visiting Physician. In Plum & Jaggers, she deals with the aftermath of terrorism. The four siblings on which it centers were young children in 1974 when their parents were killed in a bomb explosion on a train from Milan to Rome. Oldest brother Sam, traumatized by the bombing and obsessed with newspaper stories of other terrorist acts, holds the family together, eventually helping them form a successful comedy troupe, Plum & Jaggers. This mix of comedy and terrorism, in the view of New York Times Book Review contributor Craig Seligman, doesn't suit Shreve's talents. "She isn't a funny writer," he stated. More enjoyable, he found, were her observations about families, though he found these essentially "sentimental." A contributor to Publishers Weekly deemed Plum & Jaggers "edgy and captivating," a "compelling, offbeat novel in which comedy, tragedy, danger, and sweetness are never far apart."
In her novel A Student of Living Things, Shreve tells the story of Claire Frayn, a Washington University college student with a love of biology and insects. Claire's brother Steven, who is studying law at the same university, is shot and killed one day as the two leave the library. Steven had been writing incendiary op-ed pieces and is murdered after writing a piece about the Department of Justice and the Freedom for Democracy Act. Claire soon finds she is being followed and eventually tries to capture Steven's killer with the help of a stranger who says he was Steven's friend. A Publishers Weekly contributor wrote that "once the momentum shifts forward, just try to put this book down." Donna Seaman, writing in Booklist, called the novel "an exquisite hybrid, a poetic and resonant story … that is as propulsive and unpredictable as a … thriller." A Kirkus Reviews contributor referred to A Student of Living Things as "evocative and thoughtful."
In addition to her own fiction, Shreve has edited several anthologies, including Skin Deep: Black Women and White Women Write about Race with Marita Golden. Tales Out of School: Contemporary Writers on Their Student Years, which Shreve edited with her son, Porter Shreve, is a collection of brief memoirs of school experiences from such writers as Sherman Alexie, David Sedaris, Stuart Dybek, Carolyn Ferrell, and Bich Minh Nguyen. Shreve also served as editor of Dream Me Home Safely: Writers on Growing Up in America. The collection includes thirty-four essays focusing on childhood by such writers as Joyce Carol Oates and Alice Walker. "All of the essays are highly readable and of high quality," wrote Jan Brue Enright in the Library Journal.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Volume 5, Gale (Detroit. MI), 1987.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 23, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1983.
Booklist, July, 1993, Donna Seaman, review of The Train Home, p. 1967; September 1, 1993, review of The Flunking of Joshua T. Bates, p. 62; September 1, 1994, p. 44; September 1, 1999, Ilene Cooper, review of Ghost Cats, p. 134; February 1, 2000, p. 1024; April 1, 2000, review of Plum & Jaggers, p. 1436; August, 2002, Ilene Cooper, review of Trout and Me, p. 1964; October 15, 2003, Deborah Donovan, review of Dream Me Home Safely: Writers on Growing Up in America, p. 380; April 1, 2006, Donna Seaman, review of A Student of Living Things, p. 21.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, June, 1987, Zena Sutherland, review of Lucy Forever and Ms. Rosetree, Shrinks, pp. 196-197; October, 1992, Deborah Stevenson, review of Wait for Me, pp. 54-55.
Children's Bookwatch, August, 2004, review of Under the Watson's Porch, p. 2.
Horn Book, August, 1980, Paul Heins, review of The Masquerade, p. 417; November-December, 1987, Nancy Vasilakis, review of Lucy Forever and Ms. Rosetree, Shrinks, p. 739; November-December, 1995, Martha B. Parravano, review of The Formerly Great Alexander Family, p. 744; November-December, 1996, Maeve Visser Knoth, review of Warts, pp. 740-741.
Kirkus Reviews, November 1, 1987, review of Lily and the Runaway Baby, p. 1580; July 15, 1991, review of The Gift of the Girl Who Couldn't Hear, p. 935; July 15, 1992, p. 925; September 15, 1994, review of Lucy Forever, Miss Rosetree, and the Stolen Baby, p. 1281; July 15, 2002, review of Trout and Me, p. 1043; March 15, 2006, review of A Student of Living Things, p. 260; August 1, 2006, review of Kiss Me Tomorrow, p. 795.
Kliatt, July, 2002, Paula Rohrlick, review of Goodbye, Amanda the Good, p. 24; September, 2006, Claire Rosser, review of Kiss Me Tomorrow, p. 18.
Library Journal, April 15, 2000, p. 124; November 1, 2003, Jan Brue Enright, review of Dream Me Home Safely, p. 82; April 1, 2006, Susanne Wells, review of A Student of Living Things, p. 87.
New York Times Book Review, July 1, 1979, Larry McMurtry, review of Children of Power, p. 12; August 16, 1981, Julian Moynahan, review of Miracle Play, pp. 8, 23; April 1, 1984, Tom Edwards, review of Dreaming of Heroes, p. 8; January 11, 1987, Alice McDermott, review of Queen of Hearts, p. 10; March 5, 1989, Mel Watkins, review of A Country of Strangers, p. 24; March 22, 1992, Ellen Pall, review of Daughters of the New World, p. 24; April 21, 1996, Abby Frucht, review of The Visiting Physician, p. 26; July 9, 2000, Craig Seligman, review of Plum & Jaggers, p. 17.
People, March 16, 1987, Kim Hubbard, review of Queen of Hearts, pp. 13-14.
Publishers Weekly, December 19, 1986, Elizabeth Gleick, "Susan Richards Shreve," pp. 35-36; June 28, 1991, review of The Gift of the Girl Who Couldn't Hear, p. 102; August 16, 1999, review of Ghost Cats, p. 86; April 17, 2000, review of Plum & Jaggers, p. 48; September 1, 2003, review of Dream Me Home Safely, p. 77; July 19, 2004, review of Under the Watson's Porch, p. 162; March 6, 2006, review of A Student of Living Things, p. 45.
School Library Journal, September, 1995, Susan Oliver, review of Zoe and Columbo, p. 203; September, 2000, Sheila Barry, review of Plum & Jaggers, p. 259; September, 2002, Maria B. Salvadore, review of Trout and Me, p. 233; August, 2004, Connie Tyrrell Burns, review of Under the Watson's Porch, p. 128.
Washington Post, February 2, 1987, Megan Rosenfeld, interview with author.
Washington Post Book World, July 26, 1981, Suzanne Freeman, review of Miracle Play, pp. 5, 7.
Kratz Center for Creative Writing Web site, http://meyerhoff.goucher.edu/cwpromo/kratz/ (October 26, 2006), brief biographical sketch of author.