Thompson, Julian F(rancis) 1927-
THOMPSON, Julian F(rancis) 1927-
Born November 16, 1927, in New York, NY; son of Julian Francis (a playwright and attorney) and Amalita (Stagg) Thompson; married Polly Nichy (an artist), August 11, 1978. Education: Princeton University, A.B., 1949; Columbia University, M.A., 1955. Hobbies and other interests: Sculpture, gardening, cooking, sports, reading, movies, dance.
Home— P.O. Box 138, West Rupert, VT 05776. Agent— Curtis Brown Ltd., 575 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10022.
Lawrenceville School, Lawrenceville, NJ, history teacher, athletic coach, and director of a lower school house, 1949-62, 1965-67; CHANGES, Inc. (alternative high school), East Orange, NJ, director and teacher, 1971-77; writer, 1979—.
PEN American Center, Authors Guild, League of Vermont Writers.
Best Book for Young Adults selection, American Library Association, 1986, for A Band of Angels; Editor's Choice, Booklist, 1987, for Simon Pure.
YOUNG ADULT NOVELS
Facing It, Avon (New York, NY), 1983.
The Grounding of Group 6, Avon (New York, NY), 1983.
A Question of Survival, Avon (New York, NY), 1984.
Discontinued, Scholastic, Inc. (New York, NY), 1985.
A Band of Angels, Scholastic, Inc. (New York, NY), 1986.
Simon Pure, Scholastic, Inc. (New York, NY), 1987.
The Taking of Mariasburg, Scholastic, Inc. (New York, NY), 1988.
Goofbang Value Daze, Scholastic, Inc. (New York, NY), 1989.
Herb Seasoning, Scholastic, Inc. (New York, NY), 1990.
Gypsyworld, Holt (New York, NY), 1992.
Shepherd, Holt (New York, NY), 1993.
The Fling, Holt (New York, NY), 1994.
The Trials of Molly Sheldon, Holt (New York, NY), 1995.
Philo Fortune's Awesome Journey to His Comfort Zone, Hyperion (New York, NY), 1995.
Ghost Story, Holt (New York, NY), 1997.
Brothers, Knopf (New York, NY), 1998.
Terry and the Pirates, Atheneum (New York, NY), 2000.
Hard Time, Atheneum (New York, NY), 2003.
Viewed by some as a controversial author, Julian F. Thompson writes novels for young adults that sometimes pit well-intentioned and intelligent teenagers against adults who are generally neither of the above. Thompson's lengthy and sophisticated books portray responsible kids challenging irresponsible situations, and in the writing he employs humor, elements of the thriller, and dollops of sex. Though Thompson himself eschews the label "controversial," books such as The Grounding of Group 6, The Taking of Mariasburg, and Hard Time portray adults as ridiculous, uncaring, and even murderous. In his books, Thompson explores timely issues, such as nuclear contamination, environmental issues, and national politics, to name but a few.
Thompson once told Something about the Author (SATA ) that he takes kids seriously. "I want them to know that a lot of the 'answers' grown-ups give to many questions should not be swallowed whole. I want them to hold onto their hopefulness and wonder and to their own real selves." In an essay for Something about the Author Autobiography Series (SAAS ), he further clarified his position vis-a-vis his primary readership: "I'm forever interested in kids' efforts to become functioning, independent human beings and good decision makers. As a rule, the teenagers in my books sound like the kids I've known, and a lot of my fictional characters are modeled, in part, on real people." Thompson's many years spent teaching and coaching have supplied him with enough material for a steady supply of plots and characters.
Publication came late for Thompson, whose first book appeared when he was fifty-six years old. In many ways, however, it was as if he was preparing his entire life for writing. Born in New York City in 1927, Thompson experienced a happy, carefree childhood until the death of his successful father in 1939. His father had been, in addition to treasurer for a large pharmaceutical company, a playwright whose play, The Warrior's Husband, was actress Katharine Hepburn's first starring role on Broadway. That play was later adapted for a Rodgers and Hart musical. But after the death of his father, Thompson's world was turned on its head: gone were the servants and weekend farm, and soon gone, too, was the swanky Park Avenue family address. Young Thompson remained in his private school, but now through dint of scholarships. His mother, originally from Ecuador, was "beautiful and bright, and a marvelous tennis player," according to Thompson in his SAAS sketch. The great-great-granddaughter of a general who had served under Simon Bolivar, she was resilient, as well, and held the family together despite their loss.
