Ellis, Sarah 1952-
Ellis, Sarah 1952-
Born May 19, 1952, in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada; daughter of Joseph Walter (a clergyman) and Ruth Elizabeth (a nurse) Ellis. Education: University of British Columbia, B.A. (with honors), 1973, M.L.S., 1975; Simmons College, M.A. (children's literature), 1980.
Home—Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. E-mail—[email protected]
Librarian and author. Toronto Public Library, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, librarian, c. 1975; Vancouver Public Library, Vancouver, British Columbia, children's librarian, 1976-81; North Vancouver District Library, North Vancouver, British Columbia, librarian, beginning 1981, now reference librarian. Writer-in-residence, Massey College, University of Toronto, 1999. Vermont College, teacher of writing. Speaker at schools, colleges, conferences, and workshops, including Children's Literature New England Summer Institute.
Canadian Society of Children's Authors, Illustrators, and Performers, Writers' Union of Canada, Vancouver Society of Storytelling.
Sheila A. Egoff Awards, 1987, for The Baby Project, and 1997, for Back of Beyond; Governor-General's Award for Children's Literature, 1991, for Pick-up Sticks; Mr. Christie's Book Award, and Violet Downy Award, I.O.D.E., both 1994, both for Out of the Blue; Vicky Metcalf Award, Canadian Authors' Association, 1995, for body of work; Hackmatack Award nomina-
tion, and Sheila A. Egoff Children's Prize shortlist, both 2003, both for A Prairie as Wide as the Sea; Mr. Christie's Book Award Gold Seal honor and Governor General's Literary Award shortlist, both 2003, and Canadian Library Association Book of the Year shortlist and Violet Downy Award, both 2004, all for The Several Lives of Orphan Jack; Blue Spruce Award nominee, 2006, and Chocolate Lily Young Readers Choice Award nomination, 2007, both for Ben over Night; Sheila A. Egoff Award, and Canadian Library Association Book of the Year nomination, both 2007, both for Odd Man Out.
The Baby Project, Groundwood Books (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1986, published as A Family Project, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1988.
Next-Door Neighbours, Groundwood Books (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1989, published as Next-Door Neighbors, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1990.
Putting up with Mitchell, illustrated by Barbara Wood, Brighouse Press, 1989.
Pick-up Sticks, Groundwood Books (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1991, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1992.
Out of the Blue, Groundwood Books (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1994, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1995.
Back of Beyond: Stories of the Supernatural, Groundwood Books (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1996, Margaret K. McElderry Books (New York, NY), 1997.
The Young Writer's Companion, Douglas & McIntyre (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1999.
Next Stop! (picture book), illustrated by Ruth Ohi, Fitzhenry & Whiteside (Niagara Falls, NY), 2000.
From Reader to Writer: Teaching Writing through Classic Children's Books, Groundwood Books (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2000.
(Editor) Girl's Own: An Anthology of Canadian Fiction for Young Readers, Puffin Canada (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2001.
A Prairie as Wide as the Sea: The Immigrant Diary of Ivy Weatherall, Scholastic Canada (Markham, Ontario, Canada), 2001.
Big Ben, illustrated by Kim LaFave, Groundwood Books (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2001.
(With David Suzuki) Salmon Forest, illustrated by Sheena Lott, GreyStone Books (New York, NY), 2003.
The Several Lives of Orphan Jack, illustrated by Bruno St-Aubin, Douglas & McIntyre (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2003.
Ben over Night, illustrated by Kim LaFave, Groundwood Books (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2005.
Odd Man Out, Groundwood Books (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2006.
The Queen's Feet, illustrated by Dusan Petricic, Red Deer Press (Calgary, Alberta,Canada), 2006.
Also author of column "News from the North," published in Horn Book, 1984-98.
Ellis's works have been translated into French.
Writer, columnist, editor, and librarian Sarah Ellis has become one of the best-known children's authors in her native Canada due to the popularity of titles such as The Baby Project, Pick-up Sticks, Back of Beyond: Sto-
ries of the Supernatural, and The Several Lives of Orphan Jack. With her 1986 debut, The Baby Project, Ellis created "one of the most appealing and moving family stories to come along in ages," according to Horn Book contributor Hanna B. Zeiger, and the award-winning works she has produced since have been equally praised. In addition to young-adult novels, Ellis has also written for younger children, has edited several story collections, and has authored From Reader to Writer: Teaching Writing through Classic Children's Books to promote the craft of writing. Praised by Booklist contributor Hazel Rochman as "one of the best children's literature critics," Ellis "writes without condescension or pedantry…. Her prose is a delight: plain, witty, practical, wise."
