Kathryn Lasky (1944-)
Called "a remarkably versatile writer" by Booklist reviewer Ilene Cooper, Kathryn Lasky is an American author of fiction, nonfiction, and picture books who is noted for her success in several genres. A prolific writer, Lasky is the creator of contemporary fiction, historical fiction, informational books, and picture books that incorporate both fictional and nonfictional elements. Lasky aims her work at an audience ranging from preschool to high school-aged readers, but most often addresses her books to middle graders and older teenage readers; she is also the author of fiction and nonfiction for adults. Lasky's books range from humorous picture books and light middle-grade fiction to extensively researched informational books and thought-provoking novels for young adults on such serious subjects as slavery, censorship, and anti-Semitism.
In her nonfiction, the author characteristically explores science, nature, and arts and crafts as well as both familiar and unfamiliar aspects of world and American history. Lasky's nonfiction encompasses a wide range of subjects, including the origin of humankind, the gathering of maple sugar, the life cycle of the monarch butterfly, the story of American sailing ships, and the wonders of the Belize rainforest. In addition, Lasky has written biographies of ancient and contemporary scientists and such well-known figures as Queen Elizabeth I and Mark Twain. In her fiction, Lasky usually features strong-willed, free-thinking female protagonists whose experiences, often centered around historical, ethnic, or moral issues, strengthen the character's independence and self-reliance; several of her novels reflect the author's Jewish heritage. Lasky is the creator of the "Starbuck Family" series, a popular trilogy of mystery/adventure stories for middle-graders about a family with two sets of twins who communicate telepathically and become involved in cases set in London, Florida, and New Mexico. In addition, she is the reteller of the legends of Hercules and Robin Hood and has written several books–both fiction and nonfiction–based on her own experiences and those of her family. Lasky often collaborates on her books with her husband, photographer Christopher G. Knight.
Lasky is praised for exploring topics not often covered in books for the young and for explaining them in an accessible, enjoyable manner. She is also acknowledged for her well-developed characterizations—both in her fiction and nonfiction—and for her narrative skill, and noted for providing young readers with strong storylines, even in her informational books. Lasky favors clear, concise language with vivid imagery that is often called poetic; writing in Booklist, Ilene Cooper stated, "Few authors are as eloquent as Lasky." She is considered a writer of unusual, effective books that reveal their author's enthusiasm for her subjects. In an essay in Twentieth-Century Young Adult Writers, Linda Garrett commented that Lasky "has made and continues to make an impact on young-adult literature. Her well-researched books provide a thorough, accurate picture of whatever theme is being presented. Her use of lyrical language captures the moods as well as facts leaving the reader with [in Lasky's words] 'a sense of joy–indeed celebration' of the world in which they live." Carol Hurst of Carol Hurst's Children's Literature Newsletter added, "I'm always impressed when an author can move from one genre to another with competence, but Kathy Lasky does so with such ease and skill that I am more than impressed, I'm awed."
Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, Lasky is the descendant of a family who escaped from czarist Russia to avoid religious persecution; their exodus forms the basis of her novel The Night Journey. She is the daughter of social worker Hortense Lasky and Marven Lasky, a wine bottler whose boyhood experience of being sent to a logging camp in the Minnesota woods are recounted by Lasky in the picture book Marven of the Great North Woods.
Lasky was a storyteller from an early age; she once explained, "When I was growing up, I was always thinking up stories—whether I wrote them down or not didn't seem to matter. I was a compulsive story-maker. I was fiercely private about these early stories—never really sharing them with anybody. I always wanted to be a writer, but on the other hand it seemed to lack a certain legitimacy as a profession. It was enjoyable, not reliable, and you were your own boss. This all seemed funny. It was only when I began to share my writing with my parents (and much later my husband) and sensed their responsiveness that I began to think that it was OK to want to be a writer."
Despite her love of telling stories, as a child, Lasky was labeled a reluctant reader. "The truth is," she stated on her Web site, "I didn't really like the kind of books they had you reading at school—the 'See Dick, See Jane' books. So I made a voluntary withdrawal from reading in school. But I loved the books my mom was reading to me, books like Peter Pan and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz."
