Han Nolan Biography (1956-)
The 1997 winner of the National Book Award for her young adult novel, Dancing on the Edge, Han Nolan speaks directly to teenage readers in a voice at once empathic and down-home humorous. Through her novels, Nolan has captured a wide and loyal readership with her themes of tolerance and understanding, and with her youthful protagonists who discover—in the course of her books—who they are and what they want. "I'm always searching for the truth in my stories," Nolan commented in an interview on the Harcourt Books Web site. "That truth has led me to the characters that I have created."
Unlike many authors of books for young adults, with Nolan there was no serendipity in determining the audience for whom she chose to write. From the beginning of her career she set out to write novels for young readers. "Young people inspire me, my own children especially, but young people in general,"she stated in the Harcourt interview. "I like their spirit and their energy and all the growing and changing and exploring and questioning that is going on inside them." Nolan's books have dealt with neo-Nazis, religious zealotry, and the lies a family promulgates to supposedly protect its members. Her characters are young men and women on the cusp, emerging into an uncertain adulthood from shaky adolescence. They are young people who must learn to stand up for themselves—to throw off the influences of adults and peers and find their own center in a turbulent universe.
The next to youngest of five children, Nolan and the rest of her family moved several times during her childhood. Friends and neighborhoods changed, but a constant in the family was a love of books and the arts. Like the rest of her family, she loved reading from an early age. "One of my favorites books as a child was Harriet the Spy," Nolan stated on her Web site. "I wanted to be a spy, so I started spying on my family, especially my older sister. It turned out I was a terrible spy because I kept getting caught, but I kept a spy notebook, just like Harriet. I quickly gave up on the spying, but writing thoughts and stories in a notebook has been a habit for me ever since."
Upon graduation from high school, Nolan attended the University of North Carolina at Greensboro to major in dance. After graduating in 1979, she entered a master's program in dance at Ohio State University, where she met her future husband, who was working on his doctorate in classics. In 1981 she graduated, married, and began teaching dance. When the couple wanted to start a family several years later, Nolan also opted for a career change. "I decided to return to my first love, writing," she noted on her Web site. "Soon after that we adopted three children and I knew for sure that staying home and writing instead of dancing was the best decision for me."
Thus began Nolan's literary career. She studied not only markets, but every book on writing technique that she could get her hands on. She wrote stories and sent some out with no success. Then she tackled lengthier projects, writing a mystery that won some attention with a publisher but was not purchased. Nonetheless, there was encouragement in the fact that an editor had taken an interest in her work. She joined or formed writers' groups wherever she happened to be living. She began another mystery, but one of the characters was stubbornly going off on her own, dreaming about the Holocaust. In addition to Nolan's subconscious at work, there were also contemporary events impinging. She discovered that a Ku Klux Klan group was active in a neighboring town, and that hate crimes were being reported. In her debut novel, If I Should Die before I Wake, Nolan recast the stubborn character from her mystery novel as Hilary Burke, a young neo-Nazi who is lying in a coma in a Jewish hospital. Hilary's family has a history: her father died years before, his death caused, so Hilary believes, by a Jew, and her Bible-thumping mother temporarily abandoned her. She has found a home with a group of neo-Nazis; her boyfriend is the leader of the group. Hilary now lies in a hospital as a result of a motorcycle accident. In her coma, she sees another patient, an elderly Jewish woman named Chana, in her room. Chana is a Holocaust survivor, but to Hilary she is sarcastically labeled "Grandmaw." Suddenly Hilary spins back in time, trading places with Chana, becoming herself the persecuted young girl in Poland. She experiences firsthand the horrors of the Holocaust: her father is shot; she lives in the ghetto for a time; she escapes with her grandmother from the ghetto only to be captured, tortured, and sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Hilary intermittently drifts back to real time and the hospital, and by the novel's end, "has come back from her own near-death experience as well as Chana's to be a more understanding, tolerant person," as Susan Levine explained in Voice of Youth Advocates.
