Carol Hurst's Children's Literature Newsletter
Summer 1998. Page 4.
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Featured Author: Phyllis Naylor
To say that Phyllis Reynolds Naylor is a prolific author is a vast understatement. In fact, while you and I have been thinking that we might have an idea for a kids' novel, Phyllis Naylor has probably outlined three, revised two and sent three more in to the editor. A look at Amazon Books' website shows that Phyllis has one book just out, Danny's Desert Rats (Atheneum), three Naylor books not yet available, but finished and waiting in the wings: a picture book, Sweet Strawberries (Atheneum), Sang Spell, a fantasy (Atheneum), and The Girls' Revenge (Delacorte). Since she writes a new book for her Alice series every year, it's safe to assume one of those is in the works as well.
We all know the names of several prolific authors, particularly authors of series books, and Phyllis is, among other things, a series writer, but her books are, almost without exception, very good indeed. Each book can and does stand independently - even those in series - and she is seldom content with just telling us a story. Many of the books are laugh-out-loud funny. She builds tension well, sometimes with cliff-hangers and foreshadowing. Most of her characters face moral dilemmas and her resolutions are not pat or overly predictable. She's a fine storyteller and her memory for what it's like to be young is readily apparent in her work. Having raised two sons may have helped her to present believable male as well as female protagonists.
The topics too, vary widely: religion, mental illness, teenage rebellion, coping with divorce and death, facing one's fears and adult imperfections, as well as determining right and wrong, are just some of the dilemmas characters face in her books. There is usually an ethical crisis and her main characters evolve believably. Her books are often uplifting but never oversimplified and we don't get the feeling that she sneaked in a sermon.
All that makes her amazing enough but then you must add in the range of her books. Many of us think of her as a writer for upper elementary kids, but one of her latest books is a good picture book for very young children, Ducks Disappearing (Atheneum, 1997 ISBN 0689319029. Library Binding.) and she has written books for adults and everybody in between.
Phyllis was born in 1933 in Anderson, Indiana. She grew up in Anderson, Muncie and Joliet. When she married, Phyllis moved to Chicago and later, Minneapolis . When her husband became ill, they moved to Maryland. She wrote about her first husband's mental illness in a novel for adults, Crazy Love.
Later they divorced. Phyllis went back to college and got a degree in psychology. She married Rex Naylor, a speech pathologist. They live in Bethesda, Maryland. They have two grown sons, Jeff and Mike, and two granddaughters, Sophia and Tressa, who live in Minneapolis.
Phyllis is a lovely, warm and charming woman whose love for her work is apparent. She's incredibly honest about herself and curious about everybody else. She loves to sing, play the piano, and swim. She dislikes flying, traveling to her many speaking engagements by train when possible. Most of all, she loves to write.
She had her first story published when she was sixteen and supported herself while in college by writing stories BUT she keeps track of her rejections and, at last count, she had received 10,333 of those. Why would a writer with a large record of successes keep track of her failures? She used to write short stories and made multiple submissions of them. In order to keep track of which stories were where, she made charts in clothbound journals showing where they went and what the status was. Totaling the rejections, she says, is easy bookkeeping.
Phyllis is now writing her 100th book, writing about six hours a day. She uses notebooks for more than rejection accounts, however. When she starts a book, she labels a notebook with its working title and jots down ideas and information in the notebook. Often she has a pile of books in progress sitting in those notebooks. Phyllis writes in longhand, revising and reworking each chapter until she gets it right. Her writing doesn't go into her computer until she has rewritten it at least two times. There are two more steps before her writing gets sent in to an editor: Phyllis' husband reads and criticizes the manuscript and then Phyllis reads it to her writing group. Once a week, members of the group take turns reading whatever they are working on, taking suggestions and criticism from each other.
Phyllis Reynolds Naylor writes a new Alice book each year and, yes, she has heard them compared to Lois Lowry's Anastasia books. Both series star strong, funny early teenage girls and although there are strong parallels, Alice and Anastasia have never met. Phyllis and Lois are good friends but they don't read each other's Alice and Anastasia books because they want to keep their characters as separate entities.
