Edward (Irving) Wortis (1937-) Biography
Personal, Addresses, Career, Member, Honors Awards, Writings, Adaptations, Sidelights
(Avi, Avi Wortis)
Born 1937, in New York, NY; stepEducation: Attended Antioch University; University of Wisconsin—Madison, B.A., 1959, M.A., 1962; Columbia University, M.S.L.S., 1964. Hobbies and other interests: Photography.
Agent—Dorothy Markinko, McIntosh & Otis, Inc., 475 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10017.
Writer, 1960—. New York Public Library, New York, NY, librarian in performing arts research center, 1962-70; Lambeth Public Library, London, England, exchange program librarian, 1968; Trenton State College, Trenton, NJ, assistant professor and humanities librarian, 1970-86. Co-founder of "Breakfast Serials" (reading program), 1996; visiting writer in schools across the United States.
PEN, Authors Guild, Authors League of America.
Best Book of the Year designation, British Book Council, 1973, for Snail Tale: The Adventures of a Rather Small Snail; grants from New Jersey State Council on the Arts, 1974, 1976, and 1978; Mystery Writers of America Special Award, 1975, for No More Magic, 1979, for Emily Upham's Revenge; or, How Deadwood Dick Saved the Banker's Niece: A Massachusetts Adventure, and 1983, for Shadrach's Crossing; Christopher Award, 1980, for Encounter at Easton; Children's Choice Award, International Reading Association (IRA), 1980, for Man from the Sky, and 1988, for Romeo and Juliet—Together (and Alive) at Last; School Library Journal best books of the year citations, 1980, for Night Journeys, 1987, for Wolf Rider: A Tale of Terror, and 1990, for The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle; New Jersey Authors Award, New Jersey Institute of Technology, for Shadrach's Crossing, 1983; Scott O'Dell Historical Fiction Award, Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, 1984, for The Fighting Ground; ALA best books for young adults citations, 1984, for The Fighting Ground, and 1986, for Wolf Rider, and notable book citation for The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, 1990; Library of Congress best books of the year citations, 1989, for Something Upstairs: A Tale of Ghosts, and 1990, for The Man Who Was Poe; Virginia Young Readers' Award, 1990, for Wolf Rider: A Tale of Terror; best book of the year citation, Society of Children's Book Authors, 1990, and Newbery Honor Book, American Library Association (ALA), Horn Book/Boston Globe Award, and Golden Kite Award, Society of Children's Book Authors, all 1991, all for The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle; Newbery Honor Book, ALA, 1992, for Nothing but the Truth: A Documentary Novel; Boston Globe/Horn Book Award for Fiction, 1996, for Poppy; New York Public Library Best Books of the Year citation, Booklist Best Books of the Year citation, and Booklinks Best Books of the Year citation, all 1996, and Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books Blue Ribbon, and National Council of Social Studies/Children's Book Council Notable Book citation, both 1997, all for Beyond the Western Sea; Pick of the Lists, IRA, 1997, for Finding Providence: The Story of Roger Williams; Newbery Award, ALA, 2003, for Crispin: The Cross of Lead.
UNDER PSEUDONYM AVI
Things That Sometimes Happen (picture book), illustrated by Jodi Robbin, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1970, abridged edition, illustrated by Marjorie Priceman, Atheneum Books for Young Readers (New York, NY), 2001.
Snail Tale: The Adventures of a Rather Small Snail (picture book), illustrated by Tom Kindron, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1972, revised as The End of the Beginning: Being the Adventures of a Small Snail (and an Even Smaller Ant), illustrated by Tricia Tusa, Harcourt (Orlando, FL), 2004.
No More Magic, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1975.
Captain Grey, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1977.
Emily Upham's Revenge; or, How Deadwood Dick Saved the Banker's Niece: A Massachusetts Adventure, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1978.
Night Journeys, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1979.
Encounter at Easton (sequel to Night Journeys), Pantheon (New York, NY), 1980.
Man from the Sky, Knopf (New York, NY), 1980.
The History of Helpless Harry: To Which Is Added a Variety of Amusing and Entertaining Adventures, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1980.
A Place Called Ugly, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1981.
Who Stole the Wizard of Oz?, Knopf (New York, NY), 1981.
Sometimes I Think I Hear My Name, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1982.
Shadrach's Crossing, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1983.
The Fighting Ground, Lippincott (Philadelphia, PA), 1984.
S.O.R. Losers, Bradbury (Scarsdale, NY), 1984.
Devil's Race, Lippincott (Philadelphia, PA), 1984.
Bright Shadow, Bradbury (Scarsdale, NY), 1985.
Wolf Rider: A Tale of Terror, Bradbury (Scarsdale, NY), 1986.
Devil's Race, Avon (New York, NY), 1987.
