(Born Lois Duncan Steinmetz; has also written under the pseudonym Lois Kerry) American editor and author of nonfiction, juvenile fiction, juvenile poetry, young adult novels, young adult short stories, and picture books.
The following entry presents an overview of Duncan's career through 2002. For further information on her life and career, see CLR, Volume 29.
Duncan is a best-selling author of young adult novels featuring plots born of suspense and supernatural elements. In most of Duncan's books, her protagonists are usually high school students—most often young women—who find themselves suddenly confronted with a sinister threat to their "normal" existence. Though her portrayals of average suburban high-school students and their encounters with the sociopathic or the paranormal have sometimes been faulted for various thematic elements, her work has matured along with the readership she began writing for in the 1950s. Best known for her novels, Duncan has also authored several picture books and works of mature fiction and nonfiction, as well as editing a series of thematically linked collections of short stories by prominent young adult writers. She has received numerous awards and accolades, including several American Library Association citations for Best Book for Young Adults, and several of her works have inspired film adaptations, perhaps most notably, her 1973 thriller I Know What You Did Last Summer.
Duncan, the oldest child of magazine photographers Joseph and Lois Steinmetz, was born April 28, 1934, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, though she spent much of her childhood in Sarasota, Florida. Raised in a creative household, Duncan began her writing career at a young age, submitting short stories to various publications at age ten, with her first work seeing print in the magazine Calling All Girls when she was thirteen. She became a regular contributor to several magazines throughout her teens, particularly Seventeen, winning their short story contest three times. Upon graduating high school, Duncan enrolled at Duke University, though she left the school after one year, finding the collegiate atmosphere too rigid and confining. Shortly after leaving Duke, she married a soldier in the United States Air Force, who later left the service to attend law school. During her husband's frequent long absences due to his job, Duncan began writing more frequently and resumed submitting stories to journals and magazines. In 1958, one of her entries—a story of teenaged love—won the Dodd, Mead, and Company's Seventeenth Summer Literary Contest. Coming with a prize of one thousand dollars and a contract to publish the work, Duncan was able to release her first book, Debutante Hill (1958), at the age of twenty-four. After her marriage ended in 1962, Duncan accepted a position at the University of New Mexico's journalism school, the same school where she would eventually gain her B.A. in 1977. Now the single mother of three children, Duncan continued to submit various articles and stories to publications, primarily to women's magazines such as Good Housekeeping, Ladies Home Journal, McCall's, and Redbook. In 1965 she married electrical engineer Donald Arquette, with whom she had two children. Recommitting herself to writing full-time, Duncan began writing more young adult fiction, publishing her novel Ransom in 1968. In 1989 Duncan published the young adult novel Don't Look Behind You, in which a young girl—modelled after Duncan's own daughter Kaitlyn—is chased by a hitman. In a tragic turn, only weeks after the novel was released, Kaitlyn was found murdered in a similar fashion, though her killer was never identified. There were so many strange coincidences between the text of Don't Look Behind You and her daughter's death that Duncan became increasingly interested in psychic phenomenon. In 1992 Duncan published a nonfiction account of her own investigation into Kaitlyn's death titled Who Killed My Daughter?: The True Story of a Mother's Search for Her Daughter's Murderer. That same year, Duncan received the Margaret A. Edwards Award, presented by the School Library Journal and the Young Adult Library Services Association, which honors living authors for their distinguished bodies of adolescent literature.
Duncan's first major published work as an adult was Debutante Hill, a teenage love story, though she soon distanced herself from such fare by releasing her first suspense novel, a tale of counter-espionage titled Game of Danger (1962). While this marked Duncan's first foray into the suspense-thriller genre, her 1968 young adult novel Ransom stands as the template for many of her subsequent works, featuring a plot surrounding five teenagers who are kidnapped and held for ransom, all strikingly different from each other, all differently equipped to face their common, difficult challenge. Following Ransom, Duncan continued to publish young adult suspense novels in a similar vein, such as I Know What You Did Last Summer, Down a Dark Hall (1974), and Summer of Fear (1976). However, unlike many thriller authors, Duncan frequently employs unusual and supernatural elements in her texts. Summer of Fear features a young witch who charms herself into an unsuspecting family, while Down a Dark Hall involves a girls' boarding school whose students are endangered by the malevolent ghosts of dead artists and writers. In a similar fashion, Stranger with My Face (1981) details a young girl's struggle to avoid being possessed by her twin sister, who uses astral projection to take over others' bodies. However, two of Duncan best known young adult novels rely more on the various emotional and social pressures of the high school environment, rather than supernatural plot devices, to create their suspense. Themes of personal responsibility, peer pressure, and social ethics found ample ground in Killing Mr. Griffin (1978), a story about a group of high school students who loathe their strict English teacher. Complaining of too much homework, three students—athletic Jeff, senior-class president David, and spoiled cheerleader Betsy—willingly go along with their enigmatic friend Mark's idea to teach Mr. Griffin a lesson of their own. To carry out Mark's plan, they enlist a solid student, Susan, eager to hang out with this popular crowd. They kidnap their teacher and tie him to a tree in the woods overnight, hoping to intimidate him into giving less homework. In the morning, they return to find Griffin dead; he suffered from chronic heart trouble and did not have his medication with him, forcing the students to race desperately to cover up their involvement. Duncan's next work, Daughters of Eve (1979), follows an exclusive service club for girls at a small-town Michigan high school. Their advisor is a new teacher with feminist beliefs, Irene Stark, but over the course of the book, she emerges as a bitter, unbalanced woman. Initially, her efforts to educate the girls seem positive—for example, she tries to encourage them to become more assertive—but it becomes apparent that she is coercing the naive students into disobeying their families and taking vicious revenge upon the opposite sex. A student with ESP realizes that something is amiss, but not before an aggressive boy and an abusive father meet with harm.
Duncan continued to write suspense-filled young adult novels during the 1980s. In The Third Eye (1984), teenaged Karen realizes that she has the gift of foresight and immediately finds herself a social outcast when her powers help solve a local mystery. But Karen is then plagued by chilling visions, discovering that a local couple is kidnapping infants and selling them to childless couples. The plot of Duncan's next title, Locked in Time (1985), explored another facet of the supernatural. Nore, the heroine of this 1985 novel, visits her father's new wife and her children in Louisiana for the summer, but soon realizes that her new relatives are seemingly immortal, never aging and protecting a sinister secret. The danger of the unknown sociopath returns as a theme in Duncan's next work, The Twisted Window, published in 1987. Tracy Lloyd is lonely, left by her father with relatives after her mother dies. She soon meets Brad Johnson, and the young man asks for her help in rescuing his infant sister, who has been allegedly kidnapped by a stepparent. Duncan's 1989 young adult novel Don't Look Behind You is now perhaps best known for the eerie parallels between its plot and the real-life details of the murder of Duncan's daughter, Kaitlyn. Don't Look Behind You, published just a month before Duncan's daughter was killed, centers around the threats encountered by a teenage girl, April, who is in a federal witness protection program after her family uncovers a ring of drug dealers and must flee for fear of retribution. In one scene, April is chased by contract killers in a Camaro; in real life, one of the few leads that the Albuquerque Police had about Kaitlyn's murder was that her killers also drove a Camaro. The notes that Duncan took during this time to help her sort out the details of her own investigation into the crime became the basis for Who Killed My Daughter?: The True Story of a Mother's Search for Her Daughter's Murderer, her 1992 non-fiction book. Here, Duncan relates several threads of evidence that she was able to uncover on her own, however, none of which have since helped law-enforcement officials solve the case. A man at the crime scene was never questioned, for example, and a note left in Kaitlyn's apartment, her mother believes, was forged. Her aim in writing the book, Duncan has stated, was the hope that it might be read by someone with information who will be inspired to step forward. Regrettably, the case has been plagued by the recanting of several witnesses, who perhaps fear repercussion for cooperating with law-enforcement authorities. Since her daughter's death, Duncan has written few suspense thrillers, with the exception of 1997's Gallows Hill, and has edited several collections of young adult short stories, including Night Terrors: Stories of Shadow and Substance (1996), Trapped: Cages of Mind and Body (1998), and On the Edge: Stories at the Brink (2000). While she remains best known for her supernatural and high school mysteries, Duncan has also published several pictures books, works of juvenile fiction, and volumes of juvenile poetry for young readers. These titles include The Littlest One in the Family (1960), Hotel for Dogs (1971), The Terrible Tales of Happy Days School (1983), The Magic of Spider Woman (1996), and Song of the Circus (2001), among many others.
Duncan has won consistent praise for her ability to craft exciting, character-driven thrillers for young adult audiences. While some critics have taken issue with certain thematic elements in Duncan's young adult novels—such as their descriptions of sex, violence, and antisocial behavior—others have argued that Duncan's vivid frankness with her audience is one of the main reasons why she has been able to develop such popularity with teen and pre-teen readers. One of her most controversial works has been her high school murder mystery Killing Mr. Griffin. While it remains one of Duncan's most well-regarded and popular books, Killing Mr. Griffin has also engendered wide criticism, particularly from parents, who worry about its sexual connotations and suggestions of violence towards adults. Frequently the subject of censorship challenges, the novel has been fixture on the American Library Association's list of most challenged books, reaching fourth on the list as recently as 2000, nearly twenty-five years after its initial release. Despite such controversy, critics have remained divided in their assessments of the novel. In reviewing Killing Mr. Griffin, Barbara H. Baskin and Karen H. Harris have stated that, "Duncan has crafted her usual tight, well-designed, suspenseful story—in this case, a morality tale for our times." Discussing the frequent criticism of Killing Mr. Griffin, Susanne L. Johnston has argued that, "this seemingly horrific story is not about violence and sex, but about the life-altering consequences of deviant behavior." Daughters of Eve has also been widely debated in critical circles. While several reviewers have praised the novel's suspenseful tone, many critics—particularly feminist critics—have objected to the text's vastly negative portrayal of feminism and female empowerment.
