Born 16 November 1915, Hankow, China
Daughter of Arthur M. and Myrtle Chaney Guttery; married Michael Fritz, 1941; children: David, Andrea
Jean Fritz has been heralded for her work in several genres of children's literature, but she is best known for her lively, engaging biographies. She has won numerous prestigious awards including the Children's Book Guild Nonfiction Award for "total body of creative writing" (1978), and Boston Globe/Horn Book awards in 1984 for The Double Life of Pocahontas (1983), and in 1990 for The Great Little Madison (1990).
Fritz graduated from Wheaton College in 1937 and continued with graduate studies at Columbia University. She worked as a researcher, book reviewer, and editor while her husband served in the army during World War II. A prolific writer, Fritz began late; her first book was published when she was thirty-nine. In 1952 while working as a children's librarian at her local library in New York she discovered she not only wanted to read children's books, but write them as well. Fritz's first picture book, Fish Head (1954), had its genesis in the fantasies of escape she invented when feeling overwhelmed by the task of caring for her two young children.
Fritz expected to continue writing picture books, but simple curiosity along with her awareness of textbook inadequacies motivated her to begin writing biographies. "Textbooks are so often both inaccurate and dull, a place where dead people just stay dead," she told an interviewer. "I think of my job as bringing them back to life." Critics have praised her for her success at this task; she is noted for her ability to captivate a young audience not only by focusing on the accomplishments of historical figures, but also by revealing them as the idiosyncratic, imperfect, and often humorous people that they were. Fritz shares interesting anecdotes and reveals weaknesses while still paying meticulous attention to accuracy and maintaining the integrity of both the reader and the subject. In her biographies she is "always looking for outof-the-way details, for the little things that seem so trivial but throw such light on a personality."
Fritz's devotion to the exploration of American history stems from her childhood, which she shares in one of her most critically acclaimed novels, Homesick: My Own Story (1982). Fritz lived in China with her missionary parents until the age of eleven. Despite her loneliness and isolation during this unstable time in China, Fritz was a thoughtful, often precocious child, writing once in a letter to her grandmother, "I'm not always good. Sometimes I don't even try." She was also extremely patriotic. On one occasion, she sang the words to America while all of the other children in her British classroom sang God Save the King. Reflecting on this experience in 1988, she explained: "No one is more patriotic than the one separated from his country; no one is as eager to find roots as the person who has been uprooted." Over a long career, Fritz has translated that eagerness into biographies for children of such quintessential American figures as George Washington, Ben Franklin, Sam Houston, and Theodore Roosevelt.
121 Pudding Street (1955). Hurrah for Jonathan (1955). Growing Up (1956). The Late Spring (1957). The Cabin Faced West (1958). Champion Dog, Prince Tom (1958). The Animals of Doctor Schweitzer (1958). How to Read a Rabbit (1959). Brady (1960). Tap, Tap Lion, One, Two, Three (1962). San Francisco (1962). I, Adam (1963). Magic to Burn (1964). Early Thunder (1967). George Washington's Breakfast (1969). And Then What Happened, Paul Revere? (1973). Why Don't You Get a Horse, Sam Adams? (1974). Where was Patrick Henry on the 29th of May? (1975). Who's That Stepping on Plymouth Rock? (1975). Will You Sign Here, John Hancock? (1976). What's the Big Idea, Ben Franklin? (1976). Can't You Make Them Behave, King George? (1976). Brendan the Navigator (1979). Stonewall (1979). The Man Who Loved Books (1980). Where Do You Think You're Going, Christopher Columbus? (1980). Traitor: The Case of Benedict Arnold (1981). The Good Giants and the Bad Pukwudgies (1982). China Homecoming (1985). Make Way for Sam Houston (1986). Shh! We're Writing the Constitution (1987). China's Long March (1988). Bully for You, Teddy Roosevelt! (1991). George Washington's Mother (1992). The Great Adventure of Christopher Columbus (1992). Surprising Myself (1992). Around the World in a Hundred Years (1993). Just a Few Words, Mr. Lincoln (1993). Worlds of Childhood: The Art and Craft of Writing for Children (contributing editor, 1990). The World of 1492 (contributor, 1992).
Bradford, H., "The Move Toward Identity in the Juvenile Biographies of Jean Fritz, F. N. Monjo, and Milton Meltzer" (thesis, 1989). Hostetler, E., Jean Fritz: A Critical Biography (1982). Pillar, A. M., A Resource Guide for Jean Fritz's American History Books (1982). Senick, G. J., ed., Children's Literature Review (1988).
Boston Sunday Globe (6 Jan. 1991). A Talk with Jean Fritz (video, 1993). A Visit with Jean Fritz (video, 1987). Jean Fritz (audiocassette, 1991).
—DIANE E. KROLL