Lasky first realized that she could become a writer when she was about ten years old. She and her family, which also included an older sister, were driving at night in their convertible. The top was down and, Lasky recalled on her Web site, "The sky looked so interesting—you couldn't see the stars because of these woolly clouds. And I said it looked like a sheepback sky. My mom turned around and said, 'Kathryn, you should be a writer.' When my mom said that, I thought, 'Wow, maybe I will be.'"
Although Lasky is well respected as an author of informational books, she claims that as a young reader she was not a fan of the genre. As she stated on her Web site, "I didn't like nonfiction as a kid—the nonfiction books were really dry back then. But then I realized that you can make the characters in nonfiction as fascinating as those in fiction."
In Horn Book, Lasky described how she employed her research techniques as a seventh-grader in writing a report on the Pleistocene Age due the next morning. "First," the author recalled, "I went to the dictionary and looked up a definition. Webster really had a knack for providing material for desperate seventh-graders.
Then I would proceed to the World Book Encyclopedia. If I was feeling very scholarly, I would persevere and take on the Mount Everest of research—Encyclopedia Brittanica." Mostly, though, Lasky would move to the final step in her research: "Bursting into my sister's room, I would fling myself on her bed and in anguish cry, "Quick, I need a first sentence about the Pleistocene Age!' Sometimes I would get one from her and sometimes she'd tell me to get out." As a last resort, Lasky would go to her mother, who would "toss off opening sentences like a comedy writer searching for one-liners. Like all seventh-graders, I considered the quality of my mother's thoughts stupid, boring, and embarrassing. I would roll my eyes and groan and wish that Ozzie and Harriet were my real parents." Lasky attended a private all-girls school in Indianapolis, which she felt did not particularly suit her; later, she drew on her experiences in the autobiographical novel Pageant, a humorous coming-of-age story about Sarah Benjamin, a Jewish teenager in a Christian girls' school who learns what she really wants from life. After finishing high school, Lasky attended the University of Michigan as an English major; after receiving her degree, she became a teacher and began writing seriously in her spare time. In 1971, she married Christopher Knight, whose youthful experiences kayaking and camping with his father and grandfather form the basis for the novel Jem's Island. The couple had two children: Max, whose desire for a baby sister inspired the photo-essay A Baby for Max, and Meribah, who shares her name with the title character of the young-adult novel Beyond the Divide and who collaborated with her mother on Searching for Laura Ingalls, the story of her family's journey to the settings of the "Little House" books by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
In 1975, Lasky published her first book for children, the colorful concept book Agatha's Alphabet. Her second work, I Have Four Names for My Grandfather, was published the following year. A picture book, I Have Four Names for My Grandfather depicts Tom and his grandfather fishing, planting flowers, and looking at a train, among other activities; Tom concludes that although his grandfather has four names—Poppy, Pop, Grandpa, and Gramps—he is always the same grandfather to him. The first of Lasky's books to be illustrated by her husband, I Have Four Names for My Grandfather also introduces one of the author's major themes: intergenerational bonding. Barbara S. Wertheimer of Children's Book Review Service noted "the sensitivity and depth of feeling within the text," while Andd Ward of School Library Journal wrote that the strength of the book "lies in the compatibility of the text with the abundant photographs."
Lasky's first work to win a major award is The Weaver's Gift, a photo-essay that won the Boston Globe/Horn Book Award for juvenile nonfiction in 1982. In this book, Lasky and Knight spotlight weaver Carolyn Frye, a Vermont woman who raises sheep and converts their wool to finished products; the author and photographer document Frye's hard work and artistry while demonstrating how sheared wool becomes a child's blanket. Writing in Interracial Books for Children, Jan M. Goodman stated that The Weaver's Gift "is a rare find," adding that the text is "extremely well-written and factual and shows deep appreciation and respect for a woman and her trade." A critic for Kirkus Reviews noted that while "there have been other juvenile introductions to this basic sequence, . . . they are dull or feeble in comparison."
In 1981, Lasky published The Night Journey, a young-adult novel that is highly respected as a work of Jewish literature. Based on a true story, the novel outlines how a nine-year-old girl orchestrates her family's escape from religious persecution in czarist Russia. The girl grows up to become Nana Sachie, great-grandmother to thirteen-year-old Rachel, who learns this piece of family history during their afternoons together; Sachie finishes the tale, which is filled with excitement, shortly before her death. Calling The Night Journey "a story to cherish," Ilene Cooper noted in Booklist that it "has so many aspects that each person will come away with his own idea of what makes the book memorable." Peter Kennerley concluded in a review for School Librarian:
"I believe this to be a satisfying novel, if not without blemish, and I recommend it strongly."
