Wood, June Rae 1946–
Wood, June Rae 1946–
Born September 4, 1946, in Sedalia, MO; daughter of Kenneth (a cutter and grinder) and Evelyn (a homemaker) Sattler; stepdaughter of Olen Haggerman (a railroad worker); married William A. Wood (a heavy equipment mechanic), December 2, 1966; children: Samantha. Ethnicity: "Caucasian." Education: Attended Central Missouri State College (now University), 1964-66. Politics: Republican. Religion: Protestant. Hobbies and other interests: Quilting, reading.
Whiteman Air Force Base, Whiteman, MO, civilian clerk typist, 1967-70; Sedalia Democrat, Sedalia, MO, staff writer for "Living Today," 1988-97.
Sedalia Writers' Group.
Mark Twain Award and William Allen White Award, both 1995, both for The Man Who Loved Clowns; Friends of American Writers Award for juvenile fiction, for A Share of Freedom; Edgar Wolfe Literary Award, Friends of the Library (Kansas City, KS); Wood's books have been chosen for use in various school and community projects.
The Man Who Loved Clowns, Putnam (New York, NY), 1992.
A Share of Freedom, Putnam (New York, NY), 1994.
When Pigs Fly, Putnam (New York, NY), 1995.
Turtle on a Fence Post, Putnam (New York, NY), 1997.
About Face, Putnam (New York, NY), 1999.
Contributor of articles and short stories to Family Circle, Reader's Digest, Home Life, Lookout, New Ways, and School and Community.
"My brother Richard was born [in 1948] with Down's syndrome and a heart defect," author June Rae Wood wrote in the Sedalia Democrat in 1995. "The doctor said he wouldn't live, and even if he did, he would never walk or talk. He advised my parents to send Richard to die in an institution, rather than take him home and let the family get attached to him." Wood, the second of what would eventually be eight children, was only two years old when her parents brought Richard, their third child, home from the hospital. Although her parents gave all their children special attention, Richard, whom Wood's mother called her little "Dickey-bird," was doted on and protected by all the family members. This was not just because he was handicapped, but also because Richard was very special to them all. He would eventually become the subject of Wood's award-winning first book, The Man Who Loved Clowns. "Richard was a comical little guy," Wood once said in an interview with Kevin Hile for Authors and Artists for Young Adults, "friendly with everybody, even total strangers. He was, in fact, exactly like ‘Punky’ in the book. He really did pour out the shampoo, tell people they were fat, and fling horn bones behind the TV. He learned to walk at age four, and then he would run away from home—not to be naughty, just to explore. Sometimes he'd be gone when we woke up, and we'd find him throwing dirt clods at the neighbor's chickens, just to hear them squawk. These running-away incidents, which he eventually outgrew, were the only times he was ever alone because our family was very protective of him. If we took him somewhere and people made fun, we would leave as soon as possible."
Richard died in 1985, at the age of thirty-six, when his defective heart gave out. The loss was a painful one for the entire family, but it was his sister who would end up writing about it. At the time, Wood had been writing for three years, but she had had no success publishing her works. Before that, she had not been very interested in writing, although she had always loved to read. "As a child, I enjoyed reading the life stories of Marie Curie, Thomas Edison, George Washington Carver, and many others who made great accomplishments," she commented to Hile. "I also loved Trixie Belden mysteries and the Laura Ingalls Wilder stories…. I remember crying my eyes out at about age twelve when I read Dale Evans's Angel Unaware. It was a true story about the life—and death—of a handicapped child, and unlike anything I'd ever read before. I think it touched me greatly because my own little brother had Down's syndrome."
With so many children to take care of, Wood's mother and stepfather struggled to make ends meet. (Her biological father and mother divorced when Wood was still an infant, and she was raised by her mother and stepfather, Evelyn and Olen Haggerman.) Wood described her parents: "Mom wore her straight, brown hair in a ponytail, and her usual attire was a simple housedress. She never wore makeup, and she never spent time on herself. Her ‘recreation’ was riding in the pickup with Dad and all of us kids to the ice cream store. Chores for her included cooking and cleaning, doing laundry with a wringer washer, caring for a huge garden, and canning hundreds of quarts of food. She was handy with a hammer, and she wasn't afraid to install a window or knock out a wall on her own. She was very creative, and could make prize-winning Halloween costumes out of old curtains, old sheets, old clothes, and a package or two of fabric dye. I used to think she never slept.
