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Jacqueline Briggs Martin (1945-) - Sidelights

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Jacqueline Briggs Martin's books for young readers reflect both their author's love of the past and her respect for the environment. While her tales may wander as far afield as the rocky coastline of Maine or a bustling city street, or recount events that have taken place as long ago as the late eighteenth century or as recently as yesterday, they are unified by their author's enthusiasm for the people and places that make up her fictional worlds, and for sharing those worlds with young readers. "I hope readers will find friends in my stories," she once explained to SATA, "people they want to visit again and again, people who become part of their memories, and their own stories."

"Since I was a child, I have loved the sounds of words," Martin once confided. "And I have loved stories. Though writing books is not always easy, I cannot imagine doing anything else. Every day I get to work with words that tell a story." Born in Lewiston, Maine, in 1945, she was raised in the countryside, where her appreciation for nature and her interest in the history of both her family and her town grew. "As a child I spent much time wandering in the fields and forests of our farm in Maine, wondering about the generations who lived there before we did," the author once recalled. Several of Martin's books, such as 1996's Grandmother Bryant's Pocket, reflect this childhood questioning. Drawn by Martin back to the year 1787, the reader of Grandmother Bryant's Pocket meets eight-year-old Sarah Bryant, who is haunted by bad dreams after her dog is killed in a horrible fire. Convinced that a change of scene will help their daughter recover from her pet's death, Sarah's parents send the girl to stay with her grandmother. Grandmother Bryant is a woman full of wonderful stories and knowledgeable in the ways of natural medicines and healing—she carries herbs and bandages in her pocket, a drawstring pouch worn tied around the waist by women of the period. Describing Martin's text as "eloquent . . . [with] the force of a prose poem," a Publishers Weekly critic hailed Grandmother Bryant's Pocket as "a pleasingly timeless historical tale." Comparing the book to the "Little House" stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Deborah Stevenson praised the work in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, noting that while Martin's "telling use of detail effectively creates a world very far away from now, [her] respectful and understanding treatment of Sarah's fear . . . and of her enduring grief . . . adds a timeless touch."

Good Times on Grandfather Mountain was inspired by an article Martin read concerning a man who created musical instruments out of wood—his whittling included everything from fence posts to abandoned cabins. "I have always been fascinated by people who make beautiful objects out of what others might call junk," recalled Martin once, "and wanted to make up a story of such a person." In Good Times, Old Washburn turns bad situations around with his pocket knife. When his milk cow runs away, or his vegetable garden becomes infested with insects, he gathers up whatever wood remains, applies his pocket knife, and creates something musical. Ultimately, his home is destroyed during a bad storm, but, undaunted, Old Washburn whittles himself up a fiddle from the floorboards that remain and starts playing a jig. His jaunty melody not only calls the mischievous cow back home but draws out his neighbors as well, and the old man's affairs are soon set to rights with some neighborly help. Martin's "wry, nicely cadenced narration gives her tale a hearty folk-tale flavor," noted a Kirkus Reviews critic, who deemed Good Times on Grandfather Mountain "entertaining, original, and beautifully produced."

Higgins Bend Song and Dance is another book in the folktale, tall-tale genre. It is the story of a single-minded fisherman named Simon Henry who vows to catch a crafty catfish named Oscar. "I'll sleep in my boots until I bring him in," Simon Henry vows. Oscar proves too wily for the man who could catch anything that "swam, crawled, or floated," until Simon Henry comes up with one last overpowering bait.

"I wrote this book because I love rivers," Martin once told SATA. "I like the notion of a contest between an old grouch and a smart catfish. And I love the banter between two old friends who don't always agree." A contributor in Kirkus Reviews called the work "A meaty tale of the quest for an uncatchable fish named Oscar . . . told in folksy, irresistible language," while Jody McCoy, writing in School Library Journal, stated that the book is "pure pleasure for any who are or know dedicated (obsessed) fishermen," adding "this whopper of a fish tale also makes a good read-aloud."

