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William Taylor (1938-) Biography - Personal, Career, Member, Honors Awards, Writings, Adaptations, Sidelights

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Born 1938, in Lower Hutt, Wellington, New Zealand; Education: Attended Christchurch Teachers' College (New Zealand), 1957–58. Hobbies and other interests: Reading, music, gardening, skiing, hunting.

Career

Primary-school teacher in New Zealand, 1959–85; Ohakune School, Ohakune, New Zealand, principal, 1979–86; writer, 1985–. Mayor of Borough of Ohakune, New Zealand, 1981–88. Worked variously as a bank clerk, actor, and restauranteur; guest speaker at writing and educational conferences.

Member

New Zealand Society of Authors/PEN New Zealand (national president, 2001–04).

Honors Awards

Choysa Bursary for Children's Writers, 1985; Esther Glen Medal, New Zealand Library Association, 1992, and Premio Anderson (Genoa, Italy), 1998, both for Agnes the Sheep; Palmerston North College of Education (New Zealand) children's writing fellowship, 1992; Agnes the Sheep and Knitwits cited by American Library Association and New York Public Library; Arts Council of New Zealand Toi Aotearoa writing grants, 1996, 1999; University of Iowa writing fellowship, 1996; Margaret Mahy Medal, New Zealand Children's Book Foundation, 1998; Dunedin College of Education William Taylorchildren's writing fellowship, 1998; Notable Books for the Teen Age designation, New York Public Library, 2000, for The Blue Lawn; White Raven Award (Munich, Germany), 2000, for Scarface and the Angel, and 2003, for Spider; named officer, New Zealand Order of Merit, 2004.

Writings

NOVELS; FOR CHILDREN AND YOUNG ADULTS

Pack up, Pick up, and Off, Price Milburn (Wellington, New Zealand), 1981.

My Summer of the Lions, Reed Methuen (Auckland, New Zealand), 1986.

Shooting Through, Reed Methuen (Auckland, New Zealand), 1986.

Possum Perkins, Ashton Scholastic (Auckland, New Zealand), 1986, published as Paradise Lane, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1987.

My Summer of the Lions, Reed Methuen (Auckland, New Zealand), 1987.

Break a Leg!, Reed Methuen (Auckland, New Zealand), 1987.

Making Big Bucks, Reed Methuen (Auckland, New Zealand), 1987.

The Worst Soccer Team Ever, Reed Methuen (Auckland, New Zealand), 1987.

The Kidnap of Jessie Parker, Angus & Robertson (North Ryde, Australia), 1989.

I Hate My Brother Maxwell Potter, Heinemann Reed (Auckland, New Zealand), 1989.

The Porter Brothers, HarperCollins (Auckland, New Zealand), 1990.

Agnes the Sheep, Ashton Scholastic (Auckland, New Zealand), 1991

Beth and Bruno, Ashton Scholastic (Auckland, New Zealand), 1992, published as Secret Lives, Scholastic (London, England), 1994.

Fast Times at Greenhill High, Puffin (Auckland, New Zealand), 1992.

Knitwits, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1992.

Supermum and Spike the Dog, HarperCollins (Auckland, New Zealand), 1992.

S.W.A.T.: The Southside War against Terrorists, HarperCollins (Auckland, New Zealand), 1993.

The Blue Lawn, HarperCollins (Auckland, New Zealand), 1994, Alyson (Los Angeles, CA), 1998.

Numbskulls (sequel to Knitwits), Scholastic (New York, NY), 1995.

Annie and Co. and Marilyn Monroe, Penguin (Auckland, New Zealand), 1995.

The Fatz Katz, illustrated by Trevor Pye, HarperCollins (Auckland, New Zealand), 1995.

The Fatz Twins and the Haunted House, illustrated by Trevor Pye, HarperCollins (Auckland, New Zealand), 1996.

Nick's Story, Shortland Street Books (Dunedin, New Zealand), 1996.

Circles, Penguin (Auckland, New Zealand), 1996.

The Fatz Twins and the Cuckoo in the Nest, HarperCollins (Auckland, New Zealand), 1997.

Hark: The Herald Angel (sequel to Numbskulls), Scholastic (Auckland, New Zealand), 1997.

