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Jean Ferris (1939-) - Sidelights

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The author of several popular novels for young adult readers, Jean Ferris combines likeable characters, realistic teen problems, and her optimistic outlook to create fiction that has been praised as well-written and engaging. In novels that include Invincible Summer, Across the Grain, and Signs of Life, Ferris portrays teen feelings "convincingly and movingly," "without providing pat resolutions to problems," according to a Publishers Weekly commentator. In addition to her novels about modern teens, Ferris has also written several installments in Avon's "American Dreams" series that feature American privateer Raider Lyons and the beautiful Rosie, their budding nineteenth-century romance set against a series of adventures, including a voyage to the Yucatan.

Ferris told SATA: "I had what I now realize was the perfect childhood for a writer—a somewhat lonely one because we moved a lot; one in which books were always friends and comfort. Three things I did in each new place: I eavesdropped on other people's conversations in an attempt to find clues to the local ways; for the same reason, I looked into the lighted windows of other people's houses at dusk as my father drove down the new streets; and I kept a diary about what I did and how I felt and what I was thinking. These three things were the basis of the stories I began to write for myself: what I heard, felt, saw.

"I'm still eavesdropping, peeping and keeping a journal. And writing stories, too.

"After attending three different high schools, I went to Stanford University. I got a B.A. and an M.A. in speech pathology and audiology which seemed, for some reason, like a good idea at the time, but which turned out to be work I didn't enjoy and wasn't well suited to. I didn't even notice that whenever I had room in my schedule, I took an English class. I didn't even notice that I was still writing piles of stories—after all, I'd been doing that since I was seven, when I had no ideas about getting published. In fact, getting published didn't occur to me until I was in my mid-thirties and my husband became concerned about the boxes of stories that were accumulating under the bed."

Ferris's first novel, Amen, Moses Gardenia, was inspired by the attempted suicides of two teens who were schoolmates of her own children. "I began to wonder how many other kids were feeling this way," the author once recalled to SATA, "and why a young person would decide that there would never be anything worth living for in the long future. I became—and remain—deeply concerned about teenage depression, and wrote Amen, Moses Gardenia to give some hope and humor to kids who feel depressed and frightened enough to contemplate ending their lives. There is so much time ahead for situations to change; there is so much reason for hope. And Amen, Moses Gardenia has a happy ending."

In the novel, the stresses of living with an alcoholic mom and a workaholic dad combine to make tenth-grader Farrell feel like an outsider. The one confidante Farrell has is her housekeeper, the upbeat Earl Mae. Encouraged to join a high school hiking club, Farrell meets and falls for Ted Kittredge, one of the most popular boys in school. Unsure of both herself and her relationship with Ted, Farrell plans to attempt suicide by taking sleeping pills before she is stopped by a school guidance counselor. While some reviewers noted that the plot and characters were of average YA novel standards, Booklist contributor Sally Estes commented in her review of Amen, Moses Gardenia that Farrell "has vitality and credibility, and the relationship between Farrell and Earl Mae is satisfyingly affecting."

Ferris believes that every young person needs at least one other person who loves them unconditionally, "who is absolutely bonkers about him or her." Such a person isn't always a parent, or even a family member. In Amen, Moses Gardenia, for example, Earl Mae is cast as that special person. "My own adolescent years haven't dimmed a bit in my memory," the novelist once explained to SATA. "I remember all the things that gave me pain and pleasure, all the things that worried and confused me—and how much I wished I had a sympathetic grown-up I could talk to. Through my books I try to be that sympathetic grown-up for today's teenagers who have things to be concerned about that could never even have occurred to my own teenage mind. Times of change can be the most difficult times—yet, in retrospect, often times of great growth and learning, too. And adolescence is nothing if not a time of change. I'm interested in these changes—in the choices we make, the reasons for these choices, and what we can do to recover from the results of bad choices. This is where I find the ideas for my books."