Romeo and Juliet—Together (and Alive) at Last (sequel to S. O. R. Losers), Avon (New York, NY), 1988.
Something Upstairs: A Tale of Ghosts, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1988.
The Man Who Was Poe, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1989.
The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1990.
Windcatcher, Bradbury (Scarsdale, NY), 1991.
Nothing but the Truth: A Documentary Novel, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1991.
"Who Was That Masked Man, Anyway?," Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1992.
Blue Heron, Bradbury (Scarsdale, NY), 1992.
Punch with Judy, Bradbury (New York, NY), 1993.
City of Light, City of Dark: A Comic Book Novel, illustrated by Brian Floca, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1993.
The Barn, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1994.
Shadrach's Crossing Smuggler's Island, Morrow Junior Books (New York, NY), 1994.
The Bird, the Frog, and the Light: A Fable, paintings by Matthew Henry, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1994.
Tom, Babette, and Simon: Three Tales of Transformation, illustrated by Alexi Natchev, Macmillan Books for Young Readers (New York, NY), 1995.
Poppy (also see below), illustrated by Brian Floca, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1995.
Beyond the Western Sea, Book One: Escape from Home, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1995.
Beyond the Western Sea, Book Two: Lord Kirkle's Money, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1996.
What Do Fish Have to Do with Anything?: Short Stories, Candlewick Press (Cambridge, MA), 1997.
Finding Providence: The Story of Roger Williams, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1997.
Poppy and Rye (also see below), illustrated by Brian Floca, Avon (New York, NY), 1998.
Perloo the Bold, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1998.
Ragweed (also see below), illustrated by Brian Floca, Avon (New York, NY), 1999.
Second Sight: Stories for a New Millennium, Philomel Books (New York, NY), 1999.
Abigail takes the Wheel, illustrated by Don Bolognese, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1999.
Midnight Magic, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1999.
Ereth's Birthday (also see below), illustrated by Brian Floca, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2000.
The Christmas Rat, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2000.
Prairie School, pictures by Bill Farnsworth, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2001.
The Secret School, Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 2001.
Don't You Know There's a War On?, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2001.
The Good Dog, Atheneum Books for Young Readers (New York, NY), 2001.
Tales from Dimwood Forest (includes Ragweed, Poppy, Poppy and Rye, and Ereth's Birthday), HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2001.
Crispin: The Cross of Lead, Hyperion Books for Children (New York, NY), 2002.
Silent Movie, illustrated by C. B. Mordan, Atheneum Books for Young Readers (New York, NY), 2002.
The Mayor of Central Park, illustrated by Brian Floca, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2003.
(With Rachel Vail) Never Mind! A Twin Novel, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2004.
Also author of numerous plays. Contributor to books, including Performing Arts Resources, 1974, edited by Ted Perry, Drama Book Publishers, 1975. Contributor to periodicals, including New York Public Library Bulletin, Top of the News, Children's Literature in Education, Horn Book, and Writer. Book reviewer for Library Journal, School Library Journal, and Previews, 1965-73.
Translations of Avi's books have been published in Germany, Austria, Denmark, Norway, Spain, Italy, and Japan.
Emily Upham's Revenge, Shadrach's Crossing, Something Upstairs, The Fighting Ground, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, Nothing but the Truth, and Read to Me were produced on radio programs Read to Me, Maine Public Radio, and Books Aloud, WWON-Rhode Island; The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, City of Light/City of Dark, Sometimes I Think I Hear My Name, Something Upstairs, and Night Journeys were optioned for film; Something Upstairs was adapted as a play performed by Louisville (KY) Children's Theater, 1997; Nothing but the Truth was adapted for the stage by Ronn Smith; audio recording of The Fighting Ground produced by Listening Library and The Man Who Was Poe by Audio Bookshelf; many of Avi's other books have also been recorded on audio cassette, including The Barn, Beyond the Western Sea, Blue Heron, Bright Shadow, Man from the Sky, Night Journeys, Perloo the Bold, Poppy, Poppy and Rye, Punch with Judy, Romeo and Juliet—Together (and Alive) at Last, Something Upstairs, Smuggler's Island, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, What Do Fish Have to Do with Anything?, "Who Was That Masked Man, Anyway?," Wolf Rider, and The Good Dog.
