15 minute read

Joan Bauer (1951-) Biography

Personal, Addresses, Career, Honors Awards, Writings, Sidelights

Born 1951, in River Forest, IL; children: Jean.


Agent—c/o Author Mail, Penguin Putnam Books for Young Readers, 345 Hudson St., New York, NY 10014.


Author. Has also worked as an advertising and marketing salesperson, a writer for magazines and newspapers, and a screenwriter.

Honors Awards

Delacorte Prize for First Young Adult Novel, 1992, for Squashed; Top Ten Best Books for Young Adults selection, American Library Association, 1999, for Rules of the Road; Newbery Honor Medal; Los Angeles Times Book Prize; Christopher Award; Golden Kite Award, Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators; Michigan Thumbs-Up! Award for Children's Literature; New England Booksellers Award; Literary Light Award, Boston Public Library.


Squashed, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1992.

Thwonk, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1995.

Sticks, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1996.

Rules of the Road, Putnam (New York, NY), 1998.

Backwater, Putnam (New York, NY), 1999.

Hope Was Here, Putnam (New York, NY), 2000.

Stand Tall, Putnam (New York, NY), 2002.

Best Foot Forward, Putnam (New York, NY), 2005.


The novels of Joan Bauer, an advertising salesperson-turned-author, have earned her a reputation as a deft spinner of engaging, off-beat tales focusing on young-adult themes. In an essay for the ALAN Review, Bauer explained that she uses levity to "teach young people to use laughter against the storms of life." After quoting Mark Twain, who once said that "Humor must speak the truth," Bauer explained, "Finding that truth in characters for me evolves through a process of layering—determining where the characters have been, what they've experienced, what they've overcome and failed abysmally at—that's when the truth of who they are emerges and the voice becomes concrete."

For Bauer, humor also reveals that "the person or character has moved from seeing life as a series of problems or things done to them, and has moved into greater clarity and control of the situation." Being someone who knows from first-hand experience about the trials and tribulations of a difficult youth, Bauer works to help teens through their problems and boost their self-esteem through her fiction, both as entertainment and as mild therapy for those who are coping with the problems and pressure of growing up nowadays.

Bauer was born in River Forest, Illinois, the eldest of three sisters. The girls were raised by their mother, a teacher with a lively sense of humor; Bauer's father was seldom involved in her upbringing; in an article posted at her Web site, she explained: "My father was an alcoholic and the pain of that was a shadow that followed me for years." Instead, Bauer was close to her grandmother, who lived with the family; the woman, a gifted storyteller, engaged the imaginations of her granddaughters with wonderful tales, which she told in a colorful, animated style, using a range of voices. Bauer recalled: "My grandmother, who I called Nana, had the biggest influence on me creatively. She taught me the importance of stories and laughter."

Bauer's teen years were difficult. Her grandmother suffered from Alzheimer's disease, and when Bauer was in her early twenties, her father committed suicide. A few years before her father's death, Bauer had gone to Iowa, where he was living, to seek him out. Applying the same direct, proactive approach in her fiction, Bauer creates characters who confront problems in their relationships head-on as they attempt to deal with them. Bauer's daughter, Jean, and Jean's friends have helped Bauer to stay current on American youth culture. Being a fan of her mother's work, Jean Bauer, now in graduate school, still offers suggestions and comments regarding her mother's characters, helping the author to focus on what interests teens.

Bauer started working at various jobs when she was still a preteen; she has worked as an assistant typing teacher, a waitress, and a freelance writer. She began a decade-long career in advertising sales in her early twenties. Although she was successful, she eventually grew frustrated with the lack of creativity in her job. Then a life-changing event occurred. As she explained in her biographical article, "I was in a serious auto accident which injured my neck and back severely and required Sixteen-year-old Jenna discovers she has a knack for selling shoes at her job at Gladstones, and when she is selected to drive the elderly Mrs. Gladstone and several associates around the country to visit branch stores she also discovers a lot about people. (Cover illustration by Wendell Minor.) neurosurgery. It was a long road back to wholeness, but during that time I wrote Squashed, my first young adult novel. The humor in that story kept me going."