Another book that takes readers into the past, The Finest Horse in Town, also has its roots in the author's own family history. The story involves two sisters—Martin's great-aunts Stella and Cora—who owned a dry-goods and clothing store in a small Maine town. And they owned a beautiful, gray, carriage horse named Prince, the "finest horse in town," according to an old watchmaker who remembered the horse. The watchmaker's memories are few, though, and the author speculates on adventures the sisters might have had with the horse. Each of these three episodes ends with the refrain "We don't really know what happened. We only know the sisters had the finest horse in town. The watchmaker told us. And he was there." A Publishers Weekly reviewer praised the book's "nostalgic sing-song language and descriptions of village life." Deborah Abbott complimented the story in her Booklist review, writing that The Finest Horse in Town "transports readers back in history to reflect upon the joys and cares of people and a horse named Prince."

The Lamp, the Ice, and the Boat Called Fish is a partially fictionalized account of an actual Arctic maritime catastrophe, the sinking of the ship Karluk in the winter of 1913-14. The ship was on a research expedition and contained several Canadian scientists, as well as their Inupiaq assistants. One of the Inupiaq hunter-guides, Kurraluk, had also brought his wife, who was the expedition's seamstress, and their two daughters, Pagnasuk and Makpii. The story is told from the point of view of eight-year-old Pagnasuk, with "the scrupulous use of such words as 'perhaps' and 'I think'" indicating that Martin is sometimes guessing about how Pagnasuk would have felt during her adventure, a reviewer explained in Horn Book. As with most of Martin's works, her use of language in The Lamp, the Ice, and the Boat Martin relates the true story of the final voyage of an Aleutian fishing boat that became icebound and sank. Fourteen people survived thanks to an Inupiaq family's traditional survival skills. (From The Lamp, the Ice and the Boat Called Fish, illustrated by Beth Krommes.) Called Fish was praised by reviewers, including Booklist reviewer Gillian Engberg, who commented that "the quiet, intriguing language, with a poet's attention to sound, will lull young ones into the story's drama."

Martin's inspiration for another historical book, On Sand Island, was her own visit to that island in Lake Superior. On Sand Island tells the story of ten-year-old Carl's quest to build his own boat. For materials, he scavenges driftwood boards from the beach. Then, within his small, tight-knit Scandinavian-American community, Carl trades his own labor, picking strawberries and moving rocks, to get help from his neighbors in constructing the trickier parts of the vessel. The tale is "told in the rhythms of lapping water," a reviewer noted in Publishers Weekly, while Booklist contributor Engberg commented on how Martin "deftly balances small, revealing details about the island's characters and Carl's life with the particulars of boat building."

Boats also feature in The Water Gift and the Pig of the Pig, the story of Isabelle, her pet pig, and her grandfather, a former captain of sailing ships. Grandfather also has the "water gift," the ability to find underground water with a forked stick called a divining rod. Or at least he did; after several failures, Grandfather gives up divining. But when Isabelle's pig goes missing, she remembers that the water gift can also be used to find animals. The formerly shy, reserved little girl is forced to take charge of the situation and convince Grandfather to use his gifts to rescue the pig. "The narration is at once the dreamy voice of a child and the detailed, imagery-laden voice of a master storyteller," noted a Kirkus Reviews contributor, while another reviewer wrote in Publishers Weekly, "Martin elegantly unfurls a story filled with memorable characters and colorful details, as well as comforting images of loyalty and family ties."

Among Martin's stories dealing with more contemporary themes is the award-winning Washing the Willow Tree Loon. Published in 1995, the book recounts the efforts of people living along the coast of Turtle Bay to rescue a loon who had become soaked in oil leaked by a barge that hit a bridge while traversing the bay. Found hiding under a willow tree, the bird is cared for by a group of citizens who are varied in age and occupation. "The well-drawn text has a gentle rhythm and infuses an appealing story with interesting information," according to Horn Book reviewer Margaret Bush, who praised Martin's inclusion of endnotes describing bird rehabilitation. Washing the Willow Tree Loon ends with a plea to readers to help in whatever way each of them can; "Who knows who has seen the willow tree loon since then," Martin asks. "Maybe me, maybe you. The world is full of birds. And we have work to do."