For the next five years, Thompson led a disoriented life, not really believing that his former world had disappeared forever. A further scholarship won him a place at the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, where by his junior year he had begun to find a place for himself. His love of sports played no small part in this recovery, specifically coaching at summer camps and for intramural teams. He entered Princeton University in 1945 on another scholarship, but did not consider himself a great student. He continued coaching during his college years, and he also volunteered at a juvenile institution in New Jersey where he came face to face with offenders for the first time in his life and learned what forces come to play in leading kids to commit criminal acts. These activities, as well as his social life, sometimes came into conflict with Thompson's study schedule. By his senior year he had lost his scholarship but continued on to graduate in 1949.
After graduation, Thompson took a teaching position back at his alma mater, Lawrenceville, though he had a tough time at first, teaching Greek and Roman history, two subjects he was ill-prepared to teach. Coaching, however, again saved him, and with success in that field, he soon developed an academic curriculum that suited his style. His third year at Lawrenceville, he was put in charge of a Lower School House, and for the next ten years built a fine career as teacher, coach, and housemaster. But there was always in the back of his mind the question of whether or not he could become a writer like his father. So, in 1962, at age thirty-five, Thompson quit his job at Lawrenceville. "Then I loaded up my white '57 T-bird … and took off into New England, deciding I would write the Great American Novel," Thompson recalled in SAAS.
It was not as easy as all that, however. Accepted as a participant at the prestigious Bread Loaf Writers' Conference in Vermont, he was initially discouraged in his goal by the editor who worked personally with him. Leaving Bread Loaf, he continued work on his novel in progress, and when it was finished, his New York agent had further discouraging words, advising against sending it out to publishers. Thompson returned to Lawrenceville as a part-time teacher from 1965 to 1967, and then a small inheritance let him pursue writing full-time again. He was able to purchase land in Vermont and traded in his beloved T-bird for a Jeep in the process. Living a simple life in Vermont, Thompson completed another novel, but again his agent advised against showing it. This time, Thompson did not follow the advice but sent it off to a publisher who gave him an encouraging rejection, but a rejection, nonetheless.
Then came more years of teaching, but in unexpected places, working in alternative schools in New Jersey through most of the 1970s. The second of these schools, CHANGES, Inc., changed Thompson's life, as well. It was there that he found his own voice as a writer, teaching creative writing classes and learning a new literary language as he went along—one that was closer to his own heart, and one that was not "literary" at all. It was there also that he met his wife, marrying for the first time at the age of fifty. After seven years of working as director, teacher, and janitor at CHANGES, Thompson and his wife went back to his home in Vermont, he to pursue his writing, and she initially to study medicine and work on her art.
It was then he began writing his third novel, and his first to be published, Facing It. Like many writers, Thompson did not realize he was writing a genre novel when he started. It was his agent who informed him that he had just written a young adult title. "I'd never heard the expression before," Thompson once told SATA. "To be honest, I didn't care what anybody called my books, so long as somebody published them and other people got to read them, and I still don't." While his agent hunted for a publisher, Thompson continued writing, finishing The Grounding of Group 6, and soon it transpired that Avon publishers wanted to publish both titles. "My twenty-year-old dream was going to come true," Thompson noted in SAAS. "I was going to be a published writer!"