Bauer's writing debut was an auspicious one. A reviewer for the Bulletin for the Center for Children's Books praised Squashed for its "humor and tenderness," and the book won the 1992 Delacorte Press Prize for a first novel. Like all but one of her subsequent tales—Stand TallSquashed is narrated by the chief protagonist in the first person. Ellie Morgan is a slightly over-weight teenager who is determined to raise a champion pumpkin she calls Max. Ellie is resolute in mustering up the inner strength and agricultural savvy required to successfully care for Max, who requires an exceeding amount of tender loving care. She has loved pumpkins since the first time she saw the Disney film Cinderella at the age of five. Her hometown of Rock River, Iowa, boasts of its prize-winning pumpkin-growing in its motto: "Our pumpkins we prize; Our rights we will maintain."

As Max already weighs three hundred pounds in August, Ellie has a good chance of winning this year's Rock River Pumpkin Weigh-In, where she could earn a dollar per pound, as well as respect in the town. Ellie's motivational specialist father, who wants more than farming for his daughter, is concerned that she is neglecting other things by devoting so much time to her pumpkin. Ellie's grandmother, in contrast, views her granddaughter's attention to Max as instrumental in helping the girl to build self-esteem. The story takes the reader through Ellie's vigorous fight to win the title. Ellie stands on watch against vandals and pumpkin bandits; she sprays and composts; she cleans Max with Windex; she warms him against the fall chill; she plays music for him and talks to him; she injects a concoction of buttermilk and Orange Crush into his stem. In the end, the ordinary girl from Iowa achieves an extraordinary accomplishment through her care of her beloved Max; she emerges as a heroine.

Thwonk teaches readers something about the ingredients for true romance: the characteristics one initially desires in a mate may not be what can truly bring lasting happiness. A. J. McCreary is a Connecticut high-school senior with a passion for photography. When she stumbles upon a stuffed Cupid doll that magically comes to life, A. J. is offered the doll's help in one of the following areas: academics, career, or romance. She chooses the last, specifically a love-tipped arrow aimed straight at the heart of Peter Terris, a boy who is handsome, popular, and totally unaware of A. J.'s existence. She is set on Peter taking her to the school's King of Hearts Dance; hence the title "thwonk," which is the sound of an arrow shot from Cupid's bow. With the doll's help, Peter becomes pathetically infatuated with A. J., but it is not long before she finds his attentions annoying. What's more, A. J. discovers that Peter is wanting in wit and smarts, areas in which she excels. A. When Ivy Breedlove decides to buck the wishes of her attorney parents and become an historian, her effort to research and document her family's history uncovers a long-lost relative and reveals the price to be paid for independence. (Cover illustration by Wendell Minor.) J.'s drollery in relating her story to readers sharply contrasts with Peter's dullness and goofiness. As the plot progresses and A. J.'s skill in photography develops, she learns more about herself and what is really important to her. Her talents are even acknowledged and rewarded by her previously distant filmmaker father.

Several reviewers praised Thwonk and lauded Bauer for her writing. Alice Casey Smith, in School Library Journal, praised the book as a "silly, offbeat novel … [that] revels in the vagaries, insecurities, and uncomfortable realities of teen love." Suzanne Curley, writing in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, described it as "a first-class comic romance," while Deborah Stevenson noted in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books that "Bauer's forcefully funny writing remains stylish from start to finish."

Sticks, is another light-hearted teen novel with a message. The protagonist in this case is ten-year-old Mickey Vernon, who dreams of winning the nine-ball tournament hosted by his family's pool hall. Mickey's rival is town bully Buck Pender. At age thirteen, Buck is bigger than Mickey, as well as stronger. However, Mickey learns during the story that physical size and strength are not everything; superior technique and using his brain can help him beat Buck in the big tournament. As Mickey prepares for the match, his brilliant friend Arlen shows him the mathematics of pool and assists him in becoming skillful in the geometric strategy of the game. Meanwhile, Joseph Alvarez, an old friend of Mickey's late father comes to town. An old pool shark himself, he takes Mickey under his wing, in the process becoming a sort of father figure to the boy. Mickey's protective mother ultimately forbids her son's relationship with Joseph. Since Mickey narrates the story, the reader is drawn into his struggle to win the tournament from Buck while soothing the tensions between his mother and Joseph.

Todd Morning, reviewing the novel for School Library Journal, liked Sticks, writing that "the winning characterizations may make this a book to be enjoyed by kids who like pool and even some who don't." Janice Del Negro, in Booklist, echoed that assessment. "Bauer's characterizations are well drawn, their personalities three-dimensional even when they only appear briefly, and Mickey is not only a credible ten-year-old but also a likable narrator," Del Negro noted. "Good characters, humor, and an engaging plot make this a solid piece of middle-grade fiction."