Young Adult Works
Debutante Hill (young adult novel) 1958
Love Song for Joyce [as Lois Kerry] (young adult novel) 1958
A Promise for Joyce [as Lois Kerry] (young adult novel) 1959
The Middle Sister (young adult novel) 1961
Game of Danger (young adult novel) 1962
Season of the Two-Heart (young adult novel) 1964
Ransom (young adult novel) 1966; published as Five Were Missing, 1972
They Never Came Home (young adult novel) 1969
I Know What You Did Last Summer (young adult novel) 1973
Down a Dark Hall (young adult novel) 1974
Summer of Fear (young adult novel) 1976
Killing Mr. Griffin (young adult novel) 1978
Daughters of Eve (young adult novel) 1979
Stranger with My Face (young adult novel) 1981
The Third Eye (young adult novel) 1984; published as The Eyes of Karen Connors, 1985
Locked in Time (young adult novel) 1985
The Twisted Window (young adult novel) 1987
Don't Look Behind You (young adult novel) 1989
Night Terrors: Stories of Shadow and Substance [editor] (young adult short stories) 1996
Gallows Hill (young adult novel) 1997
Trapped: Cages of Mind and Body [editor] (young adult short stories) 1998
On the Edge: Stories at the Brink [editor] (young adult short stories) 2000
Juvenile and Children's Works
The Littlest One in the Family [illustrations by Suzanne K. Larsen] (juvenile fiction) 1960
Silly Mother [illustrations by Suzanne K. Larsen] (juvenile fiction) 1962
Giving away Suzanne [illustrations by Leonard Weisgard] (juvenile fiction) 1963
Hotel for Dogs [illustrations by Leonard Shortall] (juvenile fiction) 1971
A Gift of Magic [illustrations by Arvis Stewart] (juvenile fiction) 1971
From Spring to Spring: Poems and Photographs (juvenile poetry) 1982
The Terrible Tales of Happy Days School [illustrations by Friso Henstra] (juvenile poetry) 1983
Horses of Dreamland [illustrations by Donna Diamond] (juvenile fiction) 1985
Wonder Kid Meets the Evil Lunch Snatcher [illustrations by Margaret Sanfilippo] (juvenile fiction) 1988
The Birthday Moon [illustrations by Susan Davis] (juvenile poetry) 1989
Songs from Dreamland [illustrations by Kay Chorao] (juvenile poetry) 1989
The Circus Comes Home: When the Greatest Show on Earth Rode the Rails [photographs by Joseph Janney Steinmetz] (juvenile nonfiction) 1993
The Magic of Spider Woman [illustrations by Shonto Begay] (picture book) 1996
The Longest Hair in the World [illustrations by Jon McIntosh] (picture book) 1999
I Walk at Night [illustrations by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher] (picture book) 2000
Song of the Circus [illustrations by Meg Cundiff] (picture book) 2001
Selected Other Works
Chapters: My Growth as a Writer (autobiography) 1982
Who Killed My Daughter?: The True Story of a Mother's Search for Her Daughter's Murderer (nonfiction) 1992
Psychic Connections: A Journey into the Mysterious World of Psi [with William Bell] (nonfiction) 1995
Jeanne Gerlach (essay date fall 1991)
SOURCE: Gerlach, Jeanne. "Mother/Daughter Relationships in Lois Duncan's Daughters of Eve." ALAN Review 19, no. 1 (fall 1991): 36-9.
[In the following essay, Gerlach studies how mother-daughter relationships and imperfect maternal role models affect the protagonists of Duncan's Daughters of Eve and their willingness to join a female-oriented secret club.]
Children experience the mother as the first "other," and a sense of self must be molded out of that relationship. Since the mothering person is nearly always a woman, daughters, according to Chodorow (1978), tend to experience stronger feelings of identity with their mothers than do sons. To develop as individuals, the first task that children must undertake is to separate psychologically from their mothers—that is, to discover and understand the boundaries between themselves and their mothers. This task is often more difficult for girls, as is illustrated in Lois Duncan's novel Daughters of Eve : the developmental task of becoming an individual is made harder for the young women in Duncan's novel because their mothers see them as a reflection of themselves and assume that their daughters will grow into women looking forward to living the same kinds of lives that they lead.
If this were true, then there would no tension between the two generations of characters in the novel. The mothers could act easily as role models for the young women. However, Duncan is writing about the complex, contemporary American society where a sense of individualism is rewarded; thus, her young protagonists suffer much confusion in separating themselves from their mothers as do many young women in real life American society.
It is important to note here that educators, researchers, and psychologists have agreed that mothers tend to inhibit in two ways the development in their daughters of a separate self. First, they expect their daughters to remain at home more often than they do their sons. Second, girls are generally expected to help their mothers with "women's work" around the home even after they have started school. The daughter can be shaped into the "little mother" and taught traditional skills of motherhood, including cooking, sewing, cleaning, and nurturing. Mothers, then, often mold daughters into their own images or consciously set out to create daughters who will not repeat their experiences but will live out a life that some ill fate snatched from them.
In Daughters of Eve, Duncan creates mothers who expect their daughters to live out traditional lives as wives and mothers, sacrificing their individual talents and ambitions for marriage and family. The daughters, however, in their confusion and in their search for individuation become involved with a mother substitute, Irene Stark, who acts as a powerful role model to the young women and consciously sets out to create women who will not repeat their mothers' experiences. Rather, she provides the young women with information about how to choose educational opportunities, about how to become a risk taker, and about how to love and respect oneself—simply how to define the self.
The ability of daughters to redefine self can be evidence of assertiveness and strength. But sometimes young women find that in their efforts to break away from the patterns of their mother's lives, they lose a sense of their own inner core and become more confused about their independence. This is the case for some of the young women protagonists in Daughters of Eve.
Daughters of Eve is Modesta High School's most exclusive service club. The membership is limited to ten young women who form a sisterhood, sworn to secrecy, bound by loyalty, led by their faculty advisor, Irene Stark, a woman the sisters look to for guidance. As noted earlier, Irene gains a powerful influence over the impressionable Daughters, and although she sees herself as a positive role model, her power becomes a negative rather than a positive force, and the daughters become involved in real tragedy.
Mother/Daughter Relationships in Eve
Ruth Grange is the first character that the reader comes to know. Duncan tells us:
The calendar placed the first day of fall on the twenty-third of September, and on the afternoon of Friday, the twenty-second, Ruth Grange walked slowly down Locust Street, her schoolbooks gripped by one hand, a brown paper sack by the other. Her head was bent forward beneath the weight of the last load of official summer sunshine.
It had been a long summer for Ruth—"a rotten summer," she told herself resentfully—the kind of summer when anybody with sense left Modesta, Michigan, and went somewhere else. The heat had begun in the early mornings. She had awakened to it, feeling her body damp and sticky beneath the thin material of her shorty pajamas, and by the time she was dressed in shorts and halter, the droplets were already beginning to collect along her hairline and in the hollows under her arms and behind her knees. By noon the walls of the Grange home had enclosed the sort of heat one might expect to find in a low-turned oven.
"I don't know why you won't let me turn on the air conditioner," she had complained to her mother. "Why do we have the thing if we don't use it? That's just plain crazy."
"Your father's the one who pays the utility bills, not you, Ruthie," Mrs. Grange had said shortly. "You wait and turn it on about four in the afternoon and get the place cooled down for dinner."
Her mother worked all day in the women's wear section of an air-conditioned department store. A lot she knew about Modesta in the summertime. The truck her father drove was also air conditioned, and her brothers, Pete and Niles, spent the whole summer up at the lake sitting on lifeguard towers. As for nine-year-old Eric, he could care less about the heat, or anything else for that matter. Eric would go out and pedal his bicycle for miles under the blazing noonday sun like an utter idiot and come home with heat rash prickling scarlet all over him, and all their mother would say was, "You poor kid. Let's get you into a cool tub," and then to Ruth, "How could you let him do that to himself? You're supposed to be taking care of him."
Yes, it had been a gruesome summer, and the fall would be gruesome also. Oh, it would cool down, of course; already the intensity of the afternoon sun was lessening. Just since school had started, Ruth could feel a marked difference. Two weeks ago she had completed the mile walk from Modesta High School, feeling as limp and exhausted as if she had been running in a marathon. Now the sunlight on her head and the back of her neck felt lighter, and she no longer found it necessary to walk at the edge of the sidewalk in the shade of the maples.
But, summer or autumn, she was still Ruth Grange, the only girl trapped in a family of conceited, overindulged boys.
Although Ruth has three siblings, it is her responsibility to come home immediately after school and complete the activities on a THINGS TO DO LIST which is attached to the refrigerator:
When Eric gets home, make him change his
Clean up the kitchen
Put potatoes in oven at 5:00.
Ruth's brothers would not think of helping her complete the tasks. "Why," Ruth thinks, "couldn't their mother stay home and take care of things like other mothers?" But, "Why would anybody choose to stay home and be a housewife when there was a sixteen year old daughter to do the dirty work?" (p. 11). Ruth criticizes her mother for going off to work and for failing to spend sufficient time with her. Then one afternoon as Ruth is opening the mail, she finds an invitation to join The Daughters of Eve.
On that same day Laura Snow, another young Modesta High School student, is both shocked and thrilled to receive an invitation to join the prestigious Daughters. She can't believe the invitation is meant for her, but her mother reassures her:
"Laura, baby, what will I ever do with you?" Mrs. Snow regarded her daughter with affectionate exasperation. "Most girls would be squealing and jumping around, just ecstatic, and here you sit, saying, it's a joke. Why wouldn't they want you to join their club, for goodness' sake?"
"Oh, Mama, really." How could she answer such a ridiculous question? All her mother had to do was to look at her, just once, with her eyes wide open. If she did she might see her as she was, a 160 pound lump with a bust that looked like twin watermelons and a rear end that looked like twin something elses. But her mother was blinded by something—love? familiarity? Perhaps the fact that she was overweight herself made bulk seem the norm.
Here, we can see how Laura's mother's level of self-acceptance influences her own self-perception and causes her to be a negative rather than a positive force in her daughter's life. Mrs. Snow could admit that Laura is overweight and demonstrate some reasonable way to control the weight. Better yet, she could teach that self esteem should not rest on physical size alone.
Laura Snow's mother is not the only mother in Duncan's novel who has low self esteem. Ellen Rheardon, the mother of Jane Rheardon, the third Daughters of Eve inductee, has no sense of self worth. Her relationship with her husband Bart has devastated her, and she makes no decisions without his approval. Mr. Rheardon's very presence makes Jane and her mother anxious:
"Daughters of Eve?" Bart Rheardon frowned thoughtfully. "I've never heard of it. Is it a religious organization?"
"It's a school club, Dad," Jane said. "I don't really know too much about it, except that some really cool girls belong to it. It's a secret society. Nobody's allowed to tell what they do at the meetings."
"I don't much like the sound of that." Mr. Rheardon turned to his wife, who was engrossed in television. "Ellie, have you ever heard of a group called Daughters of Eve?"
