Amy Goldman Koss (1954-)
Amy Goldman Koss is known for her ability to look at the problems and adventures of middle graders with an insightful and realistic eye. At the same time, she presents characters that hold readers' attention and linger after completion of the book. Koss began her publishing career as an author and illustrator of picture books with rhyming texts. After the birth of her children, however, she shifted her focus as an author to write longer fiction for middle graders. In such novels as The Trouble with Zinny Weston, How I Saved Hanukkah, The Ashwater Experiment, Stranger in Dadland, Stolen Words, Strike Two, and Gossip Times Three, Koss blends humor with realistic situations to sensitively convey the pain of growing up.
In her first novel, The Trouble with Zinny Weston, fifthgrader Ava tells the story of how she became fast friends with newcomer Zinny Weston, and how everything went wrong after Zinny's mother drowned a raccoon in a garbage can after it ate all the fish in her backyard pond. Ava and her veterinarian parents are devoted animal lovers, while Zinny and her mother find them dirty and detestable. This difference does not bother either girl much until someone reports Zinny's mother to the animal protection agency and Ava is the prime suspect. "Koss clearly knows the dynamics of middle-school friendship and how small misunderstandings can explode into war," averred a reviewer for Publishers Weekly. Others noted that Ava's consideration of the moral dilemma involved provides readers with a good exposition of this sensitive issue. "Middle-graders will enjoy this first novel for the friend/enemy drama . . . and for the sympathetic open discussion of animals rights," predicted Hazel Rochman in Booklist. The Trouble with Zinny Weston ends with a "believable" resolution to Ava and Zinny's problem, noted Mary M. Hopf in School Library Journal, who concluded: "Readers will enjoy meeting these characters."
In Koss's second novel for the middle grades, How I Saved Hanukkah, fourth-grader Marla Feinstein is not looking forward to the holiday season. Everyone else in her class celebrates Christmas, but Marla's mother will not let them hang lights on the house because they are Jewish. On the other hand, Mrs. Feinstein is not much interested in staging a festive Hanukkah celebration either, and Mr. Feinstein is out of town on business. It is up to Marla, and her friend Lucy, to inspire Marla's mother to help them make potato pancakes (latkes), play the dreidel game, and dance the hora. Critics concurred that Koss manages to teach readers about this festive Jewish holiday while entertaining them with likable characters and snappy prose. "A witty, warmly realized cast" makes How I Saved Hanukkah "fresh and believable," according to a reviewer in Publishers Weekly. "The fun and breezy tone and affectionately drawn characters will appeal to readers," Eva Mitnick likewise predicted in School Library Journal.
Though Hillary, the protagonist/narrator of The Ashwater Experiment, is only twelve years old, she has attended eighteen schools while following her parents as they make and sell knickknacks at craft fairs around the country. Faced with the prospect of spending nine consecutive months in Ashwater, California, where she and her parents will house-sit for a family on sabbatical, Hillary is dubious that her new life will feel any more real than the blur of the previous eighteen places she has lived. In response to her peripatetic lifestyle, the pre-teen imagines that the outside world is merely a set put before her by "the Watchers," who are interested in her responses to a variety of situations.
"Koss portrays Hillary with such sympathy and wit that readers understand her Watchers game as a comic expression of the loneliness Hillary cannot express," observed a reviewer for Publishers Weekly in describing The Ashwater Experiment.
Of the novel's secondary characters, including the stereotypical class clown, popular girl, and outcast Hillary expects to find in every school, a contributor to Kirkus Reviews remarked: "Undercurrents of humor, and characters who seem typecast initially but develop surprising complexities, give this bittersweet tale unusual depth." A reviewer for Horn Book similarly attested: "Koss artfully sidesteps the predictable and crafts a truly original piece of fiction brimming with humor and insight."
In The Girls, young Maya is deeply hurt when the other kids in her clique decide to turn on her and ostracize her from their ranks. She is clueless about why this happened, as are other former friends. Only the leader of the clique, Candace, decides who is in and who is out. Told in multiple narratives, the story attempts to take the reader into the psyche of each girl in the group. "Readers, particularly girls, weathering the agonizing, variable minefields of cliques will easily find themselves in this taut, authentic story," noted Gillian Engbergina Booklist review. A reviewer for Horn Book felt that though Koss does not completely succeed in delineating each of the different personalities, she does-succeed "in taking [the story] to its dramatic core without becoming generic." And Susan Oliver, writing in School Library Journal, concluded that the "provocative page-turner will be passed from one girl to the next like a note with the latest gossip."