The first review Nolan read—or actually had read to her by her husband over the phone while attending a writer's conference—questioned the taste of the book. This was shattering enough for Nolan to later warn off a would-be purchaser of her first novel at the conference. Most reviewers, however, responded positively to this first effort. Roger Sutton, writing in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, commented that Nolan is forthright in dealing with her material, "and her graphic descriptions of camp life have a morbid interest that teeters on exploitation but comes down on the side of the truth." Booklist critic Mary Harris Veeder stated that Nolan's "first novel has great strengths and weaknesses." Among the latter, Veeder felt, are the time-travel episodes and certain contemporary characterizations. "Chana's story, however, is brilliantly rendered," Veeder noted, and "carries memorable emotional impact." A Kirkus Reviews critic remarked that "Nolan's first novel is ambitious indeed," and concluded that "the book as a whole is deeply felt and often compelling."
Nolan was already 100 pages into her next novel by the time of publication of If I Should Die before I Wake. She admitted on her Web site that she wrote Send Me down a Miracle because she "was homesick for the South, where I was born and where all my relatives lived." In the work, Nolan follows the fortunes of fourteen-year-old Charity Pittman as she battles for a sense of self in her hometown of Casper, a fictional locale inspired by the small southern towns of Nolan's childhood. Charity feels trapped at home with her younger sister Grace and preacher father now that her mother has left them. Her father's stern interpretation of Christianity has chased away Charity's mother, but soon Charity is attracted to the cosmopolitan Adrienne Dabney, who has returned from New York to her family home, where she sets about trying a deprivation experiment. For three weeks Adrienne locks herself away in her inherited home, without visitors, light, or food. Emerging from the experiment, she says that Jesus has visited her, sitting in the chair in her living room. This proclamation splits the small town asunder: Charity and many others believe in the chair and its miraculous powers; Charity's father calls it all blasphemy, warning that Adrienne is evil incarnate. Caught between the prickly father whom she loves and Adrienne, who has taken her on as a friend and fellow artist, Charity must finally learn to make up her own mind. When her father comes to destroy the chair, Charity is there to stand up to him.
"The dichotomy of professing one's faith and actually living it is interestingly portrayed throughout this novel," commented Jana R. Fine in a School Library Journal review of Send Me down a Miracle. Fine also noted that readers are brought into the "heart of a young girl" who learns to meld her religious background with compassion and forgiveness. A critic in Kirkus Reviews called the novel a "busy, hilarious, tragic story," and concluded that "readers will be dizzied by the multiple subplots and roller-coaster highs and lows" in this story of a small town. Booklist reviewer Ilene Cooper remarked that Nolan's "plot is intricate, sharp, and invigorating." Award committees agreed with the reviewers: Send Me down a Miracle was nominated for the National Book Award in 1996.
Nolan's next book, Dancing on the Edge, was inspired by her own adopted children. The book's protagonist, Miracle McCloy, was so named because she was delivered after her mother was killed in an accident. Her spiritualist grandmother Gigi calls it "the greatest miracle to ever come down the pike," but Miracle herself is not convinced. She feels like a misfit, hardly special at all. Ten years old, she lives in Alabama with her father, Dane, a one-time child prodigy who now sits around in his bathrobe in the basement all day, and with Dane's mother, Gigi, who spends her time with matters of the occult. When Dane suddenly disappears one day, Gigi tells Miracle that her father has "melted." Gigi and Miracle then go to live with Opal, Gigi's ex-husband, where Miracle finds some stability in the form of her gruff grandfather who buys her a bicycle and starts her in dancing lessons. Dance proves to be a momentary salvation for Miracle, something that actually makes her feel as special as everyone always says she is. But when she starts imitating her grandmother's occult fancies, casting spells and making love potions for her classmates, troubles arise. Accused of being a phony by another student, Miracle sets herself on fire and is committed to a mental hospital.
