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Sandra Fenichel Asher (1942-) - Sidelights

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Sandra Fenichel Asher, a playwright and children's author, is probably best known for the young-adult novels and other prose works for young readers that she publishes under the name Sandy Asher. Drawing many of the ideas and characters for her writings from her childhood memories, Asher has earned critical praise and numerous awards for novels such as Just like Jenny, Things Are Seldom What They Seem, and Everything Is Not Enough. In addition to fiction, Asher has also edited the story collections On Her Way: Stories and Poems about Growing up Girl and the award-winning With All My Heart, with All My Mind: Thirteen Stories about Growing up Jewish, which collect works that address many of the same adolescent concerns Asher confronts in her fiction.

Asher was raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, surrounded by the abundant sights and sounds and varieties of people in her neighborhood. Still, as a child she discovered the world of books early on, and while growing up she developed interests in writing, drama, and dance, despite the concerns of her parents who viewed marriage and family as a young woman's most important focus. As a teen she masked her typical adolescent discomfort with a sarcastic sense of humor. Asher noted that adolescents are often socially isolated at just the time they are developing their deepest concerns about identity. A young child, she once explained to Something about the Author (SATA), can take his or her questions to a parent, an older adolescent can talk to a boyfriend or girlfriend, an adult can confide in a spouse, close friend, or psychiatrist. But friendships in early adolescence are often tenuous. "So you're alone with your fears and confusions at the very point in life when frightening and confusing changes are happening to you every day," she noted. "You tell no one the truth about how you feel, no one tells you, and everyone ends up thinking, 'I am the only person this crazy in the whole world.'"

However uncomfortably, Asher thrived in her adolescence, pursuing youthful dreams into challenging experiences in ballet, the theater, and finally into writing professionally. She credits teachers and role models from books—Jo March of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women in particular—for her perseverance in the things she loved. But she also believes that adolescence is not just a difficult time, it is a "time of hope," she once told SATA. "You can solve problems. You can learn how to live well. No one can tell children that life is not worth living. They just got here and they're rarin' to go."

After an eventful high school and college career that included performing in plays with La Salle College Masque and Indiana University Theatre, musicals on the traveling showboat, the Majestic, and ballet with the Philadelphia Civic Ballet Company, Asher graduated from Indiana University and married her husband, Harvey Asher. Within a span of several years, her parents and her grandparents died, and her husband's job necessitated a move to Missouri. During these years she worked as a scriptwriter for a radio station, an advertising copywriter, and a drama critic for an alternative newspaper before having two children and beginning graduate studies in child development.

In 1969, a year after the birth of her second child, she began to write her first novel, Daughters of the Law, a story about a young girl trying to understand her Jewish heritage in light of her mother's unexpressed but painful memories as a survivor of the Holocaust of World War II. As Asher became more familiar with her genre, she reworked the novel many times over the next ten years before its publication. During these years she also began to write the award-winning plays that she has seen produced throughout the United States.

Before she finalized Daughters of the Law, Asher wrote and published Summer Begins, a novel about an eighthgrade girl named Summer who submits an article to her school newspaper suggesting that the holiday celebrations at her school should include Buddhist and Jewish traditions along with the exclusively Christian ones currently observed. Summer finds herself the unwilling center of attention when the principal demands that she retract her article, and her teacher resigns in protest of this violation of Summer's civil rights. Summer Begins raises important issues of censorship and religious freedom, but many critics noted that the book's strength lies in its focus on Summer's development toward maturity, related in invitingly human and often humorous terms. A Washington Post Book World reviewer commented that "Summer is a winningly self-aware 13-year-old and her reluctance to take on the heroine's role is often very funny."

In her 1982 novel, Just like Jenny, Asher explores the friendship between Stephie and Jenny, two talented young dancers. When they are both asked to audition for a semi-professional dance group, Stephie, who is under pressure from her parents and envious of Jenny's classic skills, decides that she is not good enough to try out. The resolution of Stephie's loss of nerve, according to Judith S. Baughman in a Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1983 essay, entails lessons in "the nature of real friendship and the motivation underlying commitment to hard but fulfilling goals." A Times Literary Supplement reviewer, while criticizing Just like Jenny for "relying on inevitable disappointments and triumphs," commended Asher for her knowledge of teenagers, claiming that the author "knows about the dreams and aspirations of young people....Sheun derstands also the stubborn crises of confidence which afflict adolescents who do not know how they compare in ability and maturity with others."

