Education: Southampton College, B.A.; University of Wisconsin, M.A.
Home—Philadelphia, PA. E-mail—[email protected]
Writer, playwright, poet, and educator.
New York Public Library Best Books for the Teen Age selection, CCBC Choice, and Paterson Prize for Books for Young People, all 2007, all for Sweet Thang.
Sweet Thang, Delacorte Press (New York, NY), 2006.
Life Is Fine, Delacorte Press (New York, NY), 2008.
Also author of plays, including The Bard of Frogtown, performed at Red Eye Theatre/Spruce Hill Theatre/Interact Theatre (Writing Aloud Fest); I Don't Dance, produced at Theatre in the Round; The Homeboy, produced at the Hedgerow Theatre (Women's Play Festival); Choice, performed at Festival of 'Wrights (New York, NY); and Skylark, performed at the Interact Theatre (Writing Aloud Fest).
Allison Whittenberg is an English professor who writes poetry, plays, and novels. "As the middle child of working class parents, I fell in love with where words could take me early in life," the author notes on her home page. Several of her plays, including The Bard of Frogtown, I Don't Dance, The Homeboy, and Skylark, have been produced.
Although she has been writing poetry and plays for several years, Whittenberg turned to the young adult audience for her first novel, Sweet Thang. The story is about Charmaine Upshaw, a fourteen-year-old living in 1975 Philadelphia. Writing in the School Library Journal, Faith Brautigam noted the novel has a "refreshing cast and [is] a good read."
Obsessed with justice, Charmaine finds little of it in her own life, from having to share a room with her brother Leo to the light-skinned Dinah Coverdale, who has all the boys' attention and teases dark-skinned Charmaine about it. But Charmaine's trials are not over. Charmaine is told that she has to babysit her six-year-old cousin, Tracy John. Charmaine, who has lost her beloved Auntie Karyn due to domestic violence, decides that she has had enough. The novel follows Charmaine as she comes to terms with her life and even develops a relationship with Tracy John and defends him at school when he is targeted for special ed.
"Sweet Thang was loosely based on my recollections and observations growing up in West Philly until I was in second grade and there after, the first tier, predominately African American suburb of Yeadon, PA (which in the book I call Dardon)," the author noted in an interview with a contributor to the Brown Bookshelf Web site. "I wanted to show the type of intact, largely wholesome Black family that myself and most of my friends grew up in. Most importantly, in Sweet Thang, Charmaine fiercely misses her Auntie Karyn. I channeled the deep loss I felt regarding my mother's passing. I was proud to dedicate the book to her."
The novel received several favorable reviews. "Well-crafted entertainment-grade books about African American teens are all too rare, and this is a solid contribution to the genre," wrote a contributor to Kirkus Reviews. Michelle H. Martin, writing in Horn Book, noted the "frequent shifts from the humorous to the serious and its attention to the details of its historical period."
In her next novel, Life Is Fine, Whittenberg tells the story of Samara Tuttle. A Kirkus Reviews contributor commented that the author "has penned an overall hopeful tale for Samara, like the Langston Hughes poem for which the novel was named." As the novel begins, life is not fine for Samara as her mother works too hard and is distant and her mother's boyfriend, Q, attacks Samara. However, when Samara's normal English teacher takes time off for illness, Mr. Jerome Holbrook steps in, a blue-eyed African American man old enough to be Samara's grandfather and who inspires as he teaches about poetry, love, and truth. Samara soon places all of her trust in Mr. Holbrook, talking to him about her life. When he suddenly disappears, however, Samara learns that there was more to Mr. Holbrook than he let anyone know. Ultimately she finds that Mr. Holbrook has changed her life.
"Whittenberg's writing evokes stark images, and the poetic, often-staccato prose provides an interesting counterpoint between Samara's inner and outer world," wrote Roxanne Myers Spencer in School Library Journal. Hazel Rochman, writing in Booklist, noted that "Samara's clipped, colloquial, first-person narrative is fast, funny, and poetic."
When asked how she first became interested in writing, Whittenberg told CA: "I had a very enthusiastic encouragement from a truly gifted teacher. In ninth grade, I was pulled aside by the wonderful Mrs. Hesler and told that one day she would see my name on the spine of a book. It still amazes me that she was right.
"I'm influenced heavily by writers and poets of the Harlem Renaissance. What a time that was—such promise and wonder. I love jazz and the blues and usually use songs from that era as background as I write.
"My writing process is pure chaos. As I begin a novel, I write pages and pages and pages of notes. Then from those notes I come up with an outline. After I have an outline, I don't follow it. I go where the story takes me.
"As a writer, I've learned that it's all in the details. Plots belong to the world and characters, by and large, fit into types, but only I can give my stories nuance through spot-on details.
"There are so many books I admire. But I'd have to say Native Son by Richard Wright is my favorite. I read it as a teenager as well as many times since. It really opened up my mind and made me more politically aware. I also love Albert Camus. I guess I like to think. My guilty pleasure is Agatha Christie; she was so prolific and her character Hercule Poirot is so engaging.
"My books highlight the underdog and I try to explore voices that may not always be heard. I hope the effect of my writing leaves the reader with a good laugh or two and a sense of empathy for differences."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, May 1, 2006, Krista Hutley, review of Sweet Thang, p. 85; January 1, 2008, Hazel Rochman, review of Life Is Fine, p. 60.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, June 1, 2006, Karen Coats, review of Sweet Thang, p. 475.
Horn Book, March-April, 2006, Michelle H. Martin, review of Sweet Thang.
Kirkus Reviews, March 1, 2006, review of Sweet Thang, p. 242; February 1, 2008, review of Life Is Fine.
School Library Journal, April 1, 2006, Faith Brautigam, review of Sweet Thang, p. 150; February 1, 2008, Roxanne Myers Spencer, review of Life Is Fine, p. 130.
Voice of Youth Advocates, December 1, 2006, Ava Ehde, review of Sweet Thang, p. 436.
Allison Whittenberg Home Page,http://allisonwhittenberg.com (April 22, 2008).
Brown Bookshelf,http://thebrownbookshelf.com/ (February 14, 2008), "Allison Whittenberg."
Cynsations,http://cynthialeitichsmith.blogspot.com/ (October 27, 2005), Cynthia Leitich Smith, "English Alumna Publishes Young Adult Novel."
Northhampton University Web site,http://www.northampton.edu/ (April 24, 2006), "Faculty Member Allison Whittenberg's Sweet Thang."