The author of inviting, readable novels, Edward Wortis is well known to critics, teachers, parents, and particularly to young readers under his nickname "Avi." His many award-winning books, which include The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, Nothing but the Truth, and the Newbery Award-winning Crispin: The Cross of Lead, can be mysteries, adventure yarns, historical fiction, supernatural tales, coming-of-age novels, or comic stories, and some combine a bit of all of these categories. While captivating even reluctant readers with his fast-paced, imaginative plots and the inclusion of plenty of action, Avi's books also offer complex, thought-provoking, and sometimes disturbingly realistic reflections of American culture. The author summed up his goals in writing young-adult novels in Twentieth-Century Children's Writers: "I try to write about complex issues—young people in an adult world—full of irony and contradiction, in a narrative style that relies heavily on suspense with a texture rich in emotion and imagery. I take a great deal of satisfaction in using popular forms—the adventure, the mystery, the thriller—so as to hold my reader with the sheer pleasure of a good story. At the same time I try to resolve my books with an ambiguity that compels engagement. In short, I want my readers to feel, to think, sometimes to laugh. But most of all I want them to enjoy a good read."
Born in New York City in 1937 and raised in Boston, Avi grew up in an artistic environment. His great-grandparents and a grandmother were writers, two uncles were painters, and both parents wrote. His family was also politically active, its members aligning themselves with the radical movements that grew out of the Great Depression of the 1930s. Politics and art led to lively family discussion in Avi's home. The author once explained that his extended family comprised "a very strong art community and what this meant for me as a child was that there was always a kind of uproarious sense of debate. It was all a very affectionate sharing of ideas—arguing, but not arguing in anger, arguing about ideas."
This early stimulation at home may have prepared Avi for challenges to come in his education. Although he was an avid reader as a child, difficulties in writing eventually caused him to flunk out of one school. He later learned that he has a dysfunction known as dysgraphia, a marginal impairment in his writing abilities that causes him to reverse letters or misspell words. "One of my aunts said I could spell a four letter word wrong five ways," he once commented. "In a school environment, I was perceived as being sloppy and erratic, and not paying attention." Despite constant criticism at school, Avi kept writing and he credits his family's emphasis on the arts for his perseverance. When school assignments came back covered in red ink, he simply saved them, corrections and all. "I think there was so much criticism, I became immune to it," he once said. "I wasn't even paying attention to it. I liked what I wrote."
Like many teens, Avi felt like an outsider in many social circles, and his family's reactionary political views gave him early knowledge of what it meant to be in a minority. "You always assumed that your point of view was quirky or different," Avi once commented. At school, aside from writing difficulties, he also harbored typical teenage insecurities: "I've led a very ordinary life in most respects. I think my adolescence was unhappy in the way that many adolescents' lives are unhappy. It has given me great empathy for the outsider."
The first step on Avi's course to writing professionally was reading: everything from comic books and science magazines to histories, plays, and novels. Despite the skepticism of his teachers, he decided to make a career of writing while still in high school. "After my junior year in high school, my parents were informed that I was in desperate need of a tutor, for somehow I had never taken the time to learn to write or to spell," he once recalled. "That summer I met every day with a wonderful teacher who not only taught me writing basics, but also instilled in me the conviction that I wanted to be a writer myself. Perhaps it was stubbornness. It was generally agreed that was one thing I could not possibly do." Avi still has the diary entry from his senior year of high school in which he logged his decision to be a writer, adding "I can't wait! I've made up my mind."
Attending Antioch University, Avi enrolled in playwriting rather than English courses. "That's where I really started to write seriously," he once commented. "The first playwriting instructor that I had would say, 'this is the way you do it.' You didn't have much choice in it, you had to do it in a very specific way. He even had charts for you to fill out. And I think I learned how to organize a story according to this man's precepts. It didn't even matter what [his system] was except that I absorbed it. I think, although I'm not sure of this, that is still the structure I use when I write." One of the plays Avi wrote in college won a contest and was published in a magazine. The author said that during that time he wrote "a trunkfull of plays but I would say ninety-nine percent of them weren't very good." After working at a variety of jobs, Avi took a job in the theater collection of the New York Public library, beginning his twenty-four-year career as a librarian. His determination to be a writer never flagged during this time, and he had written nearly 800 pages of his "great American novel," by the time an odd series of events turned his attention toward children's literature. It all began with telling stories to his two sons. "My oldest would tell me what the story should be about—he would invent stuff, a story about a glass of water and so forth. It became a game, and here I had a writing background so I was telling some fairly sophisticated stories."
Along with telling stories, Avi was a doodler, drawing pictures for fun. A friend who was writing a children's book, having seen his drawings, wanted Avi to provide illustrations. When the friend took the book with Avi's illustrations to a publisher, although the book was rejected, Avi was asked to illustrate other children's books. Arguing with the publisher that he was a writer and not an artist, Avi agreed to illustrate if he could also write the book. "Two weeks after this conversation, I was supposed to go to England on a library exchange thing, so I took a week off of work. Some neighbors were gone and I used their apartment. I put down all the stories that I had told my son and drew the pictures, all within one week. So this gets submitted to the publisher and of course she turned everything down. But—seven publishers down the road—Doubleday accepted it." Things That Sometimes Happen: Very Short Stories for Very Young Readers, was published—although without Avi's artwork—in 1970.