In her second novel, The Stainless Steel Rule, Ferris again focuses on teen friendships during the high school years. Mary, Fran, and Kitty are best friends whose relationship is tested after Mary falls for handsome but controlling Nick. Nick's personality and Mary's increasing willingness to give in to him cause Mary to withdraw from Fran and Kitty after she senses her friends' discomfort with her boyfriend. Meanwhile, the couple's romantic relationship ultimately results in tragedy after Nick convinces Mary—an insulin-dependent diabetic—that she does not need to take insulin to control her condition. Only after Mary sinks into a diabetic coma and then recovers does she realize that her friends had good intentions in trying to break her relationship with Nick. Calling the novel "several cuts above" Ferris's first effort, Audrey B. Eaglen noted in School Library Journal that "the plot [of The Stainless Steel Rule] is strong, the characters well portrayed, and the denouement is completely believable." A Publishers Weekly contributor offered a similar opinion, calling the novel "taut" and "compelling . . . with moments of high humor." Booklist reviewer Hazel Rochman maintained that the story, narrated by Kitty, is "told . . . with warmth and humor."

A life-threatening illness also figures in Invincible Summer, published in 1987. Living in a Midwest farming community, Rick and his seventeen-year-old girlfriend Robin both have leukemia, and Rick is facing his second series of chemotherapy treatments. Together the two teens attempt to gain as much life experience as they can, and provide comfort and support as they confront the fact that Rick has little time left to live. Praising Ferris's dialogue, Zena Sutherland of the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books noted that Invincible Summer is "not just a compassionate case history, but a good story." Sutherland's enthusiasm was shared by School Library Journal contributor Merilyn S. Burrington, who commented that the novel's ending "affirms life with such intensity that it will leave readers appreciating the present moment more fully."

Several of Ferris's novels feature protagonists traveling overseas. In Relative Strangers, seventeen-year-old Berkeley receives a special graduation gift from her father, whom she has rarely seen: a two week trip to Europe, where she meets his new wife and stepdaughter. The process by which Berkeley copes with her mixed emotions about her father and learns to get along with her new family is woven into "an unusually likable and thought-provoking novel," according to a Kirkus Reviews critic. In Signs of Life, high school senior Hannah and her parents travel to France in the hopes that fresh surroundings will help the family recover from the tragic death of Hannah's twin sister. In France, Hannah meets a gypsy juggler who steals her heart and helps her to tap her inner strength. While some reviewers noted that portions of the novel bordered on melodrama, a Publishers Weekly contributor maintained that Signs of Life "celebrates the regenerating power of love and the resiliency of the spirit."

Across the Grain is Ferris's first novel to feature a male protagonist. In the wake of his father's disappearance and his mother's death, seventeen-year-old Will is forced to move with his older sister, Paige, to California to find work. Obtaining employment as the manager of a small restaurant in the California desert, Paige puts her brother to work, and the two become friendly with a host of regular customers, including an anthropologist and her daughter and Sam, a retired man who becomes Will's surrogate father. Praising Ferris for her well-drawn settings and for developing main characters in a way that is "strong, perceptive yet subtle," School Library Journal contributor Libby K. White concluded that "the author makes readers care about likable, earnest Will and his friends." Reviewer Gail Ashe also offered a favorable assessment of Across the Grain, noting in Voice of Youth Advocates that Ferris's novel "is not just another coming-of-age story, but a story of love and friendship."

All That Glitters is another Ferris novel centering on a young man's emotional growth. In this work, Brian braces himself for a summer with his dad, who lives in the Florida Keys. Now sixteen, Brian has a tense relationship with his father, but when some neighbors invite the pair to join them on a scuba diving expedition to explore the wreckage of a Spanish treasure ship, father and son begin to mend their relationship. Although some reviewers felt that the novel fell below Ferris's usual high standards, Deborah Stevenson of the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books commended the author's "good, solid writ[ing]," and Voice of Youth Advocates contributor Penny Blubaugh called All That Glitters "a pleasant read with a few moments of excitement and some thought-provoking comments on race and identity." Commending Ferris for addressing issues of race and the importance of strong male role models, School Library Journal contributor Bruce Anne Shook concluded that All That Glitters "is a good YA problem novel with a nice mix of suspense and adventure thrown in for good measure."

