Kephart, Beth 1960-

views updated

Kephart, Beth 1960-


Born April 1, 1960, in Wilmington, DE; daughter of Horace (a businessman) and Lore (a homemaker) Kephart; married William Sulit, June 28, 1995; chil-

dren: Jeremy. Ethnicity: "Caucasian." Education: University of Pennsylvania, B.A. (magna cum laude), 1982. Religion: Presbyterian. Hobbies and other interests: Teaching children, gardening, reading, travel, ballroom dancing, cooking, photography, blogging.


Home—PA. Agent—Amy Rennert, 98 Main St., Ste. 302, Tiburon, CA 94920.


Freelance writer, including work for architectural companies, pharmaceutical companies, and civic organizations, 1985-98; Fusion (communications firm), strategic planning and writing partner beginning 2003. Chair of young people's literature jury, National Book Awards, 2001.


Phi Beta Kappa.

Awards, Honors

Speakeasy Poetry Prize; Bread Loaf merit scholarship for fiction, 1996; top grant for fiction, Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, 1997; Leeway grant for excellence in creative nonfiction, Leeway Foundation, 1998; National Book Award finalist, 1998, for A Slant of Sun; National Endowment for the Arts award, 2000; National Speakeasy Poetry Prize, 2005; Pew Foundation fellowship, 2005; Best Books for Young Adults selection, American Library Association (ALA), Books for the Teen Age listee, New York Public Library, and Best Children's Books of the Year selection, Bank Street College of Education, all for Undercover; Best Books for Young Adults selection, ALA, and Cybils Award nomination, both 2008, both for House of Dance.


A Slant of Sun: One Child's Courage (memoir), Norton (New York, NY), 1998.

Into the Tangle of Friendship: A Memoir of the Things That Matter (first serialized in Reader's Digest), Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2000.

Still Love in Strange Places (memoir), Norton (New York, NY), 2002.

Seeing Past Z: Nurturing the Imagination in a Fast-forward World (memoir), Norton (New York, NY), 2004.

Ghosts in the Garden: Reflections on Endings, Beginnings, and the Unearthing of Self (memoir), photographs by husband, William Sulit, New World Library (Novato, CA), 2005.

Flow: The Life and Times of Philadelphia's Schuylkill River, Temple University Press (Philadelphia, PA), 2007.

(With Matthew Emmens) Zenobia: The Curious Book of Business, illustrated by William Sulit, Berrett-Koehler Publishers (San Francisco, CA), 2008.

Contributor to anthologies, including Mothers Who Think, Wanderlust, 2001 Best American Sports Writing, Writers on Writing, and The Leap Years. Contributor to periodicals, including Atlantic Monthly, Chicago Tribune, Madison, Child,, Oxygen, Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, Family Life, Tin House, New Jersey Life, Pennsylvania Gazette, Washington Post, Real Simple, New York Times, Wall Street Journal Europe, San Francisco Examiner, Parenting, and Philadelphia.


Undercover, Laura Geringer Books (New York, NY), 2007.

House of Dance, Laura Geringer Books (New York, NY), 2008.

Nothing but Ghosts, Balzer & Bray (New York, NY), 2009.

The Heart Is Not a Size, Balzer & Bray (New York, NY), 2010.

Contributor to anthology No Such Thing as the Real World, Balzer & Bray (New York, NY), 2009.


Beth Kephart, an award-winning poet and memoirist, has received a National Book Award nomination, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, and a Pew fellowship, among other honors. In addition to her books for general readers, Kephart has also written a number of critically acclaimed young-adult novels, including Undercover and House of Dance. "Writing for young adults has … become my passion," the author remarked in an interview on the HarperCollins Web site. "Young adults are enormously interesting people facing complex choices, convergences, turning points. They are readers for whom I love to write. Readers I trust with my stories."

Kephart's first book, A Slant of Sun: One Child's Courage, is the story of her son Jeremy and his struggle to overcome pervasive developmental disorder (PDD). This intensely personal tale is told from Kephart's perspective, chronicling her hopes and fears for Jeremy as well as the objective facts of his diagnosis and his eventual triumph over the disorder. A Slant of Sun, a finalist for the National Book Award, was described as "luminous" by John F. Baker, reviewing the book in Publishers Weekly. In another review, Booklist contributor Toni Hyde commended Kephart for her "uncommonly beautiful prose."

