McKinley, Robin 1952-
McKinley, Robin 1952-
Born November 16, 1952, in Warren, OH; daughter of William (in the U.S. Navy and Merchant Marines) and Jeanne Carolyn (a teacher) McKinley; married Peter Dickinson (an author), January 3, 1992. Education: Attended Dickinson College, 1970-72; Bowdoin College, B.A. (summa cum laude), 1975. Hobbies and other interests: Gardening, horses, walking, travel, many kinds of music, and life as an expatriate and the English-American culture chasm.
Home—Hampshire, England. E-mail—[email protected]
Writer, 1975—. Ward & Paul (stenographic reporting firm), Washington, DC, editor and transcriber, 1972-73; Research Associates, Brunswick, ME, research assistant, 1976-77; bookstore clerk in Maine, 1978; teacher and counselor at private secondary school in Natick, MA, 1978-79; Little, Brown, Inc., Boston, MA, editorial assistant, 1979-81; barn manager on a horse farm, Holliston, MA, 1981-82; Books of Wonder, New York, NY, clerk, 1983; freelance reader, copy-and line-editor, general all-purpose publishing dogsbody, 1983-91.
Horn Book Honor Book designation, 1978, for Beauty, 1985, for The Hero and the Crown, 1988, for The Outlaws of Sherwood, and 1995, for Knot in the Grain; Best Books for the Teen Age citation, New York Public Library, 1980, 1981, and 1982, all for Beauty; Best Young-Adult Books citation, American Library Association (ALA), 1982, and Newbery Honor Book designation, ALA, 1983, both for The Blue Sword; Newbery Medal, and ALA Notable Book designation, both 1985, both for The Hero and the Crown; World Fantasy Award for best anthology, 1986, for Imaginary Lands; Best Books for the Teen Age citation and ALA Best Adult Book for the Teen Age designation, both 1994, both for Deerskin; Mythopoeic Award for Adult Literature, 2003, for Sunshine. D.H.L., Bowdoin College, 1986, Wilson College, 1996.
Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast, Harper (New York, NY), 1978.
The Door in the Hedge (short stories), Greenwillow (New York, NY), 1981.
The Blue Sword, Greenwillow (New York, NY), 1982, reprinted, Ace Books (New York, NY), 2007.
The Hero and the Crown, Greenwillow (New York, NY), 1984, reprinted, Ace Books (New York, NY), 2007.
(Editor and contributor) Imaginary Lands (short stories; includes "The Stone Fey"), Greenwillow (New York, NY), 1985.
The Outlaws of Sherwood, Greenwillow (New York, NY), 1988, reprinted, Firebird (New York, NY), 2002.
My Father Is in the Navy (picture book), illustrated by Martine Gourbault, Greenwillow (New York, NY), 1992.
Rowan (picture book), illustrated by Donna Ruff, Greenwillow (New York, NY), 1992.
Deerskin (adult fantasy), Putnam (New York, NY), 1993.
A Knot in the Grain and Other Stories, Greenwillow (New York, NY), 1994.
Rose Daughter, Greenwillow (New York, NY), 1997.
Stone Fey, illustrated by John Clapp, Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1998.
Spindle's End, Putnam (New York, NY), 2000.
(With husband, Peter Dickinson) Water: Tales of Elemental Spirits, Putnam (New York, NY), 2002.
Sunshine (adult novel), Berkeley Books (New York, NY), 2003.
Dragonhaven, Putnam (New York, NY), 2007.
Chalice, Putnam (New York, NY), 2008.
Contributor to anthologies, including Elsewhere II, edited by Terri Windling and Mark Arnold, Ace Books, 1982; Elsewhere III, edited by Windling and Arnold, Ace Books, 1984; and Faery, edited by Windling, Ace Books, 1985. Also contributor of book reviews to numerous periodicals. Author of column, "In the Country," for New England Monthly, 1987-88.
Rudyard Kipling, Tales from the Jungle Book, Random House (New York, NY), 1985.
Anna Sewell, Black Beauty, illustrated by Susan Jeffers, Random House (New York, NY), 1986.
George MacDonald, The Light Princess, illustrated by Katie Thamer Treherne, Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1988.