Avi's publisher called one day and asked what name he wanted on the book. "That's an odd question to ask," Avi once recalled. "It was never an issue, but I thought about it, and I said, 'Oh well, just put Avi down,' and that was the decision. Just like that." Using his new pen name, which had been given him by his twin sister in early childhood, Avi continued to write children's books geared to his sons' reading levels, until, as he explained, "At a certain point they kept growing and I didn't. I hit a fallow period, and then I wrote No More Magic. Suddenly I felt 'This is right! I'm writing novels and I love it.' From then on I was committed to writing novels."
Avi has written many different forms of the novel. Since several of his early works, including Captain Grey, Night Journeys, and Encounter at Easton, are set in colonial America, he quickly earned a reputation as a historical novelist. Avi's 1984 novel The Fighting Ground, winner of the Scott O'Dell Historical Fiction Award for children, presents one event-filled day in the life of Jonathan, a thirteen-year-old boy caught up in the Revolutionary War. The novel begins as Jonathan slips away from his family's New Jersey farm one morning in order to take part in a skirmish with the Hessians (German mercenary soldiers hired by the English). Jonathan sets out full of unquestioned hatred for the Hessians and for Americans who were loyal to the British—the Tories—and full of hope for a chance take part in the glory of battle. "O Lord, he said to himself, make it be a battle. With armies, big ones, and cannons and flags and drums and dress parades! Oh, he could, would fight. Good as his older brother. Maybe good as his pa. Better, maybe. O Lord, he said to himself, make it something grand!"
Avi portrays no grandeur in the war. Jonathan can barely carry his six-foot-long musket, and has a worse time trying to understand the talk among the men with whom he marches. The small group's leader is a crude individual who lies to the men and is said to be "overfond of killing." After a bloody and confusing skirmish, Jonathan is captured by three Hessians, and briefly comes to understand them as individual human beings.
Later, when called upon to be the brave soldier he had yearned to be, Jonathan's harrowing experience reveals the delusion behind his wish. At the close of the novel the reader, along with Jonathan, is brought to an understanding of what war means in human terms. The Fighting Ground was widely praised by critics, many of whom expressed sentiments similar to those of a reviewer for the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books who, describing The Fighting Ground as "a small stunner," summarized that the novel "makes the war personal and immediate: not history or event, but experience; near and within oneself, and horrible."
Avi admits to being more interested in finding a way to tell a good story and to provide a means of imagining and understanding the past than he is in presenting historical fact. "The historical novel is a curious construction," he once commented. "It represents history but it's not truly accurate. It's a style." He elaborated in an interview with Jim Roginski in Behind the Covers: "Somewhere along the line, I can't explain where, I developed an understanding of history not as fact but as story. That you could look at a field and, with only a slight shift of your imagination, suddenly watch the battle that took place there.… You have to have a willingness to look beyond things. … Take the Battle of Bunker Hill during the Revolution. The leader of the American troops was Dr. Warren, who was killed during the battle. His body had been so dismembered and disemboweled, the only way he could be identified was by the nature of his teeth. And it was Paul Revere who did it. When you tell the story of war that way, a much stronger statement about how ghastly war really is, is made."
In Something Upstairs: A Tale of Ghosts, Avi's combination of historical novel, ghost story, and science fiction, a young man discovers the ghost of a murdered slave in the historic house his family recently moved into in Providence, Rhode Island. He travels back in time to the days of slave trading, where he learns about the murder and, perhaps more importantly, about the manner in which American history is collectively remembered. Although Avi has been widely praised for his historical representation in this work, the author once said that "the irony is that in those Providence books there is nothing historical at all; it's a kind of fantasy of my neighborhood." Like his narrator in Something Upstairs, Avi moved from Los Angeles to Providence; in fact, he moved into the historic house featured in this novel. The author once commented that in his neighborhood, just walking down the street can inspire a story. The move to Providence "was truly like going back in history."