Into the Tangle of Friendship: A Memoir of the Things That Matter, Kephart's second book, is a memoir of a very different type. In an online interview with Susan Tekulve for Del Sol Review, Kephart described her approach to memoirs. "Memoir, as a term, actually refers to a subject that the writer takes on with passion. It's unfortunate, I think, that the word in our culture is now equated with tell-all narrative…. The memoirist should be constantly making room for the reader, opening up passages, asking, essentially, was it this way for you?" In Into the Tangle of Friendship, Kephart makes room for her reader by interspersing her personal stories with other writers' stories of and perspectives on friendship. Her own theory of friendship is also developed throughout. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly praised Into the Tangle of Friendship for its "precise" writing. Perhaps the highest praise came via the letters Kephart received from readers who were inspired by Into the Tangle of Friendship to seek out their own long-lost friends.

Still Love in Strange Places explores another relationship close to Kephart: the one between herself and her husband, William Sulit, and, by extension, his relationship with his life and family in El Salvador. Mindful of the cross-cultural nature of her marriage, Kephart determined that she wanted to become more familiar with the land and the people that her husband knew while growing up. Seeing herself as "white-bread American, blandness personified," Kephart decided to travel to El Salvador to find her husband's family and to seek out the basis behind some of the "wild stories" he told, noted a Publishers Weekly reviewer. Her first visit left her feeling like an outsider among her husband's family, separated by language and culture. Over the next eighteen years, however, she gathered not only background on El Salvador's tumultuous history, but detailed stories of her husband's family as well. Chief among them are tales of Sulit's grandfather, Don Alberto Bondanza, a near-legendary figure who survived much danger and privation to become the owner of a small coffee plantation. Kephart's account includes "some charming, if brief, glimpses into family life," noted Library Journal reviewer Nedra C. Evers, and how she came to be accepted within her husband's El Salvadoran family. A Kirkus Reviews critic called the book "a turbulent family drama enfolded in a nation's story." Book reviewer Penelope Mesic concluded: "As Kephart becomes attached to El Salvador, recognizing its beauty and human worth, so do her readers."

In Seeing Past Z: Nurturing the Imagination in a Fast-forward World, Kephart once again centers her attention on son Jeremy, who is now fourteen years old and working at discovering his own identity. A reluctant reader, Jeremy was not inspired by the typical children's books, even those classics that have long served to spark young readers' imaginations and interest in reading. Undaunted, Kephart determined that she would help Jeremy develop his literary and creative interests. She took a guiding approach that nurtured and encouraged, but did not demand or force. She and her husband did not push Jeremy into competitive situations with other children, or involve him in early college preparation. Free of pressure to perform, Jeremy slowly and gradually honed a keen interest in reading, writing, and creative pursuits. Booklist contributor Vanessa Bush called Seeing Past Z an "eloquent and lyrical appeal to parents to treasure and nurture children's imagination." Kephart "concludes that unleashing youths' imagination can create well-rounded, stable, happier people, both in their generation and the one guiding them," noted a Publishers Weekly reviewer.

Kephart chronicles her own journeys into a contemplative life with Ghosts in the Garden: Reflections on Endings, Beginnings, and the Unearthing of Self. Overwhelmed by stress, deadlines, family pressures, and looming mid life at age forty-one, Kephart found comfort and solace on the grounds of Chanticleer, a lush garden retreat and estate near Philadelphia. There, she found the sanctuary she craved, a place where she could retreat from her daily pressures to meditate, contemplate, and consider her life and her world. Kephart became a daily visitor to the gardens at Chanticleer, and her time there "signals a shift in her interior landscape—a pause in activity, a purposeful disconnection," observed Cindy Crosby in Books & Culture. "The garden serves as both sanctuary and incubator." She sees the inevitable cycles of life reflected in the surroundings at Chanticleer, and recognizes how they apply to herself, her family, and her friends. Perhaps most importantly, she comes to recognize those things that are most important to her, and realizes the folly of waiting to embrace them and enjoy them. "The poignant fleetingness of life, so vividly expressed in the cycle of the seasons, reverberates throughout the book, more in tone than in specific," Crosby commented. Kephart emerges from her experience renewed and refreshed, and determined to use her time and effort to their greatest advantage. Carol Haggas, writing in Booklist, called the volume a "lyrical, graceful contemplation on the living of a purposeful life."

