(Edward Irving Wortis)
Born December 23, 1937, in New York, NY; son of Joseph (a psychiatrist) and Helen (a social worker) Wortis; married Joan Gabriner (a weaver), November 1, 1963 (divorced); married Coppelia Kahn (a professor of English); children: Shaun Wortis, Kevin Wortis; stepchildren: Gabriel Kahn. Education: Attended Antioch University; University of Wisconsin—Madison, B.A., 1959, M.A., 1962; Columbia University, M.S.L.S., 1964. Hobbies and other interests: Photography.
Home—Boulder, CO. Agent—Dorothy Markinko, McIntosh & Otis, Inc., 475 5th Ave., New York, NY 10017.
Author of books for children, beginning 1960. New York Public Library, New York, NY, librarian in performing arts research center, 1962-70; Lambeth Public Library, London, England, exchange program librarian, 1968; Trenton State College, Trenton, NJ, assistant professor and humanities librarian, 1970-86. Cofounder of "Breakfast Serials" (reading program), 1996; visiting writer in schools across the United States.
PEN, Authors Guild, Authors League of America.
Best Book of the Year designation, British Book Council, 1973, for Snail Tale; grants from New Jersey State Council on the Arts, 1974, 1976, and 1978; Mystery Writers of America Special Award, 1975, for No More Magic, 1979, for Emily Upham's Revenge, and 1983, for Shadrach's Crossing; Christopher Award, 1980, for Encounter at Easton; Children's Choice Award, International Reading Association (IRA), 1980, for Man from the Sky, and 1988, for Romeo and Juliet—Together (and Alive) at Last; New Jersey Authors Award, New Jersey Institute of Technology, 1983, for Shadrach's Crossing; Scott O'Dell Historical Fiction Award, Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, 1984, for The Fighting Ground; ALA Best Books for Young Adults citations, 1984, for The Fighting Ground, and 1986, for Wolf Rider, and Notable Book citation for The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, 1990; Library of Congress Best Books of the Year citations, 1989, for Something Upstairs, and 1990, for The Man Who Was Poe; Virginia Young Readers' Award, 1990, for Wolf Rider; Best Book of the Year citation, Society of Children's Book Authors and illustrators, 1990, and Newbery Honor Book designation, American Library Association (ALA), Horn Book/Boston Globe Award, and Golden Kite Award, Society of Children's Book Authors, all 1991, all for The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle; Newbery Honor Book designation, 1992, for Nothing but the Truth; Boston Globe/Horn Book Award for Fiction, 1996, for Poppy; New York Public Library Best Books of the Year citation, 1996, and National Council of Social Studies/Children's Book Council Notable Book citation, 1997, both for Beyond the Western Sea; Pick of the Lists designation, IRA, 1997, for Finding Providence; Newbery Award, 2003, for Crispin: The Cross of Lead.
Things That Sometimes Happen (picture book), illustrated by Jodi Robbin, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1970, abridged edition, illustrated by Marjorie Priceman, Atheneum Books for Young Readers (New York, NY), 2001.
Snail Tale: The Adventures of a Rather Small Snail, (picture book), illustrated by Tom Kindron, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1972, revised as The End of the Beginning: Being the Adventures of a Small Snail (and an Even Smaller Ant), illustrated by Tricia Tusa, Harcourt (Orlando, FL), 2004.
No More Magic, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1975.
Captain Grey, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1977.
Emily Upham's Revenge; or, How Deadwood Dick Saved the Banker's Niece: A Massachusetts Adventure, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1978.
Night Journeys, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1979.
Encounter at Easton (sequel to Night Journeys), Pantheon (New York, NY), 1980.
Man from the Sky, Knopf (New York, NY), 1980.
The History of Helpless Harry: To Which Is Added a Variety of Amusing and Entertaining Adventures, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1980.
A Place Called Ugly, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1981.
Who Stole the Wizard of Oz?, Knopf (New York, NY), 1981.
Sometimes I Think I Hear My Name, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1982.
Shadrach's Crossing, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1983.
The Fighting Ground, Lippincott (Philadelphia, PA), 1984.
S.O.R. Losers, Bradbury (Scarsdale, NY), 1984.
Devil's Race, Lippincott (Philadelphia, PA), 1984.
Bright Shadow, Bradbury (Scarsdale, NY), 1985.
Wolf Rider: A Tale of Terror, Bradbury (Scarsdale, NY), 1986.
Devil's Race, Avon (New York, NY), 1987.