At the Big Red Rooster (short stories), Longacre Press (Dunedin, New Zealand), 1998.

Jerome, Longacre Press (Dunedin, New Zealand), 1999.

Harry Houdini, Wonderdog, Learning Media (Wellington, NZ), 1999.

(With Tessa Duder) Hot Mail, Penguin (Auckland, New Zealand), 2000.

Crash! The Story of Poddy, Scholastic (Auckland, New Zealand), 2000.

Scarface and the Angel, Longacre Press (Dunedin, New Zealand), 2000.

Spider, Longacre Press (Dunedin, New Zealand), 2002.

Pebble in a Pool, Alyson (Los Angeles, CA), 2003.

Albert, illustrated by Ross Kinnaird, Penguin (Auckland, New Zealand), 2003.

Gladys the Goat, illustrated by Ross Kinnard, Penguin (Auckland, New Zealand), 2005.

Albert the Cat, illustrated by Ross Kinnaird, Penguin (Auckland, New Zealand), 2005.

Land of Milk and Honey, HarperCollins (Auckland, New Zealand), 2005.

Taylor's works have been translated into Albanian, Danish, French, Italian, Spanish, and Swedish.

FOR ADULTS

Episode, Robert Hale (London, England), 1970.

The Mask of the Clown, Robert Hale (London, England), 1971.

The Plekhov Place, Robert Hale (London, England), 1971.

Pieces in a Jigsaw, Robert Hale (London, England), 1972.

The Persimmon Tree, Robert Hale (London, England), 1973.

The Chysalis, Robert Hale (London, England), 1974.

Burnt Carrots Don't Have Legs (nonfiction), 1976.

Adaptations

The Worst Soccer Team Ever and Break a Leg! were adapted as All for One (six-part television series), South Pacific Pictures (TVNZ)/Canwest. Knitwits and The Blue Lawn were adapted for the stage. Knitwits, Numbskulls, and Hark: The Herald Angel were adapted for audiocassette, Word Pictures Ltd. (Auckland, New Zealand).

Sidelights

Since beginning his second career as a writer, New Zealander William Taylor has authored over three dozen books, many of them novels for both children and adults. Incorporating a wry, often politically incorrect humor and a willingness to tackle controversial subjects in his fiction for young readers, Taylor has become well known in both New Zealand and other English-speaking nations. Among his many popular titles are the award-winning and often translated Agnes the Sheep; the humorous trilogy Knitwits, Numbskulls, and Hark: The Herald Angel; and the short-story collection At the Big Red Rooster. "Taylor has an ear for children's banter that is forthright, funny, and just offbeat enough to show a real empathy with adolescents," wrote John Sigwald in a School Library Journal review of Numbskulls.

The oldest of four children, Taylor grew up in rural New Zealand during and following World War II. "My family moved around a lot," Taylor once told SATA, "and I was probably a fairly introverted child and adolescent … blessed with loving, if somewhat feckless, parents." Because Taylor's father served in North Africa, the Middle East, and Europe during the war, the family's financial situation was strained until the elder Taylor returned home when his son was seven years old. "Our parents had wide interests in music, books, theater, and sports," Taylor later recalled of his childhood and its influences. "As I get older I increasingly realize what a great debt I owe to them both. While it is true that I am what I have made of myself, the seeds of just whatever it is I have made, the beginnings, are right back there in my childhood and easily traceable to my mother and father."

In order to help support his family, Taylor left school at age sixteen and began working in a bank. Continuing his education at Christchurch Teachers's College, he started his career in education at age twenty and would continue to teach for several decades. Turning to writing in his free time, he published several adult novels in the 1970s. In 1986, five years after the release of his first young-adult novel, Pack up, Pick up, and Off, Taylor retired from teaching to pursue a full-time career as a writer. "In practical terms," he once explained, "the immediate genesis of my writing is likely to be found in the hundreds of children I have taught and in my own two sons whom I brought up as a single parent from 1975."

