Nancy Farmer (1941–) Biography
Personal, Addresses, Career, Member, Honors Awards, Writings, Adaptations, Work in Progress, Sidelights
Born 1941, in Phoenix, AZ; Education: Phoenix College, A.A., 1961; Reed College, B.A., 1963; attended Merrit College and University of California at Berkeley, 1969–71. Religion: "Animism." Hobbies and other interests: Ethnology, criminology, marine biology, African culture and history.
Agent—c/o Author Mail, Simon & Schuster, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020.
Freelance writer, 1992–. Worked in Peace Corps in India, 1963–65; University of California, Berkeley, lab technician, 1969–72; Loxton, Hunting, and Associates, Songo, Mozambique, chemist and entomologist, 1972–74; University of Zimbabwe, Rukomeche, lab technician and entomologist, 1975–78; freelance scientist and writer in Harare, Zimbabwe, 1978–88; Stanford University Medical School, Palo Alto, CA, lab technician, 1991–92.
Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.
Writers of the Future Gold Award, Bridge Publications, 1988; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1992; Newbery Honor Book, 1995, Notable Children's Book, American Library Association, 1995, and Golden Kite Honor, Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, all for The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm; Best Children's Book, Zimbabwe International Book Fair, 1996, for The Warm Place; National Book Award finalist for Children's Literature, 1996, Silver Medal, Commonwealth Club of California, 1996, Top Ten Best Book for Young Adults, American Library Association, 1997, and Newbery Honor Book, 1997, all for A Girl Named Disaster; National Book Award, National Book Foundation, Newbery Honor Book, and Michael L. Printz Honor Book, all 2002, all for The House of the Scorpion.
NOVELS; FOR JUVENILES
Lorelei: The Story of a Bad Cat, College Press (Zimbabwe), 1988.
The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm, College Press (Zimbabwe), 1989, revised edition, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1994.
Tapiwa's Uncle, College Press (Zimbabwe), 1992.
Do You Know Me, illustrated by Shelley Jackson, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1993.
The Warm Place, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1994.
A Girl Named Disaster, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1996.
The House of the Scorpion, Atheneum (New York, NY), 2002.
The Sea of Trolls, Atheneum (New York, NY), 2004.
Tsitsi's Skirt, College Press (Zimbabwe), 1988.
Runnery Granary, illustrated by Joseph A. Smith, Greenwillow (New York, NY), 1996.
Casey Jones's Fireman: The Story of Sim Webb, illustrated by James Bernardin, Penguin Putnam (New York, NY), 1998.
Contributor to Writers of the Future Anthology, #4, Bridge Publications, 1988, Best Horror and Fantasy of 1992, St. Martin's, 1993, and Firebirds: An Anthology of Original Fantasy and Science Fiction, Firebird Books, 2003.
Farmer's works have been published in German, Dutch, and Italian.
Tapiwa's Uncle was adapted as a play by Aaron Shepard and published in Stories on Stage, Wilson, 1993; The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm was adapted as an audiobook, Recorded Books, 1995; A Girl Named Disaster was adapted as an audiobook, Recorded Books, 1996.
Work in Progress
A sequel to The Sea of Trolls.
Award-winning novelist Nancy Farmer is the author of juvenile novels and picture books that demonstrate her talent as a storyteller and her interest in African culture. The seventeen years Farmer spent in central Africa proved to be critical to her writing career. "The character, viewpoint and zany sense of humor of the people I met there have had a major effect on my writing," she once recounted for Something about the Author (SATA). Indeed, many critics have applauded her work for her characterizations, humor, and depiction of locale. A sure measure of Farmer's success is that The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm and A Girl Named Disaster were both named Newbery Honor books and have been translated into other languages.