Romeo and Juliet—Together (and Alive) at Last (sequel to S.O.R. Losers), Avon (New York, NY), 1988.
Something Upstairs: A Tale of Ghosts, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1988.
The Man Who Was Poe, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1989.
The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1990.
Windcatcher, Bradbury (Scarsdale, NY), 1991.
Nothing but the Truth: A Documentary Novel, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1991.
"Who Was That Masked Man, Anyway?," Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1992.
Blue Heron, Bradbury (Scarsdale, NY), 1992.
Punch with Judy, Bradbury (New York, NY), 1993.
City of Light, City of Dark: A Comic Book Novel, illustrated by Brian Floca, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1993.
The Barn, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1994.
Shadrach's Crossing Smuggler's Island, Morrow Junior Books (New York, NY), 1994.
The Bird, the Frog, and the Light: A Fable, paintings by Matthew Henry, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1994.
Tom, Babette, and Simon: Three Tales of Transformation, illustrated by Alexi Natchev, Macmillan Books for Young Readers (New York, NY), 1995.
Poppy (also see below), illustrated by Brian Floca, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1995.
Beyond the Western Sea, Book One: Escape from Home, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1995.
Beyond the Western Sea, Book Two: Lord Kirkle's Money, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1996.
What Do Fish Have to Do with Anything?: Short Stories, Candlewick Press (Cambridge, MA), 1997.
Finding Providence: The Story of Roger Williams, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1997.
Poppy and Rye (also see below), illustrated by Brian Floca, Avon (New York, NY), 1998.
Perloo the Bold, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1998.
Ragweed (also see below), illustrated by Brian Floca, Avon (New York, NY), 1999.
Second Sight: Stories for a New Millennium, Philomel Books (New York, NY), 1999.
Abigail Takes the Wheel, illustrated by Don Bolognese, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1999.
Midnight Magic, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1999.
Ereth's Birthday (also see below), illustrated by Brian Floca, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2000.
The Christmas Rat, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2000.
Prairie School, illustrated by Bill Farnsworth, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2001.
The Secret School, Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 2001.
Don't You Know There's a War On?, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2001.
The Good Dog, Atheneum Books for Young Readers (New York, NY), 2001.
Tales from Dimwood Forest (includes Ragweed, Poppy, Poppy and Rye, and Ereth's Birthday), illustrated by Brian Floca, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2001.
Crispin: The Cross of Lead, Hyperion Books for Children (New York, NY), 2002.
Silent Movie, illustrated by C.B. Mordan, Atheneum Books for Young Readers (New York, NY), 2002.
The Mayor of Central Park, illustrated by Brian Floca, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2003.
(With Rachel Vail) Never Mind! A Twin Novel, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2004.
The End of the Beginning: Being the Adventures of a Small Snail (and an Even Smaller Ant), illustrated by Tricia Tusa, Harcourt (Orlando, FL), 2004.
Strange Happenings: Five Tales of Transformation, Harcourt (Orlando, FL), 2005.
Poppy's Return, illustrated by Brian Floca, HarperCollins Publishers (New York, NY), 2005.
The Book without Words: A Fable of Medieval Magic, Hyperion Books for Children (New York, NY), 2005.
Crispin: At the Edge of the World, Hyperion Books for Children (New York, NY), 2006.
(Selector with Carolyn Shute, and contributor) Best Shorts: Favorite Short Stories for Sharing, illustrated by Chris Raschka, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2006.
The Traitors's Gate, illustrated by Karina Raude, Atheneum Books for Young Readers (New York, NY), 2007.
Iron Thunder: The Battle between the Monitor and the Merrimack, Hyperion (New York, NY), 2007.
The Seer of Shadows, HarperCollins Publishers (New York, NY), 2008.
A Beginning, a Muddle, and an End: The Right Way to Write Writing, illustrated by Tricia Tusa, Harcourt (Orlando, FL), 2008.
Also author of numerous plays. Contributor to books, including Performing Arts Resources, 1974, edited by Ted Perry, Drama Book Publishers, 1975, and Acting Out, Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers (New York, NY), 2008. Contributor to periodicals, including New York Public Library Bulletin, Top of the News, Children's Literature in Education, Horn Book, and Writer. Book reviewer for Library Journal, School Library Journal, and Previews, 1965-73.
Translations of Avi's books have been published in Germany, Austria, Denmark, Norway, Spain, Italy, and Japan.