Kephart turned to young-adult fiction after a conversation with New York City-based editor Laura Geringer. "Her questions took me back to those parts of myself that I had never fully explored on the page—to a somewhat introverted young girl who wrote poems, who ice-skated, who had a teacher who believed in the power of stories," Kephart explained in her HarperCollins interview. "To a girl who was sometimes asked, by the popular boys, for advice and help as they pursued the girls of their dreams. I was never the girl of anyone's dreams." On her train ride home after meeting Geringer, Kephart began writing Undercover, her first work for teens.

Reminiscent of Edmond Rostand's verse drama Cyrano de Bergerac, Undercover centers on Elisa, an intelligent but shy high-school sophomore who acts as a ghost-writer for her male classmates, penning love notes for their girlfriends. Elisa also longs for her father, a traveling business consultant, and worries that his long absences threaten her parents' already shaky marriage. To escape these pressures, she heads to a secluded pond where she teaches herself to ice skate and meets with Theo, a fellow student who becomes the object of her affections. Undercover garnered strong reviews. According to Booklist critic Gillian Engberg, "Kephart tells a moving story of a young teen whose first powerful crush is tempered by the aching sense that her family is pulling apart," and a Kirkus Reviews critic remarked that the author "perfectly plumbs the thoughts and feelings of an adolescent girl." In Undercover, Kephart presents "an unusual story, told beautifully," according to Claire Rosser in Kliatt.

Noting the similarities between Elisa's experiences and her own, Kephart remarked in a Bildungsroman online interview that "Perhaps the hardest thing is to find fluency between the known and the imagined—to move seamlessly between what has been lived and what has been projected. When you draw from real life for the purposes of fiction, you have to be willing to discard details that have mattered deeply, to blur edges of the truth, to shape newly."

A fifteen-year-old girl offers hope and support to her dying grandfather in House of Dance, "another quiet, sensitive story about a girl who pulls together her fragmented family," Engberg noted. With her best friend out of town and her mother distracted by an affair with her married boss, Rosie Keith spends her summer days visiting her terminally ill grandfather. As she sorts through the elderly man's records and learns about his love of music and dance, Rosie is inspired to take dance lessons at a nearby studio and throw a party in her grandfather's honor. Reviewers complimented Kephart's eloquent prose and emotionally charged plot. Writing in Kliatt, Myrna Marler stated that House of Dance is "full of vivid imagery and close observation," and a Publishers Weekly critic observed that Kephart's "poetically expressed memories and moving dialogue both anchor and amplify the characters' emotions."

Comparing her memoirs to her teen fiction in the Bildungsroman interview, Kephart noted that her young-adult novels "come to me more quickly, they feel somewhat lighter on their feet, I feel more free when I write them, for I am not bound to getting the truth just right (my memoirs tend to be deeply researched, in addition to being deeply lived), nor must I look over my shoulder, wondering who might read them, who might misinterpret them, who might judge them. Memoirs are such tricky business—they have to be truthful, yes. But also, at least for me, they cannot hurt anyone."

Kephart told SATA: "I have been writing since I was a child—poems, mostly, chunky sonnets, slips of story that I would illustrate with runny watercolors. I studied the history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania, took on marketing work upon graduation, kept on writing. It wasn't until I was pregnant with my only child that I began that treacherous journey toward publication, and not until I'd written and published a number of short stories that I took my first writer's workshop, in Spoleto, with Rosellen Brown and Reginald Gibbons. One year later I was in Prague working with Jayne Anne Phillips and William Gass. I was becoming educated, in short, in all that writing is and can be. I was coming to understand that I could never write the perfect book, but that I wouldn't be happy unless I was trying.