With these first novels, Thompson mapped out a territory quintessentially his own, mining his storehouse of sports lore as well as his experiences at a private school. Facing It recreates some of Thompson's own experiences as a camp counselor and coach in the persona of a young man whose promising athletic career is ended by the loss of three fingers. Taking a job at a summer camp, he begins to heal and help others to heal, as well, forming a special bond with a dancer recovering from a hysterectomy and a young boy soprano. Booklist reviewer Stephanie Zvirin noted that Thompson "effectively maintains a difficult narrative device; his dialogue and situation display both freshness and realism; and he combines humor and poignancy in equal proportions." Thompson announced in this first novel an uncompromising approach to dealing with teen problems such as drugs, sex, venereal disease, and difficult relations with parents, and his text employed a full array of teen-speak, including the use of four-letter words. While some critics found this style too convoluted and hard-edged, others, such as Zena Sutherland in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, concluded that Thompson's writing "sparkles with intellectual sophistication, and the story is imbued with a persuasive warmth."
Parent-child disharmony is taken to a surreal extreme in The Grounding of Group 6, in which disgruntled parents make arrangements with a private school to permanently "ground" their children by killing them. But Nat, the hired killer, discovers he likes his supposed victims and takes their side, which sets the school authorities after him and his charges. A Publishers Weekly critic felt that Thompson displays "a remarkable literary style and frightening inventiveness" in this suspense yarn, and concluded that "Everyone will be looking for more feats by the talented author." Nancy C. Hammond, writing in Horn Book, called the book a "satiric thriller" and one "not for squeamish teenagers," but also noted that the novel is "pure, page-turning entertainment." Thompson set his novel in Vermont, a territory, like his protagonists, with which he was very familiar.
Also focusing on powerless teens, Brothers finds college student Cameron Craven missing from the institution where he was being treated for mental exhaustion. Seventeen-year-old Chris Craven, determined to find his older sibling and frustrated by his mother's lack of concern over the whereabouts of Cam, is joined by sisters Michelle and Millie on a search that takes them across the country to a militaristic compound in Montana run by the anti-government Sons of Liberty. Realizing that Cameron does not realize the violent goals of his new comrades, Chris acts as rescuer to his older brother in a novel that a Publishers Weekly reviewer described as a "study of sibling relationships, mental illness, and white-supremacist cults." While the Publishers Weekly reviewer found Thompson's novel "ambitious but awkward," in his Booklist review Roger Leslie praised Chris's narrative voice as "consistently accessible, insightful, and occasionally witty" and dubbed Brothers "enjoyable reading throughout."
A Question of Survival has an outback setting, but in this case, a teenage boy and girl, Toby and Zack, are sent off to the woods for survival training, and not to be "grounded." Kathy Fritts in School Library Journal took exception to Thompson's style, noting that "the book is drenched in sex, foul language, images of violence and sexual fantasy to an extent seldom encountered in young adult fiction." Other critics found honesty in the story, however, and looked beyond the surface for inner depths. Dorothy M. Broderick noted in Voice of Youth Advocates that "Thompson has done a masterful job in creating two very interesting teenage characters while giving life to the adults as well. That makes this something special, and there isn't even room here to tell you about how funny it is, and how tender it is in describing the growing sexual attraction between Toby and Zack."
The nuclear threat is dealt with in Discontinued and A Band of Angels, both of which present typical attitudes and situations with just enough exaggeration to make them frighteningly possible and one step from the macabre. Both involve complex mysteries surrounding adult attitudes toward nuclear war, and both are uncompromising in their language and sexual expression. While many reviewers complained of these elements, Broderick, reviewing A Band of Angels for Voice of Youth Advocates, announced that Thompson is "a unique voice among the new male YA authors." She found that his female-male relations are "loving, caring without any of the phoniness found in the series romances," that his female characters are "strong, independent without being males-in-disguise," and that "his faith in the young to build a better world is unbounded." A Band of Angels was selected as a Best Book for Young Adults by the American Library Association.
