Kathe Koja (1960-) Biography
Personal, Addresses, Career, Member, Honors Awards, Writings, Sidelights
Born 1960, in Detroit, MI; Education: Attended Clarion Workshop, Michigan State University. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Progressive Catholic.
office—c/o Author Mail, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 19 Union Sq. W., New York, NY 10003. Agent—Christopher Schelling, Ralph Vicininza, Ltd., 303 West 18th St., New York, NY 10011.
Novelist and author of short fiction, beginning 1984.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Michigan Anti-Cruelty Society.
Locus Award for Best First Novel, and Bram Stoker Award for Best First Horror Novel, Horror Writers of America, both 1992, both for The Cipher; Humane Society Kids in Nature's Defense honor, and American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Henry Bergh Award, both 2002, both for Straydog; Children's Book Award, International Reading Association, and Society of Midland Authors Children's Fiction Award, both 2004, both for Buddha Boy.
FOR YOUNG ADULTS
Straydog, Frances Foster Books (New York, NY), 2002.
Buddha Boy, Frances Foster Books (New York, NY), 2003.
The Blue Mirror, Frances Foster Books (New York, NY), 2004.
Talk, Frances Foster Books (New York, NY), 2005.
The Cipher, Abyss (New York, NY), 1991.
Bad Brains, Abyss (New York, NY), 1992.
Skin, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1993.
Strange Angels, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1994.
Kink, Holt (New York, NY), 1996.
Extremities (short stories), Four Walls Eight Windows (New York, NY), 1998.
Contributor of short fiction to periodicals, including Cicada.
Beginning her writing career in the mid-1980s with adult science fiction and horror novels and her avant-garde short fiction, Michigan-based author Kathe Koja began penning novels geared toward a teen readership with 2002's Straydog. Her books for young-adult readers, which also include Buddha Boy, The Blue Mirror, and Talk, have been praised for their sensitivity in dealing with marginalized yet creative teen protagonists who are put in the position of facing hard decisions and confronting harsh realities.
In Straydog teenage Rachel feels like something of a stray herself. Volunteering at a local animal shelter, she encounters a feral collie mix that has been brought in, and names the wild and untamable animal Grrl. Writing about the dog in a language arts class, Rachel attracts the attention of her teacher as well as that of fellow student Griffin, who "sees Rachel's rage, solitude, and talent—her real self," according to Booklist contributor Gillian Engberg. Tragically, Grrl eventually attacks workers at the animal shelter and is put down, whereupon Rachel falls apart emotionally. At first attempting to destroy the shelter, she eventually realizes, with Griffin's help, that writing about Grrl will allow her to remain true to the animal's spirit; Grrl was too abused to be tamed.
Paula Rohrlick, writing in Kliatt, praised Straydog as a "short, swift read … packed full of emotion." A critic for Kirkus Reviews added that "fans of tales about teen writers, or stories with animal themes, will pant after this." Similarly, a contributor to Publishers Weekly described Straydog as a "solid if sometimes familiar tale of a high school misfit" that presents teen readers with a "compelling and sympathetic" protagonist in Rachel. Farida S. Dowler, writing in School Library Journal, noted that Koja's presentation of Rachel's growing "friendship with Griffin has romantic tension, but transcends high-school stereotypes," while in Horn Book Jennifer M. Brabander concluded that the novel is a "fast but semi-sophisticated read for teens who haven't outgrown dog stories."
In Buddha Boy Koja introduces readers to another teen outsider, Jinsen, who as the new boy in a suburban high school must deal with the school bullies and find his place in the school's social hierarchy. A sophomore, Jinsen comes across to everyone as a square peg; his real name is Michael Martin, but he has changed his name and shaved his head due to his Buddhist beliefs. The fact that he engages in strange behavior, such as begging for his lunch, does not endear him to the socially wary Justin. However, when the two teens are teamed up by their teacher, Justin begins to appreciate the new boy and becomes familiar with Jinsen's spiritual beliefs and practices. Ultimately, his defense of "Buddha Boy" earns Justin a measure of derision from the popular crowd.