In Eight Seconds, Ferris takes on another topic of interest to many teenagers: the process of "coming out" as gay. The title refers to the period of time that rodeo bull riders must hang on to earn a perfect score. John, the novel's eighteen-year-old protagonist, spends a week at a rodeo camp with his best friend Bobby. At the camp, the boys meet Kit, an attractive, confident young man and an accomplished bull rider. John becomes quite close to Kit, and finds himself having long, deep conversations with the young man. So when it is discovered that Kit is gay, the camp bully accuses him of having a relationship with John. John denies this and turns on his friend, which is "one of the many realistic, often subtle story elements that allow the reader to understand the nature of John's attraction to Kit well before John does," noted a Publishers Weekly contributor. But after struggling with his feelings for the rest of the summer, John comes to realize that he too is gay, although he can not yet bring himself to tell anyone else. "This is one of the best novels on this theme," thought Booklist reviewer Roger Leslie.

Of Sound Mind, like most of Ferris's work, is about a teenager struggling with social and family problems. In this case, high school student Theo's life is complicated by his deaf family. As the only one of the four who can hear, Theo was pressed into service as an interpreter at a very young age, and now that he is a teenager, he is beginning to resent the way that the rest of the family depends on him. With the encouragement of his new girlfriend, Ivy, he begins to follow his dream of studying mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "The text is mainly conversational and the humour poignant," Linda Komesaroff explained in the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy. But more than that, she continued, "the text provides opportunities to discuss issues of identity and difference and introduces readers to the world of deafness." Horn Book reviewer Lauren Adams was even more positive in her appraisal, calling the book "a moving exploration of the extraordinary demands a disability places on a family as well as the effects of an exceptionally strong personality on a household."

Once Upon a Marigold is much lighter than most of Ferris's books. "Cold indeed is the heart not made warm by this bubbly fairy-tale romance," declared a Kirkus Reviews contributor. Christian, a seventeen-year-old boy who was raised by Ed the troll, falls in love with Princess Marigold. The two begin to correspond by carrier pigeon ("p-mail"), but a commoner like Chris cannot court a princess, of course. However, like any good fairy tale, eventually the two devise a way to live happily ever after. In between, Chris, Marigold, and a quirky supporting cast must make their way through a series of riotous adventures. Once Upon a Marigold's "winning characters, unabashedly lame jokes, and . . . fresh, energetic telling will appeal to boys and girls alike," thought Booklist's Carolyn Phelan.

"I've tried to write other things—screenplays, an adult mystery, an adult historical novel, a middle-grade novel—but they haven't worked," Ferris told SATA. "What I most love writing about is teenagers. Adolescence Christian falls in love with Princess Marigold from afar and leaves his cave and the troll who has raised him to foil the queen's plot to take over the kingdom in this witty tale. (Cover photo of castle by Eric Wessman, photo of marigold by Michelle Garrett, photo of pigeon by Roger Tidman.) is a time of great change—every day there are changes in body, spirit, ideas, friendships—and change is such an interesting thing to write about, though often not to live through.

"I've held other jobs, so I know how bad a bad job can be. That's why I feel so lucky that I get to do, every day, something I love as much as I love writing for teens."

Ferris continues to be concerned about the future of her young readers. "I try, in my work, to give them hope of the future and some guideposts for achieving a satisfying life," she once explained to SATA, "even when circumstances seem bleak and/or dismaying!" She is also fascinated by the adolescent years because, as she noted, "There's so much going on then, so many emotional changes, decisions for the future, social problems. I remember my own teenage years vividly and they weren't all beer and skittles."