The award-winning novel Simon Pure is set at a fictional Vermont university about to be secretly taken over by power-hungry business students. These plans are thwarted by fifteen-year-old Simon Storm and his ally, a psychology professor. Again, Thompson's lengthy, discursive style irritated some reviewers, but others, such as Pam Spencer in Voice of Youth Advocates, declared that "young adults will love it! Simon Pure is a pure delight to read—it's clever, inventive and funny." Further advocacy of teens occurs in The Taking of Mariasburg, the story of a young girl who buys a town for teens with inherited money, Goofbang Value Daze, a satire about a town where the rights of teenagers are threatened, and in Herb Seasoning, an off-beat comedy about a high school senior trying to decide what to do with his life after graduation. Reviewing the last-named title, Booklist critic Zvirin noted that Thompson is "one of the most original and humorous" writers of his generation. "While his books will either enchant you or make you furious with their wholesale stereotyping, and smart-aleck characters," the critic added, "you shouldn't ignore them."
Thompson deals with environmental problems in Gypsyworld, wherein which he constructs an ecological utopia along with a twist of mystery in an "uneven though thought-provoking story," according to a reviewer in Publishers Weekly. A more typical novel of adolescent anxieties is Shepherd, about a high school senior who falls for a flirtatious freshman girl. Again set in Vermont, the book might appeal to young male readers, according to Jeanne Triner in Booklist, who "will identify with Shep, his raging hormones, false bravado, insecurities, and good heart." The Fling is also set in a high school, but here reality gives way to a sort of magic when Felicia Gordon's short stories start anticipating real events leading to a mystery surrounding the brooding David Mycroft. While a Kirkus Reviews critic found the book to be an "ambiguous, rather dark comedy," Drue Wagner-Mees, writing in Voice of Youth Advocates, thought the work is "immediately engrossing, provocative, and titillating."
With Philo Fortune's Awesome Journey to His Comfort Zone, Thompson takes a humorous departure from his big-issue books. Seventeen-year-old Philo is a virgin badly in need of adventures, which he gets with a solo drive west. He picks up a sexy hitchhiker, gets imprisoned by a band of burnt-out druggies, and finally comes to some basic conclusions about his life. Karen Simon-etti, writing in Booklist, dubbed the novel "Classic laugh bait for teens.… Fast-paced and peppered with teen age slang and testosterone, this is an honest, humorous story." Vermont is once again the setting, though book-censorship is the theme, for The Trials of Molly Sheldon, while in Ghost Story Thompson turns to a ghost at a Vermont inn as one of his main characters; the others are a teenage girl and an aspiring pornographer.
Also considered lighter fare is Thompson's Terry and the Pirates, an adventure that finds a sixteen year old determined to avoid boarding school by becoming a stow-away on a high-class yacht. Terry's plan backfires, however, when she realize the massive boat is being captained by the owner's teen son, and things go from bad to worse when the ship is overtaken by a group of bizarre pirates who decide to hold Terry for ransom. Describing the book as "silly fun with a rather arch tone," Kliatt contributor Paula Rohrlick praised Terry and the Pirates as a "swiftly moving tale that both respects and tweaks traditional pirate tales" in Thompson's characteristically irreverent fashion. While noting that the novel's sexual content might be a safer bet for older teens, Roger Leslie wrote in his Booklist review that
"lots of readers will enjoy the comic twists and intentionally absurd plot," while in Publishers Weekly a reviewer dubbed the novel a "fast-paced and pleasingly far-fetched adventure story."
Described by School Library Journal reviewer Susan W. Hunter as "a comic novel that is truly over the top," Hard Time tells the story of ninth-grader Annie Ireland, whose life takes a turn for the worst despite the fact that she has a leprechaun named Pantagruel Primo—or P. P.—to watch out for her. When Annie's house burns down, her parents send her to live with relatives, she winds up in a school where political correctness of the liberal bent is the rule of the day. After an essay by Annie is deemed coercive to violence, she and her friend Arby are sent to the Back to Basics Center, a wilderness boarding school run by an extremist professor and his gun-toting wife. With help from P. P., Annie and Arby survive the worst the school can dish out, but learn, ironically, that "no good deed goes unpunished," according to a Kirkus Reviews writer. Citing Hard Time as a "broadly satirical fantasy" and Thompson's literary prose style as "sophisticated and irreverent," Hunter praised the novel for satirizing "acronyms, censorship, greedy adults, standardized tests, sweepstakes, camp counselors, life in jail, and more." Noting that the novel is characteristic Thompson, Booklist critic Frances Bradburn called Hard Time "edgy" and "funny" in its focus on society's post-Columbine "fear of high-school violence." "Annie and Arby are likable, other characters are wickedly exaggerated, and the author creates some memorable moments," a Publishers Weekly reviewer added.