Smoke Screen, published in 2000, deals with another adolescent problem: the results of a seemingly harmless lie. When Mitzi's heartthrob, Mike, comes to talk with her, she has something in her eye and tears running down her cheek. Anxious to keep him nearby, she tells the boy she is crying because her mother, who has just stopped smoking, is sick. This simple fib begins to take on embarrassing and disastrous consequences, however, when the news gets around school. "A snappy read with appealing characters" is how Booklist contributor Anne O'Malley described the novel. Shilo Halfen, writing in School Library Journal, also found much to praise in the novel: "Short chapters and sparkling dialogue will appeal to even the most reluctant readers. Fans . . . will love this comical page-turner."Twelve-year-old John is off for a week with his father in California in Stranger in Dadland. He has never traveled alone before, his previous visits always including his older sister, Liz. But this year, Liz backs out, complaining that their father never takes time away from his busy job to be with them. In California, things start out badly for John; there is a new girlfriend in his father's life, and work is more demanding than ever of his father's time, it seems. John even has a skateboarding accident before things start getting better, and father and son begin to learn elemental truths about one another. Sharon Grover, reviewing the novel in School Library Journal, felt that there are "many kids who will understand and appreciate John's predicament." A reviewer for Horn Book thought that through his experiences in "dadland," John "learns about his heart, discovers the depth of his own thoughts, and gains courage." Booklist contributor Ilene Cooper felt that the "first-person dialogue crisply captures John's angst," while a contributor for Publishers Weekly remarked that "Koss is hilarious on Los Angeles," and that "John's delivery proves once again the author's unusual insight into middle-graders and their concerns."
Stolen Words takes the readers out of suburbia and out of the United States, as eleven-year-old Robyn Gittleman goes on vacation to Vienna, Austria, with her parents, hoping for a distraction from the recent death of a beloved aunt. Since their aunt Beth was killed in an automobile accident, Robyn's mother has been suffering from depression. Robyn brings the journal Aunt Beth gave her and plans to record the activities of their trip, but the first day they are in Vienna their luggage is stolen. With a new diary in hand, Robyn begins collecting not only her own impressions of Austria but also everyone's attempt to come to terms with Aunt Beth's death. Booklist reviewer Shelle Rosenfeld called Stolen Words an "engaging read" that "realistically depict[s] the grieving-healing process." A reviewer for Publishers Weekly felt that the "particularly insightful portrayals of Robyn's anger and internal conflicts find an almost ideal counterbalance in her mordant wit and candor."
Strike Two tells of two cousins, Gwen and Jess, who are almost as close as sisters. Their respective fathers are twins who work for the Press Gazette, which sponsors the softball team the girls play on. But when the newspaper workers go on strike, everything changes for both girls. Gwen's father is out of work, while Jess's father, part of management, works long hours and is never home. Worst of all for Gwen is the dissension on the softball team when strike problems show up on the field and her friendship with Jess is threatened. Lee Bock in the School Library Journal found that "Koss has created realistic characters that young people will both recognize and relate to."
The Cheat concerns an eighth-grade class where a number of students are caught cheating on a geography test. It all begins when Jake, a smart but unpopular student, gives the pretty and popular Sarah the answers to the upcoming exam. This attempt to win her favor, though, ends with Sarah and two of her friends being sent home from school for cheating. When Sarah refuses to tell on Jake, he must step forward on his own and accept the consequences. A critic for Kirkus Reviews called The Cheat "provocative and disturbing," while Frances Bradburn in Booklist found that "the message is obvious, but not cloyingly so." Lynne T. Burke, in a review for Reading Today, concluded that The Cheat "packs a powerful punch."
In Gossip Times Three, three best friends–Abby, Bess, and Cristy–fall out when Bess begins to date Zack, a boy Abby has always had a crush on. While Abby and Bess are not speaking to each other, Cristy finds herself in the awkward middle of the dispute. The story, told by an anonymous narrator, reads like an English school paper. It "openly addresses questions of theme, plot, and foreshadowing and offers readers alternative scenarios and explanations of the characters' motivations," as Laurie von Mehren explained in the School Library Journal. In the end, the girls finally resolve the problem by learning from the mistakes of their divorced mothers. "Koss understands the dynamics of junior high friendships, attractions and cliques, and she develops the ramifications of the romantic triangle with easy authenticity," according to a critic for Publishers Weekly.
The protagonist of Kailey is a ten-year-old girl who lives in California and enjoys exploring the tide pools along the coastline. When a development threatens those tide pools, Kailey decides to take action. She organizes a protest that leads the developer to compromise, building his proposed shopping mall but preserving the tide pools Kailey loves. Chris Sherman, reviewing the title for Booklist, found that the novel "offers good character development, lots of conflict, excellent description, and a realistic conclusion."