Random House recorded The Blue Sword (1994), and The Hero and the Crown (1986) on audiocassette.
Robin McKinley is the award-winning author of novels, short stories, and picture books that mine the world of fantasy and fairy tales. Her renditions of classic fairy tales have a feminist twist; no weak-kneed damsels in distress, McKinley's protagonists are females who do things rather than "waiting limply to be rescued by the hero," as the author explained on her home page. McKinley's self-sufficient heroines "are intelligent, loyal, and courageous—eager and not afraid to cross the physical and psychological barriers that lie between them and the fulfillment of their destinies," according to Hilary S. Crew in Twentieth-Century Children's Writers. In novels such as Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast, The Blue Sword, The Hero and the Crown, Rose Daughter, Spindle's End, and Chalice, she fills her fantasy realms with realistic detail and powerful characters, attracting readers both young and old. McKinley has also collaborated with writer husband Peter Dickinson on the story collection Water:
Tales of Elemental Spirits, which John Peters explained in School Library Journal features six "masterfully written stories" that, with their "distinct, richly detailed casts and settings," will "excite, enthrall, and move even the pickiest readers."
Although she now makes her home in the United Kingdom, McKinley was born in the United States and "grew up a military brat and an only child [who] decided early on that books were much more reliable friends than people," as she wrote on her home page. Moving every two years, from California to Japan to New York, she found comfort in fictional worlds. "Writing has always been the other side of reading for me," McKinley further commented. "It never occurred to me not to make up stories." However, as a young girl, she also had identity issues. "I despised myself for being a girl," she once told SATA, "and ipso facto being someone who stayed at home and was boring, and started trying to tell myself stories about girls who did things and had adventures."
"Once I got old enough to realize that authorship existed as a thing one might aspire to, I knew it was for me," McKinley recalled on her home page. "I even majored in English literature in college, a good indication of my fine bold disdain for anything so trivial as earning a living." She saw herself as a writer in the J.R.R. Tolkien or H. Rider Haggard vein, but unlike those authors, she was "going to tell breathtaking stories about girls who had adventures." McKinley's first publication, written only a few years after her graduation from Bowdoin, was inspired by viewing a television adaptation of "Beauty and the Beast." She was so disappointed with what she saw that she began to write a version of the classic fairy tale herself.
Beauty won praise from readers and critics alike. According to Michael Malone in the New York Times Book Review, the novel is "much admired not only for its feminism but for the density of detail in the retelling." "It's simply a filling out of the story, with a few alterations," wrote a Kirkus Reviews critic. Beauty—or Honour, as the heroine in McKinley's version is named—is an awkward child, not a beauty, and her "evil sisters" are caring and kind. Critics have also praised McKinley's handling of fantasy in the medieval setting. "The aura of magic around the Beast and his household comes surprisingly to life," commented a Choice critic. The winner of several literary awards, Beauty instantly established McKinley as a powerful new voice in young-adult literature and it has remained one of the author's most-popular novels.
Years after publishing Beauty, McKinley returns to the fairy tale that novel was based on in Rose Daughter. Over 300 pages in length, Rose Daughter has "a more mystical, darker edge," according to Estes. In the novel, readers learn about the early family life and personalities of the three sisters: the acerbic Jeweltongue; Lionheart, a physically daring girl; and the title character,
Beauty. Unlike the original tale of "Beauty and the Beast," the relationship between the three sisters is loving rather than hostile. Although the girls have been raised in the city by their wealthy and widowed father, when he loses his business they relocate to a rural cottage where new hardships bring the family closer together.
One central element of Rose Daughter is the flower of the title: at the sisters' new country home roses are extremely difficult to cultivate. Beauty discovers, while working in her garden, that she possesses a skill for raising the beautiful flower. She also finds herself plagued by disturbing dreams of a dark corridor, a memory of her mother, and the heavy scent of roses. The Beast in this novel is a legendary local figure, a tragic hero who is half man. When Beauty journeys to his castle and begins tending the magic roses in his garden, other flora and fauna return to the Beast's former wasteland. A romance develops between the two, and Beauty's tenderness toward the Beast eventually unlocks the curse that has beset him. "As before, McKinley takes the essentials of the traditional tale and embellishes them with vivid and quirky particulars," declared a contributor for Publishers Weekly. Jennifer Fakolt, reviewing Rose Daughter for Voice of Youth Advocates, asserted that the author "has captured the timelessness of the traditional tale and breathed into it passion and new life appropriate to the story's own ‘universal themes’ of love and regeneration," while a Publishers Weekly reviewer concluded that McKinley's "heady mix of fairy tale, magic and romance has the power to exhilarate."