In her more recent novels Asher has continued to raise social issues while focusing on her adolescent characters' personal development. In her award-winning 1983 book Things Are Seldom What They Seem she examines the effect a teacher's sexual abuse—and the silent response within the adult world to what he has done—has on some of his students. Baughman noted that the significant focus in this story is "how these complexly developed fourteen-and fifteen-year-olds deal with their discovery that things are seldom what they seem, that deceptions or misperceptions do undermine relationships."

In Missing Pieces, noted Virginia Marr in a School Library Journal review, Asher "deals with such adolescent concerns as lack of communication within families, loss, loneliness and the constant need for emotional support." Asher's 1987 novel, Everything Is Not Enough, the story of a seventeen-year-old boy's move toward independence, tackles the theme of violence against women in a similar manner. In this story, a supportive friendship arises between a young man and a female coworker at a restaurant when, together, they confront the fact that a friend is being beaten by her alcoholic boyfriend. And in her 1993 work Out of Here: A Senior Class Yearbook, Asher uses nine interconnected stories about a series of problems such as teen pregnancy, abusive parents, and alcoholism to highlight dilemmas faced by graduating seniors at a high school in a small town. "The cumulative effect," School Library Journal reviewer Doris A. Fong concluded, "is an accurate portrayal of high school, with concerns and activities that give Asher's work the texture of a yearbook."

Asher includes other short fiction in the fiction anthologies she has edited for pre-teen and older readers. In With All My Heart, with All My Mind she joins with contributors Jacqueline Dembar, Phyllis Shalant, Eric Kimmel, and Susan Beth Pfeffer to introduce Jewish teens attempting to come to terms with adulthood as well as with their Jewish heritage. Stories range in time period from Masada to World War II to the near future, but in each young men and women are presented with a conflict that involves the obligations of their faith and culture. Each story is followed by an interview with the author in which the story's message is discussed. Similarly, writers Miriam Bat Ami, Bonny Becker, Patricia Calvert, and Donna Jo Napoli join Asher in contributing tales about young, independent-minded women to On Her Way. Stories range in focus from the realistic to the fantastic: in one tale a girl discovers a magical make up that makes anyone who wears it popular, while in another, a new girl at school who is not as physically mature as others her age is mistaken for a boy by her new classmates.

In School Library Journal Janet Hilbun explained that the "entertaining and engrossing" volume "celebrates growing up female as the protagonists tackle and embrace new experiences." The critic also cited Asher's selections as editor, noting that readers of the short fiction and verse collected in On Her Way are introduced to "likeable characters who learn valuable lessons on their journeys to womanhood." Noting that some of the poems contain "sophisticated, challenging imagery," Booklist reviewer Gillian Engberg felt that most selections are accessible to teen readers, "and many girls will recognize their own challenges" in the "accessible and often inspiring" stories.

In addition to plays and novels for older readers, Asher has also written for the early elementary grades. Her picture book Princess Bee and the Royal Good-Night Story takes a lighthearted look at separation anxiety, a common plight of smaller children. Princess Bee cannot go to sleep when her mom, the queen, goes out of town. When Bee's siblings attempt stories but come up short, the princess has to look within herself to solve the problem. In a review for Booklist, Julie Corsaro called the work a "soothing offering with potential for repeat late-night performances." Stella's Dancing Days introduces a gray kitten named Stella, whose talent for dancing charms her human owners, as well as the family dog. However, as the kitten grows into a cat, she sets aside her dancing in favor of raising a litter of her own six kittens . . . dancers all, of course! Noting that the book will "please cat lovers and ballerinas of all ages," Shawn Brommer wrote in School Library Journal that in this story about maturation, "Asher's text has a natural, graceful rhythm." The "cat's-eye view reflected in the family members' names"—Tall One, Gentle One, and Littlest One with the Loudest Voice are the children's names—"is just one example of the light, precise language in this well-crafted picture book," noted Booklist contributor Carolyn Phelan, while a Publishers Weekly reviewer dubbed Stella's Dancing Days "a charmer."