The Man Who Was Poe, Avi's fictionalized portrait of nineteenth-century writer Edgar Allan Poe, intertwines fiction and history on several levels. Historically, Poe went through a period of severe depression and poverty, aggravated by alcoholism during the two years preceding his death in 1849. Avi, whose novel focuses on this period, said he became fascinated with Poe because he was so extraordinary and yet such "a horrible man." In the novel, a young boy, Edmund, has recently immigrated to Providence from England with his aunt and twin sister in order to look for his missing mother. When both aunt and sister disappear, the penniless boy must elicit help from a stranger—who happens to be Edgar Allen Poe. Poe, noticing similarities in Edmund's story to his own life and detecting material for his writing, agrees to help the boy. Between maddening bouts of drunkenness, Poe ingeniously finds a trail of clues. Edmund, who has been taught to defer to adults, alternates between awe of the great man's perceptive powers and despair at his madness. Vividly reflecting the macabre tone of Poe's fiction, Avi portrays the old port city of Providence as a bleak and chaotic world in which compassion and moral order seem to have given way to violence and greed. The character Poe, with his morbid imagination, makes an apt detective in this realm until it becomes clear that he wants the "story" of Edmund's family to end tragically. Edmund's plight is a harsh one, relying on Poe as the only adult who can help him, while at the same time attempting to ensure that Poe's vision does not become a reality. A reviewer for the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, describing The Man Who Was Poe as "a complex, atmospheric thriller," remarked that "Avi recreates the gloom of [the] 1840s … with a storyteller's ease, blending drama, history, and mystery without a hint of pastiche or calculation. And, as in the best mystery stories, readers will be left in the end with both the comfort of puzzles solved and the unease of mysteries remaining."
In another unique twist on the convention of historical novels, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle presents the unlikely story of a very proper thirteen-year-old girl who, as the sole passenger and only female on a trans-Atlantic ship in 1832, becomes involved in a mutiny at sea. Holding her family's aristocratic views on social class and demeanor, Charlotte begins her voyage trusting only Captain Jaggery, whose fine manners and authoritative command remind her of her father. She is thus shocked to find that Jaggery is a viciously brutal and inhumane shipmaster. This discovery, along with her growing fondness for members of the ship's crew, gradually leads Charlotte to question—and discard—the values of her privileged background. As she exchanges her finishing school wardrobe for a common sailor's garb and joins the crew in its work, she reveals the strength of her character, initially masked by her restrictive upbringing.
In the adventures that follow, including a mysterious murder, a storm, and a mutiny, Charlotte's reeducation and emancipation provide a new version of the conventionally male story of rugged individualism at sea. The award-winning novel has received accolades from critics for its suspense, its evocation of life at sea, and particularly for the rich and believable narrative of its protagonist as she undergoes a tremendous change in outlook. The impact of Charlotte's liberation from social bonds and gender restrictions in The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle has a powerful emotional effect on many of its readers. Avi once said that "many people, mostly girls, and even adults, have told me of bursting into tears" at the book's ending—tears of relief that Charlotte finds the freedom to realize herself as she chooses. In his Boston Globe-Horn Book Award acceptance speech, referring to the words of a critic who spoke of the "improbable but deeply satisfying conclusion" of the novel, Avi commented: "I am deeply grateful for the award you have given me today. But I hope you will understand me when I tell you that if the 'improbable' life I wrote lives in someone's heart as a life possible, then I have already been given the greatest gift a writer can receive: a reader who takes my story and endows it with life by the grace of their own desire." In another highly lauded historical novel, the Newbery Award-winning Crispin: The Cross of Lead, Avi "introduces some of his most unforgettable characters," according to Booklist contributor Ilene Cooper. Taking place in England during the fourteenth century, as poverty, a greedy aristocracy, and the Black Plague ravages the country's peasant population, the novel finds a thirteen-year-old orphan framed for a murder he did not commit. He flees from the familiar surroundings where he was raised, taking with him only the clothes on his back and his mother's lead cross, with an inscription he cannot decipher. Soon, Crispin falls in with a traveling juggler who, due to his burly size, is called Bear. With Bear's help the boy learns the juggler trade, and also becomes steeped in Bear's radical political leanings, which include rebelling against a feudal system that keeps most people living lives of brutal poverty. As he gains in self-esteem, he also learns the truth about his birth and understands his place in the world. "Avi's plot is engineered for maximum thrills, with twists, turns and treachery aplenty," noted a Publishers Weekly contributor, adding that the "compellingly drawn" friendship between the boy and the old juggler gives Crispin its emotional heart.
Other historical novels by Avi include Prairie School and The Secret School, both of which stress the importance of education. The Secret School takes place in Elk Valley, Colorado, in 1925, as the small town's only teacher leaves unexpectedly and a fourteen-year-old girl decides to fill the learning gap. Writing about Prairie School for the School Library Journal, reviewer Carol Schene noted, "This gentle story with a great message that is nicely woven into the daily events would make a pleasant read-aloud as well as a good addition to easy chapter-book-collections." Hazel Rochman, writing for Booklist, noted, "Avi's clear simple language never sounds condescending." In a review of The Secret School for School Library Journal, B. Allison Gray called it a "carefully plotted, enjoyable, old-fashioned tale" and noted, "The importance of education and dreaming of one's future are imparted in an entertaining way." An enthusiastic reader of history, Avi has continued to approach the historical novel in new ways. As he once commented: "People constantly ask 'How come you keep changing styles?' I think that's a misquestion. Put it this way, 'What makes you so fascinated with technique?' and that's the answer. You know that there are a lot of ways to tell a story. To me that's just fun."