Prior to writing Beauty, McKinley had begun work on several stories set in a fictional world she has named Damar. As she once explained to SATA, "I had begun … to realize that there was more than one story to tell about Damar, that in fact it seemed to be a whole history, volumes and volumes of the stuff, and this terrified me. I had plots and characters multiplying like mice and running in all directions." The first "Damar" book to appear was her story collection The Door in the Hedge, which was published in the late 1970s. The Blue Sword, a novel published in 1982. The hero in this second "Damar" book is Harry Crewe, a young woman who must forge her identity and battle an evil force at the same time. After Harry is kidnapped, she learns from her kidnappers how to ride a horse and battle as a true warrior. While she struggles in the tradition of the legendary female hero of Damar, Aerin, the teen becomes a hero in her own right.
Although The Blue Door is set in a fantasy world—Damar was characterized as "pseudo-Victorian" by Darrell Schweitzer in Science Fiction Review—critics have found Harry to be a heroine contemporary readers may well understand. Like Beauty, The Blue Sword earned McKinley both recognition and praise. It also earned a Newbery Honor Book designation. In Booklist Sally Estes described the novel as "a zesty, romantic heroic fantasy with … a grounding in reality that enhances the tale's verve as a fantasy."
In The Hero and the Crown, the next "Damar" novel, readers are taken back in time to learn the story of Aerin, the legendary warrior woman Harry so reveres. As McKinley once explained to SATA, "I recognized that there were specific connections between Harry and Aerin, and I deliberately wrote their stories in reverse chronological order because one of the things I'm fooling around with is the idea of heroes: real heroes as opposed to the legends that are told of them afterwards. Aerin is one of her country's greatest heroes, and by the time Harry comes along, Harry is expected—or Harry thinks she is—to live up to her. When you go back and find out about Aerin in The Hero and the Crown, you discover that she wasn't this mighty invincible figure. … She had a very hard and solitary time [because] of her early fate."
When readers first meet Aerin in The Hero and the Crown, she is graceless and clumsy; it takes her a long time to turn herself into a true warrior, and she suffers many traumas in the process. Yet she is also clever and courageous, bravely battling and killing the dragons that are threatening Damar. Merri Rosenberg asserted in the New York Times Book Review that in The Hero and the Crown McKinley "created an utterly engrossing fantasy, replete with a fairly mature romantic subplot as well as adventure." According to Horn Book contributor Mary M. Burns, The Hero and the Crown is "as richly detailed and elegant as a medieval tapestry…. Vibrant, witty, compelling, the story is the stuff of which true dreams are made." Writing in the New Statesman, Gillian Wilce cited the novel's "completeness, [and] its engaging imagination," while Wilson Library Bulletin contributor Frances Bradburn called McKinley's novel a "marvelous tale of excitement and female ingenuity."
Upon winning the coveted Newbery Medal in 1985 for The Hero and the Crown, McKinley shared her feelings with SATA: "The Newbery award is supposed to be the peak of your career as a writer for children or young adults. I was rather young to receive it; and it is a little disconcerting to feel—okay, you've done it; that's it, you should retire now." Far from retiring, however, McKinley has continued to write retellings of traditional favorites as well as original novels and stories. She has returned, on occasion to Damar, as she does in A Knot in the Grain and Other Stories. The tales in this collection, according to Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books critic Betsy Hearne, bear "McKinley's signature blend of the magical and the mundane in the shape of heroines" who triumph and find love despite the obstacles they face. They also demonstrate McKinley's "remarkable ability to evoke wonder and belief," asserted Horn Book contributor Ann A. Flowers. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly called A Knot in the Grain a "thrilling, satisfying and thought-provoking collection."