"Dad was a small man in size (about five feet, six inches) but big in my eyes. Since he worked for the railroad, his skin was brown and leathery from constant exposure to the weather, and he had a permanent squint. His summer attire was a white T-shirt and overalls, plus a railroad cap or a baseball cap to protect his balding head. In the wintertime, he couldn't wear enough clothes to keep warm. After patrolling track all day in an open motor car, he'd come home nearly frozen, his eyebrows frosted with ice. (Thus the scene in Turtle on a Fence Post, when Tree tells Delrita why his family doesn't have enough chairs.) Our family was close-knit and loving and was, in fact, my pattern for the Shackleford family in The Man Who Loved Clowns."
While Wood and her brothers and sisters went to school, Richard stayed at home. In the 1950s there were no schools that could accommodate his special needs (although by the time he was seventeen, a school for the handicapped had opened that he attended for four years). At home, there was not much for him to do except watch television, play in the yard, and help watch over the baby of the family—sister Janie, who was born when he was nine. "Years later, Richard also kept an eye on his little nieces and nephews, just as he had with Janie. Thus the scene on page fourteen of The Man Who Loved Clowns," Wood explained.
Wood recalled being a good student who graduated second out of a high school class of seventy-four in 1964. "I loved school from first grade on up, and I was very competitive. My first-quarter grade in typing class was an S-minus (same as a B-minus), and I was horrified. I bought myself a portable, manual typewriter so I could practice at home and build up speed. Since I worked evenings after school as a waitress, I started my homework about 8:30 p.m. and did my typing after that. I would type in the kitchen until Dad came thundering down the stairs because my peck-peck-pecking was keeping him awake. The payoff was that I finished the year as the fastest typist in the class." Because of her love of reading, English class was one of her strong subjects. "English came easy for me, but I didn't particularly like writing. I wrote only what was required of me to make a good grade. In high school, I excelled in business subjects: typing, shorthand, accounting, office practice. I thought I would become a business education teacher. It never crossed my mind that I would someday be a writer. I was married and had a twelve-year-old daughter before the writing bug bit me."
While she was still attending business education classes at Central Missouri State College, the future author had a blind date with William A. Wood, an airman stationed at Whiteman Air Force Base. They quickly fell in love and married in 1966. The new Mrs. Wood left school and found work as a clerk-typist at the air force base. Four years later their daughter, Samantha, was born. Wood left her job to raise Samantha, and the family eventually moved to a rural home near Windsor, Missouri. Although Wood was happy to be a mother, she sometimes felt lonely spending all her time at home, so she decided to try her hand at writing. She read how-to books on writing and worked on short stories—for which she has three years' worth of rejection letters—and an unpublished novel called "A Summer's Worth of Trouble." This first book, the author said during the interview with Hile, "is a story about a girl growing up in a large family in a small town in the 1950s. Although it's fiction, a lot of it is based on my life. One little brother, for instance, is slow about learning to walk. His nickname is ‘Scooter’ because he gets around by scooting on his rump, just like Richard did in real life. That book was my ‘practice set.’ With all those rewrites, I was learning more and more about character, dialogue, and plot—and each new version was better than the last. However, I put that manuscript aside to write The Man Who Loved Clowns, and it's been in the drawer ever since. I do plan to work on it again someday."
But before The Man Who Loved Clowns, Wood wrote an article for the magazine Family Circle that was her first step toward success. Published in the December 3, 1985, issue, a few months after Richard's death, the article was titled "The Boy Who Taught Love" and was about her experiences with her brother. Wood wrote how having Richard in the family was not a burden but a blessing. "God sent him not to be a learner, but a teacher," she noted in the article. "And without knowing it, he was the best teacher our family could have had. He taught us understanding and acceptance and compassion." The reading audience was deeply moved. "People all over the U.S. sent letters," Wood commented to Hile, "telling me how touched they'd been by Richard's life. However, the letters were always from grownups, and one day it occurred to me that I should try writing a story about Richard that would appeal to kids. After all, it was kids who'd been afraid of him or cruel to him, and they needed to know what he was really like. That's when I began working on The Man Who Loved Clowns."