In 1984, Avi published S.O.R. Losers, a humorous contemporary novel about a group of unathletic boys forced by their school (which is based on Avi's high school in New York City) to form a soccer team. Opposing the time-honored school ethic that triumph in sports is the American way, the boys form their own opinions about winning at something that means little to them. In a team meeting, they take stock of who they are and why it's so important to everyone else that they should win their games. The narrator, who is the team's captain, sums it up: "Every one of us is good at something. Right? Maybe more than one thing. The point is other things.… But I don't like sports. I'm not good at it. I don't enjoy it. So I say, so what? I mean if Saltz here writes a stinko poem—and he does all the time—do they yell at him? When was the last time Mr. Tillman came around and said, 'Saltz, I believe in your being a poet!'"
Avi uses the humor infused in S.O.R. Losers to make a clear statement regarding what he sees as a certain irony in the American attitude toward education. "On the one hand, our culture likes to give a lot of lip service to support for kids, but on the other hand, I don't think the culture as a whole likes kids. And kids are caught in this contradiction. I ask teachers at conferences 'How many of you have athletic trophies displayed in your schools?' You know how many raise their hands. And I ask, 'How many of you have trophy displays for the best reader or writer?' Nobody raises their hands. And I say 'What is it therefore that stands as the essential achievement in your school?' With test scores falling, we need to make kids better readers, but instead we're interested in a minority of kids, mostly males, whose primary focus is sports."
With its narrator's deadpan reporting of the fiascos involved in being consistent losers in sports, S.O.R. Losers does more than make a point. Horn Book contributor Mary M. Burns, who called the novel "one of the funniest and most original sports sagas on record," particularly praised Avi's skill with comedic form. "Short, pithy chapters highlighting key events maintain the pace necessary for successful comedy. As in a Charlie Chaplin movie, emphasis is on individual episode—each distinct, yet organically related to an overall idea." Avi has written several other comic novels, including his sequel to S.O.R. Losers, Romeo and Juliet—Together (and Alive) at Last, and two well-received spoofs on nineteenth-century melodrama, Emily Upham's Revenge and The History of Helpless Harry.
Avi's acclaimed contemporary coming-of-age novels include A Place Called Ugly, Nothing but the Truth, and Sometimes I Think I Hear My Name. Based on an actual incident, his 1992 Newbery honor book, Nothing but the Truth is the story of Philip Malloy and his battle with an English teacher, Miss Narwin. With bad grades in English keeping him off the track team, Philip repeatedly breaks school rules by humming the national anthem along with the public address system in Miss Narwin's home room. Eventually, the principal suspends Philip from school. Because the school happens to be in the midst of elections, various self-interested members of the community exploit this story of a boy being suspended for his patriotism. Much to everyone's surprise, the incident in home room snowballs into a national media event that, in its frenzied patriotic rhetoric, thoroughly overshadows the true story about a good teacher's inability to reach a student, a young man's alienation, a community's disinterest in its children's needs, and a school system's hypocrisy.
Nothing but the Truth is a book without a narrator, relating its story through school memos, diary entries, letters, dialogues, newspaper articles, and radio talk show scripts. Presented thus, without narrative bias, the story takes into account the differing points of view surrounding the incident, allowing the reader to root out the real problems leading to the incident. Avi once commented that he got the idea for the structure of this novel from a form of theater that arose in the 1930s called "Living Newspapers"—dramatizations of issues and problems confronting American society presented through a "hodge podge" of document readings and dialogues. In addition to realististic contemporary and historical novels, Avi has also successfully penned fantasy fiction and several other unique chapter books for readers in the early elementary grades. Poppy, which received a Boston Globe-Horn Book Award in 1996, tells the story of two deer mice, Ragweed and Poppy, who are about to marry when the self-proclaimed king of Dimwood Forest—an owl named Mr. Ocax—eats Ragwood, supposedly as punishment for neglecting to seek his permission to marry. Ann A. Flowers of Horn Book called Poppy "a tribute to the inquiring mind and the stout heart." Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books critic Roger Sutton wrote: "Sprightly but un-cute dialogue, suspenseful chapter endings, and swift shifts of perspective between Ocax and Poppy will make chapter-a-day readalouds cause for anticipation." In addition to following Poppy with several sequels, he has also created new animal-sized adventures in The End of the Beginning: Being the Adventures of a Small Snail (and an Even Smaller Ant). Based on a beginning reader he authored early in his career, The End of the Beginning finds two friends departing on cross-country adventures, each with their own approach to travel. Praising the artwork by Tricia Tusa, a Publishers Weekly reviewer wrote that "bite-size chapters and the clever repartee make this a charming tale," while School Library Journal contributor Connie Tyrrell Burns dubbed The End of the Beginning "a wise little book" about friendship.
