Lois Lowry: Making It New

Sunday, March 16, 2008

She married at 19 and, like many women in her generation, dropped out of college to do it. By 26, she had four children under the age of 5. It was not until she was almost 40 and a single mother that she published a novel, she says, "out of sheer necessity." But Lois Lowry is now one of the leading voices in children's literature. In 30 years, she has produced more than 30 books -- two of them winners of the prestigious Newbery Medal. Known for her vivid, affecting portraits of a frightening adult world, she has won generations of dedicated readers. Her secret? She tells about age-old fears in strikingly new ways.

She was born in Hawaii in 1937, the daughter of a U.S. Army dentist. During World War II, while her father served overseas, she lived in her grandparents' house in Carlisle, Pa. And yet she grew up all over the world: in Tokyo, New York City and Washington, D.C.

Lowry went back to college as soon as her youngest began school. After graduate work in creative writing, she began to publish newspaper articles accompanied by her own photography, trying to patch together a career as a freelancer. On a whim, she wrote a short story told from the point of view of a little girl and submitted it successfully to Redbook magazine. A children's editor at Houghton Mifflin admired it so much that she tracked down Lowry, then living in Maine, and approached her about writing a novel for young readers. The invitation couldn't have come at a better time. Lowry was on the verge of divorce, wondering how she would support her children.

That book was A Summer to Die, a fictionalized account of the early death of her sister. Like all the novels that followed -- among them The Giver, Number the Stars and Gossamer-- it told of human relationships and the challenges of ordinary life.

Has she ever contemplated writing a novel for grown-ups? "I'm doing something far more valuable, writing for someone who is wide open -- aged somewhere between 10 and 14. I'm preparing kids to enter the difficult world of contemporary times."

That doesn't mean that she writes edgy novels about too-worldly-wise children, as so many YA writers seem to be doing today. Lowry's latest book, The Willoughbys, is described by its publisher as decidedly old-fashioned. A novel of manners that harks back to classics of the past, it promises an abandoned baby, ruthless parents, a long-lost heir and a truly odious nanny.

But I'd wager it teaches something new.

-- Marie Arana

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