Ellis was born in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, in 1952, the youngest of three children. As she once noted, "[my] joy in embroidering the truth probably comes from my own childhood. My father was a rich mine of anecdotes and jokes. He knew more variations on the ‘once there were three men in a rowboat’ joke than anyone I've encountered since. My mother was al- ways willing to stop what she was doing to tell me about growing up on the prairies, stories of making doughnuts for the harvesters or how Aunt Florence threw eggs at the horses. I have one brother who collects tales of the absurd and another who is a born exaggerator. As youngest in the family I had to become a good storyteller just to hold my own at the dinner table."
Reading and tale-telling were important in Ellis's family while she was growing up, and books were also always close at hand in the Ellis home. "The first books I remember were a set of little yellow and black paper-bound fairy tales, sent by Great-Aunt Lou in a Christmas parcel from England. My favorite was The Wolf and the Seven Little Kids," the author once recalled. "Read-alouds in our house were picked to appeal to my older brothers, and that is how I first heard Tom Sawyer, in an edition with lovely pictures by Louis Slobodkin. (Later, in memory of those pictures, I gave one of my characters the last name of Slobodkin. Writers get to play these games.)
"When I got to school I discovered that you were allowed to take home one book a day from the library. So I did, every day. If it was raining (and it nearly always was in rainy Vancouver) the librarian would wrap the book in brown paper. It was like carrying home a present.
"Some of the books I read are still around—the ‘Little House’ books, The Secret Garden, Half Magic. I had Peter Pan read to me during a long stay in the hospital. I received The Wizard of Oz for Christmas when I was eight, and I read it all on Christmas afternoon. One summer I found a damp old copy of Little Women in the holiday cabin and for three days I lay on a top bunk, reading and weeping and happy, while the adults said, ‘Wouldn't you like to go outside in the sun and play?’"
After graduating from high school, Ellis enrolled at the University of British Columbia, then went on to earn her degree in library science. After working for several years as children's librarian in North Vancouver, she traveled to Boston and earned an advanced degree in children's literature from Simmons College. While studying this curriculum as an enhancement to her work as a librarian, Ellis also did some of her first writing for children. However, it would be four more years before she would seriously undertake writing a children's book. In 1984 she took a leave from her job at the library and wrote, first articles, then short fiction, and finally a picture book. Although the story manuscript was rejected when she submitted it to a publisher, the publisher encouraged her to continue her efforts. Her next undertaking became The Baby Project, Ellis's first published work and the winner of the Sheila K. Egoff Award in 1987.
The Baby Project—published in the United States as A Family Project—is the story of how a young girl and her family deal with the expectation and ultimate loss of a new baby. Eleven-year-old Jessica eagerly awaits her new sister and even prepares a school project around the expected arrival. After the baby dies of crib death, Jessica must deal not only with her own feelings, but with her family's grief as well. Ellis creates a realistic and moving picture of a family in crisis, according to many critics. "She successfully focuses on the details of change, and in so doing creates an honest portrayal of family life," David Gale wrote in School Library Journal. The result, Gale added, is "a credible depiction of important family events, in turn funny and sad."
Much of the success of The Baby Project is due to the lifelike characters of Jessica and her family. Parents and siblings are portrayed as quirky, lovable people with a sense of humor. In addition, "although Jessica's point of view is consistently maintained, each complex character develops in a different way," Betsy Hearne observed in a review of the book for the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books. Overall, Hearne added, "the cast is subtly portrayed." Voice of Youth Advocates contributor Mary Hedge also found the characters in The Baby Project to be believable, and praised "Jessica's courageous and cooperative attitude" in particular as "inspiring."
Next-Door Neighbors is also distinguished by "plausible characters in real life situations," according to Maria B. Salvadore in a review of Ellis's second novel for School Library Journal. The story takes place in 1957, when Peggy, the daughter of a minister, has just moved from the country to the city with her family. There she slowly makes friends with both George, the son of a refugee, and a Chinese gardener working for Peggy's wealthy, prejudiced neighbor. In recounting how Peggy learns about racism and responsibility, Ellis "has a deft descriptive touch, a way with a quirky phrase, and a convincing child's-eye view of hypocritical adults," Joan McGrath commented in Quill & Quire. The author "etches personalities that are likable amid their strengths and weaknesses and creates family dynamics that fit smoothly and believably into the plot," Barbara Elleman likewise wrote in Booklist, making her "ever in touch with her theme, her characters, her plot, and her audience."