Often, Martin is inspired with an idea for a new book by something she has read. "When I read about Dan Barker building and giving away gardens in Portland, Oregon, I knew I wanted to write a children's book about giving away gardens," she once told SATA. "And I wanted readers to be able to make gardens for themselves, or gardens to give away." The Green Truck Garden Giveaway: A Neighborhood Story and Almanac, first published in 1995, would be the result of Martin's interest in Barker's work. The story opens on a Saturday morning, as a strange, green truck full of soil and seeds rolls down an unkempt city street. The truck's two passengers persuade even the most reluctant residents to attempt a seed garden; they also pass out pamphlets full of gardening tips and inspiration. Soon, the entire neighborhood has been transformed into a paradise, as the residents become inspired to clean up yards and vacant lots and rescue untamed tangles of raspberry plants from rubbish and weeds. Martin is an avid gardener and has included a wealth of gardening lore in addition to the central story. "I wanted this book to have enough information to be the gift of a garden in itself," Martin once told SATA.

In addition to stories that mirror her family's history or deal with contemporary issues of importance to her, Martin has also written a series of stories in a lighter vein. In Bizzy Bones and Uncle Ezra, which was her first published book for children, two mice set up housekeeping in an abandoned work boot. When the younger mouse, Bizzy Bones, worries that the shoe will blow away in the brisk, whistling March winds, the elder mouse, Uncle Ezra, finds a way to calm him by constructing a colorful carousel that captures the early spring gusts and sets them spinning. Other books featuring the young Bizzy Bones include Bizzy Bones and Moosemouse and Bizzy Bones and the Lost Quilt.

"My stories often start with something that has happened to me, or to people that I love," Martin once told SATA in discussing her development as a children's book author. "Sometimes they start with a question. For example, Washing the Willow Tree Loon began when I read an article about bird washing and asked myself, 'Who would want to wash birds?' Higgins Bend Song and Dance began with the question 'Who wins when a crafty old fisherman vows to catch a catfish that is just as crafty?'

"Some books begin with things I love to do, such as collecting acorns to plant oak trees (Button, Bucket, Sky). . . . One of my books began with a snowflake and a memory of a brief article about a man who said he 'loved snow more that anything else in the world.' I read Wilson Bentley's articles about snow, looked at some of the thousands of photographs he took of individual snow crystals, read about his life, visited the farmhouse where he had lived, and eventually wrote Snowflake Bentley.

"When I am writing, I become obsessed with the world of my work and have been known to walk into shelves, or other people, because I am thinking so hard about my characters. I live with them and am always a little sad to finish a story."

Biographical and Critical Sources

BOOKS

Martin, Jacqueline Briggs, The Finest Horse in Town, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1992.

Martin, Jacqueline Briggs, Washing the Willow Tree Loon, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1995.

Martin, Jacqueline Briggs, Higgins Bend Song and Dance, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1997.

PERIODICALS

Booklist, September 1, 1984, p. 68; September 15, 1986, p. 133; March 15, 1988, p. 1266; February 1, 1992, Hazel Rochman, review of Good Times on Grandfather Mountain, p. 80; June 15, 1992, Deborah Abbott, review of The Finest Horse in Town, pp. 1849-1850; August, 1993, Nancy McCray, review of Celebrating Authors: Meet Jacqueline Briggs Martin, p. 67; December 15, 1995, Leone McDermott, review of Washing the Willow Tree Loon, p. 709; May 15, 1996, Leone McDermott, review of Grandmother Bryant's Pocket, p. 1592; May 1, 1997, Carolyn Phelan, review of Green Truck Garden Giveaway: A Neighborhood Story and Almanac, pp. 1501-1502; October 1, 1998, Ilene Cooper, review of Snowflake Bentley, p. 323; January 1, 1999, review of Snowflake Bentley, p. 785; March 15, 1999, review of Snowflake Bentley, p. 1303; March 1, 2001, Gillian Engberg, review of The Lamp, the Ice, and the Boat Called Fish, p. 1273; August, 2003, Gillian Engberg, review of On Sand Island, p. 1981.

Buffalo News (Buffalo, NY), July 14, 1996, Jean Westmoore, review of Grandmother Bryant's Pocket; November 1, 1998, review of Snowflake Bentley, p. F7.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, March, 1992, p. 186; July, 1992, p. 300; July-August, 1996, Deborah Stevenson, review of Grandmother Bryant's Pocket, pp. 363-364.

Burlington Free Press (Burlington, VT), February 2, 1999, Sally Pollak, review of Snowflake Bentley, p. A01.

Des Moines Register (Des Moines, IA), February 7, 1999, review of Snowflake Bentley, p. 1; October 13, 1999, Dave DeValois, "Author Shares Writing Tips," p. 4.

Five Owls, September-October, 1997, p. 8.