Sugaring Time, a photo-essay also illustrated by Knight, was named a Newbery honor book in 1984. The volume outlines the activities of the Lacey family during the month of March, the period they call "sugaring time," on their Vermont farm. Lasky and Knight portray the hard work—and the pleasure—involved in turning maple sugar into maple syrup while providing young readers with a sense of the seasons and the value of the earth. Alice Naylor of Language Arts called Lasky's text "a model of good exposition," while Martha T. Kane wrote in Appraisal that "You can almost hear the crunch of snow beneath the horses' feet, the sweet maple sap dripping into the buckets, and the roar of the fire in the sugarhouse. . . . Lasky involves all the reader's senses in her memorable description of the collection and processing of maple sap in a small sugarbush in Vermont."
One of Lasky's most critically acclaimed novels for young adults is Beyond the Divide. Set in the mid-1800s, the story outlines the journey of fourteen-year-old Meribah Simon, an Amish girl who travels with her father from Pennsylvania to California by wagon train during the Gold Rush. Meribah's trek to California is an ordeal: her father dies after one of his wounds becomes infected; a friend is raped and commits suicide; and Meribah, now left alone, struggles to survive in the wilderness. Rescued by a group of Yahi Indians, Meribah learns to understand them and to appreciate their lifestyle; at the end of the novel, she decides to go back to a fertile valley she had seen from the wagon train and make a life for herself.
Calling Beyond the Divide an "elegantly written tour de force," Ilene Cooper commented that Lasky has written a "quintessential pioneer story, a piece so textured and rich that readers will remember it long after they've put it down." Dick Abrahamson, reviewing the novel for the English Journal, called Beyond the Divide "one of the finest historical novels I've read in a long time. It certainly ought to be considered for the Newbery Award." Writing in Language Arts, M. Jean Greenlaw concluded that the major strength of the book is that it "is a magnificent story. The westward movement is an integral part of American history and nature, and this book is the most gripping account of that time I have ever read," Linda Garrett of Twentieth-Century Children's Writers added that the novel "is so realistic it would be easy to believe that Beyond the Divide is directly from a diary of a young girl going West."
Lasky's Traces of Life: The Origins of Humankind is an informational book that outlines the history of evolution. In this work, the author, who has had a longtime interest in paleontology, attempts to determine the moment at which humanity as we know it began to exist. She discusses evolution and the science of paleoanthropology while presenting biographical information about several notable scientists. Voice of Youth Advocates contributor Shirley A. Bathgate said that Lasky "combines research and creativity in yet another excellent book"; the critic concluded, "Younger young-adult readers will find the book both easy and fun to read." Traces of Life received the Golden Trilobite Award from the Paleontological Society in 1990. Lasky also received consistently favorable reviews for Monarchs, an informational book that describes the cycle of the migrating monarch butterfly. In recreating the monarch's journey from Maine to Mexico, Lasky and Christopher Knight blend scientific facts with information about adults and children involved with preserving the monarch and its environment. Susan Oliver of School Library Journal noted that Monarchs "strikes a perfect balance between science and humanity"; the critic added that "the diversity of the people who care about conserving the beauty and mystery of nature makes it a truly compelling book." Betsy Hearne concluded in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books that Lasky "has trimmed her prose for an action-packed nature narrative that crosses cultural as well as geographic boundaries."
The Librarian Who Measured the Earth is an informational picture book about Eratosthenes, the Greek scholar who became the head librarian of the famous library in Alexandria, Egypt, and was the first person to determine and document the size of the earth. Using a technique she calls "responsible imagining," Lasky combines existing information about Eratosthenes and his times with what Joanne Schott of Quill and Quire called "some reasonable assumptions" about her subject's early life and personality. Schott called The Librarian Who Measured the Earth a "beautiful picture-book biography" in which "Eratosthenes comes across as an individual rather than just another name from the history books." Anne Lundin of the Five Owls posed the question: "How many counting books count in a whole language program? After a while, the numbers themselves are pretty familiar, and the challenge is to find a book that explores mathematics and geography from a more human scale, as a quest to answer the mysteries of life. Here it is." Describing herself as "a rather nonnumerate soul and a naturalist," Lundin concluded, "For someone like me, [this book] shakes the sky. I am proud to associate with the librarian Eratosthenes, who goads me to ask my own questions."