Also set in the world of Damar, McKinley's short story "The Stone Fey" first appeared in Imaginary Lands and was republished as an illustrated book with artwork by John Clapp. In the story Maddy, a shepherdess, falls in love with a Stone Fey, a fairy with skin the color of stone. Entranced by her new love, Maddy drifts away from the people and things she loves until she realizes that the fey can not return her love. A contributor for Publishers Weekly noted that, "while staying true to her penchant for presenting strong female protagonists, … McKinley strikes a softer note with this deeply romantic yet ultimately clear-eyed love story." In Booklist Carolyn Phelan deemed The Stone Fey a "haunting story," and Virginia Golodetz described McKinley's writing in School Library Journal as "passionate."
The Outlaws of Sherwood exhibits McKinley's talent for revising and reviving traditional tales. Instead of concentrating on Robin Hood—or glorifying him—this novel focuses on other members in Robin's band of outlaws and provides carefully wrought details about their daily lives: how they get dirty and sick, and how they manage their outlaw affairs. Robin is not portrayed as the bold, handsome marksman and sword handler readers may remember from traditional versions of the "Robin Hood" story. Instead, he is nervous, a poor shot, and even reluctant to form his band of merry men. Not surprisingly, McKinley's merry men include merry women among their number. "The young women are allowed to be angry, frankly sexual, self willed—and even to outshoot the men, who don't seem to mind," observed Washington Post Book World reviewer Michele Landsberg in discussing the author's alteration of the well-known story. In another characteristic revisioning by McKinley, Maid Marian stands out as a brilliant, beautiful leader and an amazingly talented archer. The Outlaws of Sherwood is "romantic and absorbing … [and] the perfect adolescent daydream where happiness is found in being young and among friends," concluded Shirley Wilton in her review of the book for Voice of Youth Advocates.
The adult novel Deerskin also demonstrates McKinley's talent for creating new tales out of the foundations of old ones. As Hearne noted, Deerskin presents a "darker
side of fairy tales." Based on Perrault's "Donkeyskin," a story in which a king assaults his own daughter after his queen dies, the novel relates how a beautiful princess is raped by her father after the death of her mother. This "is also a dog story," Hearne reminded readers: Princess Lissar survives the brutal attack and heals emotionally because of her relationship with her dog, Ash. "Written with deep passion and power, Deerskin is an almost unbearably intense portrait of a severely damaged young woman…. There is also romance, humor, and sheer delight," commented Christy Tyson in Voice of Youth Advocates. In School Library Journal, Cathy Chauvette deemed the book "a riveting and relentless fairy tale, told in ravishing prose." Another novel with adult themes, McKinley's vampire novel Sunshine was awarded the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature in 2003.
With Spindle's End, McKinley once again revamps a fairy tale for modern readers. Using "Sleeping Beauty" as a template, she creates a "novel of complex imagery and characters," according to a critic for Family Life. In this tale the infant princess Briar Rose is cursed on her name day by the evil fairy, Pernicia. Then—as in the original—she is taken away to a remote and magical land to be raised, her real identity concealed, in an attempt to escape the fairy's wrath. In McKinley's take, the good fairy Katriona takes the young princess away to her village of Foggy Bottom, renames her Rosie, and raises the girl while awaiting the ill-fated twenty-first birthday, when Briar Rose will supposedly prick her finger on a spinning-wheel spindle and fall into an eternal sleep. In order to confound Pernicia, Rosie and her friend Peony trade places at on the prophesied birthday. Rosie's kiss awakens the sleeping Peony, who in turn marries the prince, leaving Rosie free to continue the simple life she loves and to marry the village blacksmith.
Writing in School Library Journal, Connie Tyrrell Burns felt that in Spindle's End "McKinley once again lends a fresh perspective to a classic fairy tale, developing the story of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ into a richly imagined, vividly depicted novel." In Booklist Estes noted that McKinley's reinterpretation of the old fairy tale "takes readers into a credibly developed world." "Full of humor and romance as well as magic and adventure, and with an ending that has a decided twist," Estes concluded, the "spellbinding novel is bound to attract McKinley's fans and those who relish the genre." A critic for Publishers Weekly called Spindle's End a "luscious, lengthy novel" that is "dense with magical detail and all-too-human feeling."
