Carolyn Reeder, teacher and author of historical fiction for children, dies at 74

Carolyn Reeder, a retired teacher who was the author of historical novels for young readers, died Jan. 20 at Sibley Memorial Hospital in the District. She was 74 and had kidney cancer, her husband, Jack S. Reeder, said.

In the 1980s, after publishing three non-fiction books about Shenandoah National Park with her husband, Ms. Reeder turned to fiction, writing for children of middle-school age.

(Courtesy of the Reeder family) - Carolyn Reeder, 74, a former teacher, was the author of eight historical novels for young readers. She also wrote a column on Civil War history for the KidsPost section of The Washington Post.

The first of her eight novels, “Shades of Gray,” appeared in 1989 and focused on the struggles of a 12-year-old Virginia boy confronting divided family loyalties at the end of the Civil War. The book won many prizes, including the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction; it is often assigned in schools throughout the country.

She published four other books about children caught up in the events of the war and, for the past year, wrote a column on Civil War history for the KidsPost section of The Washington Post.

Ms. Reeder, who spent 29 years teaching elementary students at Washington’s Georgetown Day School, took up writing after being inspired by Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of “Little House on the Prairie” and other books about pioneer life.

“She wanted to do her own version,” her husband said in an interview. “She was from this area. Her family is actually from the Shenandoah Valley.”

She also published two novels — “Grandpa’s Mountain” (1991) and “Moonshiner’s Son” (1993) — that were set in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Two others — “Foster’s War” (1998) and “The Secret Project Notebook” (2005) — took place during World War II. Another of her books, “Captain Kate” (1999), was about a 19th-century family working on the C&O Canal.

Carolyn Bruce Owens was born in Washington on Nov. 16, 1937. Except for a few years in the 1940s, when her father was a civilian employee at a naval research laboratory in San Diego, she spent her entire life in the Washington area.

She graduated from Anacostia High School in 1955 and, four years later, received a bachelor’s degree in music from American University, where she studied organ and voice. She received a master’s degree in special education from the university in the early 1970s.

Ms. Reeder was a fourth-grade teacher at Georgetown Day School from 1959 to 1963. She took time off to raise her children before returning to Georgetown Day in 1971. She taught sixth grade and later founded the school’s “learning lab,” offering individual attention to students in reading and math. She retired from teaching in 1996.

During weekend visits to Shenandoah National Park, Ms. Reeder and her husband explored crumbling homesteads that were abandoned when the park was formed in the 1930s. Together, they wrote three books about the park’s heritage and its earlier inhabitants.

In 2008, Ms. Reeder and her husband published a collection of annotated letters written during the Civil War by Jack Reeder’s great-great-grandfather.

Ms. Reeder was a member of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club and volunteered at the Clara Barton National Historic Site near her home in Glen Echo. She was a “level walker” for the C&O Canal Association, reporting on conditions along a segment, or “level,” of the canal.

Survivors include her husband of 52 years, Jack S. Reeder of Glen Echo; two children, David Reeder of Durham, N.C., and Linda Reeder of New Haven, Conn.; and three granddaughters.

Beginning in March 2011, Ms. Reeder wrote a monthly column on Civil War history for The Post’s KidsPost section. In her final column, on Feb. 22, she wrote about children who left home to fight in the Civil War. Many became drummer boys, who helped keep order during skirmishes at the front.

“In the noise and confusion of battle,” Ms. Reeder wrote, “it was often impossible to hear the officers’ orders, so each order was given a series of drumbeats to represent it. Both soldiers and drummers had to learn which drumroll meant ‘meet here’ and which meant ‘attack now’ and which meant ‘retreat’ . . . .

“Many young boys marched off to war looking for ad­ven­ture, but they found hard, dangerous work along with it.”