Emily Upham's Revenge, Shadrach's Crossing, Something Upstairs, The Fighting Ground, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, Nothing but the Truth, and Read to Me were produced on radio programs Read to Me, Maine Public Radio, and Books Aloud, WWON-Rhode Island; The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, City of Light/City of Dark, Sometimes I Think I Hear My Name, Something Upstairs, and Night Journeys were optioned for film; Something Upstairs was adapted as a play performed by Louisville (KY) Children's Theater, 1997; Nothing but the Truth was adapted for the stage by Ronn Smith; many of Avi's books have been adapted as audio books.
The author of inviting, readable novels, Avi is well known to critics, teachers, parents, and particularly to young readers. His many award-winning books, which include The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, Nothing but the Truth: A Documentary Novel, The Seer of Shadows, and the Newbery Award-winning Crispin: The Cross of Lead, range from mysteries and adventure yarns to historical fiction, supernatural tales, coming-of-age novels, and comic stories, some even combining several of these genres. While captivating even reluctant readers with his fast-paced, imaginative plots and the inclusion of plenty of action, Avi's books also offer complex, thought-provoking, and sometimes disturbingly realistic reflections of American culture. The author summed up his goals in writing young-adult novels in Twentieth-Century Children's Writers: "I try to write about complex issues—young people in an adult world—full of irony and contradiction, in a narrative style that relies heavily on suspense with a texture rich in emotion and imagery. I take a great deal of satisfaction in using popular forms—the adventure, the mystery, the thriller—so as to hold my reader with the sheer pleasure of a good story. At the same time I try to re-
solve my books with an ambiguity that compels engagement. In short, I want my readers to feel, to think, sometimes to laugh. But most of all I want them to enjoy a good read."
Born in New York City in 1937, Avi was raised in Boston in an artistic environment. His great-grandparents and a grandmother were writers, two uncles were painters, and both parents wrote. His family was also politically active, its members aligning themselves with the radical movements spawned by the Great Depression of the 1930s. The author once explained that his extended family comprised "a very strong art community and what this meant for me as a child was that there was always a kind of uproarious sense of debate. It was all a very affectionate sharing of ideas—arguing, but not arguing in anger, arguing about ideas."
Avi's stimulating home environment prepared the boy for the challenges of higher education. Although he was an avid reader as a child, difficulties in writing eventually caused him to flunk out of one school; these difficulties were later discovered to be the result of a dysfunction known as dysgraphia, a marginal impairment in writing abilities that causes the patient to reverse letters and misspell words. "One of my aunts said I could spell a four letter word wrong five ways," Avi once commented. Despite constant criticism at school, he kept writing, crediting his family's emphasis on the arts for his perseverance. When school assignments came back covered in red ink, he simply saved them, corrections and all. "I think there was so much criticism, I became immune to it," Avi once said. "I wasn't even paying attention to it. I liked what I wrote."
The first step on Avi's course to writing professionally was reading: everything from comic books and science magazines to histories, plays, and novels. Despite the skepticism of his teachers, he decided to make writing his career while still in high school. Throughout the summer of his junior year he "met every day with a wonderful teacher who not only taught me writing basics, but also instilled in me the conviction that I wanted to be a writer myself," he later recalled. "Perhaps it was stubbornness. It was generally agreed that was one thing I could not possibly do." Attending Antioch University, Avi enrolled in play writing rather than English courses. "That's where I really started to write seriously," he once commented. Although one of his college plays won a contest and was published in a magazine, the author admitted that of the "trunkfull of plays" he wrote, "I would say ninety-nine percent of them weren't very good."
After working at a variety of jobs, Avi found work in the theater collection of the New York Public Library, beginning his twenty-four-year career as a librarian. His determination to be a writer never flagged during this time, and he had written hundreds of pages of his "great American novel" by the time he turned his attention to children's literature. It all began with telling stories to his two sons. "My oldest would tell me what the story should be about—he would invent stuff, a story about a glass of water and so forth. It became a game, and here I had a writing background so I was telling some fairly sophisticated stories."
Along with telling stories, Avi drew pictures for fun. A friend who was writing a children's book asked Avi to provide art for his story, and although the book was rejected by a publisher, Avi was asked to illustrate other children's books. Explaining that he was a writer and not an artist, Avi agreed to illustrate if he could also write the text. After writing down all the stories he had told to his own son, Avi submitted it to the publisher. "Of course she turned everything down," he recalled. Ultimately, Doubleday accepted the manuscript and Things That Sometimes Happen: Very Short Stories for Very Young Readers was published in 1970—without Avi's artwork.