By the time she started writing the book, Wood was working part time as a staff writer for the Sedalia Democrat in Sedalia, Missouri. After many hard months of writing, she submitted the manuscript to Putnam in New York City; the publisher quickly accepted the book for publication with only minor changes. One of these was to make the story's main character, Delrita, thirteen instead of twelve years old. "My editor, Refna Wilkin, said Delrita sounded thirteen and asked me to change her age in the story," Wood recalled. "Refna also said I had a ‘natural thirteen-year-old voice.’ Don't ask me how that came to be. I just write the way I write." The Man Who Loved Clowns is a fictionalization of the author's personal experiences. Instead of giving Delrita a younger brother with Down's syndrome, Wood gives her an uncle with Down's—thirty-five-year-old "Punky." Delrita Jensen adores Uncle Punky, who is fascinated by clowns and crayons and always wears a cowboy hat—but at the same time she is embarrassed by him. She feels uncomfortable when visitors come to their house or when the family goes to church. But the novel is a coming-of-age tale, too, and not just about the difficulties of having a family member with Down's. This is Delrita's story; it deals with such issues as boyfriends, peer pressure, self-esteem, and, finally, death, as Delrita has to face her parents' tragic demise in a car accident. Punky's love and support help Delrita work through her grief, and then in a tragic twist, Punky dies, too, when his ailing heart gives out.
Critics roundly praised The Man Who Loved Clowns for its strong characterization and the way Wood realistically portrays difficult problems. Judith E. Landrum, writing in the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, noted how Wood's story challenges preconceptions of what handicapped people are really like, as well as telling the tough truth that "doing ‘the right thing’ does not always protect people from causing or receiving pain." A Publishers Weekly reviewer concluded that in this debut novel, "Wood displays a prodigious writing and storytelling talent."
"Writing The Man Who Loved Clowns was therapy for me," Wood said during the interview with Hile. "It helped me work through my grief after the death of my brother, and the story came from my heart. Society deals with ‘differences’ much better today than it did when I was growing up, but we still have work to do. For instance, a lot of kids think they can ‘catch’ Down's syndrome and are afraid to get close to someone who has it. Since Clowns was published, I've made a lot of school visits, and I've heard about many methods teachers use to help promote understanding. Here are a few suggestions I'd like to pass along: 1) Invite disabled people into the classroom to talk about their specific challenges—blindness, deafness, Down's syndrome, etc. 2) Provide props such as wheelchairs, crutches, and blindfolds for the students to use while performing simple tasks. Then have them write about the difficulties they experienced. 3) For smaller groups, plan a trip to a sheltered workshop."
After The Man Who Loved Clowns, Wood continued to write novels for young adults about characters who face serious challenges in their families. A Share of Freedom is about another thirteen-year-old, Freedom, whose mother is an alcoholic. Because of her mother's problem, Freedom has to take care of her half-brother, Jackie. Freedom and Jackie run away after their mother is sent away for rehabilitation, but they quickly learn that they can't make it on their own and are put in a foster home. Freedom doesn't like her foster father, Martin Quincy, who is always criticizing people. The startling truth that Freedom discovers is that Martin is actually her biological father. Critics noted that A Share of Freedom offers many insights into family relationships. One of the main points in the novel, Wood said during the interview with Hile, was that people can love each other despite their failings: "I wanted Freedom to realize that her mother did love her, in spite of the drinking." Although some reviewers thought that Martin's being Freedom's father was a bit too coincidental, many praised the novel as another strong work by the author. Voice of Youth Advocates contributor Bunni Union called it a "poignant story," adding that the "language reads easily and, at times, almost poetically." Booklist contributor Chris Sherman said that "teens will sympathize with Freedom, cheer her determination and strength, and enjoy the promising, neatly resolved ending."
