Born 25 February 1942, Boston, Massachusetts
Daughter of Frederick C. and Elise Keeney Irving; married Walter Voigt, 1974; children: Jessica, Peter
A graduate of Smith College (1963), Cynthia Voigt places independent, resilient, and intelligent young women at the center of all but two of her novels. She made her debut in the children's literature field in 1981 with Homecoming, the first of her Tillerman stories, which earned immediate critical applause.
The seven novels in the Tillerman family saga form the core of Voigt's substantial contributions to realistic young adult literature. Abandoned by their mother in a shopping mall parking lot, thirteen-year-old Dicey leads her siblings, intelligent James, reliable Sammie, and gifted Maybeth, on a long search for family. Homecoming documents their arduous journey from Massachusetts to their grandmother's house in Maryland. Dicey's Song (1982), winner of the Newbery Medal, explores their new family constellation. Sons from Afar (1987) depicts James and Sammie's attempts to find their father, while Seventeen Against the Dealer (1989) concludes the cycle with Dicey's encounter with her drifter father as she achieves a hard-earned focus on the future.
The three satellite novels, A Solitary Blue (1983), The Runner (1985), and Come a Stranger (1986), maintain the Chesapeake Bay setting integral to the Tillerman books while each tells the story of a relative or friend connected to the family. The Runner completes an intricate portrayal of their grandmother before the arrival of Dicey and her siblings. A Solitary Blue develops the character of Jeff Greene, Dicey's first friend in Crisfield, who becomes her steadfast boyfriend. Come a Stranger concentrates on Dicey's schoolmate, Mina Smiths, who feels the burn of racial prejudice when she is excluded from an all-white dance camp.
As she does with all of her characters, Voigt imbues each Tillerman with the fiber of individuality and the substance of family. Hard physical work, belief in positive change, and sheer will drive these determined characters. Love, generosity, and mutual respect temper them and deepen their emotional ties. Similar qualities within interdependent relationships characterize The Vandemark Mummy (1991) in which an intelligent, tenacious brother and sister team up to defeat a villain and solve a mystery in a small college town. David and Jonathan (1992) explores the ties of friendship as a Holocaust survivor disrupts a New England family.
Essential human bonds infuse not only Voigt's realistic novels but also those drawing on fantasy and myth. A tense gothic novel, The Callender Papers (1983), unearths dark family secrets as Jean Wainwright discovers her inner resources. Building Blocks (1984) transports Brann Connell from modern times to a recent past where he confronts his father as a boy. Jackaroo (1985) and On Fortune's Wheel (1990) share the same mythical setting of Kingdom but are separated in time by two generations. Voigt reshapes the well-known Robin Hood tale with vigor and freshness in Jackaroo, while the later book relates the escape and survival of spirited Birlie, Jackaroo's granddaughter, and her devoted companion, Orien, in a riveting adventure and love story. Orfe (1992) casts the Orpheus myth into a contemporary setting. Tree by Leaf (1988) also includes elements of the fantastic as it tells the very real story of a World War I soldier's agonizing return to his neglected family in Maine.
Since the early 1990s, Voigt has produced high caliber, unflinchingly honest young adult novels in both the realistic and fantasy genres. She has continued to garner high praise and a loyal readership. The Wings of a Falcon (1993) is her third book in the world of Kingdom. It is the story of two boys who together survive childhood on the island of a sadistic man called the Damall. The two very different heroes, one brave and self-assured, the other more reflective and likened in his resiliency to a strong bendable sapling, travel into brutal adventures together, undergoing the traditional rigors of the heroic quest. Yet Voigt's story is never stock. Rather, by dint of the author's fine prose and gift for storytelling, it is a gripping tale that becomes a reflection on the nature of heroism and identity, friendship, ethics, and love.
The action of When She Hollers (1994) takes place over the course of one day in the painfully realistic life of a seventeen-year-old girl who has been repeatedly molested by her stepfather. Voigt tells the tale unsparingly from Tish's point of view, true to her difficult and broken mental-emotional state.
Bad Girls (1996) and its sequel are funny, unrepentant stories of Mikey and Margalo, two likable bad girls with bravado and smarts. In the first book, they become friends—and allies in power—while in the fifth grade class of Mrs. Chemsky, which is where all the action takes place. It is a setting Voigt is familiar with from her years as a teacher, and this shows in the authenticity of her depiction of classroom cliques, factions, and power struggles.
Voigt writes adeptly beautiful fiction about interesting, well-realized characters in sometimes desperate situations. She writes without moralizing or shying away from the gritty and difficult realities of life. Her consistency alone would win her readers. She can be counted on to tell a "rattlin' good tale"—one enlivened by unexpected plot twists but satisfying in its honest, complete resolution. Her portrayals of trustworthy, capable adolescents can empower readers to effect meaningful change, and she shares with them her vision of a better world, strengthened by human connectedness.
Tell Me If the Lovers Are Losers (1982). Izzy Willy-Nilly (1986). Stories About Rosie (1986). Glass Mountain (1991).
Drew, B. A., The 100 Most Popular Young Adult Authors (1996). Felps, M. C., "Dicey's Story: A Contemporary Hero Following an Established Path" (thesis, 1992). Gillespie, J. T. and C. J. Naden, The Newberry Companion (1996). Henke, J. T., Children's Literature in Education (1985). Rahamut, J. C. "Family Relationships in Selected Young Adult Novels by Cynthia Voigt and Sue Ellen Bridgers" (thesis, 1995). Reid, S. W., Presenting Cynthia Voigt (1995). Sutherland, Z., Newbery and Caldecott Medal Books: 1976-1985 (1986).
CA (1982). CLR (1987). CANR (1986). CLC (1984). Helbig, A. K., and A. R. Perkins, Dictionary of American Children's Fiction (1986, 1993). SATA (1987). TCCW (1989).
Children's Literature in Education (Spring 1985). CSM (13 May 1983, 7 June 1985, 1 Nov. 1985). Horn Book (Aug. 1983). Language Arts (Dec. 1983, Dec. 1985). PW (July 1994). SLJ (Nov. 1983). WPBW (1 July 1985).
—CATHRYN M. MERCIER,
UPDATED BY JESSICA REISMAN