Daughter of Paul H. and Elsie de Sola Fox; married Richard Sigerson (divorced); Martin Greenberg, 1962
A "traveling child," Paula Fox seldom lived any place longer than a year or two and seldom saw either of her parents. Following high school, she worked at a variety of jobs before she married, had two sons, then obtained a divorce. After attending Columbia University, Fox taught elementary school for several years. She began to write seriously after her second marriage.
Fox has written television scripts, short stories, and novels, but she is known chiefly for her children's books. She has received a Guggenheim Fellowship (1972), an award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters (1972), and the Hans Christian Andersen Award in recognition of her entire body of writing (1978).
For readers under ten, Fox pictures a stable society administered by solicitous adults who lavish restrictive attention on imaginative and venturesome little boys. These stories are spiced with dry humor, witty but realistic dialogue, and fanciful but improbable characters or episodes. In Maurice's Room (1966), the parents of a dedicated junk collector finally move to the country after their son's possessions overcrowd his bedroom in their city apartment. When Lewis's parents (A Likely Place, 1967) take a trip to Chicago, he gains greater freedom and acquires self-confidence by helping an elderly Spanish shoemaker communicate with his overly protective son-in-law.
For older juvenile readers, Fox explores the terror and loneliness of preadolescent youths who must prove themselves in the mysterious world outside the home. In How Many Miles to Babylon (1967), The Stone-Faced Boy (1968), Portrait of Ivan (1969), Blowfish Live in the Sea (1972), and The Slave Dancer (1973), a journey of adventure and self-discovery tests ingenuity, courage, comprehension, or endurance and culminates in personal growth as well as increased understanding of, or achievement in, the adult world. Skillful blending of the actual and the symbolic entices the reflective reader to delve beneath the surface story and ponder such perennial puzzles as illusion and reality or the enigma of human behavior. These are Fox's best books.
The Slave Dancer, Fox's only historical novel, won the Newbery Medal in 1974. Thirteen-year-old Jessie is kidnapped, taken aboard a slave ship, and forced to play the fife while the slaves dance for exercise. The revolting picture of the brutality of the seamen and the inhumanity of the slave trade is softened slightly by Jessie's compassion for the captives.
In her adult novels, Fox portrays lonely, confused, rootless New Yorkers ensnared in the misery of unfulfilling work, unrewarding relationships, and unsatisfying marriages. She offers astute, sensitive observation, but only tentative resolution and cheerless conclusion. She has been praised for her original talent, lucid style, technical skill, incisive wit, and penetrating analysis of character.
Since 1980 Fox has produced six books for young readers and two novels for adults. Reviewers and critics have continued to praise her ability to depict the inner life of young protagonists, to create realistic characters and authentic settings, and to write clear, graceful prose. Fox excels in portraying the emotions and perceptions of children and adolescents as they grow in understanding themselves, their peers, and the adults around them. In A Servant's Tale (1984), Fox skillfully records the childhood experiences and relationships of Luisa de la Cueva while evoking the locale and lore of the West Indies. The adult Luisa, however, is less interesting and less believable than the child.
In her juvenile fiction, Fox never stints on complexity nor avoids difficult, even tragic, themes. The novels of this period explore guilt, grief, divorce, alcoholism, and death. In each book, the protagonist confronts a complicated individual who exhibits attractive qualities but who also causes another discomfort, unhappiness, humiliation, injury, or loss. Each carefully crafted plot leads to a resolution in which the young person comes to terms with this individual in a manner that will foster future growth and happiness.
The "difficult" person in A Place Apart (1980) is a talented, arrogant, and wealthy high school student who befriends newcomers—and attempts to control their lives. Victoria Finch escapes his manipulation, but another student, who tries to regain his self-respect by driving up a dangerous, snow-covered mountain road, is seriously injured. In One-Eyed Cat (1984), eleven-year-old Ned believes he has injured a wildcat when he disobeyed his father and fired his new air rifle. Fox examines how Ned's burdened conscience affects his relations with his parents, his friends, an elderly neighbor, and the cat. On one level, the discordant character in the novel is the housekeeper, but the tale also demonstrates that a genuinely good person (Ned's father, Reverend Wallis) can cause discomfort for those who exhibit less patience and forbearance.