Using the pen name Avi, which had been given him by his twin sister in early childhood, he continued to write children's books geared to his sons' reading levels. "At a certain point they kept growing and I didn't," the author explained. "I hit a fallow period, and then I wrote No More Magic. Suddenly I felt ‘This is right! I'm writing novels and I love it.’ From then on I was committed to writing novels."
Avi's early novels include Captain Grey, Night Journeys, Encounter at Easton, and The Fighting Ground are set in colonial America. Winner of the Scott O'Dell Historical Fiction Award for children, The Fighting Ground presents one event-filled day in the life of Jonathan, a thirteen-year-old boy who is caught up in the Revolutionary War. The novel begins as Jonathan slips away from his family's New Jersey farm in order to take part in a skirmish with a group of German Hessians, mercenary soldiers who are working for the English crown. Jonathan sets out for battle full of unquestioned hatred for the Hessians as well as for Tories (colonists loyal to the British) and hoping to take part in the glory of battle. Jonathan can barely carry his six-foot-long musket, and he finds it difficult trying to understand the talk among the men with whom he marches. The small group's leader is a crude individual who lies to the men and is said to be "overfond of killing." After a bloody skirmish, the boy is captured by three Hessians, and soon learns to view them as individual human beings. Slowly, the reader, along with Jonathan, is brought to an understanding of what war means in human terms. The Fighting Ground was widely praised, a Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books critic describing the book as "a small stunner" that "makes the war personal and immediate."
"Somewhere along the line, I can't explain where, I developed an understanding of history not as fact but as story," Avi explained in an interview with Jim Roginski in Behind the Covers: "That you could look at a field and, with only a slight shift of your imagination, suddenly watch the battle that took place there…. You have to have a willingness to look beyond things." In Something Upstairs: A Tale of Ghosts, for example, a young man discovers the ghost of a murdered slave in the historic house his family has moved into in Providence, Rhode Island. The boy travels back in time to the days of slave trading, where he learns about the murder and, perhaps more importantly, about the manner in which American history is collectively remembered. Like the narrator in Something Upstairs, Avi moved from Los Angeles to Providence; in fact, he moved into the historic house where he sets his novel.
The Man Who Was Poe, Avi's fictionalized portrait of nineteenth-century writer Edgar Allan Poe, intertwines fiction and history on several levels. Historically, Poe went through a period of severe depression and poverty, aggravated by alcoholism during the two years preceding his death in 1849. Avi, whose novel focuses on this period, said he became fascinated with Poe because he was so extraordinary and yet such "a horrible man." In the novel, a young boy named Edmund immigrates to Providence from England with his aunt and twin sister in order to look for his missing mother. When both aunt and sister also disappear, the penniless boy must elicit help from a stranger—who happens to be Edgar Allen Poe. Noticing similarities in Edmund's story to his own life and detecting material for his writing, Poe agrees to help the boy. Between maddening bouts of drunkenness, the writer ingeniously finds a trail of clues; meanwhile, Edmund alternates between feeling awe for the man's perceptive powers and despair at Poe's obvious madness. A reviewer for the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books described The Man Who Was Poe as "a complex, atmospheric thriller" in which "Avi recreates the gloom of [the] 1840s … with a storyteller's ease, blending drama, history, and mystery without a hint of pastiche or calculation." According to the critic, readers "will be left in the end with both the comfort of puzzles solved and the unease of mysteries remaining."
In another unique twist on the convention of historical novels, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle presents the unlikely story of a very proper thirteen year old who, as the sole passenger and only female on a trans-Atlantic ship in 1832, becomes involved in a mutiny at sea. Holding her family's aristocratic views on social class and demeanor, Charlotte begins her voyage trusting only Captain Jaggery, whose fine manners and authoritative command remind her of her father. Shocked to find that Jaggery is a viciously brutal and inhumane shipmaster, Charlotte gradually begins to question—and discard—the values of her privileged background, revealing the strength of her true character.
The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle received accolades from critics for its suspense, its evocation of life at sea, and particularly for the rich and believable narrative of its protagonist. The impact of Charlotte's liberation from social bonds and gender restrictions also had a powerful emotional effect on many of Avi's readers. According to the author, "many people, mostly girls, and even adults, have told me of bursting into tears" at the book's ending. In his Boston Globe/Horn Book award acceptance speech, Avi referenced the words of a critic who spoke of the "improbable but deeply satisfying conclusion" of the novel. "I am deeply grateful for the award you have given me today," Avi added. "But I hope you will understand me when I tell you that if the ‘improbable’ life I wrote lives in someone's heart as a life possible, then I have already been given the greatest gift a writer can receive: a reader who takes my story and endows it with life by the grace of their own desire."