Pick-up Sticks was inspired by a radio interview Ellis heard in which a homeless woman expressed her fear and frustration at not being able to care for her family. In the story, thirteen-year-old Polly must leave her single mom and go live with a financially secure uncle while her mother searches for proper housing in between holding down a job. In her new circumstances, Polly is confronted with the life she wished she could have had: a stable, comfortable home, in a nice neighborhood, where opportunities for friends and after-school activities are provided. Through her spoiled cousin and her new friends, she comes to learn that people of all walks of life experience discontent of some type, and that even her financially impoverished life with her mom is rich in many things.
In a change of pace, Ellis incorporates elements of fantasy into the story collection Back of Beyond, which is geared for older teens. Although her stories are based on traditional British folk tales, Ellis garbs them in modern dress, with the Internet, Mr. Potato Head, cults and gangs, and chat rooms figuring prominently. As John Burns noted in an article in Canadian Review of Materials, in Back of Beyond "mundane and magical worlds overlap. Ellis's protagonists have one foot in childhood and the other in adulthood; their transitional role means that anything can happen, and does." Praising the narrative voice as, by turns, "funny, cheeky, or probing," Horn Book contributor Marilyn Bousquin added that Back of Beyond is about "contemporary kids with … ordinary problems [who] realize new dimensions of themselves through their bone-chilling, sometimes heartwarming encounters with the otherworld."
Praised as "a small gem" by Booklist reviewer Ilene Cooper, Ellis's award-winning chapter book The Several Lives of Orphan Jack introduces a spirited twelve year old who loves words and whose most treasured possession is a page-worn dictionary that is missing the "A" and"B" words. Excited by the prospect of being a bookkeeper's apprentice after leaving the Opportunities School for Orphans and Foundlings, the literal-minded youth becomes disillusioned when he learns that his new job focuses on numbers. Setting out into the real world armed with his trusty dictionary, Jack finds that his nimble mind and quick wit win him many new friends and numerous adventures, in a story Cooper noted embodies "both the joy of language and the vicissitudes of a life of possibilities." Reviewing The Several Lives of Orphan Jack for Kirkus Reviews, a contributor wrote that Ellis's "clean writing with a subtle humor weaves a tale that will inspire readers to learn new words," while Sharon Korbeck cited the author's "use of imagery, and alliteration" in her School Library Journal appraisal of the novel.
Another novel for older preteens, Odd Man Out focuses on twelve-year-old Kip. Sent to stay with his grandmother while his mother and her new husband go on a honeymoon, Kip finds himself outnumbered by five chatty, energetic, and very female cousins. Not surprisingly, the teen retires to the quiet refuge of his attic bedroom. Events that summer take a turn when he finds a book containing the teenage journal of his father, a man Kip never met but about whom he has many questions. Praising Kip as "an engaging protagonist," Booklist reviewer Michael Cart added that the boy's "search for the truth is suspenseful," while Terrie Dorio deemed Odd Man Out a "thoughtful and often funny" coming-of-age tale in which a teen is "challenged to think" about family members "in a different way."
Picture books by Ellis include Next Stop!, Big Ben, and The Queen's Feet. In Next Stop! readers meet Claire as she takes her weekly Saturday outing on the town bus. During her trip, the outgoing and imaginative Claire helps the driver, calling out the stops one by one, and greeting other regular riders. Ellis's text evokes the soothing regularity of a daily bus route; as School Library Journal contributor Steven Engelfried noted, "the repetitive pattern of the text suits the stop, start rhythm of a bus ride." Far more whimsical in tone, The Queen's Feet finds a royal monarch attached to two sets of toes that refuse to submit to the royal will. Although Queen Daisy may want to wear fancy shoes, her feet will only tolerate fuzzy slippers; when she wants to stand regally, they break into a spirited jig; and when she deigns to stroll in a garden, they carry her off and splash about in a nearby pond. As a Kirkus Reviews contributor advised, The Queen's Feet should be "required reading for all unruly little kickers, stompers, squirmers and scuffers."
In Big Ben and its sequel, Ben over Night, Ellis introduces readers to a young boy who is determined to keep pace with older children, even when it means being just a little bit scared or intimidated. In Big Ben the boy is frustrated because he is too little to do all the
things older siblings Joe and Robin can. His frustration is intensified on school report-card day, because Ben has no report card to share from preschool. However, the boy's older brothers are quick to recognize Ben's predicament; when Joe and Robin present the boy with a homemade report card of his own, Ben has been graded an "A-plus" little brother! Excitement over spending the night at best friend Peter's house is balanced by more than a few worries in Ben over Night, until Ben's family devises a way to help the little boy deal with his concerns. Joe and Robin's "affirmation is meaningful but not patronizing, and their delight in the remedy is as apparent as Ben's," noted a Horn Book reviewer of Big Ben, while a Publishers Weekly reviewer deemed Ben over Night a "thoughtful story" in which Ellis's "compassionate and optimistic" spirit will inspire readers afraid of spending that first night away from home.