Rules of the Road is the story of sixteen-year-old Chicago resident Jenna Boller, a young woman with a talent for selling shoes. Not only does Jenna have the knack for servicing the needs and footwear tastes of customers, she is dedicated to the business. Shortly after obtaining her driver's license, Elden Gladstone, president of Gladstone shoes, offers Jenna the job of chauffeuring her to Texas for a stockholders' meeting. The novel chronicles the twosome's adventure south, during which Jenna learns about her own strengths and capabilities while also gaining a sense of the importance of loyalty and service to others. Jenna is also confronted with betrayal and greed through the dirty deeds of Mrs. Gladstone's slimy son Elden, who is trying to swindle his mother out of her shoe empire through corporate-takeover maneuvering. Together, Jenna and Mrs. Gladstone embark on a mission to save the business. Along the way, Jenna befriends a salesman, a longtime member of Alcoholics Anonymous. She wishes her own father, a current alcoholic, were more like him. After the salesman is killed by a drunk driver, Jenna alerts police to her own father's drunk driving.

Cindy Darling Codell, in a School Library Journal review, hailed Rules of the Road as "Bauer's best [novel] yet"; Candace Deisley praised the book in Voice of Youth Advocates as "a remarkable book, presenting lessons of respect for others, courtesy, and honesty gently, but persistently." The novel's popularity with readers inspired a sequel, Best Foot Forward, which finds Jenna promoted to supervisor at Gladstones. A rather sketchy employee and the efforts of Mrs. Gladstone's son to cheapen the product by farming work to sub-standard overseas laborers present one set of challenged, while her father and ailing grandmother present another for Bauer's likeable heroine. A Publishers Weekly contributor praised Best Foot Forward for its "vivid characterizations, crisp, believable dialogue and … exciting scenarios," while in Kliatt Paula Rohrlick wrote that the novel's "great cast of characters, witty dialogue along with Jenna's droll asides, and an insight into business ethics highlight this winning title."

Backwater, published in 1999, is a tale of a seventeen-year-old girl's journey to find her roots and to discover her emotional, intellectual, and physical limits. Ivy Breedlove comes from a family of lawyers and, being an intelligent girl, she is naturally expected to pursue a legal career. However, her real passion in life is studying history. While tracing her family tree, a project started as a birthday gift for her Great Aunt Tib, Ivy discovers female relatives who were mavericks in that they followed their own interests, and rejected family expectations in order to pursue them. Ivy becomes obsessed with wanting to learn more about her father's sister Josephine, "Aunt Jo"; aided by a colorful guide known as Mountain Mama, Ivy sets out to meet her. Aunt Jo is a hermit sculptor who lives in the wilderness of the Adirondack Mountains. During Ivy's quest for knowledge and historical revelation, she learns important lessons about herself and the essence of family.

Jean Franklin, writing in Booklist, praised the novel, writing that Bauer's "warm, funny patchwork quilt of a book … will keep readers turning the pages to the last." Franklin added that, along with Rules of the Road, Backwater provides "a dynamite mother-daughter book discussion."

Hope Was Here is the story of Hope Yaney, a teenaged waitress who lives with her aunt Addie, a fast-order cook. The pair have lived in several cities around the country before settling in Mulhoney, Wisconsin. At first the small town seems boring, but it soon brings unexpected rewards, including romance and a chance to help their restaurant boss run for mayor. A critic for Publishers Weekly claimed that Bauer "serves up agreeable fare in this tale of a teenage waitress's search for a sense of belonging." "The plot, a robust blend of wit and wisdom," according to Lynne T. Burke in Reading Today, "is heavily seasoned with truth and laughter." Tracey Firestone in the School Library Journal found that "teens who have come to expect witty, realistic characters and atypical (but very funny) story lines from Bauer's previous books will not be disappointed."

In Stand Tall Bauer creates a young male protagonist in twelve-year-old Tree. Over six feet tall, Tree is the tallest student in his seventh-grade class. While the school's basketball coach expects the unwilling athlete to join the team, and his parents' recent divorce disrupts his living arrangements, Tree tries to care for his aged Teenager Hope has a talent for waitressing and her Aunt Addie has a talent for cooking; when the two come to the aid of an ailing restaurant owner, they both discover that the rural Wisconsin town they now call home may hold the answer to both their dreams. (Cover illustration by Wendell Minor.) grandfather and develop a friendship with a new girl at school. "Bauer once again creates a clan of believable characters scrambling to make the best of their particular brand of dysfunction," a critic for Publishers Weekly commented. Writing in the School Library Journal, Delia Fritz found that "the depictions of Tree and his colorful family are candid and endearing, and much of the writing is leavened with the author's special brand of humor." Paula Rohrlick in Kliatt concluded that Tree's "story is genuinely heartwarming."