If you're not familiar with Naylor's Alice series, you need to be. Through the antics and dilemmas of Alice, the author deals with many early adolescent concerns but the touch is light and often very funny. There's a really good website about the Alice books at http://www.simonsays.com/alice/allabout.html. The site offers information about each of the Alice books, a photo and further information about Phyllis Naylor and a chance to exchange email with her and with other Alice fans.
Alice, of course, is just one of the series that Phyllis Naylor keeps spinning for our delight and amazement. There's a series about witches and one about battles between boys and girls. In the Bessledorf series, she's invented the Magruder family who live in Middleburg in the old Bessledorf hotel, where their father is the manager. What with the guests and ghosts in the hotel, the neighboring funeral parlor, the action at the bus depot and the folks in town, life for the Magruder family is almost always an adventure, usually a humorous one. The Bessledorf series is more like a sitcom than the Alice books are but, although the laughter is omnipresent, the characters and situations give us the typical Naylor sense of values.
It was not a series that brought Phyllis Naylor into the ranks of Newbery Award winners, but a book about a mistreated beagle, Shiloh (Yearling Books, 1992 ISBN: 0440407524. Paperback.). Readers of the three Shiloh books may like to know that Shiloh is a very real dog that Phyllis found while visiting friends in West Virginia. While on a woodland walk, she saw the animal, trying to make contact with her but too frightened to approach her directly. It followed her to her friends' home where they took the beagle in and nursed it back to health. Shiloh became a frequent school visitor after the book won the Newbery. When his paw became sore from signing books, they had a stamp made bearing his pawprint.
Shiloh is so much more than the typical dog story available for young readers that it quickly became a literary favorite. Marty Preston befriends the abused puppy and tries to hide it from Judd, the dog's owner. To do that, he must lie to his parents as well as to Judd and he must steal food. These things cause him great anguish. However, the thought of giving Shiloh back to a man he knows to be a drunk, a poacher and an abuser of animals is untenable for Marty. Even the solution involves another lie of sorts and a compromise. Big questions such as what is truth and what kind of law is it that would let a man mistreat his dog are imbedded in the plot. The book is within the reach of most third graders yet the moral dilemmas are such that it can provoke heated dialogue all the way up through middle school students.
Another exciting book for upper elementary readers by Phyllis Naylor is The Fear Place (Atheneum, 1994 ISBN: 0689318669. Library Binding. Paperback.). This brief novel is the story of two teenage brothers, their fights and eventual friendship. Mainly, however, it's about overcoming one's fears.
In Ice, an insightful book for upper elementary grades (Atheneum, 1995 ISBN: 0689800053. Library Binding. Paperback), we find angry Chrissa who is forced to spend a year with her father's mother. While babysitting for two neighbor children during an ice storm, Chrissa must rescue them from their own unstable father. Soon, she has uncovered the truth about her own father and can let go of her feelings of inadequacy.
Send No Blessings (Puffin, 1992 ISBN: 014034859X. Paperback.) is a book for young adults. Naylor takes us back to West Virginia where we meet Beth, the eldest child in a family of nine, living in a trailer. Her mother loves her family, referring to her children as blessings, and she's about to have another such blessing. Beth is leery of repeating the pattern of her parents' lives. This is a book about making choices and taking responsibility for those choices.
To Walk the Sky Path (Demco Media, 1996 ISBN: 0440406366. Paperback.) takes place in the Everglades where Billie, a young Seminole and the first in his family to go to school, walks between traditional and modern customs. His grandfather instills in him the legends and rituals of the Seminoles. At school he is a victim of racism and prejudice. There are parallels here to Jean Craighead George's Julie of the Wolves and Talking Earth.
No matter what kind of novel you're looking for, you'll find a Naylor book that's just what you wanted.
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