Catherine Atkins Biography
Personal, Addresses, Career, Honors Awards, Writings, Sidelights
Born in San Francisco, CA.
Agent—c/o Author Mail, G. P. Putnam, 375 Hudson St., New York, NY 10014.
Alternative education teacher and writer.
International Reading Association Young Adults Choice, and Best Books for Young Adults citation, American Library Association (ALA), both for When Jeff Comes Home; New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age List, 2004, and ALA Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults citation, both for Alt Ed.
When Jeff Comes Home, Putnam (New York, NY), 1999. Alt Ed, Putnam (New York, NY), 2003.
Contributor of short fiction to periodicals, including Cicada.
Catherine Atkins, an alternative education teacher, is the author of the highly regarded young adult novels When Jeff Comes Home and Alt Ed. "I can't remember when I wasn't a writer," Atkins told an online interviewer for the Penguin-Putnam Web site. "I remember sitting on the living room floor when I was about five writing a book to give my mom. My grandma helped with the spelling. My mom also typed stories that my brother and I dictated to her .… I always thought writing was the right thing to do."
Atkins's debut work, When Jeff Comes Home, is based on an incident that took place near the author's hometown. At a highway rest stop, a teenaged boy is kidnapped by a stranger named Ray. More than two years later, after enduring horrific physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, Jeff returns to his family, but he is greatly changed. Still fearful and filled with self-loathing, Jeff keeps his painful memories a secret, until Ray is taken into custody. "Jeff's recovery is sensitively and dramatically handled," noted a reviewer in Publishers Weekly.
Atkins originally chose Jeff's sister to be the story's narrator, but after consulting with an editor, she decided to rewrite the novel from the main character's point of view, finding it "liberating," as she remarked on her Web site. "In my rewrites I added scenes from before the kidnapping, and flashbacks to Jeff's time with Ray to help readers understand Jeff's character once he is home. I wanted Jeff to realize how little choice he had in anything that happened." According to Booklist critic John Peters, "Healing begins by the end, but it's obviously going to be a long, rocky road."
A group of six troubled teenagers enroll in an after-school counseling program to avoid expulsion in Alt Ed. Susan Calloway, a lonely, motherless, overweight girl who is often taunted by her classmates, develops a friendship with Brendan Slater, a gay student who faces similar harassment. After they vandalize a car belonging to the school bully, the pair enters Mr. Duffy's twelve-week alternative education group, where they learn to understand and respect themselves and others. Atkins told the online interviewer for Preview that the inspiration for Alt Ed came from her experiences as both a student and a teacher. "Alt Ed began as a short story I wrote as a high school junior—a dialogue between Susan and Mr. Duffy. I've been a teacher myself now for … fifteen years, so my observations and interactions with students over the years have come in handy, too."
Alt Ed received generally positive reviews. A Publishers Weekly critic praised Atkins's portrayal of the teenagers, stating that the author "exploits the stereotypes brilliantly, weaving together these small-town students' histories in unexpected ways. She reveals brief episodes from the past with quartz-like precision, setting off a series of small epiphanies." Booklist contributor Ilene Cooper remarked that "Susan's story is strong, because she is reinventing family relationships as well as trying to communicate with her peers," and Claire Rosser, reviewing Alt Ed in Kliatt, noted that the work will appeal to readers "who yearn to understand the dynamics of relationships, especially difficult relationships, and to see beyond the surface to the real person."
In her Preview interview, Atkins stated that she hopes readers will take away a number of things from the novel. "I hope they're entertained, first, but also that Alt Ed challenges their assumptions. If there's a message to Alt Ed, it might be: Look harder. Go deeper. People might surprise you with what they have to offer."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Booklist, October 15, 1999, John Peters, review of When Jeff Comes Home, p. 428; November 15, 1999, review of When Jeff Comes Home, p. 618; January 1, 2003, Ilene Cooper, review of Alt Ed, p. 870.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, November, 1999, review of When Jeff Comes Home, p. 83.
Horn Book, March-April, 2003, Roger Sutton, review of Alt Ed, p. 209.
Kirkus Reviews, April 1, 2003, review of Alt Ed, p. 530.
Kliatt, March, 2003, Claire Rosser, review of Alt Ed, p. 5.
Lambda Book Report, March-April, 2003, Nancy Garden, review of Alt Ed, p. 33.
Publishers Weekly, September 20, 1999, review of When Jeff Comes Home, p. 89; April 21, 2003, review of Alt Ed, p. 63.
School Library Journal, March, 2003, Susan W. Hunter, review of Alt Ed, p. 228.
Voice of Youth Advocates, April, 2003, review of Alt Ed, p. 40.
Catherine Atkins Web site, http://www.catherineatkins.com (April 25, 2005).
Penguin-Putman Web site, http://www.penguinputnam.com/ (spring, 2003), Preview Online interview with Atkins.
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