In the Newbery Award-winning Crispin: The Cross of Lead, Avi "introduces some of his most unforgettable characters," according to Booklist contributor Ilene Cooper. Taking place in England during the fourteenth century, as poverty, a greedy aristocracy, and the Black Plague ravage the country's peasant population, the novel finds a thirteen-year-old orphan framed for a murder he did not commit. Crispin flees from the familiar surroundings where he was raised, taking with him only the clothes on his back and his mother's lead cross, which bears an inscription he cannot decipher. Soon, Crispin falls in with a traveling juggler who, due to his burly size, is called Bear. With Bear's help the boy learns the juggler trade, and also becomes steeped in his mentor's radical politics, which include rebelling against a feudal system that keeps most people living lives of brutal poverty. As he gains in self-esteem, Crispin also learns the truth about his birth and understands his place in the world. "Avi's plot is engineered for maximum thrills, with twists, turns and treachery aplenty," noted a Publishers Weekly contributor, adding that the "compellingly drawn" friendship between the boy and the old juggler gives Crispin: The Cross of Lead its emotional heart.
A sequel to Crispin: The Cross of Lead, Crispin: At the Edge of the World finds Crispin and Bear fleeing from the king's authorities, funding their flight along England's coast by performing a minstrel act. After Bear becomes wounded, the fugitives find shelter with a wise woman and her apprentice, where Crispin finds his Catholic faith challenged. Noting the novel's realism, Vicky Smith wrote in Horn Book that Crispin: At the Edge of the World "doesn't romanticize the era; instead, it portrays England and France as places where poverty, superstition, and violence were commonplace." A Kirkus Reviews critic praised Avi's "swiftly paced sequel" for its "superb storytelling," dubbing Crispin: At the Edge of the World a "moving, history-packed adventure." In School Library Journal Melissa Moore had even higher praise, calling Avi's novel an "extraordinary work of lyrical simplicity, nearly flawless in its execution, and a haunting tale of love and loss."
Other historical novels by Avi include Prairie School and The Secret School, both of which stress the importance of education. The Secret School takes place in Elk Valley, Colorado, in 1925, as the small town's only teacher leaves unexpectedly and a fourteen-year-old girl decides to fill the learning gap. Writing about Prairie School in School Library Journal, Carol Schene noted that Avi's "gentle story" contains "a great message that is nicely woven into the daily events" in its characters' lives. Hazel Rochman, writing in Booklist, wrote that the author's "clear simple language never sounds condescending." In a review of The Secret School for School Library Journal, B. Allison Gray called it a "carefully plotted, enjoyable, old-fashioned tale" in which "the importance of education and dreaming of one's future are imparted in an entertaining way."
Avi returns readers to mid-nineteenth-century London in The Traitors' Gate, which finds fourteen-year-old John Huffam shouldering the responsibility for keeping his family safe after his father is arrested under mysterious circumstances. Soon he learns that members of his family are under surveillance by the Naval Ordinance Office, where his father works, and the teen is forced to deal with the truth of his father's character. "Avi's love of the [Victorian] period is evident" in his "charmingly told" tale, according to School Library Journal contributor Connie Tyrrell Burns, the critic praising The Traitor's Gate as an "action-packed" story "from a master craftsman." Citing the references to noted novelist Charles Dickens that Avi imbeds within his storyline, a Publishers Weekly critic similarly dubbed the book an "action-packed tale of secret identities, double-dealing and betrayal."
Set across the Atlantic in New York City over two decades later than The Traitor's Gate, The Seer of Shadows finds fourteen-year-old Horace Carpentine working as a photographer's apprentice. When his boss, Enoch Middleditch, decides to take advantage of the gullibility of a wealthy client and create fraudulent photographs of purported spirits, the boy accidentally releases the ghost of Eleanora. The client's dead daughter, Eleanora is determined to exact revenge upon both of her parents. Noting that Avi adopts a gothic storytelling style, a Publishers Weekly critic called The Seer of Shadows an "intriguing ghost story" that will "leave spines tingling." Phelan wrote that Avi's "engaging novel has great immediacy and strong narrative drive," and Horn Book critic Betty Carter deemed The Seer of Shadows a "dandy mystery [that] re-creates and stays within its historical period while also introducing characters confronting timeless questions of personal honor."