Farmer grew up during the 1950s in a small town on the Arizona-Mexico border, where she lived in the hotel her father managed. Although her school friends were not allowed to visit her in the rough neighborhood in which the hotel was located, "life at the hotel was a wonderful preparation for writing," Farmer remembered in the St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers. "I worked at the desk from age nine, renting rooms and listening to the stories the patrons told each other in the lobby." Among the colorful characters at the hotel were cowboys, railroad men, rodeo riders, and circus performers. "My father took me to the American Legion hall on bingo nights, and I heard a lot more stories there," she once told SATA. "People were able to spin tales back then, and they taught me a lot."
Although she was not interested in school and often played hooky, Farmer eventually earned a bachelor of arts degree from Reed College in Portland, Oregon. In search of adventure, she spent two years in India as a Peace Corps volunteer. Then Farmer traveled for two more years before returning to California, where she studied at Merrit College and the University of California at Berkeley. Again she was seized with the desire to travel, and in 1971 she and a friend sailed to Africa on a freighter. "We planned to sail from port to port, get jobs when we ran out of money, and hopefully meet a lonely Greek shipping tycoon," Farmer remembered. "We arranged passage on a yacht that was actually in the process of being stolen. We didn't know this. The coast guard arrested the 'captain' as he sailed out under the Golden Gate. We were upset, but they probably saved us from being dumped overboard somewhere."
From 1972 to 1988, Farmer worked at a variety of jobs in Mozambique and Zimbabwe (formerly called Rhodesia). While in Zimbabwe, Farmer met her future husband, Harold Farmer, an English professor at the University of Zimbabwe. They married in 1976, and it was when their son was about four years old that Farmer was inspired to start writing. "I had been reading a novel by Margaret Forster and thought: I could do that. Three hours later I emerged with a complete story. The experience was so surprising and pleasant I did it again the next day." In the following four years, Farmer re-fined her craft. She studied works by Roald Dahl, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, P. D. James, Ruth Rendell, and Stephen King. According to Farmer, it takes a minimum of four years to learn to write. "The horrible truth is that one's first efforts are amateurish," she once commented. "It takes time, practice, and objectivity to correct this problem. I have never understood why people think they can write well without effort. No one expects a first-year medical student to transplant a kidney."
After publishing several novels and a picture book with a Zimbabwean press, Farmer found her writing stalled. For the sake of their son, Daniel, the Farmers decided to move to the United States, and for a time after the move Farmer was still unable to write. Finally, she made her American debut with Do You Know Me?, a novel that is set in Zimbabwe and revolves around Tapiwa and her Uncle Zeka, who moves from the country to the city. Reviewers praised the novel for its characterizations and humor. Remarking on the universal theme, "carefully drawn" characters, and humorous out-
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come, Horn Book contributor Lois F. Anderson asserted that Farmer "manages to deal with serious issues and at the same time provoke laughter." Calling Farmer a "born storyteller," a Publishers Weekly critic applauded her "astute ear for dialogue,… deft hand with plot twists and … keen, dry wit."
Farmer further demonstrated her storytelling talent with the science-fiction tale The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm. Although she originally published this young adult novel in Zimbabwe in 1989, she revised it for republication by Orchard in 1994. Taking place in a futuristic Zimbabwean society in the year 2194, the novel follows the adventures of three children of the country's security chief. Because they have always been highly sheltered, the children do not anticipate the dangers they will encounter when they decide to secretly leave their safe compound and venture through the city of Harare. In no time the children are kidnapped by criminals, and soon the Ear, the Eye, and the Arm—three mutant detectives—are on their trail. For this "intriguing, multivalent novel," to quote Anne Deifendeifer in Horn Book, Farmer won kudos from critics. "Farmer is emerging as one of the best and brightest authors for the YA audience," enthused a Publishers Weekly reviewer. As well as judging the author's "impeccable creation of the futuristic society … a remarkable achievement," Deifendeifer praised Farmer for her "fully developed, unique characters" and treatment of futuristic social and political issues. Hazel Rochman, writing in Booklist, predicted that the "thrilling adventures … will grab readers," as will the many "comic, tender characterizations." In 1995, The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm was named a Newbery Honor Book.