Taylor first became known to North American audiences in 1987 as the author of Paradise Lane, a novel released in New Zealand a year earlier under the title Possum Perkins. In Taylor's story, because of her intelligence, her alcoholic mother, and her angry and overbearing father, teen Rosie Perkins feels isolated in the school community of her small town. Her only neighbor on Paradise Lane is Michael, a boisterous young man who seems to be her complete opposite. A grudging friendship develops between the two and is strengthened when Rosie finds an orphaned baby possum which she decides to keep and raise. Michael teases Rosie about her nurturing compassion, which he secretly admires, and he begins to feel a greater affection for her. The death of the possum and the support she eventually receives from Michael and his family become an incentive for Rosie to confront her own family and seek help.

Ethel R. Twichell praised the convincing characters, "their psychological interaction, and the gentle flowering of Rosie and Michael's love" in a Horn Book review of Paradise Lane. A Publishers Weekly reviewer was similarly enthusiastic, citing the novel's dramatic climax and the tension that builds "as Rosie's independence begins to threaten her parents' status quo." In another review of Paradise Lane a Kirkus Reviews contributor called the relationship between Rosie and Michael, and their subsequent emotional growth, "riveting—and unforgettable," while Nancy P. Reeder concluded in School Library Journal that Taylor's novel stands as "an engrossing, well-structured story about the differences in families, about romance and caring, and about growing up."

One of Taylor's most beloved books in his native New Zealand in his 1991 novel Agnes the Sheep. In this award-winning tale, Agnes is inherited by teenagers Belinda and Joe following the death of her elderly owner. A series of comic adventures ensues, during which the pair fight a constant battle to keep Agnes from friends and neighbors who think that she belongs on the dinner table. Critics generally praised the book's humor, Booklist contributor Ilene Cooper dubbing it "a wild and woolly story seared with dry wit." Reviewer Betsy Hearne claimed in a Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books review that the novel will serve as a "springboard" to "studying satirical literature." Taylor's satire spares no one, observed Connie Tyrell Burns in School Library Journal; he makes light of "teachers, education, priests, and the church in this zany and merry romp."

Moving from sheep to wool, Taylor was inspired with the story that would become Knitwits while awaiting the arrival of his first grandchild. In the novel, nine-year-old Charlie Kenny bets his bossy, overbearing next-door neighbor, the appropriately named Alice Pepper, that he can knit a sweater by the time his expectant mother has her baby. Not only a sweater, Charlie adds, but a colorful sweater, to brighten the complexion of the small gray baby he sees in the ultrasound pictures. Charlie's new hobby results in a series of misadventures, including the discovery of his knitting ability by some male friends who then become avid knitters themselves.

Praising Knitwits for its "touching and hilarious" situations, Booklist contributor Stephanie Zvirin had special praise for the character of Alice, who is willing to put her skull collection on the line against his bet. "Taylor has invested all his human characters with great zest and personality," Zvirin commented, "but Alice Pepper is one of his best." School Library Journal reviewer Maggie McEwan called Knitwits a "humorous, fast-paced story" wherein Taylor "paints a refreshing picture of the [Kenny] family's warm relationship and relaxed approach to life." Calling attention in particular to the novel's ending, Betsy Hearne noted in her Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books appraisal that "the surprising warmth attendant to the baby's birth introduces a moving quality that deepens the book."

Readers rejoin Charlie in Numbskulls while Hark focuses on Alice Pepper's decision to take charge of the school play. In Numbskulls Charlie is now the proud older brother of an almost-one-year-old. When bossy Alice devises a scheme to help him with his school work in exchange for money, Charlie agrees, and manages to improve his spelling skills despite the indignities Alice's teaching methods impose. A "relentlessly goofy story," Numbskulls "will appeal to slapstick-inclined" readers, according to Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books contributor Deborah Stevenson. In Hark, Alice becomes head of the school play and takes her job way too seriously. Magpies contributor Vasanti
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Sima wrote that the novel leads Taylor's fans along "an entertaining trail of humor and wit," serving as "a quick, easy humorous read."

While Taylor underwent heart surgery in 1994, his illness did little to slow down his literary output. As the author told interviewer Tessa Duder in Magpies, with the help of friends and family, "to some extent I have simply tried to ignore what happened and have just got on with life and living, work and working." In fact, Taylor completed ten books within the first five years following his surgery, including Jerome, the award-winning The Blue Lawn, The Fatz Katz and several sequels, the middle-grade reader Gadys the Goat, and the short-story collection At the Big Red Rooster.

