Woelfle, Gretchen 1945-
Woelfle, Gretchen 1945-
Born January 30, 1945, in Dunkirk, NY; children: Cleo, Alice. Education: University of California at Berkeley, B.A., 1966; Union College, M.A., 1972; Vermont College, M.F.A., 2000. Politics: Green Party. Religion: "Buddhist/Quaker." Hobbies and other interests: Urban agriculture, bicycling, hiking, camping, singing.
Editor, teacher, and freelance writer; interactive multimedia educational scriptwriter, 1988-92; children's author, 1992—. Artistic residencies at Hedgebrook Writer's Colony, 1992, Villa Montalvo, 1994, Dorset Colony House, 1995, Ragdale Foundation, 1996, 1997, 2001, 2002, and Byrdcliffe Art Colony, 1997.
Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, Authors Guild, Quaker Bolivia Link (member, board of directors), Phi Beta Kappa.
Magazine Merit Award for Fiction, Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), 1997, for "Sail by the Moon"; Anna Gross Giblin nonfiction research grant, SCBWI, 1997; The Wind at Work named to Children's Literature Top Choice List, 1998; Katje, the Windmill Cat was Children's Book of the Week selection, London Sunday Times, and shortlisted for Children's Book Award (England), 2001; National Book Festival featured juvenile book, Montana State University, 2007, for Jeannette Rankin: A Political Pioneer.
The Wind at Work: An Activity Guide to Windmills, Chicago Review Press (Chicago, IL), 1997.
Katje, the Windmill Cat, illustrated by Nicola Bayley, Candlewick Press (Cambridge, MA), 2001.
Animal Families, Animal Friends, illustrated by Robert Hynes, NorthWord Press (Chanhassen, MN), 2005.
Jeannette Rankin: A Political Pioneer, Boyds Mills/Calkins Creek Books (Honesdale, PA), 2006.
Contributor to anthologies, including Stories from Where We Live: The North Atlantic Coast, 2000; Stories from Where We Live: The Great North American Prairie, 2001; Stories from Where We Live: The California Coast, 2002; and Stories from Where We Live: The Great Lakes, 2003, all edited by Sara St. Antoine, Milkweed Editions (Minneapolis, MN). Contributor of fiction and essays to children's periodicals, including Cricket, Spider, Cicada, Faces, and Highlights for Children, as well as features, travel articles, and art reviews to national and international publications.
Katje, the Windmill Cat has been translated into five languages, including Dutch, Chinese, and Japanese.
Gretchen Woelfle did not figure out her true vocation—writing children's books—until she was well into her forties. Even then, it took a job layoff to set her on her path. She was writing for educational multimedia projects, a job she enjoyed, but one day in 1992 when one project ended, no new project materialized. Fortuitously, her mother-in-law sent her a tape recording of some old family stories from eighteenth-and nineteenth-century Maine and from Gold Rush California. Upon hearing these tales, Woelfle thought some would make good stories for kids. Having a bit of time on her hands, the author decided to transform them into works for children. "It took me a while to learn the difference between anecdotes and stories, but several of these family stories finally appeared in Cricket, Spider, and Cicada magazines," Woelfle once confided to CA.
Growing up in Dunkirk, New York, a small town on the Lake Erie shore, Woelfle enjoyed the outdoors but also read avidly. "Every summer I joined the library reading club," she recalled on her Web site, "and one year the librarian questioned me every day when I returned to take out four new books. She didn't believe I could read that much. I was insulted!" Later after earning a college degree in English, she wrote for magazines in London, New England, the Midwest, and California. She married and had two daughters in whom she inspired a love of reading.
Woelfle's first book for children, The Wind at Work: An Activity Guide to Windmills, grew out of her concern for America's dependence on fossil fuels. She explained: "I wanted to tell kids about renewable energy, particularly wind power. But as I began to research the subject, I got caught up in the human-interest side of windmills. How they changed people's lives in the past. How windmills inspired a folk culture of their own. How people's needs and ingenuity changed windmills themselves. And, of course, how windmills can help create a more sustainable energy future.
"Since I love research as much as I love writing—sometimes more!—I went after people, places, and things to write the windmill story," Woelfle told CA. "I visited windmills and windmillers in the Netherlands, I drove across the American West, I toured a wind-turbine factory in California, and I spoke to engineers, historians, and windmill restorers and collectors." Although Woelfle did extensive research and planned a nonfiction overview of the devices, when she found a publisher, the publisher wanted an extensive series of activities relating to wind power and windmills as well. So Woelfle designed many activities—science and nature experiments, arts and crafts projects, musical activities, cooking and sewing projects, and story-writing, energy conservation, and community action projects—which a Children's Digest reviewer found "very interesting." Then the author compiled an extensive list of places to visit restored and working windmills, and finally she embarked on illustration research. She recalled, "Again, it was an adventure through time and space to obtain drawings, paintings, photographs, and charts that illustrate one thousand years of windmill history." According to Booklist reviewer Susan Dove Lempke, Woelfle's work paid off in "this attractive volume [that is] enhanced by thoughtfully selected photographs and reproductions."