Other quirky novels for younger readers include The Good Dog, a tale about a malamute named McKinley who is top dog in his small town. Told from the point of view of the dog, the story takes an imaginative view of the trappings of human civilization, and brings readers into a clever canine culture. Noting the dogs' emotional connection to freedom, a reviewer for Publishers Weekly called The Good Dog "reminiscent of Jack London's The Call of the Wild." Featuring striking black-and-white illustrations by C. B. Mordan, Silent Movie brings the drama and pathos of a silent movie of the early twentieth century to the picture-book medium.
Mimicking film subtitles with his brief text, Avi spins the story of a family of Swedish immigrants who are separated shortly after arriving in New York harbor. While young Gustave and his mother are forced to beg on the street after being robbed, they are eventually reunited with Papa after their images are captured on film by a famous silent-movie director. Sharing the same time period—the first decade of the twentieth century—The Mayor of Central Park finds Big Daddy Duds, head of a gang of tough-talking city rats, determined to take over Central Park, despite the objections of the park's current mayor, a long-tailed squirrel named Oscar Westerwit. When the gangster and the mayor find that they also root for opposing baseball teams, the turf battle moves to a more peaceable arena: the city ball park. In Publishers Weekly a contributor described The Mayor of Central Park as "an over-the-top romp" and added that Avi's "tough-talking prose would do an old gangster movie proud."
Although writing full time, Avi maintains regular interaction with children by traveling around the country, talking in schools about his writing. "I think it's very important for me to hold these kids in front of my eyes. They're wonderfully interesting and they hold me to the reality of who they are." Avi once commented that children are passionate and honest readers who will either "swallow a book whole" if they like it, or drop it "like a hot potato" if they don't. In School Library Journal he noted a telling anecdote about his approach to children: "Being dysgraphic, with the standard history of frustration and anguish, I always ask to speak to the learning-disabled kids. They come in slowly, waiting for yet another pep talk, more instructions. Eyes cast down, they won't even look at me. Their anger glows. I don't say a thing. I lay out pages of my copy-edited manuscripts, which are covered with red marks. 'Look here,' I say, 'see that spelling mistake. There, another spelling mistake. Looks like I forgot to put a capital letter there. Oops! Letter reversal.' Their eyes lift. They are listening. And I am among friends."
Avi describes himself as a committed skeptic, yet reveals an idealistic center when he discusses children and their role in American culture. He believes that children have a different outlook than most adults. "When do you become an adult?," he once remarked. "Sometimes I think the difference is that psychological shift when you start to know that tomorrow is going to be the same as today. When you're a kid, there are still options, major options. For a writer like myself, a child is a kind of metaphor for regression to idealism and passionate concern: a metaphor for the ability to change or react, to be honest about all those things that as adults we tend to slide over as we make compromises to obligations and necessities." In an article for Horn Book he contrasted children's literature, which generally espouses values such as "sharing, nonviolence, cooperation, and the ability to love," to the adult world where power and self-interest seem to rule. "More than anything else," Avi asserted, "children's literature is about the place and role of the child in society.… If we—in the world of children's literature—can help the young stand straight for a moment longer than they have done in the past, help them maintain their ideals and values, those with which you and I identify ourselves, help them demand—and win—justice, we've added something good to the world."
As for young people who are thinking of becoming writers, Avi offers some sound advice on his Web site: "Listen and watch the world around you. Try to understand why things happen. Don't be satisfied with answers others give you. Don't assume that because everyone believes a thing it is right or wrong. Reason things out for yourself. Work to get answers on your own. Understand why you believe things. Finally, write what you honestly feel then learn from the criticism that will always come your way."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 10, 1993, Volume 37, 2001.
Avi, The Fighting Ground, Lippincott (Philadelphia, PA), 1984.
Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Volume 1, Beacham Publishing (Osprey, FL), 1990, Volume 10, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2000.
Roginski, Jim, Behind the Covers: Interviews with Authors and Illustrators of Books for Children and Young Adults, Libraries Unlimited, 1985, pp. 33-41.
St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Twentieth-Century Children's Writers, St. Martin's Press, 1989, pp. 45-46.
Best Sellers, August, 1979, pp. 165-166; June, 1981, pp. 118-119; May, 1982, p. 76.