Jerome was a controversial novel both in New Zealand and the United States due to its focus on homosexuality and suicide, as well as Taylor's liberal inclusion of "bad" language, which he has maintained is absolutely authentic to the lives of the modern teens he portrays in the novel. The book focuses on teens Marco and Katie, who correspond with each other and express their grief after a mutual friend dies in a shooting accident. Marco lives in New Zealand, while Katie is overseas, an exchange student going to school in the American Midwest, and their conversation moves from the death of their friend to the search for personal identity, homosexuality, and suicide. Noting that Jerome is an "intimate story of friendship and love," Listener contributor Jill Holt added that the book serves as a story of "confusion, disbelief and eventual self-knowledge" that is written with "sensitivity and humour."

Another controversial novel, The Blue Lawn, won the AIM Senior Fiction Award as well as several award nominations in both New Zealand and the United States despite weathering some controversy. The novel presents a forthright treatment of the sexual identity of young people through the story of two friends, David and Theo, who are opposite in personality but feel a mutual attraction: new-kid-in-town Theo smokes, drinks, and behaves irresponsibly while David is the top player on his school rugby team and has always played by the rules. At first, the sexual energy comes out on the rugby field, but eventually the two become friends and learn to come to terms with the fact that they might be gay. Noting that, although it avoids explicit sex, the book addresses issues that parents and educators may find controversial, Bay Windows Online contributor J. S. Hall praised The Blue Lawn, writing: "Adolescence is frequently hellish (often more so for gay kids), and … Taylor does an excellent job at portraying the conflict, anguish and overwhelmingly intense emotions that come with it."

Discussing his writing process with Duder, Taylor once explained: "Enormous amounts of time go into planning, ninety-nine percent of which is in my head."His novels require from four to six weeks to complete a first draft, "and a similar amount of time to polish up, craft, self-edit, and so forth. It is, quite simply, work…. I never anguish—but I certainly spend a lot of time thinking things through."

Biographical and Critical Sources

BOOKS

Robinson, Roger, and Nelson Wattie, editors, Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature, Oxford University Press (Auckland, New Zealand), 1998.

PERIODICALS

Booklist, May 15, 1991, Ilene Cooper, review of Agnes the Sheep, p. 1794; November 1, 1992, Stephanie Zvirin, review of Knitwits, p. 511; October 15, 1995, p. 405.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, November, 1987, p. 58; March, 1991, Betsy Hearne, review of Agnes the Sheep, p. 179; January, 1993, Betsy Hearne, review of Knitwits, p. 158; December, 1995, Deborah Stevenson, review of Numbskulls, p. 141.

Horn Book, March, 1988, Ethel R. Twichell, review of Paradise Lane, p. 212.

Kirkus Reviews, November 1, 1987, review of Paradise Lane, p. 1580; February 1, 1991, p. 177.

Listener, November, 1999, Jill Holt, review of Jerome.

Magpies, March, 1998, Vasanti Sima, review of Hark: The Herald Angel, p. 7; May, 1999, Tessa Duder, "Know the Author: William Taylor," pp. 1-4, 7-8; March, 2001, review of Crash! The Story of Poddy and Scarface and the Angel, p. 6.

Publishers Weekly, September 11, 1987, review of Paradise Lane, p. 96.

School Librarian, May, 1988, p. 68.

School Library Journal, December, 1987, Nancy P. Reeder, review of Paradise Lane, pp. 105-106; March, 1991, Connie Tyrell Burns, review of Agnes the Sheep, p. 196; November, 1992, Maggie McEwan, review of Knitwits, pp. 98-99; October, 1995, John Sigwald, review of Numbskulls, p. 140.

ONLINE

Bay Windows Online, http://www.baywindows.org/ (November 24, 1999), J. S. Hall, "Daring to Speak of It," review of The Blue Lawn.

New Zealand Book Council Web site, http://www.bookcouncil.org.nz/ (September 17, 2005), "William Taylor."

WesClark.com, http://www.wesclark.com/ (October 2, 2005), Wes Clark, review of The Blue Lawn.

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