Reviewing Buddha Boy in Publishers Weekly, a critic observed that, by using Justin's flashbacks to narrate her novel, Koja "accomplishes quite a feat" by presenting a "compelling introduction to Buddhism and a credible portrait of how true friendship brings out the best in people." Likewise, Coop Renner, writing in School Library Journal, found Buddha Boy to be "Quickly paced, inviting, and eye-opening," as well as a "marvelous addition to YA literature." Horn Book contributor Peter D. Sieruta commended the novel's "original, offbeat voice," while in the Bloomsbury Review Susan Lansing dubbed the novel "a perceptive read involving karma, catharsis, and the fears and frustrations of high school alliances."
Koja continued to create provocative teen fiction with her 2004 novel, The Blue Mirror, a "cautionary tale of infatuation" in which the author's "writing talent … reaches remarkable fruition," according to Booklist reviewer Debbie Carton. A characteristically misfit protagonist, seventeen-year-old Maggy, wishes she were invisible at school, where she is failing, and the rest of her life doesn't seem much better. After taking care of her beloved cat and her alcoholic mother, her only happiness comes from sitting in a booth at the Blue Mirror Café and sketching. There she meets the handsome runaway, Cole, an edgy risk taker who tells Maggy that he loves her. Although her friend Casey senses that Cole is just using Maggy to cover his petty criminal activity, the wary Maggy falls in love.
Praising The Blue Mirror as an "eerie, psychologically gripping urban tale" similar to the work of author Francesca Lia Block, a Publishers Weekly reviewer added that in her story "Koja explores the confusion between infatuation and real love—in all its cruelty and its redemptive powers." In the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, a reviewer gave special note to Koja's protagonist, noting that "Maggy's voice is articulate, controlled, and self-aware, which makes for intriguing reading." Of the novel, Koja noted on her Web site: "The Blue Mirror is concerned with vision, the way we see—or sometimes refuse to see—what's right in front of us, and what can happen when we open our eyes."
"My biography and my philosophy are pretty much the same," Koja explained to Something about the Author: "I've been a writer all my life, since I was a very small girl. Writing is not just what I do, it's what I am, the way I see and make sense of the world." While writing her first YA story, "Stray Dog," which she eventually expanded into her 2002 novel, Koja "immediately felt at home." "Maybe it's because some of my favorite characters in literature—Holden Caulfield, Harriet M. Welsh, Witch Baby Wigg—are young," she added. "Maybe it's because, as a writer and as a reader, what attracts me to a story is intensity. And intensity is the hallmark of youth.
"That's one of the greatest gifts about writing for young people: the chance to re-examine that intense, bewildering, exhilarating age, the Everest range of highs and lows, the feeling of time stretching out before us, limitless and free. There's no season in our lives when we are more possible: as human beings, moving creatures in a world so much larger than we are; as individuals, capable of evil or of good, or of both. When we're young our hearts are still wide open, our minds not yet fossilized into predictable reactions; change is daily and inevitable. For a writer, this is enormously exciting, because in a place like Youth anything can happen.
"Another limitless zone is the world of art. In all my stories and novels, art is central to the characters' lives: they sketch, write stories, act onstage, find and lose themselves again and again in the process of creation. As artists, they're responsible to tell the truth of what they see, as accurately and with as much love as they can. And sometimes, if they pay very close attention, the art they make will tell them a truth about themselves. Maybe this is a truth they already know. Most of the time, it's not. Many young people instinctively know to reach for art as a tool, for insight or for comfort. I see this over and over again when I make school visits: all the kids who keep journals, who write poetry, who draw on paper or online. They understand that art is both a private and a universal action, a safe haven where they can hide if they need to, a platform where they can say whatever they want to say, as loudly—or as subtly—as they like. Their art, too, becomes a mirror held up to their lives.