Booklist, January 15, 1992, Hazel Rochman, "A Conversation with Avi," p. 930; September 1, 1994, Hazel Rochman, "Focus: How to Build a Barn," p. 40; November 15, 1997, Michael Cart, review of Poppy, p. 731; November 15, 1997, Michael Cart, review of What Do Fish Have to Do with Anything?: And Other Stories, p. 560; September 1, 2000, Carolyn Phelan, review of The Christmas Rat, p. 127; April 15, 2001, Hazel Rochman, review of Prairie School, p. 1568; May 15, 2002, Ilene Cooper, review of Crispin: The Cross of Lead, p. 1604; October 1, 2002, Gillian Engberg, review of Things That Sometimes Happen, p. 332; August, 2003, GraceAnne A. DeCandido, review of The Mayor of Central Park, p. 1976; April 1, 2004, Hazel Rochman, review of Never Mind!: A Twin Novel, p.1365; September 15, 2004, Hazel Rochman, review of The End of the Beginning: Being the Adventures of a Small Snail (and an Even Smaller Ant), p. 242.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, July, 1978, p.170; July-August, 1980, p. 206; June, 1983; June, 1984, review of The Fighting Ground, p. 180; December, 1986, p. 61; February, 1986, p. 102; October, 1987, p. 21; September, 1988, p. 2; October, 1989, review of The Man Who Was Poe, p. 27; January, 1996, Roger Sutton, review of Poppy, p. 154; February, 1996, Roger Sutton, review of Beyond the Western Sea, Book One: The Escape from Home, p. 183.
English Journal, November, 1981, p. 94.
Five Owls, January, 1991, p. 56.
Horn Book, August, 1979, p. 410; April, 1980, pp. 169-70; October, 1980, pp. 517-18; April, 1981, p. 136; June, 1981, pp. 297-98; August, 1983, p. 439; June, 1984, p. 325; January-February, 1985, Mary M. Burns, review of S.O.R. Losers, p. 49; November-December, 1986, Mary M. Burns, review of Beyond the Western Sea, Book Two: Lord Kirkle's Money, p. 731; September-October, 1987, Avi, "All That Glitters," pp. 569-576; January-February, 1989, p. 65; January-February, 1992, Avi, Boston Globe-Horn Book Award acceptance speech, pp. 24-27; January-February, 1996, Ann A. Flowers, review of Poppy, p. 70; July-August, 1996, Mary M. Burns, review of Beyond the Western Sea, Book One: The Escape from Home, p. 461; January-February, 2002, Peter D. Sieruta, review of The Good Dog, p. 75; March-April, 2003, Roger Sutton, review of Silent Movie, p. 197.
Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, October, 2003, Vinnie Bonnit, review of Crispin, p. 188.
Kirkus Reviews, May 15, 2002, review of Crispin, p. 728; September 1, 2002, review of Things That Sometimes Happen, p. 1302; January, 2003, review of Silent Movie, p. 56.
Kliatt, November, 2002, Maureen K. Griffin, review of Crispin, p. 44.
Language Arts, October, 1979, p. 822; November-December, 1983, p. 1017; March, 1985, p. 283.
New York Times Book Review, September 11, 1977; March 1, 1981, p. 24.
Publishers Weekly, April 17, 1978, p. 78; December 5, 1980; January 30, 1981, p. 75; November 16, 1984, p. 65; December 26, 1986, p. 61; August 28, 1987, p. 81; September 14, 1990, p. 128; September 6, 1991, review of Nothing but the Truth, p. 105; July 16, 2001, review of The Secret School, p. 181; Nov. 5, 2001, review of The Good Dog, p. 68; June 3, 2002, review of Crispin, p. 88; September 30, 2002, review of Things That Sometimes Happen, p. 70; December 16, 2002, review of Silent Movie, p. 66; August 11, 2003, review of The Mayor of Central Park, p. 280; May 10, 2004, review of Never Mind!, p. 60; October 25, 2004, review of The End of the Beginning, p. 48.
School Library Journal, March, 1978, p. 124; May, 1980, p. 64; November, 1980, p. 68; September, 1984, p. 125; October, 1984, p. 164; December, 1986, pp. 111-12; January, 1987, Avi (with Betty Miles), "School Visits: The Author's Viewpoint," p. 21; October, 1987, p. 124; December, 1997, Carol A. Edwards, review of What Do Fish Have to Do with Anything?: And Other Stories, p. 120; September, 2000, Leda Schubert, "Breakfast Serials," p. 38, May, 2001, Carol Schene, review of Prairie School, p. 108; September, 2001, B. Allison Gray, review of The Secret School, p. 223; December, 2003, Sue Gifford, review of The Mayor of Central Park, p. 144; May, 2004, Eva Mitnick, review of Never Mind!, p. 140; October, 2004, Connie Tyrrell Burns, review of The End of the Beginning, p. 154.
Voice of Youth Advocates, August, 1981, pp. 23-24; August, 1982, p. 27; December, 1984, pp. 261-262; February, 1985, p. 321; February, 1989, p. 293; December 1996, Kathleen Beck, review of Beyond the Western Sea, Book Two: Lord Kirkle's Money, p. 267.
Avi's Web site, http://www.avi-writer.com/ (January 25, 2005).*
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