In 1995, Wood wrote another novel that included a character with Down's syndrome, When Pigs Fly. In this story, thirteen-year-old Buddy Richter has many problems in her life. Her father has lost his job, which has forced them to move into a rundown house in the country, away from her best friend, Jiniwin; and Buddy worries about watching over her younger sister, Reenie, who has Down's. Buddy's friends also have serious troubles. Jiniwin's parents have divorced, and she has started drinking. Another friend, Dallas, has been abandoned by his father. Thus, Buddy's sister's disability is only one of many issues she must face. Although Judy Sasges wrote in Voice of Youth Advocates that When Pigs Fly is at times too "didactic" about themes such as how money doesn't buy happiness, a Publishers Weekly reviewer felt that the "novel treats family conflicts and social concerns with the same sensitivity of Wood's previous titles." Debbie Carton, writing in Booklist, also praised the "well developed and believable" characters.
Readers are reacquainted with Delrita Jensen from The Man Who Loved Clowns in Wood's 1997 novel, Turtle on a Fence Post. After her parents' deaths, Delrita and Punky had moved in with her Aunt Queenie and Uncle Bert. After Punky's death, Delrita becomes an emotional wreck, who is not ready to love other people, and she feels uncomfortable and unwanted in her new home. Her aunt, she expects, sees her as a burden on the family. Then Queenie's crabby father, Orvis, moves in. Delrita finds Orvis, who is a World War II veteran, very intimidating, and his presence makes the family situation worse. The one bright point in her life is the boy she has a crush on, Tree Shackleford, but even that seems like it will be ruined when another girl starts flirting with Tree. Delrita's life begins to turn around from two unexpected sources: a "teen buddy" program in which she helps Joey Marcum, who suffers from multiple birth defects because his mother had German measles while she was pregnant, and Orvis, who agrees to let her interview him for a school project. By the end of the book, Delrita has learned that she can love again and come out of her shell.
"Before I even thought about writing Turtle on a Fence Post," Wood commented to Hile, "I was assigned to write a story for the newspaper to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of D-Day. I interviewed five veterans, and the stories these men told, their quiet heroism, their tears fifty years after the fact, had a profound impact on me. Their first-person accounts of the war stoked the fire of patriotism in me. In Turtle I wanted to pay tribute to all the veterans of World War II, and that's why I created Orvis Roebuck, Aunt Queenie's father. I needed someone who could talk firsthand about the war." A Kirkus Reviews critic observed how this aspect of the book comes out: "An appreciation for those who sacrifice time, effort, money, and even their lives for others infuses this memorable tale of healing." That Wood balances issues such as these with the subject of disabilities and other themes was particularly notable to School Library Journal contributor Carol A. Edwards. She remarked appreciatively that "this engaging story is one of a very few that shows average kids interacting enjoyably with special-needs adults without that being the focus of the story."
When asked by Hile about Edwards's comment, Wood replied, "Actually, I didn't realize I had done that until I read the School Library Journal review. I suppose it was a subconscious thing. When I was growing up, it was normal for us to hide the shampoo and to find chicken bones behind the TV. Why? Because we were used to Richard and his little quirks. It was no big deal. Evidently, this was in the back of my mind when I was writing about Joey. I wanted the readers to see his quirks, yes, but not as any big deal." Wood sees her characters with disabilities simply as one more aspect of her main characters' lives. "The subplots are necessary to make a believable story," she said. "Delrita would be a flat, unlikable character if she did nothing but go to school and go home again. Who cares about that? ‘Cares’ is the key word. I do my best to make my readers care about my protagonists. I want them to feel Delrita's love for Punky, her insecurity, her grief, her anger. If they don't feel, then I have failed."
If Wood could have her books get across one message to her readers, it would be: "Happiness is not having what you want, but wanting what you have," as she commented during the interview with Hile. This is a direct quote from her 1999 novel, About Face, which features thirteen-year-old Glory Bea Goode. Glory is very shy, due to a large, red birthmark on her face. But then she meets Marvalene Zulig, whose parents work at a carnival that is in town. Marvalene is a tough girl who is bitter because she feels that her family's hard life led to her mother having a stroke and giving birth to a stillborn baby. Wood alternates viewpoints between Glory and Marvalene, showing how their friendship and emotional support help Glory gain some self-confidence and Marvalene to appreciate her life more. "Readers may not want to trade lives with either heroine," commented a Publishers Weekly critic, "but they will enjoy vicariously experiencing the warmth of their growing camaraderie." John Peters, in a review for Booklist, called About Face an "engaging ramble, well stocked with laughs, tears, spats, and reconciliations."