One of Lasky's most well-received picture-book biographies is Marven of the Great North Woods, a vignette from her father's childhood. As a ten year old, Marven Lasky was sent to a logging camp in the Minnesota north woods to avoid the influenza epidemic that hit his hometown of Duluth in 1918. At first, Marven finds this new world to be foreign—for example, there was no kosher food at the camp—but he adjusts to his situation and forms warm friendships with the lumberjacks, especially Jean Louis, a French Canadian who is the biggest man in the camp. Calling Marven of the Great North Woods a story of "courage inspired by familial affection and the unexpected kindness of strangers," a critic in
Publishers Weekly predicted, "Thanks to Lasky's considerable command of language and narrative detail, readers will linger over" the descriptions in the book. Roger Sutton of Horn Book called the work "both invigorating and cozy" and noted that the text, though long for a picture book, is "fully eventful." In her newsletter, Carol Hurst concluded that Lasky "makes the extraordinary adventure possible and [Kevin Hawkes's] paintings combine with her writing to show wonder and tenderness." Marven of the Great North Woods won the National Jewish Book Award in 1997.
Lasky has a particular fascination with American author Samuel Langhorne Clemens, who wrote as Mark Twain: the subject of the picture book biography A Brilliant Streak: The Making of Mark Twain, he also appears as a major character in Alice Rose and Sam, a story for middle graders. In A Brilliant Streak, Lasky recounts Clemens's life until he takes on his famous pseudonym at age thirty. The author details Twain's Missouri childhood and his experiences as a steamboat pilot, prospector, and reporter as well as a humorist and social commentator; in addition, Lasky provides a sense of how Twain's life and personality are reflected in his works. Stephanie Zvirin of Booklist predicted that after reading A Brilliant Streak, "Children will definitely want to find out more about Clemens," while a critic in Kirkus Reviews concluded that Twain's "successes are the source of one colorful anecdote after another, which Lasky taps and twirls into an engaging narrative that glimmers with its own brand of brilliance."
Set in Virginia City, Nevada, during the 1860s, Alice Rose and Sam describes how twelve-year-old Alice Rose, a newspaperman's daughter, joins forces with reporter Samuel Clemens to solve a murder and expose a plot by a group of Confederate vigilantes called the Society of Seven. "Ultimately," noted Jennifer A. Fakolt of School Library Journal, Alice Rose and Clemens "end up teaching one another valuable lessons about life and truth." Calling the book an "open-throttled page-turner," a critic for Kirkus Reviews concluded that fans of Karen Cushman's The Ballad of Lucy Whipple and Kathleen Karr's Oh, Those Harper Girls! "have a plucky new heroine to admire," while a reviewer for Publishers Weekly called Alice Rose and Sam a "view of American history teeming with adventure and local color." Alice Rose and Sam won the Western Heritage Award and was nominated for an Edgar Allan Poe award in 1999.
Another historical figure featured in one of Lasky's books is John Harrison, whose story is told in The Man Who Made Time Travel. When the English Parliament offered a multi-million dollar reward in 1707 for anyone who could accurately measure longitude in a way that would aid in sea navigation, Harrison devoted more than three decades of his life to solving the problem. A Publishers Weekly reviewer found that "Lasky gets off to a bumpy start," but when the story begins to focus on Harrison, the author's "prose becomes clear and compelling." Carolyn Phelan of Booklist remarked that "the text makes absorbing reading both for its sidelights on history and for the personal drama portrayal." Critics noted that the illustrations by Kevin Hawkes bring visual appeal to the book. In School Library Journal, Dona Ratterree wrote that because of Hawkes's artwork, the book's "clear science, and its compelling social commentary, this title is not to be missed."