Even after The Wind at Work was published in 1997, Woelfle could not get windmills out of her mind. When she read about how a cat rescued a baby in a cradle during a flood nearly six hundred years ago, she thought it a great adventure. But it needed a story to frame it, and because she could not find the historical facts about the event, she invented a tale. "Since I had windmills on my brain, the story became Katje, the Windmill Cat," the author said. In this picture book, Katje the cat and Nico the miller live happily together; that is, until Nico brings home a wife, Lena. Katje loves the couple's new baby, Anneka, but when Lena shoos Katje away, she takes up residence in the mill. It takes a near-disaster and heroic rescue to restore family harmony.
To illustrate the tale, Nicola Bayley, an award-winning English illustrator famous for her cats, created a series of pastel-pencil miniatures inspired by Dutch Renaissance paintings. Katje, the Windmill Cat elicited praise from reviewers. In a review in Publishers Weekly, a contributor called the tale "an engaging story" portrayed "with warmth and imagination." Other admirers of the work include a Kirkus Reviews contributor, who described Woelfle as having a "a stately storyteller's voice," and Grace Oliff of School Library Journal, who dubbed the book a "gentle, charming tale" with "simple, graceful prose [that] is a pleasure to read aloud."
Katje, the Windmill Cat has been translated into five languages, including Chinese and Japanese. Woelfle is pleased that children in Asia get glimpses of old-fashioned windmills via Bayley's illustrations. Katje, the Windmill Cat has returned home, in Dutch, to the Netherlands. Woelfle added, "It tickles me that the Dutch edition changes Katje's name (which means ‘Kitty’) to Bontje (‘soft and furry’)."
Woelfle's next book, Animal Families, Animal Friends, which includes watercolor illustrations by Robert Hynes, takes a look at three relationships in the animal kingdom: parent-and-child, family group or pack behaviors, and larger animal communities. In her review of Animal Families, Animal Friends for School Library Journal, critic Heather Ver Voort felt that even though Woelfle's writing style in this book is "rather dry," it will still "hold the interest of children who are studying animal habitats."
Woelfle followed up 2005's Animal Families, Animal Friends with Jeannette Rankin: A Political Pioneer. Published in 2006, this book explores the life of Janet Rankin (1880-1973)—a crusader for peace, social justice, and woman's suffrage—who in 1916 became the first congresswoman in history, before women even had the right to vote. A lifelong pacifist, Rankin lost her seat in Congress twice for voting against both World War I and II. In her later years, she also actively protested the Vietnam War. Booklist reviewer Ilene Cooper praised the book, saying that "the high standard of writing is matched by the book's format … the volume offers interesting things to look at on every page." A Kirkus Reviews contributor called Jeannette Rankin "a welcome addition to the short list of titles for young readers about this important figure."
A few of her family stories also found a home in the "Stories from Where We Live" series of anthologies published by Milkweed Editions, which combines two of Woelfle's passions—literature and the environment. Each volume of the series focuses on one North American bio-region and contains stories, essays, and poems that incorporate the landscape, flora, and fauna into the heart of the piece. Woelfle told CA: "I was pleased to coauthor one essay, ‘Fire in the Chaparral!,’ with my daughter Cleo, who has begun her publishing career far earlier than her mother."
Since her children have grown up and left home, Woelfle has become an inveterate traveler, visiting many continents and cultures. Woelfle told CA: "My travel inevitably informs my writing. My life has been deeply enriched by other cultures, and I want to pass that on. Our world is connected by technology today, and I hope we can deepen that connection to include tolerance and appreciation of each other and the natural environment. That is why I write stories."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklinks, November, 2006, Barbara Chatton, review of The Wind at Work: An Activity Guide to Windmills, p. 62.
Booklist, September 1, 1997, Susan Dove Lempke, review of The Wind at Work, p. 121; February 1, 2000, Ellen Mandel, review of Katje, the Windmill Cat, p. 940; February 15, 2007, Ilene Cooper, review of Jeannette Rankin: A Political Pioneer, p. 91.
Children's Digest, September, 2000, review of The Wind at Work, p. 26.
Kirkus Reviews, August 15, 2001, review of Katje, the Windmill Cat, p. 1223; February 15, 2007, review of Jeannette Rankin.
Library Media Connection, October, 2005, Barbara B. Feehrer, review of Animal Families, Animal Friends, p. 71.
Publishers Weekly, September 10, 2001, review of Katje, the Windmill Cat, p. 92.
School Librarian, winter, 2001, review of Katje, the Windmill Cat.
School Library Journal, October, 1997, Steven Engelfried, review of The Wind at Work, p. 158; November, 2001, Grace Oliff, review of Katje, the Windmill Cat, p. 139; May, 2005, Heather Ver Voort, review of Animal Families, Animal Friends, p. 116.
Times Educational Supplement, May 10, 2002, review of Katje, the Windmill Cat, p. 11.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), September 30, 2001, review of Katje, the Windmill Cat, p. 4.
Gretchen Woelfle Home Page,http://www.gretchenwoelfle.com (November 14, 2007).