"What? Oh sure," Mrs. Rheardon said, her eyes still glued to the screen where a boyish—looking doctor leaned worriedly over his pale and beautiful patient.
"Hey, turn that thing off. We're trying to talk about something." Mr. Rheardon brought his fist down hard on his knee. "Ellie, do you hear me?"
"Sure. Sure, honey, I'm sorry." His wife leaned forward quickly. Her hand pressed a button below the channel indicator, and the set flickered once, went gray, then died. Quite suddenly the room seemed double its former size and oddly empty.
Glancing back and forth from her father to her mother, Jane felt the tiny muscle at the corner of her left eye tighten suddenly. It was the beginning of the tic she often got when she was nervous. She should never have shown her father that invitation, she told herself miserably. She might have known that something unpleasant would come of it.
Mrs. Rheardon, Jane's primary role model, is being violated by her secondary role model, Bart Rheardon, her father. Even later when Bart Rheardon's verbal abuse turns into physical abuse, Ellen Rheardon will not defend herself; instead she defends Bart's actions to Jane:
That's just the way men are, dear. You have to accept it. Your father works hard, and he gets so wound up and tense.
Jane Rheardon, like her classmates Laura Snow and Ruth Grange, is left without a positive role model in her life.
Because the others in the novel are less than desirable role models for their daughters, the young women seek out the guidance of the universal mother Eve through pledging their loyalty to Daughters of Eve:
I pledge myself to the spirit of sisterhood—and to the warmth of friendship. I promise to do my best—as a member of Daughters of Eve—to follow the code of loyalty, love, and service—laid out for womankind since time's beginning—and to divulge to no one words spoken in confidence—within this sacred circle.
Since Eve represents the universal mother, the girls, in a sense, become her daughters, and by acknowledging Eve as their mother, they claim each other as sisters. Just as in Biblical literature when Ruth sacrificed her family ties and chance for remarriage in order to be supportive of Naomi, the young women promise to sacrifice for each other. While the young women in the novel pledge their loyalty, love, and service to the club Daughters of Eve, and the universal mother, Eve, they are in effect pledging their allegiance to Irene Stark, the club's faculty advisor.
Irene Stark intends to be a positive role model for the young women in Daughters of Eve. When Ruth Grange explains that she has to resign from the sisterhood because the meetings which are held immediately after school interferes with her responsibilities at home, Stark suggests that Ruth's brothers take on some household chores and responsibilities in order to allow Ruth some time for outside activities. She realizes that Laura Snow's self esteem is low due to a weight problem, for like Laura, Irene Stark had been considered ugly by her classmates. She is even able to console Jane Rheardon and convince her that her problems at home will not weigh so heavily on her mind now that she has her sisters to support her.
Irene Stark knows what it is to be in need of a role model. Not only had she been considered ugly by her peers but also by her own father:
On the day that she overheard her father remark quite matter-of-factly to her mother that "We'd better get her all the education we can, because, God knows, she's never going to find a husband to support her," Irene had decided to kill herself. This decision had lasted for the length of time it had taken her to lock herself in the bathroom and extract the razor blades from her father's shaving kit. At that point there had flashed through her mind a vision of her mother, whom she loved, gazing down upon her daughter's body on the blood-drenched tiles and being carried off, shrieking, to a sanitarium. A wispy little person of a sensitive nature, Mrs. Stark had a history of emotional breakdowns.
The thought of causing her mother to have a breakdown forced Irene to put the blades away, but she never forgot her father's insensitivity to both her and her mother. Irene Stark's life became filled with men who hurt her emotionally until one day she vowed never to let any man hurt her again. Her anger clouds her objectivity toward humankind, and although she intends to be a positive force in the lives of the Daughters of Eve by showing them how to choose alternative lifestyles, seek out educational opportunities, and take risks, she leads them into destructive activities.
Implications for Educators
So what does all this mean to us as educators, as classroom teachers? Does it mean as Nancy Friday contends in My Mother, My Self that no matter what we do, where we go, what we learn or how we grow, we are doomed to be as miserable as our mothers were? This assumption is inaccurate, unfair to our mothers, and it undermines our sense of control over our lives. Further, it ignores the fact that not all our mothers were miserable and unfulfilled. And of course not all women feel they have to blame their mothers. If all this is true, does it mean that we should provide our students with literature that depicts parents as positive role models and "reinforces the concept that the family is still alive, functioning, and worth the effort to build and maintain?"
In an effort to answer these questions, I want to reflect on my own experiences as both a reader and a teacher of Duncan's work. In 1980 when I first read Daughters of Eve, I felt that Duncan's story had nothing to do with my personal life as an adolescent or with my relationship with my mother. Growing up had been easy for me. My big concerns had been whether or not I had a date for dances and parties and whether or not my parents or grandparents would give me money to buy clothes for such events. I do not mean to suggest that I was a spoiled brat who had everything; I was not spoiled, and I certainly did not have everything. However, both my mother and father were positive role models for my siblings and me. Although my mother chose to stay home and take care of us, she was strong and provided us with time, warmth, and love. She never experienced any kind of abuse either mental or physical. For all of this I am grateful, but as a teacher, I suspected that some, if not many, of my students, especially the women, could relate very easily to the characters in Lois Duncan's novel. Further, I knew these students had younger students, in their own classes, who would understand and know the situations that Duncan describes. Therefore, I have included Daughters of Eve on many of my course syllabi.
What we need to do as teachers, then, is to provide activities which will help students identify positive role models who can contribute to their positive self concepts. By helping our students (both men and women) to develop positive concepts of self, we contribute to the creation of individuals who not only respect self but realize that it is the self who determines one's destiny.
Chodorow, Nancy. The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender. University of California Press, 1978.
Duncan, Lois. Daughters of Eve. Dell, 1979.
Friday, Nancy. My Mother/Myself: The Daughter's Search for Identity. Dell, 1978.
Colette, Sidonie-Gabrielle. My Mother's House and Sido. Trans. by Una Vincenzo and Enid McLead. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1953.
Ember, Carol. "Feminine Task Assignment and Social Behavior of Boys." Ethos 2 (1973).
Feaver, Vicki. "Mothers and Daughters." Times Literary Supplement, February 29, 1980.
Flax, Jane. "The Conflict between Nurturance and Autonomy in Mother-Daughter Relationships and within Feminism." Feminist Studies 4 (1978): 178-89.
———. "Mother-Daughter Relationships: Psychodynamics, Politics and Philosophy." In The Future of Difference, edited by Hester Eisenstein and Alice Jardine. Hall, 1980.
Gaskell, Elizabeth Cleghorn. Wives and Daughters. [1866.] Penguin, 1969.
Joseph, Gloria. "Black Mothers and Daughters: Their Roles and Functions in American Society." In Common Differences: Conflicts in Black White Feminist Perspectives, edited by Gloria Joseph and Jill Lewis. Doubleday, 1981.
Lewis, Michael. "Parents and Children: Sex-Role Development." School Review 80 (1972): 229-40.
Sutton-Smith, Brian, and Rosenberg, Benjamin G. The Sibling. Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, 1970.
Williamson, Nancy E. "Sex Preferences, Sex Control and the Status of Women." Signs 1 (1976): 847-62.
Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One's Own.  Harcourt, Brace, 1957.
Deborah Wilson Overstreet (essay date spring 1994)
SOURCE: Overstreet, Deborah Wilson. "Help! Help! An Analysis of Female Victims in the Novels of Lois Duncan." ALAN Review 21, no. 3 (spring 1994): 43-6.
[In the following essay, Overstreet concludes that, while the female protagonists of Duncan's young adult novels may seemingly fit certain stereotypical profiles of the "damsel-in-distress," they are largely able to fend for themselves in non-stereotypical fashions.]
As English teachers we are often in the position of selecting or recommending books for adolescent readers. In that role, we must be constantly aware of the subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) images that are communicated through literature. Teachers, of course, should attempt to avoid books that contain characters that are stereotypically racist or sexist. But considering the sheer number of stereotypes one encounters in reading adolescent fiction, selecting appropriate novels can indeed be a difficult task.
Suspense novels have always been the favorite genre of my students. This genre above all others seems to harbor stereotypical characters—both male and female. In suspense/horror film, television, and books of decades past, one could almost guarantee that any victim would be female, her assailant male, and that she would predictably have the gun taken from her, scream for help, twist her ankle in running away (probably because of her high heels), and invariably be rescued by a male (Lieberman, p. 391). Things haven't changed. In today's suspense movies, the victims are still overwhelmingly female. As the violence against them mounts, becomingly alarmingly more vicious, sexual, and graphic, they seem to do little to defend themselves.
This fact raises a question: In popular adolescent suspense fiction, how do victims fare? Are female characters presented as true victims—helpless, stupid, and perhaps even responsible for or deserving of the treatment that they receive? I was particularly interested in looking at female victims in the suspense novels of Lois Duncan because these novels are widely read and regularly enjoyed by middle-school-aged students. Duncan's novels all contain a teenage female protagonist who is the victim of an antagonist's evil intent. It has been my experience as a seventh-grade English teacher that these novels are much more frequently read by female students than by males. Readers at this impressionable age are, perhaps at least subconsciously, seeking role models since they are just beginning to figure out how to be "girls" (Christian-Smith, p. 1). Will teenage girls find in these popular novels weak, silly, stereotypical, victimized girls who depend on a strong male to save them? Or will they find alternate role models—girls who are strong, intelligent, and savvy enough to take care of themselves?
The ubiquitous stereotype of a female victim as a damsel-in-distress, passive and waiting for a prince to rescue her, has its roots in the centuries-old folk- tales that dominated early oral tradition. These stories now in the form of children's books or Disney movies continue to set forth the idea that females (e.g., Cinderella, Snow White) are waiting for a strong man to rescue them. In today's horror movie/book genre, the typical female victim is often terrified and terrorized by one male and then eventually rescued by another. The pervasive stereotype of the female victim seems to encompass many of these standard traits. She is physically weak, hysterical, unable to make a decision, unable to anticipate the actions of the antagonist, unable to formulate or execute a plan to defend or free herself and unable to retaliate whenever the situation requires (Lieberman, p. 397). Does she sound familiar? You've probably heard her screaming once or twice.
In analyzing folktales, Lieberman concludes that "the underlying associational pattern of these stories links the figures of the victimized girl and the interesting girl. What these stories convey is that women in distress are interesting" (pp. 389-390). This premise certainly holds true for Duncan's protagonists. There is nothing particularly special or noteworthy about any of these girls until they become somehow involved with the antagonist. All but one of the girls are sixteen- or seventeen-year-old high-school students.