Koss once told Something about the Author: "I assumed that when I grew up I'd get some miserable job doing something awful and I'd only get to draw pictures and make up stories in my teeny bits of free time. My dad's life was like that. He hated his job as a juke box man so he played violin, painted spooky pictures, and built ornate furniture on his weekends. Perhaps that's why I was a lousy student and never prepared much for adulthood. That is, I went to lots and lots of college, but never graduated and I had many jobs, but no career.
"It didn't occur to me that writing and drawing could be my REAL work until I married a guy who believed it was worth risking humiliation to try to do what we WANTED to with our lives. I figured if he could, I could–so, I began submitting work and getting countless letter-bomb rejections.
"But eventually my drawings, poems, articles, and short stories found their way into newspapers and literary magazines. That was a relief. Then I got my first picture book published and that felt great!
"I spent the next few years writing and illustrating picture books in verse until I started having babies and got so fat my hand could barely hold my drawing pens.
"I took a few years off to change diapers and push strollers then began my rejection collection ALL OVER AGAIN. After eons of disappointment, I was finally yanked out of the slush pile by a fabulous editor at Dial Books for Young Readers. She suggested that I try writing intermediate novels. And that's exactly what I've been doing ever since. And I LOVE it, especially when my characters become so real that I feel them crowding around my computer, scrutinizing what I say about them.
"Now, I write all day while my kids are in school, and I sometimes sneak in a few hours after everyone else has gone to bed. I know mine is a weird, isolated life–but I also know it's absolutely PERFECT for me."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Booklist, May 15, 1998, Hazel Rochman, review of The Trouble with Zinny Weston, p. 1626; October 1, 1998, p. 330; March 1, 2001, Ilene Cooper, review of Stranger in Dadland, p. 1278; September 15, 2001, Shelle Rosenfeld, review of Stolen Words, p. 223; November 1, 2001, Francisca Goldsmith, review of Strike Two, p. 475; January 1, 2003, Frances Bradburn, review of The Cheat, p. 890; June 1, 2003, Patricia Austin, review of The Girls (audiocassette), p. 1811; December 1, 2003, Chris Sherman, review of Kailey, p. 667.
Buffalo News, August 15, 2000, Jean Westmoore, review of The Girls, p. N7; May 15, 2001, Jean Westmoore, review of Stranger in Dadland, p. N12; September 10, 2003, Jean Westmoore, review of The Cheat, p. N5.
Horn Book, July-August, 1999, review of The Ashwater Experiment, p. 385; March, 2001, review of Stranger in Dadland, p. 210; July-August, 2003, Lauren Adams, review of Gossip Times Three, p. 461.
Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, November, 2002, review of The Girls, p. 214.
Kirkus Reviews, May 1, 1999, review of The Ashwater Experiment; August 1, 2002, review of Where Fish Go in Winter, and Other Great Mysteries, p. 1134; December 15, 2002, review of The Cheat, p. 1851; June 15, 2003, review of Gossip Times Three, p. 860.
People, January 8, 1990, Ralph Novak, review of Curious Creatures in Peculiar Places, p. 29.
Publishers Weekly, June 29, 1998, review of The Trouble with Zinny Weston, p. 59; September 28, 1998, review of How I Saved Hanukkah, p. 54; June 14, 1999, review of The Ashwater Experiment, p. 71; October 15, 2001, review of Stolen Words, p. 73; December 9, 2002, review of The Cheat, p. 85; July 7, 2003, review of Gossip Times Three, p. 73; September 22, 2003, review of Kailey, p. 104.
Reading Today, August-September, 2003, Lynne T. Burke, review of The Cheat, p. 32.
School Library Journal, July, 1998, Mary M. Hopf, review of The Trouble with Zinny Weston, p. 96; October, 1998, Eva Mitnick, review of How I Saved Hanukkah, p. 38; August, 1999, p. 158; March, 2001, Sharon Grover, review of Stranger in Dadland, p. 252; April 2, 2002, review of Stranger in Dadland, p. 66; September, 2001, Lee Bock, review of Strike Two, p. 226; July, 2003, Judy Czarnecki, review of The Girls (audiocassette), p. 68; September, 2003, Laurie von Mehren, review of Gossip Times Three, p. 216; April, 2004, review of The Girls (audiocassette), p. S49.*
Brief BiographiesBiographies: C(hristopher) J(ohn) Koch Biography - C.J. Koch comments: to Sir (Alfred Charles) Bernard Lovell (1913– ) BiographyAmy Goldman Koss (1954-) Biography - Awards, Honors, Sidelights - Personal, Addresses, Career, Writings