"And that's what I hope for, in my YA work: to try to be that mirror, as honest and fierce and funny and terrifying as the years of youth, as personal and vast, and say there the things that I want most to say. Like Holden, Harriet, and Witch Baby, like my own protagonists Maggy, Kit, and Rachel, Justin and Jinsen, Ivan and Hilly and all the others to come, who struggle and flounder, fail and succeed, our best selves when our selves were newest, alive to the possible, ready for their work to tell them who they are and what they do."
Biographical and Critical Sources
St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost, and Gothic Writers, St. James (Detroit, MI), 1998.
Bloomsbury Review, December, 1991, Edward Bryant, review of The Cipher, p. 27; May-June, 2003, Susan Lansing, review of Buddha Boy, p. 26.
Booklist, April 15, 2002, Gillian Engberg, review of Straydog; February 15, 2003, Hazel Rochman, review of Buddha Boy, pp. 1064-1065; February 15, 2004, Debbie Carton, review of The Blue Mirror, p. 1051.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, May, 2004, review of The Blue Mirror.
Horn Book, May-June, 2002, Jennifer M. Brabander, review of Straydog, p. 333; May-June, 2003, Peter D. Sieruta, review of Buddha Boy, pp. 350-351; May-June, 2004, Jennifer M. Brabander, review of The Blue Mirror, p. 331.
Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, April, 2004, Sara Ann Shettler, review of The Blue Mirror, p. 614.
Journal of American Culture, fall, 1995, Steffen Hantke, "Deconstructing Horror: Commodities in the Fiction of Jonathan Carroll and Kathe Koja," pp. 41-57.
Kirkus Reviews, February 1, 1993, review of Skin, p. 86; March 15, 1994, review of Strange Angels, p. 325; March 15, 2002, review of Straydog, p. 416; January 1, 2003, review of Buddha Boy, p. 62; February 15, 2004, review of The Blue Mirror, p. 181.
Kliatt, March, 2002, Paula Rohrlick, review of Straydog, p. 11; March, 2004, Claire Rosser, review of The Blue Mirror, p. 12.
Library Journal, March 1, 1993, Eric W. Johnson, review of Skin, p. 108; August, 1994, Dan Bogey, review of Skin, p. 168; June 15, 1996, Faye A. Chadwell, review of Kink, p. 91; October 15, 1998, Carolyn Ellis Gonzalez, review of Extremities, p. 103.
Locus, January, 1991, Edward Bryant, review of Cipher, p. 21; December, 1992, pp. 17-18; April, 1993, Faren Miller, review of Skin, p. 21.
Los Angeles Times, August 11, 1996, Chris Goodrich, review of Kink, p. 10.
New York Times Book Review, January 19, 1997, Karen Angel, review of Kink, p. 18; February 21, 1999, Christopher Atamian, review of Extremities, p. 20.
Publishers Weekly, January 11, 1991, review of Cipher, p. 98; February 15, 1993 review of Skin, p. 212; April 4, 1994, review of Strange Angels, p. 59; April 29, 1996, review of Kink, p. 53; September 14, 1998, review of Extremities, p. 46; March 25, 2002, review of Straydog, p. 66; January 6, 2003, review of Buddha Boy, pp. 60-61; February 9, 2004, review of The Blue Mirror, p. 82.
Review of Contemporary Fiction, fall, 1996, Irving Malin, review of Kink, p. 189; summer, 1999, Irving Malin, review of Extremities, p. 132.
School Library Journal, April, 2002, Farida S. Dowler, review of Straydog, pp. 150-151; February, 2003, Coop Renner, review of Buddha Boy, p. 142; October, 2003, review of Buddha Boy, p. S60.
Voice Literary Supplement, July-August, 1992, Richard Gehr, review of The Cipher, p. 5; March, 2004, Kelly Czarnecki, review of The Blue Mirror, p. 216.
Washington Post Book World, March 28, 1993, Paul Di Filippo, review of Skin, p. 9.
Kathe Koja Home Page, http://www.kathekoja.com/ (October 25, 2004).