"I try to show how great adversity, if it's addressed, can really make us stronger," Bauer commented to Elizabeth Koehler-Pentacoff in The ABC's of Writing for Children. "Having traveled some difficult roads myself as a teenager, I can underscore the importance of strategically placed adults in my life. And I learned how to overcome things through a sense of humor. The combination of those things fuels my writing. I have a faith in God and believe He has a purpose for all of us."

Biographical and Critical Sources


Koehler-Pentacoff, Elizabeth, The ABC's of Writing for Children, Quill Driver Books, 2003.


ALAN Review, winter, 1996, Joan Bauer, "Humor, Seriously."

Booklist, January 1, 1995, p. 814; May 1, 1996, Janice Del Negro, review of Sticks, p. 1505; July, 1997, p. 1830; February 1, 1998, p. 77; May 15, 1999, Jean Franklin, review of Backwater, p. 1687; September 15, 2000, Frances Bradburn, review of Hope Was Here, p. 231; September 15, 2002, Karin Snelson, review of Stand Tall, p. 230; January 1, 2004, Laurie Hartshorn, review of Hope Was Here, p. 894.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, October, 1992, review of Squashed, p. 36; January, 1995, Deborah Stevenson, review of Thwonk, p. 158.

Horn Book, May-June, 1998, p. 339; July, 1999, review of Backwater, p. 461; September, 2000, review of Hope Was Here, p. 563; November-December, 2002, review of Stand Tall, p. 748; May-June, 2005, Roger Sutton, review of Best Foot Forward, p. 321.

Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, November, 2002, review of Hope Was Here, p. 215; March, 2004, Charlotte Frambaugh-Kritzer, review of Stand Tall, p. 522.

Kirkus Reviews, June 1, 2002, review of Stand Tall, p. 800; May 1, 2005, review of Best Foot Forward, p. 534.

Kliatt, September, 2002, Paula Rohrlick, review of Stand Tall, p. 6; November, 2002, Mary Purucker, review of Hope Was Here (audiobook), p. 49; March, 2004, Mary Purucker, review of Stand Tall (audiobook), p. 55; May, 2005, Paula Rohrlick, review of Best Foot Forward, p. 6.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 26, 1995, Suzanne Curley, "A Few Well-placed Arrows," p. 9.

New York Times Book Review, June 20, 1999, p. 21.

Publishers Weekly, February 27, 1995, p. 104; February 23, 1998, p.77; June 7, 1999, review of Backwater, p. 84; December 20, 1999, review of Rules of the Road, p. 82; September 4, 2000, reviews of Hope Was Here, p. 109, and of Backwater, p. 110; June 17, 2002, review of Hope Was Here, p. 67; July 29, 2002, review of Stand Tall, p. 73; May 30, 2005, review of Best Foot Forward, p. 62.

Reading Today, December, 2001, Lynne T. Burke, review of Hope Was Here, p. 32.

School Library Journal, January, 1995, Alice Casey Smith, review of Thwonk, p. 134; June, 1996, Todd Morning, review of Sticks, p. 120; March, 1998, Cindy Darling Coddell, review of Rules of the Road, p. 208; June, 1999, p. 126; November, 2000, Tracey Firestone, review of Hope Was Here, p. 150; December, 2000, review of Hope Was Here, p. 52; August, 2002, Delia Fritz, review of Stand Tall, p. 182; November, 2003, Cheryl Preisendorfer, review of Stand Tall (audiobook), p. 74; December, 2003, Francisca Goldsmith, review of Hope Was Here (audiobook), p. 77; June, 2005, Susan Riley, review of Best Foot Forward, p. 148.

Teacher Librarian, February, 2000, Teri Lesesne, "A Passion for Humor" (interview), p. 60.

Voice of Youth Advocates, June, 1998, Candace Deisley, review of Rules of the Road, p. 120.


Joan Bauer Web site, http://www.joanbauer.com (April 29, 2005).

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: Miguel Angel Asturias: 1899-1974: Writer to Don Berrysmith Biography - Grew up in the Pacific Northwest