Asher has also aided the efforts of budding authors by penning the companion nonfiction books Where Do You Get Your Ideas? Helping Young Writers Begin and Wild Words! How to Train Them to Tell Stories. These books, suited for children in grades three to eight, tackle the problems of how to begin writing and then how to edit stories to make them more effective. In Where Do You Get Your Ideas? chapters alternate between idea-generating activities and "stories behind the stories," with quotes from popular children's authors. Wild Words! gets more specific, offering advice on shaping plots and characters, then explaining the editing process that allows authors to "tame" words. "The examples," commented Martha Rosen in School Library Journal, "are right on target, and the original writing samples by junior-and senior-high-school students provide interest and incentive for others who are trying to hone their writing skills." Asher has also edited But That's Another Story: Famous Authors Introduce Popular Genres, which includes adventure, suspense, horror, and science fiction stories, creating a book useful for "language arts teachers who have dreamed of an accessible collection of genre explanations, short stories, author interviews, and story commentaries all rolled into one pleasure-reading package," according to Patti Sylvester Spencer in the Voice of Youth Advocates.

Biographical and Critical Sources

BOOKS

Asher, Sandy, Where Do You Get Your Ideas? Helping Young Writers Begin, Walker (New York, NY), 1987.

Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1983, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1984, pp. 179-186.

PERIODICALS

Booklist, May 1, 1986, p. 1307; January 1, 1990, p. 907; February 1, 1990, Julie Corsaro, review of Princess Bee and the Royal Good-Night Story, p. 1084; March 15, 2001, Carolyn Phelan, review of Stella's Dancing Days, p. 1402; February 14, 2004, Gillian Engberg, review of On Her Way: Stories and Poems about Growing up Girl, p. 1057.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, February, 1981, p. 106; September, 1982; May, 1983, p. 162; June, 1984; December, 1987.

Horn Book, December, 1982, p. 654.

Kirkus Reviews, June 15, 1987, p. 921; December 15, 2004, review of Too Many Frogs!, p. 1197; December 15, 2993, review of On Her Way, p. 1445.

Publishers Weekly, February 13, 1987, p. 94; June 14, 1993, p. 72; November 19, 1999, review of With All My Heart, with All My Mind, p. 69; February 26, 2001, review of Stella's Dancing Days, p. 85; January 26, 2004, "On the Brink of Adulthood," p. 255.

School Library Journal, October, 1980, p. 164; February, 1983, p.72; May, 1984, Virginia Marr, review of Missing Pieces, p. 86; April, 1986, p. 83; August, 1987, pp. 88-89; September, 1987, pp. 184-185; December, 1989, Cindy Darling Codell, review of Teddy Teabury's Peanutty Problems, p. 98; January, 1990, Martha Rosen, review of Wild Words! How to Train Them to Tell Stories, p. 110; March, 1990, p. 184; July, 1993, Doris A., Fong, review of Out of Here: A Senior Class Yearbook, p. 98; July, 1996; July, 2001, Shawn Brommer, review of Stella's Dancing Days, p. 72; February, 2003, Ann W. Moore, review of Mexico, p. 127; March, 2003, Nancy A. Gifford, review of China, p. 214; March, 2004, Janet Hilbun, review of On Her Way, p. 224.

Times Literary Supplement, September 17, 1982; September 7, 1984, review of Just like Jenny, p. 1006.

Voice of Youth Advocates, June, 1984, p. 94; June, 1987, p. 74; December, 1993, p. 286; August, 1996, Patti Sylvester Spencer, review of But That's Another Story: Famous Authors Introduce Popular Genres, p. 176.

Washington Post Book World, July 11, 1982, review of Summer Begins, p. 12.

ONLINE

Sandy Asher Web site, http://usawrites4kids.drury.edu/authors/asher/ (March 7, 2005).

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