If Thompson's books continue to earn him the label of "controversial," he is beyond worrying about that. Writing is his main concern, which he does in long-hand in a three-ring binder. He also happily admits to deciding on the theme of a book before beginning the plotting. Thompson feels he has led a charmed life. "I feel blessed to have had the life I've had so far," he concluded in SAAS. "I haven't ever made much money, or had a lot of things, but I've had enough that I haven't suffered want, or felt deprived.… Although I've never fathered any children, I've always had some great kids in my life, most recently the ones I've come to know because I've been a writer. I can't believe that anyone has gotten greater pleasure from the work he's done."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Volume 9, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1990, pp. 217-223.
Children's Literature Review, Volume 24, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1991, pp. 226-233.
Something about the Author Autobiography Series, Volume 13, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1993, pp. 231-245.
Booklist, September, 1983, Stephanie Zvirin, review of Facing It, p. 76; May 15, 1990, Stephanie Zvirin, review of Herb Seasoning, p. 1792; December 15, 1993, Jeanne Triner, review of Shepherd, p. 748; May 1, 1995, Karen Simonetti, review of Philo Fortune's Awesome Journey to His Comfort Zone, p. 1564; November 1, 1998, Roger Leslie, review of Brothers, p. 485; November 1, 2000, Roger Leslie, review of Terry and the Pirates, p. 526; December 15, 2003, Frances Bradburn, review of Hard Time, p. 746.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, February, 1984, Zena Sutherland, review of Facing It, p. 119; January, 1986, pp. 97-98; October, 1986, p. 39; May, 1988, p. 190; August, 1989, p. 285; September, 1992, pp. 24-25; June, 1995, pp. 361-162; January, 1996, p. 172; March, 1997, p. 260.
Emergency Librarian, March-April, 1985, pp. 47-48; November-December, 1988, pp. 60-64.
Horn Book, October, 1983, Nancy C. Hammond, review of The Grounding of Group 6, pp. 586-587.
Kirkus Reviews, May 15, 1994, review of The Fling, p. 708; October 1, 1995, p. 1437; February 1, 1997, p. 229; October 15, 2003, review of Hard Time, p. 1277.
Kliatt, May, 2002, Paula Rohrlick, review of Terry and the Pirates, p. 23.
Publishers Weekly, January 28, 1983, review of The Grounding of Group 6, p. 86; December 9, 1983, p. 51; August 16, 1985, p. 70; March 13, 1987, pp. 86-87; July 13, 1992, review of Gypsyworld, p. 56; February 17, 1997, p. 220; November 23, 1998, review of Brothers, p. 68; October 30, 2000, review of Terry and the Pirates, p. 76; December 15, 2003, review of Hard Time, p. 74.
School Library Journal, August, 1983, p. 81; October, 1984, Kathy Fritts, review of A Question of Survival, p. 171; October, 1985, p. 188; March, 1987, p. 177; May, 1988, p. 113; February, 1989, p. 103; March, 1990, p. 240; September, 1992, p. 280; November, 1993, p. 126; May, 1995, p. 123; October, 2000, Miranda Doyle, review of Terry and the Pirates, p. 172; January, 2004, Susan W. Hunter, review of Hard Time, p. 137.
Voice of Youth Advocates, February, 1985, Dorothy M. Broderick, review of A Question of Survival, p. 333; June, 1986, Dorothy M. Broderick, review of A Band of Angels, p. 84; April, 1987, Pam Spencer, review of Simon Pure, p. 34; February, 1994, pp. 374-75; August, 1994, Drue Wagner-Mees, review of The Fling, p. 151; February, 1996, p. 377.*
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