Avi turns to fantasy in The Book without Words, which is set in England during the eleventh century. Here Sybil is a servant of the evil alchemist Thorston, but her master perishes before he can steal the thirteen-year-old girl's vital breath. Odo, Thorston's talking raven, tells Sybil that the secret to creating the elixer of life is contained in a book that will only reveal its secret to a reader with green eyes. "Avi reigns supreme in building gothic atmosphere," concluded Booklist critic Jennifer Mattson, the reviewer citing the "ghastly scenes of fog-shrouded cemeteries" featured in The Book without Words. A Kirkus Reviews critic noted the "poetic, nearly comedic plays on words" that salt the novel's dialogue, and in Kliatt, Paula Rohrlick described The Book without Words as an "appealingly creepy tale that features … a feisty heroine and a message about the dangers of greediness."
Avi's S.O.R. Losers is a humorous contemporary novel about a group of unathletic boys who are forced by their school—one based on Avi's high school in New York City—to form a soccer team. Opposing the time-
honored school ethic that triumph in sports is the American way, the boys form their own opinions about winning at something that means little to them. In a team meeting, they take stock of who they are and why it's so important to everyone else that they should win their games. Horn Book contributor Mary M. Burns called the novel "one of the funniest and most original sports sagas on record," and particularly praised Avi's skill with comedic form. "Short, pithy chapters highlighting key events maintain the pace necessary for successful comedy. As in a Charlie Chaplin movie, emphasis is on individual episode—each distinct, yet organically related to an overall idea." Avi has written several other comic novels, including his sequel to S.O.R. Losers, Romeo and Juliet—Together (and Alive) at Last, and two well-received spoofs on nineteenth-century melodrama: Emily Upham's Revenge and The History of Helpless Harry.
Avi's other acclaimed contemporary coming-of-age novels include A Place Called Ugly, Nothing but the Truth, and Sometimes I Think I Hear My Name. Based on an actual incident, his 1992 Newbery honor book Nothing but the Truth is the story of Philip Malloy and his battle with an English teacher, Miss Narwin. With bad grades in English keeping him off the track team, Philip repeatedly breaks school rules by humming the national anthem along with the public address system in Miss Narwin's home room. Eventually, the principal suspends Philip from school. Because the school happens to be in the midst of elections, various self-interested members of the community exploit this story of a boy being suspended for his patriotism. Much to everyone's surprise, the incident in home room snowballs into a national media event that, in its frenzied patriotic rhetoric, thoroughly overshadows the true story about a good teacher's inability to reach a student, a young man's alienation, a community's disinterest in its children's needs, and a school system's hypocrisy.
Nothing but the Truth is a book without a narrator, relating its story through school memos, diary entries, letters, dialogues, newspaper articles, and radio talk show scripts. Presented thus, without narrative bias, the story takes into account the differing points of view surrounding the incident, allowing the reader to root out the real problems leading to the incident. Avi once commented that he got the idea for the structure of this novel from a form of theater that arose in the 1930s called "Living Newspapers"—dramatizations of issues and problems confronting American society presented through a "hodgepodge" of document readings and dialogues.
In addition to realistic contemporary and historical novels, Avi has also successfully penned fantasy fiction and several other unique chapter books for readers in the early elementary grades. Poppy, which received a Boston Globe/Horn Book award in 1996, tells the story of two deer mice, Ragweed and Poppy, who are about to marry when the self-proclaimed king of Dimwood Forest—an owl named Mr. Ocax—eats Ragwood, supposedly as punishment for neglecting to seek his permission to marry. Ann A. Flowers of Horn Book called Poppy "a tribute to the inquiring mind and the stout heart." Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books critic Roger Sutton wrote: "Sprightly but un-cute dialogue, suspenseful chapter endings, and swift shifts of perspective between Ocax and Poppy will make chapter-a-day readalouds cause for anticipation."
In addition to following Poppy with several sequels, Avi has also created new animal-sized adventures in The End of the Beginning: Being the Adventures of a Small Snail (and an Even Smaller Ant) and A Beginning, a Muddle, and an End: The Right Way to Write Writing. Based on a beginning reader Avi authored early in his career, the first book finds friends Avon the snail and Edward the ant departing on cross-country adventures, each with his own approach to travel. Praising the artwork by Tricia Tusa, a Publishers Weekly reviewer wrote of The End of the Beginning that "bite-size chapters and the clever repartee make this a charming tale," and School Library Journal contributor Connie Tyrrell Burns dubbed it "a wise little book" about friendship. A Beginning, a Muddle, and an End, which reunites Avon and Edward, finds Avon aspiring to become a writer. With Edward's help, Avon goes on a series of adventures, meeting a series of interesting creatures along the way.