When fifteen-year-old Catherine Ames (The Moonlight Man, 1986) spends a month in Nova Scotia with her charming but irresponsible alcoholic father, she gains insight into her parents' divorce and realizes she cannot change her father's behavior. While the Corey family (Lily and the Lost Boy, 1987) is living on a Greek island, twelve-year-old Lily feels left out when her older brother becomes friends with Jack, a rootless American youth whose father dances superbly but drinks too much. While riding his bicycle near the edge of a cliff, the reckless Jack causes the death of a Greek child. Despite her dislike for Jack, Lily overcomes her fear and goes out alone at night to befriend him. Obsessed with old family jealousies, ten-year-old Emma's acid-tongued Aunt Bea (The Village by the Sea, 1988) has an unkind word for everyone. At the climax of the novel, the elderly woman destroys the miniature village Emma and her friend have painstakingly built from debris found on the beach. Emma's uncle restrains her from immediate retaliation, and she later gains greater understanding of her unhappy aunt.
Considered one of America's outstanding writers for young readers, Fox continued to receive numerous literary awards, including an American Book Award for A Place Apart and Newbery Honor awards in 1985 and 1989. Her sensitive treatment of tough subjects in juvenile literature continues in The Eagle Kite (1995), where she tackles a tremendously weighty subject for individuals of any age—AIDS. Liam's father is dying of AIDS; he is told by his family this is a result of a recent blood transfusion, but the educational system's efforts at sex education have made it impossible for Liam to accept this explanation. Forced to recall an incident he has tried his best to forget—seeing his father embracing a young man on a beach several years before—he finds his shame and anger at his family's well-intentioned lies difficult to live with. His father withdraws to a cabin by the sea where Liam is able to spend time alone with him and where both their wounds can begin to heal.
Western Wind (1993) presents the story of Elizabeth, who has been sent away for the summer to stay with her aging grandmother, an artist living on a secluded island off the Maine coast. Elizabeth's family has recently had a new addition—a baby boy who she is certain has become more important to her parents than she, causing her banishment for the summer. The island, itself a character in this story, is brooding, stark, and inhabited only by Elizabeth's grandmother and one other family, the Herkimers, who have an eccentric, overprotected son named Aaron. During her month on the island, Elizabeth learns a good deal about friendship, relationships in general, and the real reason for her trip—to spend some final time with her grandmother, who is quite ill.
Radiance Descending (1997) involves a particularly painful situation for children and an often popular subject of children's literature—the mentally disabled sibling. Paul Coleman's younger brother Jacob has Down's syndrome. Paul attempts to ignore him, becomes an overachiever in class, and refuses to discuss his "retard" brother with his friends. When he is given responsibility for taking Jacob to the doctor for weekly allergy shots, he is forced to work within Jacob's limitations and finds his brother has a wonderful circle of caring friends. Paul learns compassion, begins to notice the trials of those around him, and discovers that he is not alone in his struggle to blend Jacob into his life.
Poor George (1966). Dear Prosper (1967). Hungry Fred (1969). The King's Falcon (1969). Desperate Characters (1970). Good Ethan (1973). The Western Coast (1973). The Widow's Children (1976). The Little Swineherd and Other Tales (1978). Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon (1984). The God of Nightmares (1990). Monkey Island (1991). Azmat and His Brothers: Three Italian Tales Remembered (1993).
Arbuthnot, M. H., and Z. Sutherland, Children and Books (1972). Kingman, L., ed., Newbery and Caldecott Medal Books, 1966-1975 (1975). Short Shorts: An Anthology of the Shortest Stories (1983). Townsend, J. R., A Sounding of Storytellers (1979).
CLR (1976). CA (1978). CANR (1987). CLC (1974, 1978). Dictionary of American Children's Fiction, 1960-1984 (1986). DLB (1986). Fourth Book of Junior Authors and Illustrators (1978). SATA (1979, 1990). Values in Selected Children's Books of Fiction and Fantasy (1987).
Alan Review (Winter 1987). Booklist (1 Feb. 1995, 1 Sept. 1997). Good Conversation! A Talk with Paula Fox (audiovisual, 1992). Horn Book (April 1984, Mar.-Apr. 1994). Interracial Books for Children (1974). NYRB (27 June 1985). NYTBR (8 Oct. 1972, 20 Jan. 1974, 9 Nov. 1980, 11 Nov. 1984, 18 Nov. 1984, 5 Feb. 1989, 8 July 1990, 10 Nov. 1991). Paula Fox (recording, 1993). Paula Fox (audiovisual, 1987). Paula Fox Interview with Kay Bonetti (recording, 1986). PW (6 Apr. 1990, 23 Aug. 1993, 20 Feb. 1995, 21 July 1997). TLS (21 Feb. 1986, 15 Jan. 1988).
UPDATED BY REBECCA C. CONDIT