Vision of Beauty: The Story of Sarah Breedlove Walker profiles America's first self-made female African-American millionaire. Walker made her fortune in the hair-care-products industry and was a civil rights pioneer. In Black Issues Book Review, Merce Robinson and Kelly Ellis praised the book for its inspiring portrayal of Walker. The noted that Lasky demonstrates that Waker's vision was not "beauty for its sake alone, but that the tools of beauty could be used by black women to inspire self-confidence." Booklist's Marta Segal deemed the biography "engaging," noting that "Walker's feminism and work for civil rights are described in terms that will make sense to young readers."
Lasky created a series character with Lucille, a piglet who struggles with everyday challenges common to younger readers. Lasky adds humor to the "Lucille" books to keep the tone light and accessible. In Lucille Camps In, Lucille is left at home while her father and siblings go on a camping trip, so she decides to camp in her living room. Gillian Engberg of Booklist described the book as "an endearing, realistic story in short sentences and simple language a new reader can handle." In School Library Journal, Martha Topol observed that the "family dynamics are great—supportive while allowing for individuality." In Lucille's Snowsuit, the pig is delighted that school is canceled because of snow, but then she has difficulty getting into her snowsuit so she can go out and play. Todd Morning remarked in Booklist that "the best pages in the book focus on Lucille's struggles to put on her suit." A Publishers Weekly contributor, however, was disappointed in the story, deeming it "disappointingly plodding and predictable," although the illustrations are "spirited." Regarded by critics as endearing and touching, Lasky's Mommy's Hands—coauthored with Jane Kamine—is told by three toddlers who describe why they love their mommy's hands. The story relates the many things mommies do with their hands that amaze and comfort their children. Maryann H. Owen praised the book for its "affectionate tribute to every mother whose gentle touch has helped to mold her child." Similarly, GraceAnne A. DeCandido of Booklist called the book a "tender and affectionate series of tete-a-tetes." In Kirkus Reviews, a critic commented on the way the authors approach the story with a "gentle give-and-take," concluding, "Reading this cozy tale is rather like being enveloped by a mother's warm embrace."
In 2003, Lasky began a series of fantasy novels for young adults called "Guardians of Ga'Hoole." The series is about a community of owls in a world that is partially fictionalized and partially based on facts about owls. The first installment, The Capture, tells the story of a baby owl, Soren, who is knocked out of his nest too soon. When he is scooped up by another owl and taken to an orphanage, Soren soon realizes that he is in a military training camp where the captives are being brainwashed. Thanks to new friends, he is able to escape. Francisca Goldsmith of Booklist noted that Lasky's owlish world inspires "big questions about human social psychology and politics along with real owl science." In Kliatt, Erin Lukens Darr commended the educational value of the novel, as Lasky uses "a combination of scientific and creative vocabulary," adding that The Capture, "would be a good language arts complement to the study of owls." In contrast, a reviewer for Publishers Weekly found the story to be "unevenly paced" and often "encumbered by excessive detail," although the characters are "likable."
Lasky once told Something about the Author (SATA): "I write directly from my own experiences." In an article for Horn Book on writing nonfiction, she stated that as a writer she searches "for the story among the truths, the facts, the lies, and the realities. . . . I have always tried hard to listen, smell, and touch the place that I write about—especially if I am lucky enough to be there." She continued, "I have a fascination with the inexact and the unexplainable. I try to do as little explaining as possible, but I try to present my subject in some way so it will not lose what I have found to be or suspect to be its sacred dimension." The author concluded, "In my books I am not concerned with messages, and I really do not care if readers remember a single fact. What I do hope is that they come away with a sense of joy—indeed celebration–about something they have sensed in the world in which they live."
Regarding her fiction, much of which reflects her extensive research, Lasky stated on her Web site, "I want young readers to come away with a sense of joy about life. I want to draw them into a world where they're really going to connect with the characters." In another article for Horn Book, Lasky claimed: "I can't stand doing the same thing twice. I don't want to change just for the sake of change. But the whole point of being an artist is to be able to get up every morning and reinvent the world."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Twentieth-Century Young Adult Writers, edited by Laura Standley Berger, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1994, pp. 371-373.
Appraisal, winter, 1984, Martha T. Kane, review of Sugaring Time, pp. 34-35.
Black Issues Book Review, November, 2000, Merce Robinson and Kelly Ellis, review of Vision of Beauty: The Story of Sarah Breedlove Walker, p. 80.