The mother of two grown daughters, Ferris makes her home in San Diego, California, with her husband, an attorney, and a fat orange cat. "I feel certain that I will continue to write for young people because I care so much about them and find them so brave and complex," she once told SATA. "My first love will always be writing for kids. They're great."

Biographical and Critical Sources

BOOKS

St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers, second edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.

PERIODICALS

Booklist, October 1, 1983, Sally Estes, review of Amen, Moses Gardenia, p. 233; April, 1986, Hazel Rochman, review of The Stainless Steel Rule, p. 1202; July, 1995, p. 1874; February 15, 1996, p. 1004; October 1, 1998, John Peters, review of Bad, p. 324; October 1, 2000, Roger Leslie, review of Eight Seconds, p. 336; September 15, 2001, John Peters, review of Of Sound Mind, p. 226; September 15, 2002, Carolyn Phelan, review of Once Upon a Marigold, p. 226.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, July-August, 1987, Zena Sutherland, review of Invincible Summer, p. 206; July-August, 1989, p. 274; February, 1991, p. 140; March, 1996, Deborah Stevenson, review of All That Glitters, p. 224.

Horn Book, January, 1999, review of Bad, p. 59, and Anne St. John, review of Love among the Walnuts, p. 60; November-December, 2001, Lauren Adams, review of Of Sound Mind, pp. 745-746; January-February, 2002, Jamie Bordeau, review of Bad, pp. 112-113; September-October, 2002, Anne St. John, review of Once Upon a Marigold, pp. 571-572.

Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, March, 2000, Wanda Hurren, review of Bad, pp. 590-591; March, 2002, Linda Komesaroff, review of Of Sound Mind, pp. 549-550.

Kirkus Reviews, June 1, 1989, p. 835; July 15, 1993, review of Relative Strangers, p. 933; September 1, 1998; August 1, 2001, review of Of Sound Mind, p. 1121; October 1, 2002, review of Once Upon a Marigold, p. 1468.

Lambda Book Report, February, 2001, Nancy Garden, review of Eight Seconds, p. 24.

Language Arts, January, 2003, Junko Yokota and Mingshui Cai, review of Of Sound Mind, p. 237.

Publishers Weekly, April 25, 1986, review of The Stainless Steel Rule, p. 80; October 26, 1990, review of Across the Grain, pp. 70-71; July 12, 1993, p. 81; March 27, 1995, review of Signs of Life, p. 86; April 1, 1996, p. 77; July 13, 1998, review of Love among the Walnuts, p. 78; October 12, 1998, review of Bad, p. 78; November 13, 2000, review of Eight Seconds, p. 105; September 3, 2001, review of Of Sound Mind, p. 89.

School Library Journal, May, 1986, Audrey B. Eaglen, review of The Stainless Steel Rule, p. 102; August, 1987, Merilyn S. Burrington, review of Invincible Summer, p. 93; December, 1990, Libby K. White, review of Across the Grain, p. 121; September, 1993, p. 248; April, 1995, p. 150; March, 1996, Bruce Anne Shook, review of All That Glitters, p. 218; August, 1998, Connie Tyrrell Burns, review of Love among the Walnuts, p. 163; December, 1998, Francisca Goldsmith, review of Bad, p. 122; January, 2001, Francisca Goldsmith, review of Eight Seconds, p. 130; September, 2001, Miranda Doyle, review of Of Sound Mind, p. 224; November, 2002, Shara Alpern, review of Once Upon a Marigold, p. 164.

Voice of Youth Advocates, February, 1991, Gail Ashe, review of Across the Grain, p. 350; June, 1996, Penny Blubaugh, review of All That Glitters, p. 95; October, 1996, p. 208; April, 1997, p. 21.

ONLINE

Jean Ferris Home Page, http://www.jeanferris.com/ (December 17, 2003).

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over 6 years ago

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