Laurie Stratton (Stranger with My Face ) is a bright, self-confident girl who breaks up with her handsome but chauvinistic and possessive boyfriend and dates a boy who has been horribly disfigured in an explosion. Kit Gordy (Down a Dark Hall ) is a fourteen-year old who decides to make the best of a bad situation when she is forced to attend boarding school. Tracy Lloyd (The Twisted Window ) is very intelligent, aloof, physically active, and rebellious enough to be goaded into doing things against her better judgment. The protagonist of Don't Look Behind You, April Corrigan, begins as a somewhat stereotypical character. She is a popular, pretty tennis star who dates the senior-class president and thinks of herself as a princess. She is self-centered and given to temper tantrums and sulking when things don't go her way. While her family is in the witness protection program, she contacts her boyfriend. Doing so almost costs her family their lives. Sue McConnell (Killing Mr. Griffin ) is easily the most stereotypical character of the group. She is a quiet, studious girl who is constantly embarrassed by the men in her family. She allows herself to be pulled into a kidnapping plot simply because a cute boy, David, has asked her. She constantly turns to her father and other strong males when confronted with any problem. She is generally presented as weak, unstable, and often given to tears and hysteria in crisis.
The girls all seem to be perceptive enough to have a sense that something is wrong or that something menacing is going to happen. These perceptions usually take place very early in the story—usually within the first twenty or thirty pages. The girls are often in the impossible position of not being able to tell someone because there is not actual proof of anything sinister. None trusts her own intuition or instinct.
None of Duncan's teenage protagonists has a model relationship with her family. April Corrigan (Don't Look Behind You ) resents her father for having become involved in an FBI undercover operation because it later disrupts her life. Her mother begins to drink heavily under the strain of the situation. In The Twisted Window, Tracy Lloyd's mother has been murdered and her self-centered actor father hasn't time for Tracy. She goes to live with an older aunt and uncle who don't understand teenagers. In Down a Dark Hall, Kit Gordy's mother has recently married a man Kit dislikes. She is highly resentful when they deposit her in a boarding school so that they can go on a year-long European honeymoon. Only Laurie (in Stranger with My Face ) and Sue (in Killing Mr. Griffin ) have even remotely supportive parents. Sue's parents push her to date and are generally unaware of her real feelings, but they try to do what they think is best. Laurie's parents are easily the most "normal" and supportive. However, when Laurie finds out, at the age of seventeen, that she was adopted and subsequently shows interest in learning about her birth family, her mother is viciously resentful.
Lois Duncan gives us a spectacularly wide range of villains. Hers are not the crazed ax-murderers of the movies setting out to stalk the teenage girl in the old dark house. Sometimes as readers, we don't even know who the antagonist is until the book is half-finished. They are believable because they don't ooze evil. In fact, many of them are often quite pleasant, and all but one are known to the protagonists before their positions as antagonists are obvious. Perhaps surprisingly, the antagonists in two of these five novels are female. While it is relatively common for evil witches, queens, stepmothers, ogresses, and the like to prey on sweet innocent protagonists in folktales (Lieberman, p. 391), it is not nearly as customary in today's popular media for antagonists to be female.
The male antagonists in these novels differ widely. Brad Johnson (The Twisted Window ) is a handsome, charming boy who earnestly believes that in convincing Tracy to help snatch his sister that he is doing the right thing. There is a romantic interest between Brad and Tracy that allows her to be sucked into his plan. Mark Kinney (Killing Mr. Griffin ) is somewhat menacing from the start—a "dangerous" boy, ruthless and merciless, but a strong and competent leader when the plot to kidnap Mr. Griffin turns into murder. Even though Sue is interested in David, she feels drawn to Mark and finds him attractive. Mike Vamp (Don't Look Behind You ) is actually a mob hitman who is coldly efficient and remorseless in his effort to destroy April Corrigan's family in order to keep Mr. Corrigan from testifying in a drug case. Of the three, only Mike Vamp easily fits into an existing villain stereotype, but he is a stereotype perhaps because we never get to know him. He is a flat, black-and-white character. He is always evil and always relentless, as predictable as a machine that consistently operates as we expect it to.
The female antagonists are a truly scary pair, powerful and willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish their goals. In Stranger with My Face, Laurie Stratton's identical twin sister, Lia, is the most evil of the antagonists. The sisters are separated and adopted at birth. Lia contacts Laurie through astral projection and does not hesitate to attempt to "steal" Laurie's life. Lia has physically attacked and almost killed several characters and outsmarts everyone until the very end. Madam Duret (Down a Dark Hall ) is as much a capitalist as a villain. She has created Blackwood, a boarding school, for girls whom she has selected because of their sensitivity to the spirit world. Even knowing that it will cost the girls their sanity and perhaps their lives, she forces them to "channel" creative forces from the spirits of dead artists, writers, and musicians, then sells the works as long-lost originals.
In an interesting note, Lois Duncan says that her editor asked her to change some of the spirits that were to "possess" the girls to females. She had chosen the poet Alan Seeger to contact Sandy, but her editors were concerned that all the spirits were male and their victims female (the other spirits include painter Thomas Cole and composer Franz Schubert). She changed Seeger to the spirit of Emily Bronte (Donaldson and Nilsen, p. 152).
The Confrontation and Escape
The focal point of any suspense novel or movie is the inevitable confrontation of the protagonist and antagonist and the ensuing escape of the protagonist and/or destruction of the antagonist. Lois Duncan's novels are certainly no exception to this hard-and-fast rule. Sadly, in much of the suspense genre, it is at this point that the final and most brutal insult occurs. The hapless female protagonist has managed to get herself into a situation with the evil and intelligent antagonist and doesn't know what to do. At the last possible moment, the boyfriend, husband, father, or nearest available responsible male charges in and saves the day (Lieberman, p. 391). This male rescue communicates a not-so-subtle message to the female audiences—you don't have to use your wits or your strength. Just endure long enough, and eventually someone—probably a man—will save you.
Taking Responsibility for One's Actions
In a publisher's interview, Lois Duncan says that she wants to communicate an underlying message to readers. She feels that it is important for teenagers to take responsibility for their actions ("A Conversation with Lois Duncan" ). Presumably she includes being responsible for one's own self and not always relying on outside help. A study of the climatic scenes from Duncan's novels suggests her protagonists are indeed able to keep their wits about them and be responsible for themselves.
After spending much of Killing Mr. Griffin in near hysterics, Sue McConnell musters enough nerve at the story's climax to make a very stereotypically foolish decision. Throughout the novel she has whined and cried and wanted desperately to ask her father for help. When she realizes that Mark has committed murder, she foolishly confronts him to tell him that she's going to the police. He, of course, tries to kill her. She is saved only when the police arrive at the last minute and pull her out of the house that Mark has set on fire. Sue is an embarrassingly stereotypical victim through and through.
In Don't Look Behind You, April Corrigan begins the story as a stereotypical girl, from her lace-and-flowers bedroom to her temper tantrums, but she manages to pull away from the stereotype during the climax. When the mob hitman, Mike Vamp, locks April and her grandmother in the closet during his attempt to murder the rest of the family, April uses brains, brawn, and nerve to escape. She is able to outrun him and get to her car. When her car won't start, he holds her at gunpoint. April attacks him with a tennis racket, knocks him out, and actually kills him.
Laurie Stratton from Stranger with My Face must contend with her antagonist, Lia, on a spiritual plane. Both girls are able to project their spirits or souls from their bodies and travel instantaneously through space. Lia is extremely envious of Laurie's life. While Laurie is out of her body, Lia enters it. Laurie's help in regaining her body comes from her eight-year-old sister, Megan, who recognizes that something is not right. It is only when Megan confronts and disorients Lia that Laurie is able to reclaim her own body. While Laurie does indeed receive help in getting rid of her antagonist, there is little she could do to save herself in her spirit form; and what assistance she does receive comes from another female.
At the climax of Down a Dark Hall, Kit Gordy is both brave and smart. Trapped at the isolated boarding school, she confronts Madame Duret and convinces the other students to destroy the work they've done that Madame Duret was planning to sell. Kit convinces Madame Duret's son, Jules, to drive them into the nearest town. Kit's appeal to an older male has more to do with age than gender. Only fourteen, she is at the mercy of the antagonist more because of her age than her gender. She doesn't drive, and her parents have unsuspectingly entrusted her care to Madame Duret. Leaving Blackwood is, however, Kit's idea, and she alone secures the help that the girls need. In fact, when Blackwood is later set afire by a lightning storm, Kit bravely reenters the building to save a fellow student.
In The Twisted Window, Brad Johnson convinces Tracy Lloyd to help him snatch his baby sister away from his non-custodial stepfather. It is only after they have kidnapped the child in Texas and started back to Arizona that Tracy realizes that the girl is not Brad's sister. Tracy makes very clever decisions when she begins to suspect the truth. She is also ready to take responsibility for her part in the kidnapping regardless of how misinformed she had been. Help comes in the curious form of Jamie Hanson, Brad's best friend. Throughout the novel, Brad tells Tracy about Jamie, who was always taller and stronger than he was and who taught him to stick up for himself when they were younger. Brad also tells about Jamie's being able to work on any car. Here Duncan plays with our own tendency to stereotype, because given this information, we, like Tracy, assume that Jamie is a male. It is not until page 146 that we realize that Jamie is a female. Eventually, she and Tracy outsmart Brad. They successfully get the child away from him, even though he has a gun.
Only Sue McConnell (Killing Mr. Griffin ) completely fits the pervasive stereotype of the female victim. She makes foolish decisions and then is rescued by a male. Only April Corrigan (Don't Look Behind You ) is able to effect her escape with no help whatsoever. Not only does she not rely on anyone else, but she outsmarts and then physically overpowers a larger male. Even though April begins as a somewhat stereotypical character, she ends up being the farthest away from the stereotype of the female victim. The other protagonists fall somewhere in the middle, but most land closer to April than to Sue.
Laurie Stratton (Stranger with My Face ) is helped by a young sister. Laurie is both brave and clever; ultimately she does as much as she can do alone—which is not enough. Were it not for Megan, Laurie would not have survived. Megan is not prompted by her older sister to take the action that she does. By virtue of this, Laurie lands slightly toward the stereotypical victim side of the continuum.
Kit Gordy (Down a Dark Hall ) is helped slight by a male, but it is her own courage, determination, and intelligence that sets the action into motion. Tracy Lloyd (The Twisted Window ) depends on Jamie Hansen, not to save herself, but to rescue the kidnapped child. Tracy resembles Kit in that she is helped, this time by a female, but it is her bravery and ability to make quick decisions that set the plan into motion. Both Tracy and Kit, while relying on help from another party, actively seek their own escapes. They are the primary planners and decision-makers and the greatest effect on their chance of escape.