For The Warm Place, Farmer employs animal characters, in particular Ruva, a young giraffe who escapes from a San Francisco zoo and, with the help of animal colleagues and one human friend, voyages home. Reviewers applauded Farmer for her creativity in portraying animal characters. "The plot is fresh and fast-moving, and many of the details [are] inventive," praised Ellen Fader in her review for School Library Journal. In addition, Roger Sutton asserted in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, "Farmer keeps her story fresh through lots of action and snappy dialogue." "With witty, crisp dialog, this novel will be a fine read," seconded Mary Harris Veeder in Booklist. Noting that with the possible exception of the villains, Farmer "created highly original events and characters," Horn Book critic Sarah Guille judged that reading The Warm Place is both an "entertaining and rewarding experience." Because it is "laced with dry humor and populated by memorable characters," The Warm Place, asserted a Publishers Weekly reviewer, is "pure delight."
In 1996, Farmer scored a resounding success for the young adult novel A Girl Named Disaster, which was named a Newbery Honor Book. Set in modern Zimbabwe and Mozambique, this novel details the journey of Nhamo (whose name literally means "disaster") from life in her traditional, isolated village, to life on a series of uninhabited islands, to life in urban Zimbabwe. During her trek, Nhamo faces many challenges and uses traditional survival skills, including communing with spirits, to survive. "The novel is unusual in its scope and setting," remarked Martha V. Parravano in Horn Book, "although, as in The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm, the author's skill makes the setting real and nonexotic even as the reader learns an amazing amount about survival techniques, Shona culture, and Zimbabwean politics." Likewise, Sheila H. Williams noted in Kliatt that "Nhamo's rich character compels the listener to accompany her to the end," despite the occasionally uneven pacing. "Farmer overlays this suspenseful tale with a rich and respectful appreciation of Nhamo's beliefs," averred a critic for Publishers Weekly, who also described the character of Nhamo as "stunning" and a "supremely human" creation.
After publishing her initial picture book in Zimbabwe in 1988, it was nearly a decade before Farmer returned to the genre with two well-received works, Runnery Granary and Casey Jones's Fireman: The Story of Sim Webb. In Runnery Granary Farmer spins the tale of Mrs. Runnery, who discovers that something is eating the grain from her medieval grain storage house. After some investigation, she determines that gnomes are the culprits, and she knows just how to send them packing. Runnery Granary fared well with critics; in Booklist Carolyn Phelan praised the work as "an unusual and entertaining picture book," and in Horn Book Lolly Robinson called it "an unusual original trickster tale." "A winsome yarn" is how a Publishers Weekly critic described it, while Kathy East, writing in School Library Journal, predicted that children at story hours are "sure to eat up" this "charming tale."
Farmer's Casey Jones's Fireman met with a similar reaction. Farmer tells the story of the Cannonball Express train disaster from the viewpoint of Sim Webb, who stokes the steam engine's furnace. According to Booklist reviewer Shelle Rosenfeld, "Farmer eloquently interweaves history and myth into a suspenseful, engrossing drama, enhanced by well-developed characters." A Publishers Weekly reviewer similarly noted that Farmer creates an "exciting blend of history and imagination" and a "fully realized portrait" of Sim Webb that will "fascinate readers."
For The House of the Scorpion, a fantasy tale involving cloning, Farmer also devised a fictional land, Opium, which is located in the borderlands between the United States and Aztlan—formerly known as Mexico. There, huge tracts of poppy fields are tended by "eejits," humans with a computer chip in their brains that keep them docile and working. This strange land is ruled by the 142-year-old Matteo Alacran, known as El Patron, who is kept alive by the organs harvested from clones. The novel's protagonist, young Matt Alacran, is one of El Patron's clones. At age seven he comes to the attention of El Patron, who looks upon Matt as his future,
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educating him in the world of books and music. When Matt is fourteen, he discovers the secret of the other clones that have provided organs for El Patron, and when the old man finally dies, Matt escapes from Opium, only to be caught and sent to a work camp and orphanage. There, with the help of newly made friends, he is once again able to escape. This time, however, he heads back to Opium to try and correct the wrongdoings of the past.