Horn Book, May-June, 1992, Nancy Vasilakis, review of Good Times on Grandfather Mountain, pp. 332-333; September-October, 1995, Margaret Bush, review of Washing the Willow Tree Loon, p. 591; July-August, 1996, Hanna B. Zeiger, review of Grandmother Bryant's Pocket, p. 460; September-October, 1998, Elizabeth S. Watson, review of Snowflake Bentley, p. 622; March, 2001, review of The Lamp, the Ice, and the Boat Called Fish, p. 198; May-June, 2003, Anita L. Burkam, review of The Water Gift and the Pig of the Pig, p. 331.

Kirkus Reviews, February 1, 1992, review of Good Times on Grandfather Mountain, pp. 186-187; October 15, 1995, p. 1496; July 1, 1997, review of Higgins Bend Song and Dance, p. 1032; April 1, 2003, review of The Water Gift and the Pig of the Pig, p. 537; July 15, 2003, review of On Sand Island, p. 966.

Lancet, December 23, 1995, Fay Robinson, review of Washing the Willow Tree Loon, pp. 1691-1692.

New Advocate, fall, 1996, p. 340.

New York Times Book Review, April 27, 1997, Erin St. John Kelly, review of Grandmother Bryant's Pocket, p. 29; April 15, 2001, Heather Vogel Frederick, review of The Lamp, the Ice, and the Boat Called Fish, p. 25; September 21, 2003, Stephanie Deutsch, review of The Water Gift and the Pig of the Pig, p. 27.

Publishers Weekly, February 12, 1988, review of Bizzy Bones and the Lost Quilt, pp. 84-85; February 3, 1992, review of Good Times on Grandfather Mountain, p. 80; June 22, 1992, review of The Finest Horse in Town, p. 61; February 5, 1996, review of Grandmother Bryant's Pocket, p. 89; April 7, 1997, review of The Green Truck Garden Giveaway, p. 92; June 8, 1998, review of Button, Bucket, Sky, p. 59; August 31, 1998, review of Snowflake Bentley, p. 75; December 18, 2000, review of The Lamp, the Ice, and the Boat Called Fish, p. 78; March 31, 2003, review of The Water Gift and the Pig of the Pig, p. 67; July 21, 2003, review of On Sand Island, p. 194.

Reading Teacher, December-January, 1992, Lee Galda, review of The Finest Horse in Town, pp. 330-338.

San Francisco Chronicle, February 28, 1999, Regan McMahon, review of Snowflake Bentley, p. 9.

School Library Journal, November, 1984, p. 112; October, 1986, Cathy Woodward, review of Bizzy Bones and Moosemouse, p. 164; June-July, 1988, Ruth Semrau, review of Bizzy Bones and the Lost Quilt, p. 93; August, 1992, Charlene Strickland, review of The Finest Horse in Town, p. 144; October, 1993, Leah Hawkins, review of Celebrating Authors: Meet Jacqueline Briggs Martin, p. 67; October, 1995, Ellen Fader, review of Washing the Willow Tree Loon, p. 108; June, 1996, Virginia Golodetz, review of Grandmother Bryant's Pocket, p. 105; June, 1997, John Sigwald, review of The Green Truck Garden Giveaway, p. 98; September 19, 1997, Jody McCoy, review of Higgins Bend Song and Dance, pp. 187-188; September, 1998, Tom S. Hurlburt, review of Button, Bucket, Sky, p. 176, and Virginia Golodetz, review of Snowflake Bentley, pp. 194-195; July, 2001, Sue Sherif, review of The Lamp, the Ice, and the Boat Called Fish, p. 96; June, 2003, Marianne Saccardi, review of The Water Gift and the Pig of the Pig, p. 112; November, 2003, Susannah Price, review of On Sand Island, p. 110.

Teacher Librarian, May, 1999, Shirley Lewis, review of Snowflake Bentley, p. 47.

ONLINE

Houghton Mifflin Web site, http://www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com/ (November 20, 2003), "Jacqueline Briggs Martin."

Jacqueline Briggs Martin Home Page, http://www.jacquelinebriggsmartin.com/ (November 11, 2003).

OTHER

Celebrating Authors: Meet Jacqueline Briggs Martin (video tape), 1993.*

[back] Jacqueline Briggs Martin (1945-) - Writings

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