"Elegant prose and lyrical descriptions capture reader interest while an increasingly tense plot maintains it," wrote a Kirkus Reviews contributor in a review of McKinley's novel Chalice. In this original fantasy, the author spins a story that focuses on a young woman named Mirasol. Serving the Master of Willowlands as a Chalice, or servant, Mirasol is also a beekeeper. However, her task now is a pressing one: to mend her damaged world by finding a way to bind her master—a Prince of Fire who causes everything he touches to burn—to the fragile land that is now wracked by earthquakes and other destruction. Noting that Mirasol is a characteristic McKinley heroine "who discovers her impressive powers as she finds her way," Booklist critic Lynn Rutan praised the novel's evocative narration as "a sensory delight." In Publishers Weekly an equally impressed reviewer characterized Chalice as a "high fantasy as perfectly shaped and eloquently told" as McKinley's best-known novels, the critic concluding that the romantic tale will be greeted as "a lavish and lasting treat" by the author's many fans. "Teens who long for beautiful phrases and descriptive writing will find themselves drinking in this rich fairy tale as if it were honey," predicted Heather M. Campbell in her review of Chalice for School Library Journal.
Booklist contributor Jennifer Mattson characterized McKinley's novel Dragonhaven as something of "a curveball" for the author's fans due to its modern-day setting. However, readers soon discover what Mattson dubbed "a distinctly fantastical aspect" to the Wyoming nature preserve where fifteen-year-old protagonist Jake lives with his naturalist father. Jake is studying Draca Australiensis, the last remaining species of dragon on Earth. When he secretly raises a young dragon whose mother has been killed by poachers, Jake challenges prevailing theories about how humans and dragons have coevolved and also gains an intimate knowledge of the gigantic fire-breathing creatures. In Dragonhaven "McKinley renders her imagined universe … potently," wrote a Publishers Weekly reviewer, the critic adding that the "tightly wound and solitary Jake" is a "classic McKinley" protagonist. According to a Kirkus Reviews writer, the novel treats readers to a "sharply incisive, wildly intelligent dragon fantasy involving profound layers of science and society, love and loss and nature and nurture." In Kliatt Paula Rohrlick wrote that McKinley's "engrossing fantasy is suspenseful and highly detailed," and Jake's "self-deprecating sense of humor helps make [Dragonhaven] … a truly wonderful read."
In addition to novel-length fiction, McKinley has also written original picture books for children. Rowan is a story about a girl selecting and loving a pet dog, while My Father Is in the Navy portrays a young girl whose father has been away for some time: as he is about to return, she tries to remember what her father looks like. Reviewing Rowan, a contributor for Publishers Weekly deemed it an "affable tale of a girl and her pet," while in School Library Journal JoAnn Rees called My Father Is in the Navy a "warm, loving look at a family group." Other books by McKinley that are geared for younger readers include short retellings of childhood classics like Anna Sewell's Black Beauty, George MacDonald's The Light Princess, and Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book.
"As a compulsive reader myself, I believe that you are what you read …," McKinley once told SATA. "My books are also about hope—I hope. Much of modern literature has given up hope and deals with anti-heroes and despair. It seems to me that human beings by their very natures need heroes, real heroes, and are happier with them. I see no point in talking about how life is over and it never mattered anyway. I don't believe it."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 4, 1990, Volume 33, 2000.
Children's Literature Review, Volume 10, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1986.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 52: American Writers for Children since 1960: Fiction, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1986, pp. 262-266.
St. James Guide to Fantasy Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
St. James Guide to Young-Adult Writers, 2nd edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Booklist, October 1, 1982, Sally Estes, review of The Blue Sword, p. 198; August, 1994, Frances Bradburn, review of A Knot in the Grain and Other Stories, p. 2039; August, 1997, Sally Estes, review of Rose Daughter, p. 1898; November 1, 1998, Carolyn Phelan, review of The Stone Fey, p. 484; April, 15, 2000, Sally Estes, review of Spindle's End, p. 1543; April 15, 2002, Sally Estes, review of Water: Tales of Elemental Spirits, p. 1416; October 15, 2003, Kristine Huntley, review of Sunshine, p. 399; October 1, 2007, Jennifer Mattson, review of Dragonhaven, p. 44.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, September, 1993, Betsy Hearne, review of Deerskin, p. 16; June, 1994, Betsy Hearne, review of A Knot in the Grain and Other Stories, p. 327.
