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Martha Attema (1949-) Biography

Personal, Career, Member, Honors Awards, Writings, Sidelights

Born 1949, in Menaldum, Netherlands; immigrated to Canada, 1981; Education: Attended teacher's college in the Netherlands, 1966-70; Laurentian University, B.A., 1986, B.Ed., 1989. Hobbies and other interests: Sewing clothes, crafts.


Kindergarten teacher in Giekerk, Netherlands, 1969-73; teacher of kindergarten in North Bay, Ontario, beginning 1987; Vincent Massey Public School, North Bay, first grade language arts teacher, beginning c. 1997.


Canadian Society of Children's Authors, Illustrators, and Publishers, Writers' Union of Canada, North Bay Children's Writers Group, North Bay Writers Club.

Honors Awards

Blue Heron Award for young adults, and Geoffrey Bilson Award for Historical Fiction shortlist, Canadian Children's Book Centre, both 1996, both for A Time to Choose.



The Unhappy Pinetree: A Little Book for Winter Nights (picture book), privately printed, 1992.

A Time to Choose (young adult historical novel), Orca Book Publishers (Victoria, British Columbia, Canada), 1995.

A Light in the Dunes (young adult novel), Orca Book Publishers (Custer, WA), 1997.

Daughter of Light (juvenile novel), illustrated by Stephen McCallum, Orca Book Publishers (Victoria, British Columbia, Canada), 2001.

When the War Is Over (young adult novel), Orca Book Publishers (Victoria, British Columbia, Canada), 2002.

Hero (juvenile novel), illustrated by Stephen McCallum, Orca Book Publishers (Victoria, British Columbia, Canada), 2003.

Attema's work has been translated into Italian.


Contributor of poetry and short fiction to books, including "To Be One with the Waves": A Canadian Poetry Association Anthology, edited by Jennifer Footman, Broken Jaw Press (Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada), 1995, and Fryslan door de ogen van vrouwen (title means "Short Stories and Poems by Immigrant Writers"), Bornmeer (Leeuwarden, Netherlands), 2000, and to periodicals.


Canadian-based writer Martha Attema is the author of several historical novels for children and teen readers that draw on her interest in the history of the Netherlands, where she was born and lived for over three decades. In books such as Daughter of Light and Hero she makes Nazi-occupied Holland come to life for elementary-school readers, while more mature concerns surrounding teens living during wartime are addressed in books such as When the War Is Over.

"Writing has always been part of my life," the Dutch-born Attema once told Something about the Author (SATA). "In my teenage years I wrote poetry to sort out the world and my personal problems and to find an outlet. During those years I began to envy my grandfather, who was a published playwright and poet. When I became a teacher and later a mother, I wrote stories, poems, and puppet plays for my students and for my own children. My writing was all in the Frisian language. Friesland is one of the northern provinces in the Netherlands. The Frisians are a proud and stubborn people who have their own language."

Even after Attema and her family immigrated to Canada in 1981, she continued to write in Frisian. "I felt myself between languages," she recalled. "I didn't get enough exposure to the Frisian language, and I wasn't proficient enough in English to feel comfortable writing stories and poems in this language. A creative writing course at the local college inspired me. The instructor and my other classmates gave me hope and encouraged me to market my stories." Finding something to write about was never a problem for Attema, whose motivation has always been "to share some of my Frisian background and culture with young people here." "The Frisian language is a rich language, full of sagas, legends, and folktales," Attema also explained to SATA. Her young-adult novel A Light in the Dunes draws on just such a legend, one that comes from an island off the coast of Friesland. In her novel Attema weaves the legend into the story of a fourteen year old who, while dismayed to discover she has been named after a local witch whose ghost is said to haunt a local bird sanctuary, is even more upset when she finds herself kidnaped by a band of drug dealers. "I owed our youngest daughter this story," Attema admitted, noting that Rikst Attema was also named after the Frisian witch.

Designed for readers in the mid-elementary grades, Daughter of Light and Hero both focus on children caught up in the drama of wartime. In Daughter of Light nine-year-old Ria watches as her town is occupied by German soldiers and her friend Rachel, along with the rest of the area's Jews, are sent to Poland or Germany. While adults live in fear and dare not stand up to the occupation forces, when the heat and electricity are cut off, Ria bravely petitions the town government for help in a novel that Booklist reviewer Carolyn Phelan praised as an "exciting story" that "realistically dramatiz[es] … the hardships and dangers of the times," while Alison Grant noted in School Library Journal that Attema's young protagonist "asks a timeless question of why some are singled out for hate and discrimination and often death." Like Daughter of Light, Hero focuses on a child during wartime, in this case eight-year-old Jan, who is sent from Amsterdam to live on a horse farm and finds that his quick thinking may be all that stands in the way of the German army confiscating the horses Jan quickly comes to love.

Attema's young-adult novel A Time to Choose is based on facts and stories she collected from survivors of World War II. "I am pleased that I was able to preserve some of the stories from a generation of people who will not be here much longer to tell their own stories," she noted in SATA, adding: "I am glad to be able to tell young people not to forget this war or any other war, that in every war the conflicts are not just between the good and bad guys, that war is much more complex and conflicts occur within families and among friends." Her novel When the War Is Over also focuses on the human side of World War II as it focuses on sixteen-year-old Janke Visser. Reacting to the German occupation of her small Frisian town, despite her mother's objections Janke decides to follow the example of her father and brother and join the resistance, where she becomes a bicycle courier. As her job expands from transporting letters and papers to guiding and hiding war refugees, During World War II in Holland young Ria, whose father is in hiding, valiantly plots to help her pregnant mother find a safe and comfortable place to give birth. (From Daughter of Light, written by Martha Attema and illustrated by Stephen McCallum.) Janke finds herself in increasing danger of discovery. Meanwhile, her task is also complicated by a growing romantic attachment to a young German soldier named Helmut. Ultimately, Helmut's disillusion over German militarism unites the pair, who plan their escape to Canada. In Resource Links reviewer Patrick Romaine noted that When the War Is Over gives readers "a good insight into life in the occupied Netherlands and the work, the tactics of, and dangers to the resistance during World War II."

"In my future writing I hope to preserve more history, folk tales, and legends by giving these tales and facts new life in young adult novels and picture books," Attema explained to SATA. "Besides writing, I enjoy research and reading. I collect folk tales and legends from Friesland and I love to read about the history of the area where I grew up. As a teacher of grade one, I'm exposed to many excellent picture books. By sharing these picture books as well as my own stories and poems, I hope to foster a love for reading and writing in my students.

"I never dreamed that I would actually become a published author. I always thought the language would be a major handicap and a drawback. Now that I have become an author, I encourage young people never to give up their dreams, but to be determined and try hard to fulfill them."

Biographical and Critical Sources


Booklist, February 1, 2002, Carolyn Phelan, review of Daughter of Light, p. 938.

Quill and Quire, January, 1996, p. 369.

Resource Links, October, 1997, review of Light in the Dunes, p. 35; June, 2001, Evette Signarowski, review of Daughter of Light, p. 8; February, 2003, Patrick Romaine, review of When the War Is Over, p. 36; February, 2004, Stephanie Olson, review of Hero, p. 8.

School Library Journal, December, 2001, Alison Grant, review of Daughter of Light, p. 88.


Martha Attema Web site, http://www.marthaattema.com/ (January 5, 2005).*

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