The second part of Dancing on the Edge details Miracle's therapy and recovery as she slowly accepts the facts of her life. "Nolan skillfully discloses" the nature of her cast of offbeat characters, a Kirkus Reviews critic noted, calling the novel "intense" and "exceptionally well-written." Miriam Lang Budin, writing in School Library Journal, dubbed Dancing on the Edge an "extraordinary novel," and concluded that "Nolan does a masterful job of drawing readers into the girl's mind and making them care deeply about her chances for the future." Again award committees agreed. Dancing on the Edge was nominated for a National Book Award, the first time an author had been nominated for that prestigious award two years in a row. And 1997 proved to be Nolan's year: her novel won the award and was commended by the panel of judges as "a tale of chilling reality."
Nolan published A Face in Every Window in 1999. On her Web site, the author remarked that facets of her own life are reflected in the novel. "When I was younger, people moved in and out of my family's home, staying for a while and then moving on. Sharing their home was a way for my parents to share the love they had for us and for each other; they simply passed it on to anyone who needed it."
Described by a Publishers Weekly critic as a "sometimes outlandish, often poignant exploration of a chaotic household," A Face in Every Window is narrated by teenager James Patrick O'Brien, known to everyone as JP. After his grandmother dies, JP is left to care for his mentally ill father and his emotionally fragile mother. Determined to give her family a fresh start, JP's mother moves them to a ramshackle farmhouse in Pennsylvania, which she won in an essay contest. The dwelling is soon filled with an odd collection of musicians, artists, and misfits that Mam has invited into her home, fulfilling her dream of being welcomed by "a face at every window." JP, though, is disturbed by the situation and withdraws into his room. Gradually, he comes to know the strangers as individuals and begins to accept them as his new "family."
"Only a writer as talented as Nolan could make this improbable story line and bizarre cast of characters not only believable but also ultimately uplifting, intriguing, and memorable," noted Booklist contributor Frances Bradburn in a review of A Face in Every Window. According to the critic in Publishers Weekly, Nolan "delivers a profound and heartwarming message about the various manifestations of love."Born Blue follows the grim life of Janie, the abused daughter of a heroin-addicted mother who ends up lonely and neglected in a foster home. Janie, who is white, takes solace in her friendship with her African-American foster brother Harmon, who introduces Janie to the soulful blues music of Etta James and Billie Holiday. Her fascination with black culture grows so strong, in fact, that she later changes her name to Leshaya. Janie's biological mother, Mama Linda, remains a disruptive presence in her daughter's life; at one point she kidnaps the girl and sells her to a drug dealer. The instability and disruptions have devastating consequences. As Claire Rosser observed in Kliatt, "When Janie becomes an adolescent, she tries to satisfy her endless hunger with drugs and sex, sabotaging every promising relationship, abandoning her own newborn baby." Janie's salvation appears to be her magnificent singing voice. She eventually joins a blues band and develops a romantic interest in a gifted songwriter. But Janie grows careless, wastes her talent, and betrays her friends. "When she's used up everyone she knows," wrote Lauren Adams in a Horn Book review of Born Blue, "she seeks Mama Linda once more and finds her dying of AIDS; finally Leshaya confronts herself as the mirror image of her mother."
Born Blue "is raw, rough, and riveting," stated Alison Follos in School Library Journal. "The writing is superb; like the blues, it bores down through the soul, probing at unpleasant truths and wringing out compassion." According to a reviewer in Publishers Weekly, as readers reach the novel's conclusion "they will have gained an understanding of the tragic heroine's fears, desires and warped perception of family, but Janie herself remains hauntingly elusive, adding to the impact of the book." Gillian Engberg, reviewing Born Blue in Booklist, stated that "with themes of race, talent, family, love, control, and responsibility, the novel asks essential questions about how to reclaim oneself and build a life."Nolan's decision to write When We Were Saints was influenced by several factors. The author explained on her Web site that she had long been interested in the Middle Ages, stained glass, and cathedrals, and that she had spent considerable time researching those subjects. After attending a conference where she met a number of young people concerned with religious issues, she decided upon the direction the book would take: "I decided that what I really wanted was to explore what it would be like for a young person today to experience the deeply spiritual life that someone in the Middle Ages might have experienced. Is it even possible today to have those kinds of experiences?"