With the regrettable exception of Sue McConnell in Killing Mr. Griffin, Lois Duncan's female protagonists do not fall in sync with the pervasive stereotype of the female victim. Although they are not all able to effect their antagonist's defeat entirely alone, as April Corrigan does, these girls are hardly passive, meek, or foolish. In reading these novels, young women can find other young women to be proud of.
Christian-Smith, Linda K. "Love Makes the World Go 'Round: Generating Gender in Adolescent Romance Fiction." In Using Multicultural Literature in the Classroom, Violet Harris, ed. Christopher Gordon Publishers, 1992.
A Conversation with Lois Duncan. Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1990.
Duncan, Lois. Down a Dark Hall. Little, Brown and Company, 1974.
———. Killing Mr. Griffin. Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1978.
———. Stranger with My Face. Little, Brown and Company, 1981.
———. The Twisted Window. Delacorte Press, 1987.
———. Don't Look behind You. Delacorte Press, 1989.
Gallo, Donald R., ed. Speaking for Ourselves: Autobiographical Sketches by Notable Authors of Books for Young Adults. NCTE, 1990.
Lieberman, Marcia R. "‘Some Day My Prince Will Come’: Female Acculturation through the Fairy Tale," College English, Vol. 34, 1972, pp. 383-395.
Nilsen, Alleen Pace, and Kenneth L. Donelson. Literature for Today's Young Adults, 2nd ed. Scott, Foresman and Company, 1985.
Barbara H. Baskin and Karen H. Harris (review date 1977)
SOURCE: Baskin, Barbara H., and Karen H. Harris. Review of Ransom, by Lois Duncan. In Notes from a Different Drummer: A Guide to Juvenile Fiction Portraying the Handicapped, pp. 169-70. New York, N.Y.: R. R. Bowker Company, 1977.
Dexter, now seventeen, lives with his bachelor uncle, a reluctant guardian who is away on business much of the time [in Ransom ]. After a bout with polio at twelve, the musculature on his right side remained under-developed and, although he has learned to ski and write with his left hand, the youth retains a residual limp and the social status of a loner. His school bus is hijacked and Dexter and several others are transferred to a lonely mountain cabin. There are many complications attendant on obtaining ransom for each person, which create problems for the kidnappers. In an aborted escape attempt, Dexter is wounded. Despite his protests, one of the girls, Jesse, removes Dexter's jacket to give first aid and notes his physical condition. Helpless, he complains she is staring at him, but she silences him with a kiss. One kidnapper is killed in a road accident and the others are eventually captured. The abduction experience affects several family relationships. One naive boy's admiration for his ne'er-do-well brother diminishes to a more accurate critical assessment, and a girl's inflated affection for a selfish father is replaced by respect for her brave stepfather whom she had disdained and rejected.
Analysis: Ransom is a crisply written adventure story. There is reasonably good character development and the perceptions, aspirations, and conflicts of adolescence are ably used to substantiate the credibility of the plot. Although Dexter is the only hostage who gets shot (and such behavior is too frequently directed against the disabled in books), in this case it is a most likely event given the sequence of the story. He is the one who engineers the escape plan and at the end is seen as a romantic figure by a girl who up to that point also had been portrayed as a loner. Their blossoming relationship provides the low-key romantic interest of the tale. After the wounded young man is kissed, his abrasive query is, "‘You're sorry for me, is that it?’ His voice began to harden. ‘You don't have to be. If you think you're going to play the fairy princess, going around kissing cripples to turn them into….’" Jesse angrily protests, taking Dexter's comment as a criticism of her life and beliefs. "I've heard symphonies written by blind composers and seen cathedrals designed by dying artists, and none of them were cripples, none of them! It's bitterness that makes a person a cripple, bitterness and meanness and smallness! It's an emptiness inside them, not anything to do with their bodies!" Dexter relaxes, relieved by the observation that she does not consider him handicapped but simply a young man she admires. Except for this obvious and excessive sermon, the message that value resides in character, not body structure, is delivered effectively.
KILLING MR. GRIFFIN (1978)
Barbara H. Baskin and Karen H. Harris (review date 1984)
SOURCE: Baskin, Barbara H., and Karen H. Harris. Review of Killing Mr. Griffin, by Lois Duncan. In More Notes from a Different Drummer: A Guide to Juvenile Fiction Portraying the Handicapped, pp. 183-84. New York, N.Y.: R. R. Bowker Company, 1984.
The students in Susan's high school class are simmering—frustrated and angered by what they regard as the unreasonable behavior of their English teacher, Mr. Griffin [in Killing Mr. Griffin ]. He adamantly refuses to accept late papers, no matter what excuse is given; he demands technical excellence from his pupils; and he is scathing in his criticism of both content and form in his students' writing. Articulating the feelings of the group, Jeff angrily remarks that he could happily kill Griffin, and Mark, in all seriousness, endorses the idea. Mark tactically withdraws his declaration when his suggestion is greeted with horror, but he insists that their teacher should be taught a lesson. Dave, the class president, Betsy, a vacuous cheerleader, and Susan, an unhappy loner, are recruited for the task. Susan detains Griffin after school until the grounds are empty. When the teacher goes to his car, the youths overwhelm him, taking him, still bound, to a deserted spot. Mark tries to force the man to beg to be released but is unsuccessful. They decide to leave him there alone until he is sufficiently humbled. Having second thoughts about this escapade, Susan and David intend to release their victim, but they discover that he has died. The boys clumsily bury him and try to conceal their tracks, but their amateurish cover-up comes apart. When Dave's grandmother appears to threaten their alibi, Mark murders the old woman, trying to make her death appear an accident. He is observed but not identified; however, Susan deduces who is responsible. After a meeting in which she insists that they cease these outrages and inform the authorities, Mark sends the others away, ties her up, and sets her house afire. Luckily Susan is rescued, Mark is apprehended, and the whole sordid story is revealed.
Analysis: Mr. Griffin's heart condition is a minor one, but he is not strong enough to stand the stress resulting from his kidnapping. Without access to his nitroglycerine tablets, which are out of his reach, he dies. Mark is specifically identified as a psychopath:
This individual has a behavior pattern that brings him repeatedly into conflict with society. He is incapable of significant loyalty to individuals, groups or social values. He is selfish, callous, irresponsible, impulsive and totally unable to experience guilt. His frustration level is low; he cannot stand to be thwarted. He tends to blame others or offer plausible rationalizations for his behavior…. This individual is unique among pathological personalities in appearing, even on close examination, to be not only quite normal but unusually intelligent and charming. He appears quite sincere and loyal and may perform brilliantly at any endeavor. He often has a tremendous charismatic power over others.
The youth's behavior is consistent with that diagnosis. He has a strong and forceful personality and is able to manipulate others into acting out his power fantasies. Mark is presented as a totally unsympathetic character, except for a passing reference to his feelings of being deserted as a child. He lies, brutalizes, and kills totally without conscience. However, the author seems to be focusing not so much on Mark's behavior as on the ready manipulability of the other students, who are essentially weak and characterless. Duncan has crafted her usual tight, well-designed, suspenseful story—in this case, a morality tale for our times.
Terri S. Lesesne, G. Kylene Beers, and Lois Buckman (review date December-January 1996-1997)
SOURCE: Lesesne, Terri S., G. Kylene Beers, and Lois Buckman. Review of Killing Mr. Griffin, by Lois Duncan. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy 40, no. 4 (December-January 1996-1997): 316-17.
This novel [Killing Mr. Griffin ] has appeal for a wide range of YA readers. In the almost 20 years that it has been in print, the first sentence, "It was a wild, windy, southwestern spring when the idea of killing Mr. Griffin occurred to them," intrigues anyone who picks up the book.
There is no doubt that the no-nonsense English teacher, Mr. Griffin, is nobody's favorite, but when Mark suggests that they might consider murdering him, his friends don't take him seriously. Mark, in his usual charismatic fashion, convinces the group that they should play a trick on Mr. Griffin to teach him not to be so strict. Mark and his friends kidnap Mr. Griffin, take him out in the woods, and tie him to a tree. They plan to leave him there overnight or until he sees reason. What they did not plan on was Mr. Griffin's having a bad heart. They have murdered their English teacher. Now what do they do?
When we take this book into libraries and classrooms, we end our booktalk at this point and ask kids what they think Mark and his friends do. If they want to know the answer they must read the book, of course. Duncan's mysteries such as Down a Dark Hall (Dell, 1974) (MS), Summer of Fear (Dell, 1976) (MS/HS), and I Know What You Did Last Summer (Little, Brown, 1973) (MS/HS) remain favorites with readers who appreciate a good scare. If you are looking for an alternative for students stuck in the Goosebumps and Fear Street series rut, try reacquainting kids with Lois Duncan mysteries.
Susanne L. Johnston (essay date 2002)
SOURCE: Johnston, Susanne L. "In Defense of Killing Mr. Griffin." In Censored Books II: Critical Viewpoints,1985-2000, edited by Nicholas J. Karolides, pp. 285-89. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2002.
[In the following essay, Johnston argues that, despite the violence and sexual content that underlie Duncan's Killing Mr. Griffin, the text's keen insight into troubled adolescent mindsets make it a valuable story for opening discussions between teenagers and adults.]
Consider a scenario where violence in the schools escalates to the point that students plot murders of fellow students and against teachers. The scenario is not so far from the truth anymore, as evidenced by recent headlines, but Lois Duncan's Killing Mr. Griffin was ahead of its time when it was published in 1978. Students plot to frighten and ridicule their English teacher because they interpret his high expectations and demanding demeanor as mean-spirited vendettas against students. What they don't understand, and what Duncan reveals slowly and expertly throughout the text, is that Mr. Griffin pushes his students to do their best because he has seen wasted lives and wants more for his students. Duncan shows how peer pressure, failures of communication, and ignoring early signs of mental disturbance can lead to unthinkable consequences.
Because of those unthinkable consequences, Killing Mr. Griffin is number 64 on the ALA list, The 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990-1999. It is the fourth-most-challenged book of 2000, according to a January 2001 ALA news release, for violence and sexual content. The book is indeed violent: the students do kill their teacher, an old woman and possibly another person are murdered, another murder is attempted, and one incident of animal torture is described. The sexual content includes innuendo and manipulation based on perceived desire. Yet, when placed in context, this seemingly horrific story is not about violence and sex, but about the life-altering consequences of deviant behavior.