"I've written and published short stories, poems, essays, memoirs, a corporate fable, a river's autobiography, books for young-adult readers, and countless book reviews, most for the Chicago Tribune, over the years. I've written novels that have not been published and novels I still dream of publishing. I write a daily blog that affords the chance to meld my photography with my ideas with snatches from books and articles I've been reading.

"I have, in other words, not stopped trying. The writing journey is a privilege."

Biographical and Critical Sources


Kephart, Beth, A Slant of Sun: One Child's Courage (memoir), W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 1998.

Kephart, Beth, Into the Tangle of Friendship: A Memoir of the Things That Matter (memoir), Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2000.

Still Love in Strange Places (memoir), W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 2002.


Book, January, 2001, Stacy Schnellenbach Bogle, review of Into the Tangle of Friendship, p. 71; May-June, 2002, Penelope Mesic, review of Still Love in Strange Places, p. 80.

Booklist, June 1, 1998, Toni Hyde, review of A Slant of Sun, p. 1698; September 15, 2000, Donna Seaman, review of Into the Tangle of Friendship, p. 189; June 1, 2004, Vanessa Bush, review of Seeing Past Z: Nurturing the Imagination in a Fast-forward World, p. 1678; February 1, 2005, Carol Haggas, review of Ghosts in the Garden: Reflections on Endings, Beginnings, and the Unearthing of Self, p. 928; October 15, 2007, Gillian Engberg, review of Undercover, p. 47; June 1, 2008, Gillian Engberg, review of House of Dance, p. 64.

Books & Culture, September-October, 2005, Cindy Crosby, review of Ghosts in the Garden, p. 44.

Kirkus Reviews, March 1, 2002, review of Still Love in Strange Places, p. 311; August 1, 2007, review of Undercover; May 1, 2008, review of House of Dance.

Kliatt, July, 2007, Claire Rosser, review of Undercover, p. 18; July, 2008, Myrna Marler, review of House of Dance, p. 16.

Library Journal, June 15, 1998, KellyJo Houtz Griffin, review of A Slant of Sun, p. 100; September 1, 2000, Lucille M. Boone, review of Into the Tangle of Friendship, p. 233; April 1, 2002, Nedra C. Evers, review of Still Love in Strange Places, p. 120.

New York Times Book Review, January 3, 1999, Margaret Talbot, "The Boy in the Bright Green Hat," p. 5; October 1, 2000, Megan Harlan, review of Into the Tangle of Friendship, p. 18.

Organic Style, June, 2004, Barbara Jones, review of Seeing Past Z, p. 24.

Orlando Sentinel, October 9, 2000, Doris Bloodsworth, review of Into the Tangle of Friendship.

Philadelphia Inquirer, June 20, 2007, Dianna Marder, review of Undercover.

Publishers Weekly, May 4, 1998, review of A Slant of Sun, p. 194; October 2, 2000, review of Into the Tangle of Friendship, p. 76; March 19, 2001, John F. Baker, "An Author's Return," p. 16; March 18, 2002, review of Still Love in Strange Places, p. 88; June 27, 2004, review of Seeing Past Z, p. 46; January 17, 2005, review of Ghosts in the Garden, p. 43; October 1, 2007, review of Undercover, p. 58; June 9, 2008, review of House of Dance, p. 51.

Rocky Mountain News, November 2, 2000, Justin Matott, "‘Friendship’ a Bonding Experience," p. 11D.

School Library Journal, July, 2008, Leah Krippner, review of House of Dance, p. 102.

Washington Post, January 24, 1999, Mary Jo Kochakian, "A Rare Look into World of a Child's Disability," p. V6.


Beth Kephart Web log, (December 15, 2008).

Bildungsroman Web log, (January 27, 2008), interview with Kephart., (May 1, 2004), Norah Pielh, review of Seeing Past Z.

Del Sol Review Online, (May 1, 2006), Susan Tekulve, interview with Kephart.

HarperCollins Web site, (December 15, 2008), interview with Kephart.

Leeway Foundation Web site, (May 1, 2006), autobiography of Kephart.