Other quirky novels for younger readers include The Good Dog, a tale about a malamute named McKinley who is top dog in his small town. Told from the point of view of the dog, the story takes an imaginative view of the trappings of human civilization, and brings readers into a clever canine culture. Noting the dogs' emotional connection to freedom, a reviewer for Publishers Weekly called The Good Dog "reminiscent of Jack London's The Call of the Wild."
Featuring striking black-and-white illustrations by C.B. Mordan, Silent Movie brings the drama and pathos of a silent movie of the early twentieth century to the picture-book medium. Mimicking film subtitles with his brief text, Avi spins the story of a family of Swedish immigrants who are separated shortly after arriving in New York harbor. While young Gustave and his mother are forced to beg on the street after being robbed, they are eventually reunited with Papa after their images are captured on film by a famous silent-movie director. Sharing the same time period—the first decade of the twentieth century—The Mayor of Central Park finds Big Daddy Duds, head of a gang of tough-talking city rats, determined to take over Central Park, despite the objections of the park's current mayor, a long-tailed squirrel named Oscar Westerwit. When the gangster and the mayor find that they also root for opposing baseball teams, the turf battle moves to a more peaceable arena: the city ball park. In Publishers Weekly a contributor described The Mayor of Central Park as "an over-the-top romp" and added that Avi's "tough-talking prose would do an old gangster movie proud."
Although writing full time, Avi maintains regular interaction with children by traveling around the country, talking in schools about his writing. "I think it's very important for me to hold these kids in front of my eyes. They're wonderfully interesting and they hold me to the reality of who they are." Avi once commented that children are passionate and honest readers who will either "swallow a book whole" if they like it, or drop it "like a hot potato" if they don't. In School Library Journal he noted a telling anecdote about his approach to children: "Being dysgraphic, with the standard history of frustration and anguish, I always ask to speak to the learning-disabled kids. They come in slowly, waiting for yet another pep talk, more instructions. Eyes cast down, they won't even look at me. Their anger glows. I don't say a thing. I lay out pages of my copy-edited manuscripts, which are covered with red marks. ‘Look here,’ I say, ‘see that spelling mistake. There, another spelling mistake. Looks like I forgot to put a capital letter there. Oops! Letter reversal.’ Their eyes lift. They are listening. And I am among friends."
Avi describes himself as a committed skeptic, yet reveals an idealistic center when he discusses children and their role in American culture. He believes that children have a different outlook than most adults. "When do you become an adult?," he once remarked. "Sometimes I think the difference is that psychological shift when you start to know that tomorrow is going to be the same as today. When you're a kid, there are still options, major options. For a writer like myself, a child is a kind of metaphor for regression to idealism and passionate concern: a metaphor for the ability to change or react, to be honest about all those things that as adults we tend to slide over as we make compromises to obligations and necessities." In an article for Horn Book he contrasted children's literature, which generally espouses values such as "sharing, nonviolence, cooperation, and the ability to love," to the adult world where power and self-interest seem to rule. "More than anything else," Avi asserted, "children's literature is about the place and role of the child in society…. If we—in the world of children's literature—can help the young stand straight for a moment longer than they have done in the past, help them maintain their ideals and values, those with which you and I identify ourselves, help them demand—and win—justice, we've added something good to the world."
As for young people who are thinking of becoming writers, Avi offered some sound advice on his home page: "Listen and watch the world around you. Try to understand why things happen. Don't be satisfied with answers others give you. Don't assume that because everyone believes a thing it is right or wrong. Reason things out for yourself. Work to get answers on your own. Understand why you believe things. Finally, write what you honestly feel then learn from the criticism that will always come your way."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Volume 10, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2000.
Roginski, Jim, Behind the Covers: Interviews with Authors and Illustrators of Books for Children and Young Adults, Libraries Unlimited, 1985, pp. 33-41.