One of the fiercest threats that young people face remains peer pressure, as it has for decades and probably centuries. The chance of appearing to be a failure or not being popular in front of peers has driven many people to otherwise unthinkable acts. The teens in Killing Mr. Griffin are no different, except that one of them is a psychopath whose charisma charms others into following his destructive lead. Instead of the usual pranks and mischief, Mark convinces his friends to kidnap their English teacher and humiliate him the way Mark feels Mr. Griffin has humiliated him. The others go along, treating it initially like a joke and even manipulating a lonely innocent girl into their scheme because she is someone no one would suspect. Good kids with good grades, potentially bright futures, and loving families are lured into evil. Sounds like something we wouldn't want our young people to read about, but if we look closer we can use this book as a case study of adolescent naivete and ignorance and the accompanying problems.
Early on in the book Duncan shows Mark's seductiveness and treachery. While in seventh grade he invites Jeff, a fellow student he has just met, to watch him set a cat on fire. Jeff watches and, rather than be sickened, he is drawn to Mark's "magnetic" eyes and "a special beauty, something so striking and strange that it stop[s] the heart and cause[s] those near him to catch their breath" (26-27). This "special beauty" in Mark comes to the forefront only when he is planning to manipulate or hurt someone, but it is so striking that those around him are caught off guard and lured in by his charm, rather than repulsed by his plans. Later, in twelfth grade, Mark feels humiliated by Mr. Griffin, who caught Mark plagiarizing a paper and forced him to repeat English. Rather than take the responsibility for cheating and accepting the consequences, Mark blames Mr. Griffin and convinces his friends that they, too, should blame Mr. Griffin for their failures.
An astute reader will recognize Mark's charm for the self-serving manipulation that it is and use it as an example of antisocial behavior to be avoided. Animal torture is often one of the early warning signs of a psychopath who will, given enough time, turn to human targets. Rather than condemning the book for presenting such a disturbing idea, Duncan should be praised for alerting readers to the patterns of such troubled individuals.
As Mark connives to kidnap and denigrate Mr. Griffin, he plays on the weaknesses of his "friends." The cast is carefully drawn and assembled by Duncan to represent the pathos of the typical high school student body and the attitudes they have toward teachers. Jeff is the star of the basketball team but has been drawn to the charismatic Mark ever since that day in seventh grade. Jeff's parents, blind to what is really happening in his life, think the world of their star athlete and believe he is doing Mark a favor by sticking with him for the past five years. Combine this with Jeff's athletic mastery and teachers like Dolly Luna, who make homework exceptions on game nights, Jeff is easily persuaded to despise Mr. Griffin for his high expectations.
Betsy is head cheerleader and Jeff's girlfriend. Though she is cute, not pretty, her personality makes her both attractive and well-known. Her cuteness and ready smile have enabled her to manipulate people all of her life to get everything she's wanted. When people don't respond to her charm, she tries harder to please; when that doesn't work, she strikes out at them. She can't get Mr. Griffin to give her leeway in English, and although she is attracted to Mark, he is uninterested but always gives her hope—the perfect combination to lure her into the plot against Mr. Griffin.
David is "beautiful, popular, elfin-faced … president of the senior class" (8), and dissatisfied with his life. Living with his mother and grandmother, his father having walked out ten years prior, David is tired of overwhelming responsibility. With his mother working long hours to support the family, David's job is to entertain and wait on his grandmother every day after school rather than spend time with friends. He feels his future slipping away with a failing grade in English—not getting a scholarship, so when Mark asks, "[h]ow long has it been—since you've done something wild—just for fun?" (38), David is willing.
Susan is teased constantly by her three brothers about being an old maid, as they remind her that she hasn't yet had her first date. Her thoughts are always on "someday—someday—" (7). She feels that her parents' good looks and spirit have been spent on her brothers, leaving her feeling "homely and … lonely and … unhappy," but Mark knows that she would give David "the moon" if he "put a little sunshine into her life" (24). When David gives her "sunshine" at Mark's request, Susan is ready.
Mark has lived with his aunt and uncle for five years, since his father died in a fire and his mother turned her back on him. He gets no supervision and does as he pleases, allowing him ample time to discover the neediness of each "friend" and use it to make them willing partners in his vengeance toward Mr. Griffin.
Duncan brings to light the insecurities of her characters, the universal hopes and dreams of teenagers, and then she dashes them with one deed followed by lies, cover-up, and murder. She shows that all students are vulnerable in one way or another, whether they are popular or not, athletic or not, products of stable families or not. Rather than suppress this book as one more text full of gratuitous violence, it should be seen as a starting point for discussions between teachers and students. With violence increasing in our schools, clearly some students are disillusioned with life, with school, with adults. Suppressing their thoughts by allowing them to read only "happy" books with fairy-tale boy-meets-girl-and-they-live-happily-ever-after endings merely drives their angst and frustration underground, where it festers and grows into explosive rage.
Imagine that rage targeted at a teacher like Brian Griffin, who demands promptness, politeness, thoroughness, and responsibility from his students. When students fail to measure up he fails them; when they do, he expects even more because he wants them to realize their full potential, but students interpret this as vindictive. Now contrast that with another teacher, Dolly Luna, who demands nothing of her students but that they have a good time. Brian Griffin doesn't mind if students hate him, while Dolly Luna tries only to be a friend. Neither teacher is the ideal, because neither is available as an adult mentor who can listen to student concerns and give understanding and guidance.
We have all, at one time or another, felt that Mr. or Miss or Mrs. or Ms. Teacher was either "unfair" or was the greatest person in the world. Some classes we looked forward to each day and some we dreaded or slept through, but rarely, if ever, did we talk to the teachers involved and tell them why. Lois Duncan gives us teachers on the two extremes of expectations, which leaves plenty of room for a discussion in the middle of students' expectations of teachers as well as teachers' expectations of students.
We see ourselves in these characters: the uncertainties, the brash cockiness used to cover up the insecurities; the impulsive acts entered into for the sake of acceptance; the guilt and shame for deeds done and deeds undone. Killing Mr. Griffin gives students an outlet for their anthem "Unfair" when teachers assign failing grades to mediocre work, "Unfair" when it seems only the popular are happy, "Unfair" when the most outgoing girls get the cute boys (even when the girls aren't pretty), "Unfair" when teachers demand more than they are willing to give, "Unfair" when it seems that life will never get on with itself because high school lasts an eternity and the world beyond is only "someday."
Yes, the book is violent; yes, the book relies on sexuality to manipulate characters; yes, the book shows us our struggles and our weaknesses. But Killing Mr. Griffin can alert us to all these dangers vicariously, as does all good literature, so that we can experience the full range of emotions through characters and better prepare ourselves to face similar challenges in our lives. It can open the dialogue about school violence and be the instrument to make schools havens of intellectual and social growth, rather than institutions of fear and misunderstanding.
Books are guardians of words: words are power, power is control, and control over our emotions is essential. Books that give voice to our ideals and emotions enable us to learn before we make mistakes, to change mistakes that have already occurred. We have in our history a great example of literature changing a country. Many people attribute Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin as a major impetus for raising people's awareness of slavery and the need to abolish it. Lois Duncan's Killing Mr. Griffin may be the book that will give us a keener understanding of troubled adolescents and the full gamut of uncertainties they face. Perhaps if we engage our students in frank discussions we can reach them before it is too late. We owe our young people nothing less.
Duncan, Lois. Killing Mr. Griffin. New York: Dell, 1978.
Harry Potter Series again Tops List of Most Challenged Books. ALA News Release. 02 Feb. 2001. 07 Feb. 2001 http://www.ala.org/pio/presskits/midwinterawards2001/challeng-ed.html.
The 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990-1999. 10 Oct. 2000. 29 Oct. 2000 http://www.ala.org/alaorg/oif/top100banned-books.html.
Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom's Cabin. 1852. New York: Penguin, 1981.
STRANGER WITH MY FACE (1981)
Barbara H. Baskin and Karen H. Harris (review date 1984)
SOURCE: Baskin, Barbara H., and Karen H. Harris. Review of Stranger with My Face, by Lois Duncan. In More Notes from a Different Drummer: A Guide to Juvenile Fiction Portraying the Handicapped, pp. 183-84. New York, N.Y.: R. R. Bowker Company, 1984.
[In the following review, Baskin and Harris regard Stranger with My Face as a "lightweight teen romance," characterizing the text as "facile."]
Laurie has only recently become friends with the other island adolescents who form an exclusive, snobbish clique within the local high school [in Stranger with My Face ]. Jeff, a handsome boy but now disfigured from burns, is a loner, having rejected the tentative gestures of friendship offered by his neighbors after the accident. "The left side of his face was fine…. If you saw him from the right, you had to stop and swallow hard. That side of his face was welted and purple with the eye half closed and the mouth pulled up at the corner like a Halloween mask."
Laurie senses a specter in her house and begins to hear puzzling reports of her alleged actions. Lia, a ghostly presence and virtually identical in appearance to the teenage girl, makes herself known to Laurie. Anxious for some explanation, the girl forces the information from her resisting parents that she and an identical twin sister were born to an outcast Navaho woman. Her mother initially considered adopting both infants but, for reasons she is unable to articulate, found the other baby unacceptable. Lia, the twin, becomes a dominating force in her sister's life, exerting a magnetic, obsessive attraction and causing the teen to lose interest in social activities, family, and school. Laurie learns from her friend Helen, a newcomer to the community, about "astral projection," a technique that allows the soul to leave the corporeal body and travel vast distances. Helen, who lived in the Southwest where such rituals are commonly practiced, believes that this psychic process is the cause of the mysterious events and warns her friend that she is tampering with dangerous forces. Soon after the girl from Arizona is the victim of a nearly fatal accident, for which her distraught mother unreasonably holds Jeff accountable.