When getting an idea for a new book, Wood draws her stories "from real life—my own and other people's," as she said in the interview with Hile. "If I hear a good story, I make a note of it. If I see an interesting ‘character’ on the street, I make a note of that, too. I clip newspaper articles that catch my attention. Also, the articles I wrote for the Democrat have proved to be a valuable resource. A case in point: I once wrote a story for the paper about a lady who cooked on a riverboat. In my most recent book, About Face, the character Pansy used to cook on a riverboat—and because I had the newspaper story to fall back on, her dialogue is authentic." After Wood has a story in mind, she creates a short outline. "For each of my books, I've written about a three-page outline. Each outline is basically like a letter to myself. It tells me who the characters are, what problems they will have, and how they will resolve them. The details come later with the actual writing, but I have to know how a story will end before I start."
Wood has no immediate plans to write novels for audiences other than young adult readers. "I enjoy writing for kids," she said, "but at the same time, it's an awesome responsibility. The words I write will be absorbed by young, impressionable minds, and that's why I work by a certain standard: I never write anything I'd be ashamed for my mom or my daughter to read. No foul language, no sex, and no violence just for the sake of entertainment." Not only do Wood's novels deliver their messages of the importance of appreciating what you have—love, friends, self-respect—but they serve as examples of the type of entertainment she strongly believes children and young adults need more of these days. As she pointed out in an article for the Sedalia Democrat, "Children are great imitators. We adults must provide them with appropriate role models and wholesome books to read and movies to watch." Evidence of Wood's effect on her young readers can be seen in the letters she has received. One student wrote, "My favorite novels were Jurassic Park and Mortal Kombat until [we] read The Man Who Loved Clowns"; and another fan of Wood's first novel said, "I like this book because it inspired me. I had this feeling it was like burning in my fingers. I just wanted to read."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, September 1, 1994, Chris Sherman, review of A Share of Freedom, p. 36; December 1, 1995, Debbie Carton, review of When Pigs Fly, p. 638; November 15, 1997, Debbie Carton, review of Turtle on a Fence Post, p. 564; October 15, 1999, John Peters, review of About Face, p. 447.
Family Circle, December 3, 1985, June Rae Wood, "The Boy Who Taught Love," p. 24.
Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, December, 1998, Judith E. Landrum, review of The Man Who Loved Clowns, p. 289.
Kirkus Reviews, September 1, 1997, review of Turtle on a Fence Post, p. 1396.
Publishers Weekly, November 9, 1992, review of The Man Who Loved Clowns, p. 86; September 26, 1994, review of A Share of Freedom, p. 71; July 24, 1995, review of When Pigs Fly, p. 65; October 11, 1999, review of About Face, p. 77.
School Library Journal, September, 1997, Carol A. Edwards, review of Turtle on a Fence Post, pp. 227-228.
Sedalia Democrat, October 19, 1993, June Rae Wood, "Happiness Is ‘Still a Good Book’ for This Local Author," p. 4; August 4, 1994, June Rae Wood, "Some Things Are Better Left to the Imagination"; January 5, 1995, June Rae Wood, "Special Child Had Special Purpose"; May 4, 1995, June Rae Wood, "Brother Lives in Writer's Words, Kids' Thoughts."
Versailles Leader-Statesman (Versailles, MO), April 23, 1987, June Rae Wood, "To a Different Drummer," p. 5B.
Voice of Youth Advocates, April, 1995, Bunni Union, review of A Share of Freedom, p. 30; December, 1995, Judy Sasges, review of When Pigs Fly, pp. 311-312.
Missouri Writes for Kids! Web site: June Rae Wood's Home Page, http://mowrites4kids.drury.edu/author/wood (February 21, 2008).
Wood, June Rae, in an interview with Kevin Hile for Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Gale (Detroit, MI), conducted September 11, 2000.