St. James Guide to Young-Adult Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Booklist, January 15, 1992, Hazel Rochman, interview with Avi, p. 930; September 1, 1994, Hazel Rochman, "Focus: How to Build a Barn," p. 40; November 15, 1997, Michael Cart, review of Poppy, p. 731; November 15, 1997, Michael Cart, review of What Do Fish Have to Do with Anything?: And Other Stories, p. 560; September 1, 2000, Carolyn Phelan, review of The Christmas Rat, p. 127; April 15, 2001, Hazel Rochman, review of Prairie School, p. 1568; May 15, 2002, Ilene Cooper, review of Crispin: The Cross of Lead, p. 1604; October 1, 2002, Gillian Engberg, review of Things That Sometimes Happen, p. 332; August, 2003, GraceAnne A. DeCandido, review of The Mayor of Central Park, p. 1976; April 1, 2004, Hazel Rochman, review of Never Mind!: A Twin Novel, p. 1365; September 15, 2004, Hazel Rochman, review of The End of the Beginning: Being the Adventures of a Small Snail (and an Even Smaller Ant), p. 242; March 15, 2005, Jennifer Mattson, review of The Book without Words: A Fable of Medieval Magic, p. 1292; September 15, 2006, Carolyn Phelan, review of Crispin: At the Edge of the World, p. 60; February 15, 2008, Carolyn Phelan, review of The Seer of Shadows, p. 82.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, June, 1984, review of The Fighting Ground, p. 180; October, 1989, review of The Man Who Was Poe, p. 27; January, 1996, Roger Sutton, review of Poppy, p. 154; February, 1996, Roger Sutton, review of Beyond the Western Sea, Book One: The Escape from Home, p. 183.
Horn Book, January-February, 1985, Mary M. Burns, review of S.O.R. Losers, p. 49; November-December, 1986, Mary M. Burns, review of Beyond the Western Sea, Book Two: Lord Kirkle's Money, p. 731; September-October, 1987, Avi, "All That Glitters," pp. 569-576; January-February, 1992, Avi, Boston Globe/Horn Book Award acceptance speech, pp. 24-27; January-February, 1996, Ann A. Flowers, review of Poppy, p. 70; July-August, 1996, Mary M. Burns, review of Beyond the Western Sea, Book One: The Escape from Home, p. 461; January-February, 2002, Peter D. Sieruta, review of The Good Dog, p. 75; March-April, 2003, Roger Sutton, review of Silent Movie, p. 197; September-October, 2006, Vicky Smith, review of Crispin: At the Edge of the World, p. 574; May-June, 2008, Betty Carter, review of The Seer of Shadows, p. 305.
Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, October, 2003, Vinnie Bonnit, review of Crispin: The Cross of Lead, p. 188.
Kirkus Reviews, May 15, 2002, review of Crispin: The Cross of Lead, p. 728; September 1, 2002, review of Things That Sometimes Happen, p. 1302; January, 2003, review of Silent Movie, p. 56; May 1, 2005, review of The Book without Words, p. 533; August 1, 2006, review of Crispin: At the Edge of the World, p. 780; March 15, 2008, review of The Seer of Shadows.
Kliatt, November, 2002, Maureen K. Griffin, review of Crispin: The Cross of Lead, p. 44; January, 2007, Paula Rohrlick, review of The Book without Words, p. 27; March, 2008, Paula Rohrlick, review of The Seer of Shadows, p. 8.
Publishers Weekly, September 6, 1991, review of Nothing but the Truth, p. 105; July 16, 2001, review of The Secret School, p. 181; June 3, 2002, review of Crispin: The Cross of Lead, p. 88; September 30, 2002, review of Things That Sometimes Happen, p. 70; December 16, 2002, review of Silent Movie, p. 66; August 11, 2003, review of The Mayor of Central Park, p. 280; May 10, 2004, review of Never Mind!, p. 60; October 25, 2004, review of The End of the Beginning, p. 48; June 11, 2007, review of The Traitor's Gate, p. 61; April 14, 2008, review of The Seer of Shadows, p. 55.
School Library Journal, January, 1987, Avi and Betty Miles, "School Visits: The Author's Viewpoint," p. 21; December, 1997, Carol A. Edwards, review of What Do Fish Have to Do with Anything?: And Other Stories, p. 120; September, 2000, Leda Schubert, "Breakfast Serials," p. 38; May, 2001, Carol Schene, review of Prairie School, p. 108; September, 2001, B. Allison Gray, review of The Secret School, p. 223; December, 2003, Sue Gifford, review of The Mayor of Central Park, p. 144; May, 2004, Eva Mitnick, review of Never Mind!, p. 140; October, 2004, Connie Tyrrell Burns, review of The End of the Beginning, p. 154; October, 2006, Melissa Moore, review of Crispin: At the Edge of the World, p. 147; May, 2007, Connie Tyrell Burns, review of The Traitor's Gate, p. 129; February, 2008, Elizabeth Bird, review of The Seer of Shadows, p. 111.
Voice of Youth Advocates, December, 1996, Kathleen Beck, review of Beyond the Western Sea, Book Two: Lord Kirkle's Money, p. 267.
Avi Home Page, http://www.avi-writer.com (July 9, 2008).