Lia tries to extend her power over her twin, insisting she too must learn to master this mystical means of teleportation and further demands that Laurie abandon her growing involvement with Jeff. Resenting this pressure, Laurie invites the boy for dinner. He accepts but, inexplicably, does not arrive at the appointed time. When a search is mounted, Laurie spots some books he had promised to bring her close by a dangerous, rocky shelf. While investigating, she too falls into the hidden cavern in which Jeff has been trapped. The youth realizes he mistook Lia for her sibling and was deliberately lured by the malevolent apparition onto the dangerous rocks from which he fell and broke his leg. Laurie projects her spirit body to the surface, where she is seen by her brother, who summons rescuers. Determined to locate her sister, Laurie traces her to a locked room in a psychiatric hospital. She is shocked to hear that Lia has been tried for the murder of her foster sister, after which she was hospitalized indefinitely after the court accepted her insanity plea. In the meantime, the diabolical Lia enters her sister's empty body, claiming it for her own. Laurie, realizing she has been tricked, watches helplessly as the imposter usurps her identity. She holds realistic fears that her younger sister is in danger because the child voiced suspicions of the interloper's behavior. When the girl joins Jeff in a confrontation that exposes Lia's evil acts, Laurie's twin becomes furious and violently attacks them. Jeff propitiously throws the Indian fetish that Helen claimed was a "defense against evil spirits" at her. Lia is jarred loose from her hold on Laurie's body, enabling its rightful owner to regain possession.
A short time later, Jeff undergoes plastic surgery paid for by Laurie's parents. He reports: "I'll never be a pretty boy, but, thanks to your folks, I'll have a crack at looking human."
Analysis: Such standard occult ingredients as twins separated at birth and supernatural practices of "exotic" cultures combine with a lightweight teen romance to produce this facile work. Jeff's disfigurement and other characters' reactions to it are extreme, as exemplified in the hysterical assertion of Helen's mother that her daughter "didn't have to settle for a boy with a face like that, a boy who looks like the devil himself." The willingness of comparative strangers to pay for major surgery strains credulity, and the boy's statement that the operation will result in his looking "human" shows insensitivity. The hero's appearance is posited as a major factor in shaping his personality, but his characterization is so shallow that this premise cannot be treated seriously. The most unfortunate aspect of this work is the coupling of emotional dysfunction and evil, a commonplace equation found in the gothic genre, but hardly excusable on those grounds.
CHAPTERS: MY GROWTH AS A WRITER (1982)
Iris McClellan Tiedt (review date March 1993)
SOURCE: Tiedt, Iris McClellan. Review of Chapters: My Growth as a Writer, by Lois Duncan. English Journal 82, no. 3 (March 1993): 84-5.
"I was thirteen years old," Duncan begins, "and it had not been a good day."
To begin with, I had botched up my first-period math test. Then, at noon, I had discovered that my lunch ticket had run out, and I had forgotten to take money to buy another. My combination lock had stuck, so I hadn't been able to get my gym clothes out of my locker and had received another demerit in P.E.
After school I'd gone to the orthodontist to have my braces tightened and been told that I'd have to wear them for at least another year because my teeth weren't lining up properly. Tonight was Carol Johnson's slumber party, and I had not been invited; why, I didn't know—I had always thought Carol liked me.
All in all, I was in a rotten mood as I slammed into the house and dropped my books in a heap on the coffee table.
"Is that you, honey?" Mother called from the kitchen. "There's mail for you on the piano."
I wasn't surprised. I got more mail than most teenagers dreamed of getting, all large manila envelopes addressed in my own handwriting.
But this was something different.
It was a narrow, white envelope with the name and address of a magazine in the top left corner, and when I opened it two pieces of paper fell out. One was a letter, and the other a check for twenty-five dollars. "It was the most incredible moment of my life."
Thus a writing identity was confirmed; a public writing life began.
Chapters is good reading for anyone, but it offers an especially wonderful model for aspiring young authors. I have often recommended it to individual students of promise for the value of its realism, its account of persistence (Duncan submitted consistently for three years before she received that first acceptance), its wisdom ("Every experience you have is stored away inside you, to draw upon as you need it for your writing"), its authentic voice, its record of growth over time.
This book records a few moments that make a teacher wince, self examine, hope for wisdom. Duncan tells, for example, of a day when she recited a "made-up poem" for show-and-tell in kindergarten. Her proud recitation of the 16-line poem was greeted first by her classmates' silence and then by the teacher's response: "You didn't make that up." Duncan spent the rest of that day in the corner, "and it was years before I trusted a teacher again."
Many of Duncan's early works are incorporated into the narrative—from "The Fairy in the Woods," written at age 10 and rejected by one after another of the top magazines in the country, to "Home to Mother," a story published in McCalls when she was 22. These works provide a direct record of the writer's growth. The commentary about how these works were created offers, however, another dimension of insight into the creative process.
WHO KILLED MY DAUGHTER?: THE TRUE STORY OF A MOTHER'S SEARCH FOR HER DAUGHTER'S MURDERER (1992)
W. G. Roll (review date September 1993)
SOURCE: Roll, W. G. Review of Who Killed My Daughter?: The True Story of a Mother's Search for Her Daughter's Murderer, by Lois Duncan. Journal of Parapsychology 57, no. 3 (September 1993): 306-08.
[In the following review, Roll offers a positive assessment of Who Killed My Daughter?, calling it a "fascinating and deeply moving book."]
In 1989, Lois Duncan, an award-winning writer of fiction for young adults, published her 38th book, Don't Look Behind You. Duncan modeled the heroine, April, after her 18-year-old daughter, Kait, and gave Kait the bound galleys, inscribing them, "For my own special ‘April,’" adding jokingly, but perhaps with an undercurrent of foreboding, "Always be sure to look behind you, Honey!"
One month after Don't Look Behind You came out, Kait was chased down and shot to death by a hitman driving a Camero. In one of the scenes of the book, April too was chased by a hitman in a Camero. In another, her family was forced into hiding under the Federal Witness Security Program. In 1990, Duncan and her husband, Don, went into hiding because relatives of two suspects threatened to kill them.
Duncan, who professed to "a lifetime of skepticism" about psychic phenomena, gave up the idea that her daughter's death was a coincidence when she saw an entry in the police file. The police had indicted a man named "Mike" as the triggerman in Kait's murder. In an interview with one of Mike's cronies, a detective asked if he knew Mike's last name. "I don't know," the friend said. "Well, his nickname was vampires or something. They always called him ‘Vamp’". In her book, Duncan had written, "Mike Vamp doesn't play pattycake, April…. He's one of the most notorious hitmen in the country. It's not just because of his name that he's known as ‘the Vampire.’ He follows the scent of blood as though he's got a hunger for it". Duncan said she felt that her fiction had become her life.
Elsewhere Duncan has described her first encounter with parapsychology. In 1952, when she was a student at Duke, Rhine was recruiting members of the freshman class as subjects in ESP tests. Duncan, who had a negative attitude toward the experiments, scored so low that "I was called back for retesting because I had broken a record for incorrect responses."
The police insisted that Kait's murder was a random shooting. Kait's sister, Robin, who suspected Kait's Vietnamese boyfriend, wanted a second opinion and went to a psychic, Betty Muench. As a result, new information emerged and Duncan took up the trail, eventually bringing in three other psychics, Noreen Renier, Nancy Czetli, and Greta Alexander. All came up with significant clues. The book tells how Duncan fitted the pieces together and followed with her own rather risky sleuthing. The outcome is an engrossing account of insurance scams, drug dealing, the Vietnamese mafia, and gang executions.
The book is also a gripping story of a mother's attempt to come to terms with the loss of a child—a child who was at the bloom of life. She did so by reaching into two levels of reality, the underground world of criminal activity and a higher reality from where her daughter seemed to communicate.
The book deals with three topics that may be of special interest to readers of this Journal: precognition, psychic crime detection, and life after death. Don't Look Behind You was not the only work where Duncan's artistic talent may have been a catalyst for psi. Her first suspense novel, Ransom (Doubleday, 1966), was a story of teenagers kidnapped by their school bus driver. Shortly after the book came out, a bus-load of school children in Livermore, California, where Duncan was living, were kidnapped and held for ransom by their bus driver. Because Duncan knew so much, one of the parents thought she must be an accomplice and wanted to have her arrested.
Perhaps works of suspense are better vehicles for crisis precognition than blander books. Duncan had written some sticky romances before Ransom, none of which showed traces of psi, although three of her suspense novels did.
Psychic detective work is subject to the same vagaries as other ESP practices. An apparent example of displacement was produced by Noreen Renier. In the attempt to get pictures of the people involved in Kait's murder, Renier had a police artist make sketches of her impressions of two of them. The first looked vaguely familiar to Duncan. The second "caused my knees to buckle". It was, unmistakably, Mike Vamp. Not the real Mike Vamp, but the Mike Vamp shown on the cover of the British edition of Don't Look Behind You. The U.S. edition did not carry this picture so it was unlikely Renier had seen it. Kait, however, had looked at the British artwork a few days before she died. Duncan thought her daughter had communicated the image of the fictional hitman as a way to say she had been killed, not in a random shooting, but by a hitman, and as a way to say drugs were involved since the Mike Vamp in the book was a drug runner.
Who Killed My Daughter? is obviously not a research treatise. It would be interesting, though, if someone would make an examination of the work to evaluate the psi components. For instance, could Renier somehow have come across a copy of the British edition of the book? If this can be definitively ruled out, it would be interesting to have a "line-up" of several drawings of males to see if blind judges would match the Mike Vamp on the cover with Renier's picture. In evaluating the chance probability of a match it also has to be remembered that there were other possible "targets" aside from the bookcover, such as the people who were actually involved in the crime. But the resemblance between Renier's picture and the fictional Mike Vamp is striking. The same is true for the matches between the circumstances surrounding the murder and the precognitive and mediumistic impressions. And it is a fascinating and deeply moving book.1
1. See "When Fiction becomes Reality," Theta, 17, 1991, pp. 18-21.
THE MAGIC OF SPIDER WOMAN (1996)
Elizabeth S. Watson (review date July-August 1996)
SOURCE: Watson, Elizabeth S. Review of The Magic of Spider Woman, by Lois Duncan, illustrated by Shonto Begay. Horn Book Magazine 72, no. 4 (July-August 1996): 470.
A Navajo legend explores the article of faith closely held by the Dinéh that life must be lived in balance, explaining why generations of Navajo weavers have carefully woven mistakes into their traditional blankets [in The Magic of Spider Woman ]. Like the Greek Arachne, Weaving Woman becomes a little too enamored of her gift, and as a punishment disappears into her loom, redeemed only when the supernatural Spider Woman pulls out a strand to release her. Since then, all weavers have promised to make "spirit trails" in their blankets, and not to allow "pride to become master of our spirits." The tale is presented with lush illustrations executed by a well-known Navajo artist. Although the story is dramatic, often tense, the text is stately and controlled, respectful in tone and choice of words, giving a safe feeling to the tale—a subtle assurance that all will work out. Traditional colors and patterns are employed throughout the art, but special care is taken with the depictions of Navajo blankets. Although the source note only gestures vaguely at "well-documented sources," the book in itself is a richly executed product that is useful as well as beautiful.