Choice, July and August, 1979, review of Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast, p. 668.
Family Life, December 1, 2000, review of Spindle's End, p. 127.
Horn Book, January-February, 1985, Mary M. Burns, review of The Hero and the Crown, pp. 59-60; July-August, 1985, Robin McKinley, "Newbery Medal Acceptance," pp. 395-405; July-August, 1985, Terri Windling, and Mark Alan Arnold, "Robin McKinley," pp. 406-409; July-August, 1994, Ann A. Flowers, review of A Knot in the Grain and Other Stories, pp. 458-459; September-October, 1997, Lauren Adams, review of Rose Daughter, pp. 574-575; May-June, 2000, Anita L. Burkam, review of Spindle's End, p. 317; July-August, 2002, Anita L. Burkham, review of Water, p. 466; September-October, 2007, Deirdre F. Baker, review of Dragonhaven, p. 581.
Kirkus Reviews, December 1, 1978, review of Beauty, p. 1307; June 1, 2002, review of Water, p. 808; August 15, 2003, review of Sunshine, p. 1039; August 1, 2007, review of Dragonhaven; August 15, 2008, review of Chalice.
Kliatt, May, 2005, Donna Scanlon, review of Sunshine, p. 34; September, 2007, Paula Rohrlick, review of Dragonhaven, p. 15.
New Statesman, November 8, 1985, Gillian Wilce, review of The Hero and the Crown, p. 28.
New York Times Book Review, January 27, 1985, Merri Rosenberg, review of The Hero and the Crown, p. 29; November 13, 1988, Michael Malone, review of The Outlaws of Sherwood, p. 54; January 18, 1998, Kathryn Harrison, review of Rose Daughter, p. 18; May 14, 2000, Elizabeth Devereaux, review of Spindle's End, p. 27.
Publishers Weekly, April 25, 1994, review of A Knot in the Grain and Other Stories, p. 80; June 16, 1997, review of Rose Daughter, p. 60; August 31, 1998, review of The Stone Fey, p. 77; March 27, 2000, review of Spindle's End, p. 82; September 2, 2002, review of Water, p. 77; September 29, 2003, review of Sunshine, p. 47, and Mitzi Brunsdale, interview with McKinley, p. 48; August 20, 2007, review of Dragonhaven, p. 69; July 21, 2008, review of Chalice.
School Library Journal, January, 1983, Karen Stang Hanley, review of The Blue Sword, p. 86; December, 1986, p. 108; May, 1992, JoAnn Rees, review of My Father Is in the Navy, p. 91; September, 1993, Cathy Chauvette, review of Deerskin, p. 261; September, 1997, Julie Cummins, review of Rose Daughter, pp. 219-220; January, 1999, Virginia Golodetz, review of The Stone Fey, p. 130; June, 2000, Connie Tyrrell Burns, review of Spindle's End, p. 150; June, 2002, John Peters, review of Water, p. 142; December, 2004, Beth Wright, "Once upon a Time: A Librarian Looks at Recent Young-Adult Novels Based on Fairy Tales," p. 40; September, 2007, Beth Wright, review of Dragonhaven, p. 203; October, 2008, Heather M. Campbell, review of Chalice, p. 154.
Science Fiction Review, August, 1983, Darrell Schweitzer, review of The Blue Sword, p. 46.
Voice of Youth Advocates, April, 1989, Shirley Wilton, review of The Outlaws of Sherwood, p. 44; August, 1993, Christy Tyson, review of Deerskin, p. 168.
Washington Post Book World, November 6, 1988, Michele Landsberg, review of The Outlaws of Sherwood, p. 15.
Wilson Library Bulletin, January, 1987, Frances Bradburn, review of The Hero and the Crown, p. 60.
Robin McKinley Home Page,http://www.robinmckinley.com (December 15, 2008).