In addition to working part time as a reference librarian in her native Vancouver, Ellis devotes seven hours a day to her writing, and each of her young-adult novels takes about a year to complete. "When I was young I never once thought of becoming a writer," Ellis once noted. "Now, when I'm digging in the vegetable patch and I realize that I'm making up phrases for my gardening journal, or when I'm traveling and I find myself composing postcards at every new place, I wonder how I could ever not be a writer. Maybe I do want to record the events of my ordinary life, after all."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Children's Literature Review, Volume 42, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1997.
St. James Guide to Young-Adult Writers, 2nd edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Booklist, March 1, 1990, Barbara Elleman, review of Next-Door Neighbors, p. 1340; January 1, 1998, Chris Sherman, review of Back of Beyond: Stories of the Supernatural, p. 794; October 15, 2000, Hazel Rochman, review of From Reader to Writer: Teaching Writing through Classic Children's Books, p. 449; December 1, 2000, Hazel Rochman, review of Next Stop!, p. 718; December 1, 2003, Ilene Cooper, review of The Several Lives of Orphan Jack, p. 668; December 15, 2003, Gillian Engberg, review of Salmon Forest, p. 755; May 1, 2005, Carolyn Phelan, review of Ben over Night, p. 1589; May 1, 2006, Michael Cart, review of The Queen's Feet, p. 88; December 1, 2006, Michael Cart, review of Odd Man Out, p. 46.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, April, 1988, Betsy Hearne, review of A Family Project, p. 154; December, 2003, Karen Coats, review of The Several Lives of Orphan Jack, p. 150, and Krista Hutley, review of Salmon Forest, p. 167; June, 2006, Karen Coats, review of The Queen's Feet, p. 449; December, 2006, Deborah Stevenson, review of Odd Man Out, p. 168.
Canadian Review of Materials, March 28, 1997, John Burns, "Sarah Ellis"; November 14, 2003, review of The Several Lives of Orphan Jack.
Horn Book, May-June, 1988, Hanna B. Zeiger, review of A Family Project, p. 350; November-December, 1997, Marilyn Bousquin, review of Back of Beyond, p. 680; May, 2001, Cathryn Mercer, review of From Reader to Writer, p. 289; March-April, 2002, review of Big Ben, p. 201; November-December, 2003, Christine M. Heppermann, review of The Several Lives of Orphan Jack, p. 742.
Kirkus Reviews, September 1, 2003, review of The Several Lives of Orphan Jack, p. 1122.
National Post, November 3, 2000, Elizabeth MacCallum, review of Next Stop!, p. B9.
Quill & Quire, September, 1989, Joan McGrath, review of Next-Door Neighbors, p. 23; December, 2001, Joanne Findon, review of Big Ben.
Publishers Weekly, May 23, 2005, review of Ben over Night, p. 78; February 27, 2006, review of The Queen's Feet, p. 59.
Resource Links, June, 2002, Joanne de Groot, review of A Prairie as Wide as the Sea: The Immigrant Diary of Ivy Weatherall, p. 11; February, 2004, Laura Reilly, review of The Several Lives of Orphan Jack, p. 12; October, 2006, Kathryn McNaughton, review of The Queen's Feet, p. 2; February, 2007, Moira Kirkpatrick, review of Odd Man Out, p. 12.
School Library Journal, March, 1988, David Thomson Gale, review of A Family Project, p. 188; March, 1990, Maria B. Salvadore, review of Next-Door Neighbors, p. 217; January, 2001, Steven Engelfried, review of Next Stop!, p. 93; September, 2001, Mary Lankford, review of From Reader to Writer, p. 262; December, 2003, Sharon Korbeck, review of The Several Lives of Orphan Jack, p. 149; June, 2005, Linda Ludke, review of Ben over Night, p. 108; April, 2006, Suzanne Myers Harold, review of The Queen's Feet, p. 105; December, 2006, Terrie Dorio, review of Odd Man Out, p. 138.
Voice of Youth Advocates, June, 1988, Mary Hedge, review of A Family Project, p. 85; February, 2007, Rachel L. Wadham, review of Odd Man Out, p. 524.
Canadian Children's Book Centre Web site,http://collections.ic.gc.ca/ (November 29, 2001), "Sarah Ellis."
Friends of the CCBC Web site, http://www.education.wic.edu/ccbc/friends/ (June 10, 2007), Tana Elia, interview with Ellis.
Sarah Ellis Home Page,http://www.sarahellis.ca (June 10, 2007).