When We Were Saints concerns fourteen-year-old Archie Caswell, a naïve southern farm boy whose grandfather declares on his deathbed, "Young man, you are a saint!" Archie starts to believe those words after meeting a beautiful, charismatic newcomer named Claire, whose strange religious rituals both intrigue and confuse Archie. When Claire convinces Archie that they have been called by God to make a pilgrimage to the Cloisters Museum in New York City, he steals his grandfather's truck so the pair can journey north. "Nolan's novel of spiritual exploration is both exceptionally grounded and refreshingly open," remarked Horn Book contributor Lauren Adams, and School Library Journal reviewer Joel Shoemaker described When We Were Saints as "powerfully written" and "outstanding in terms of the intensity of the experience described." A Publishers Weekly critic praised Nolan's skillful portrayal of Archie, but stated that Clare's character "is what keeps the pages turning; audience members are left to ponder whether she is truly a Christ figure or an emotionally disturbed teen bent on self-destruction."
Asked in the Harcourt Books Web site interview what drives her to write, Nolan responded, "I like the creative process. I like exploring lives so different from my own and I like the way I learn so much about these other worlds and about myself when I write."
Biographical and Critical Sources
St. James Guide to Young-Adult Writers, 2nd edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
ALAN Review, winter, 1998.
Booklist, April 1, 1994, Mary Harris Veeder, review of If I Should Die before I Wake, p. 1436; March 15, 1996, Ilene Cooper, review of Send Me down a Miracle, p. 1263; October 1, 1997, Ilene Cooper, review of Dancing on the Edge, p. 331; November 1, 1999, Frances Bradburn, review of A Face in Every Window, p. 525; May 1, 2001, Stephanie Zvirin, review of Send Me Down a Miracle, p. 1611; September 15, 2001, Gillian Engberg, review of Born Blue, p. 217; October 1, 2003, Ilene Cooper, review of When We Were Saints, p. 330.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, April, 1994, Roger Sutton, review of If I Should Die before I Wake, pp. 267-268; July, 1996, p. 382; December, 1997, pp. 135-136.
English Journal, review of Dancing on the Edge, p. 124.
Horn Book, January-February, 2002, Lauren Adams, review of Born Blue, pp. 82-83; January-February, 2004, Lauren Adams, review of When We Were Saints, p. 87.
Kirkus Reviews, March 1, 1994, review of If I Should Die before I Wake, p. 308; March 15, 1996, review of Send Me down a Miracle, p. 451; August 1, 1997, review of Dancing on the Edge, p. 1227; October 1, 2003, review of When We Were Saints, p. 1228.
Kliatt, July, 1996, p. 15; July, 2003, Claire Rosser, review of Born Blue, pp. 24-25; September, 2003, Claire Rosser, review of When We Were Saints, pp. 9-10.
Publishers Weekly, January 31, 1994, p. 90; August 18, 1997, p. 94; November 24, 1997, p. 14; November 1, 1999, review of A Face in Every Window, p. 85; October 8, 2001, review of Born Blue, p. 66; October 20, 2003, When We Were Saints, p. 55.
School Library Journal, April, 1994, pp. 152-153; April, 1996, Jana R. Fine, review of Send Me down a Miracle, p. 157; September, 1997, Miriam Lang Budin, review of Dancing on the Edge, p. 223; January, 1998, "Nolan Wins 1997 National Book Award," p. 22; November, 2001, Alison Follos, review of Born Blue, p. 162; November, 2003, Joel Shoemaker, review of When We Were Saints, p. 144.
Voice of Youth Advocates, June, 1994, Susan Levine, review of If I Should Die before I Wake, p. 88; June, 1996, p. 99; June, 1997, p. 86.
Han Nolan Web site, http://www.hannolan.com (January 6, 2005).
Harcourt Books Web site, http://www.harcourtbooks.com/ (January 6, 2005), interview with Nolan.
Brief BiographiesBiographies: Grace Napolitano: 1936—: Politician to Richard (Wayne) Peck (1934-) Biography - CareerHan Nolan (1956-) Biography - Personal, Addresses, Career, Member, Honors Awards, Writings, Sidelights