NIGHT TERRORS: STORIES OF SHADOW AND SUBSTANCE (1996)
Mary Jo Drungil (review date June 1996)
SOURCE: Drungil, Mary Jo. Review of Night Terrors: Stories of Shadow and Substance, edited by Lois Duncan. School Library Journal 42, no. 6 (June 1996): 153.
Gr. 7 Up—Various modern-day bogeys, both real and imaginary, lurk in the pages of [Night Terrors: Stories of Shadow and Substance, ] this compelling collection of original short stories from acclaimed YA authors. Traditional terror figures dominate some tales, such as Annette Curtis Klause's basement monster, Theodore Taylor's escaped madman, and Patricia Windsor's murderer in the woods. Chris Lynch and Alane Ferguson's protagonists are each caught in spirals of psychological fear. Joan Aiken, Richard Peck, and Norma Fox Mazer's stories contain threads of humor. Harry Mazer and Joan Lowery Nixon deal with contemporary dangers, including guns and gang activity. Brief author commentaries appear at the end of each story. The balance and diversity of the selections serve to strengthen the book's overall appeal; herein lie tales that will attract a variety of YA suspense and horror fans. The perennial popularity of frightening fiction should also render this collection attractive to reluctant readers.
GALLOWS HILL (1997)
Elizabeth Devereaux and Diane Roback (review date 17 May 1997)
SOURCE: Devereaux, Elizabeth, and Diane Roback. Review of Gallows Hill, by Lois Duncan. Publishers Weekly 244, no. 11 (17 May 1997): 84.
Duncan (Stranger with My Face ) delights in building suspense brick by brick until she has a whole creepy wall to collapse at the climax [in Gallows Hill ]. This time, her mortar is an eerie crystal paperweight, the Salem witchcraft trials, hints of reincarnation and the unsteady alliances of step families. Sarah and her mother, Rosemary, have moved to a small, conservative town in the Ozarks because Rosemary has fallen in love with the hypocritical, still-married Ted. Sarah tries to fit in at the high school, but she has no friends—until the too-perfect Eric asks Sarah to be a fortune-teller at the Halloween carnival. Speed ahead in the predictable plot, and Sarah finds that she really can read future disaster in the crystal ball. Soon, frightened classmates proclaim her a witch, put a dead crow in her locker and lure her to a remote gallows to meet her fate amid a crowd of unbalanced teens and a blazing bonfire. While the characters are far too pat—the jolly fat boy, cruel cheerleaders, evil handsome class president, shrill ex-wife, bossy stepfather—Duncan nevertheless propels the reader along, dropping sinister clues on every page like bread crumbs in a forest. As in many YA suspense novels, the adults are unsympathetic and clueless, allowing their teens to run rampant into the alluring arms of evil. The real nightmare of being a teenager is having nobody believe you or help you conquer your demons, but in this book, Sarah manages through self-reliance to face her fears, both natural and supernatural. Ages 12-up.
TRAPPED: CAGES OF MIND AND BODY (1998)
Chris Crowe (review date September 2001)
SOURCE: Crowe, Chris. Review of Trapped: Cages of Mind and Body, edited by Lois Duncan. English Journal 91, no. 1 (September 2001): 127-28.
[In Trapped: Cages of Mind and Body, ] Duncan has assembled a strong, and sometimes edgy, collection of thirteen stories written by some of today's leading YA authors, including Lois Lowry, Rob Thomas, Francesca Lia Block, Walter Dean Myers, Joan Bauer, and Duncan herself. Duncan's introduction summarizes the book's theme: "Readers will meet young protagonists who are trapped—physically, mentally, and emotionally—in situations that draw upon the best and the worst of the human spirit" (viii). Of special interest are two stories, Myers's "The Escape" and Bauer's "Pancakes," which both seem to foreshadow later novels: Myers's Monster (1999) and Bauer's Hope Was Here (2000).
THE LONGEST HAIR IN THE WORLD (1999)
Diane Roback, Jennifer M. Brown, and Cindi Di Marzo (review date 6 September 1999)
SOURCE: Roback, Diane, Jennifer M. Brown, and Cindi Di Marzo. Review of The Longest Hair in the World, by Lois Duncan, illustrated by Jon McIntosh. Publishers Weekly 246, no. 36 (6 September 1999): 102-03.
Duncan's (I Know What You Did Last Summer ) usually glossy prose could use a little conditioning in this limp excursion [The Longest Hair in the World ]. Emily makes a birthday wish for long hair, hoping to land the lead role of princess in the school play. As her hair grows to alarming lengths, birds nest in it, she has to go to the car wash for a shampoo and it gets tangled in the jungle gym. But does Emily learn a lesson, when she gets another wish at her next birthday? Hint: the next school play stars a porcupine. McIntosh (Witch Way to the Beach) interprets the story in cartoon illustrations that border on caricature—Emily's smugness, her parents' concern and her schoolmates' initial envy are as exaggerated as Emily's long locks. Both in the style of the illustrations and the various developments (e.g., the carwash cum beauty parlor), the enterprise resembles last year's Hurricane Henrietta, also about an overtressed heroine. This long-hair tale feels long in the tooth as well. Ages 5-8.
I WALK AT NIGHT (2000)
Gillian Engberg (review date 1 February 2000)
SOURCE: Engberg, Gillian. Review of I Walk at Night, by Lois Duncan, illustrated by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher. Booklist 96, no. 11 (1 February 2000): 1028-29.
Ages 4-8. Should cat owners forget that cats don't belong to anyone but themselves, the feline speaker in this beautifully illustrated picture book [I Walk at Night ] is here to remind them. The cat moves from the freedom of the night to a domestic day on its owner's lap and then back into the dark. Its activities are described in simple, rhyming text, but they don't add up to much story, and some of the rhyme feels stretched: "I wear my furry clothes / Even in clover. / I sit on windowsills. / I watch to see what spills / When things tip over." The paintings, however, are stunning. In soft acrylics outlined in thin black string, the cat becomes both cuddly and electric, zooming in and out of range as it leaps from trees, laps from bowls, and dreams of "birds and fishes" in a Matisse-like swirl of animals. Young feline fans will be drawn to this portrait of cats doing what they do. It's a nice change of pace for Duncan, who is best known for her YA novels. Contrast this with Christopher Myers' Black Cat [BKL Ap 15 99] for a very different, urban perspective of a cat's private life.
ON THE EDGE: STORIES AT THE BRINK (2000)
Gillian Engberg (review date 1-15 June 2000)
SOURCE: Engberg, Gillian. Review of On the Edge: Stories at the Brink, edited by Lois Duncan. Booklist 96, nos. 19-20 (1-15 June 2000): 1882.
Gr. 7-12—A girl's brother is diagnosed with schizophrenia; a boy escapes into the virtual reality of his computer; a girl awaits the results of medical tests for a brain tumor [in On the Edge: Stories at the Brink ]. These are among the widely varied interpretations of this absorbing collection's theme, which are written by well-known children's and young adult authors, including, Margaret Peterson Haddix, William Sleator, Ellen Wittlinger, and Gail Carson Levine. These teen characters experience discomfort, terror, understanding, and peace as they explore physical and emotional peripheries, from walking through quicksand to, as Graham Salisbury writes, being "on the edge of making an intelligent decision." And there is humor, too: in one story, a boy nearly declares his feverish crush on a girl as he develops a volcanic zit. Some entries work better than others, and parents may complain about the vulgar language in one story and the fairly graphic descriptions of war in another. But each edgy situation raises provocative questions that will resonate strongly with teens, as will the contemporary details. Author notes appending each story will appeal to young writers and suggest further reading, including Duncan's previous anthologies: Night Terrors (1996) and Trapped (1998).
SONG OF THE CIRCUS (2001)
Janice M. Del Negro (review date May 2002)
SOURCE: Del Negro, Janice M. Review of Song of the Circus, by Lois Duncan, illustrated by Meg Cundiff. Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 55, no. 9 (May 2002): 320.
Golden-haired Gisselda and little clown Bop are both children of the circus, and their lives are colored by a splendid array of big top performers and animals [in Song of the Circus ]. Gisselda takes her naps "on tattooed shoulders and spangled laps," and Bop, son of the bicycle clowns, juggles on the trunk of the elephant. They are beloved by all except for the tiger, "so mean and wild, / he dreams of eating a circus child." A chance flat tire during the show sets off a chain of accidents that results in the jungle beast's breaking free. The cat's first thought is to eat Gisselda and Bop, but they aren't circus kids for nothing: "Those two brave children / stood staunch and tough / and screamed at the Jungle Cat, / ‘THAT'S ENOUGH! / You've got to live by circus laws. / You can't eat children, so / SHUT YOUR JAWS!’" Duncan's rhyming circus adventure deftly balances magic and mayhem. The opening stanzas initially suggest a "House that Jack Built" accumulation that quickly shifts pace with the introduction of circus characters, human and beast, and the segue into the fateful performance. Cundiff's gouache illustrations are rendered in a neon palette with little regard for standard rules of perspective or proportion (figures of Kalman-like distortion float against intensely hued backdrops); contrast in size is used for emphasis to particularly great effect (tiny Bop isn't just the littlest clown, he's the littlest anything). A strong readaloud with lots of possible enrichment activities, this title has all the magic one expects from a day at the circus.
Horowitz, Anthony. "Parent Problems." Times Literary Supplement, no. 4273 (22 February 1985): 214.
Compliments Duncan's "freshness of writing" and "chilling descriptions" in The Third Eye.
Peck, Richard. "Teaching Teacher a Lesson." New York Times Book Review (30 April 1978): 54.
Argues that the characters in Killing Mr. Griffin are "meticulously unflattering" and that the text's conclusion is "unadulterated melodrama."
Philip, Neil. "Stirring Up Emotion." Times Literary Supplement, no. 3381 (10 April 1981): 24.
Faults Summer of Fear as unconvincing and emotionally dishonest.
Additional coverage of Duncan's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vols. 4, 34; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vols. 6, 8; Children's Literature Review, Vol. 29; Concise Major 21st-Century Writers, Ed. 1; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 2, 23, 36, 111; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 26; Junior DISCovering Authors; Literature Resource Center; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Eds. 1, 2; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults Supplement, Ed. 1; Major 21st-Century Writers, Ed. 2005; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers; Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Writers; Something about the Author, Vols. 1, 36, 75, 133, 141; Something about the Author Autobiography Series, Vol. 2; and Writers for Young Adults.