Booklist, July, 1983, Ilene Cooper, review of Beyond the Divide, p. 1402; November 15, 1982, Ilene Cooper, review of Jem's Island, p. 446; January 15, 1986, Ilene Cooper, review of Home Free, pp. 758-759; November 15, 1981, Ilene Cooper, review of The Night Journey, pp. 439-440; April, 1998, Stephanie Zvirin, review of A Brilliant Streak: The Making of Mark Twain, p. 1317; August 21, 2000, Marta Segal, review of Vision of Beauty, p. 2032; September 15, 2000, Todd Morning, review of Lucille's Snowsuit, p. 249; June 1, 2002, GraceAnne A. DeCandido, review of Mommy's Hands, pp. 1740-1741; March 1, 2003, Carolyn Phelan, review of The Man Who Made Time Travel, p. 1196; July, 2003, Gillian Engberg, review of Lucille Camps In, p. 1897; September 15, 2003, Francisca Goldsmith, review of The Capture, p. 240.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, November, 1993, Betsy Hearne, review of Monarchs, pp. 88-89.
Carol Hurst's Children's Literature Newsletter, winter, 1999, "Featured Author: Kathryn Lasky," p. 4.
Children's Book Review Service, November, 1976, Barbara S. Wertheimer, review of I Have Four Names for My Grandfather, p. 22.
English Journal, January, 1984, Dick Abrahamson,"To Start the New Year off Right," pp. 87-89.
Five Owls, February, 1995, Anne Landis, review of The Librarian Who Measured the Earth, pp. 61-62.
Horn Book, June, 1983, Karen Jameyson, review of Sugaring Time, p. 323; September-October, 1985, Kathryn Lasky, "Reflections on Nonfiction," pp. 527-532; November-December, 1991, Kathryn Lasky, "Creativity in a Boom Industry," pp. 705-711; November-December, 1997, Roger Sutton, review of Marven of the Great North Woods, p. 670.
Interracial Books for Children Bulletin, Volume 12, numbers 4-5, 1981, Jan M. Goodman, review of The Weaver's Gift,, p. 38.
Kirkus Reviews, March 1, 1981, review of The Weaver's Gift, p. 286; March 1, 1998, review of Alice Rose and Sam, p. 341; April 1, 1998, review of A Brilliant Streak: The Making of Mark Twain, p. 497; March 15, 2002, review of Mommy's Hands, pp. 416-417.
Kliatt, September, 2003, Erin Lukens Darr, review of The Capture, p. 26.
Language Arts, January, 1984, M. Jean Greenlaw, review of Beyond the Divide, pp. 70-71; September, 1984, Alice Naylor, review of Sugaring Time, p. 543.
Publishers Weekly, October 6, 1997, review of Marven of the Great North Woods, p. 83; February 16, 1998, review of Alice Rose and Sam, p. 212; August 21, 2000, review of Lucille's Snowsuit, p. 73; March 17, 2003, review of The Man Who Made Time Travel, p. 77; July 7, 2003, review of The Capture, p. 72.
Quill and Quire, October, 1994, Joanne Schott, "The One Who . . . ," p. 46.
School Librarian, June, 1983, Peter Kennerley, review of The Night Journey, p. 144.
School Library Journal, November, 1976, Andd Ward, review of I Have Four Names for My Grandfather, p. 48; September, 1993, Susan Oliver, review of Monarchs, p. 244; May, 1998, Jennifer A. Fakolt, review of Alice Rose and Sam, p. 145; July, 2002, Maryann H. Owen, review of Mommy's Hands, p. 94; April, 2003, Dona Ratterree, review of The Man Who Made Time Travel, p. 184; July, 2003, Martha Topol, review of Lucille Camps In, p. 100.
Voice of Youth Advocates, June, 1990, Shirley A. Bathgate, review of Traces of Life: The Origin of Humankind, pp. 126-127.
Kathryn Lasky Web site, http://www.kathrynlasky.com (January 5, 2005).*
Brief BiographiesBiographies: C(hristopher) J(ohn) Koch Biography - C.J. Koch comments: to Sir (Alfred Charles) Bernard Lovell (1913– ) BiographyKathryn Lasky (1944-) Biography - Awards, Honors, Sidelights - Personal, Addresses, Career, Writings, Adaptations, Work in Progress