The House of the Scorpion was warmly received by critics. A contributor for Kirkus Reviews noted Farmer's "talent for crafting exciting tales in beautifully realized, unusual worlds," and further praised the novel as an "inspiring tale of friendship, survival, hope, and transcendence." Similarly, a critic for Publishers Weekly remarked that Farmer "strikes a masterful balance between Matt's idealism and his intelligence," adding that the author "grippingly demonstrates that there are no easy answers." Writing in School Library Journal, Susan L. Rogers commended the novel's "well-described, exotic setting," which she described as "a background for imaginative science fiction that looks at the social implications of technological advances." More praise came from Booklist contributor Sally Estes, who found the story both "powerful" and "ultimately hopeful." For Estes, all the issues raised in the book "are held together by a remarkable coming-of-age story in which a boy's self-image and right to life are at stake." Horn Book reviewer Barbara Scotto dubbed the work a "thought-provoking piece of science fiction," while Holly J. Morris in U.S. News & World Report declared it a "solid modern classic." Awards committees concurred with the reviewers. The House of the Scorpion won numerous awards, including the prestigious National Book Award, and put Farmer's name at the fore-front of those writing for juveniles and young adults.
The Sea of Trolls, a "rich and satisfying fantasy based on Norse mythology," according to Kliatt reviewer Paula Rohrlick, appeared in 2004. The novel concerns Jack, a young wizard's apprentice, and Jack's sister, Lucy, who are kidnapped from their Saxon village by Viking berserkers. When Jack casts a spell on the wicked Viking queen, she threatens to kill Lucy unless he undertakes a perilous quest to Mimir's Well, a well deep in troll country that will help him restore her appearance. Accompanied by a fierce warrior named Olaf One-Brown, the shield maiden Thorgil, and a magical crow, Jack ventures to Jotunheim, where he and his friends encounter dragons, troll-bears, and giant spiders. "Jack is a friendly companion in this exciting story of sacrifices made, lessons learned, and friends lost and found," noted a critic in Kirkus Reviews, and School Library Journal contributor Steven Engelfried similarly observed, "Jack's growing maturity and wisdom develop naturally within the novel's flow." In an interview with James Blasingame for the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, Farmer stated, "The Sea of Trolls was a glorious vacation from beginning to end. However, the inspiration for it, the attacks of 9/11, was serious. I wanted to deal with the theme on a mythological level children could tolerate." Farmer added, "Thus, with The Sea of Trolls, I describe another unexpected and undeserved tragedy, which is solved by courage and a belief in the value of life."
Although Farmer does not like to analyze her motivation or career, she once told SATA: "According to the Shona, the Africans among whom we lived, I had been visited by a shave (pronounced 'shah-vay') or wandering spirit. Shaves come from people who haven't received proper burial rites. They drift around until they find a likely host, possess whoever it is, and teach him or her a skill. In my case I got a traditional storyteller. Now I am a full-time professional storyteller myself." She also recommended to would-be writers: "My rules for becoming a successful writer are these: (1) Read as much as possible, (2) write as much as possible for several years, and (3) submit manuscripts to a wide variety of editors. Sooner or later you will find one who loves your particular style. Your B.A. degree in writing is your first book contract."
Biographical and Critical Sources
St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers, 2nd edition, St. James (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Booklist, April 1, 1993, p. 1431; April 1, 1994, Hazel Rochman, review of The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm, p. 1436; April 1, 1995, Mary Harris Veeder, review of The Warm Place, p. 1391; June 1, 1996, Carolyn Phelan, review of Runnery Granary, p. 1731; August, 1998, p. 2029; September 15, 1998, p. 219; September 15, 1999, Shelle Rosenfeld, review of Casey Jones's Fireman: The Story of Sim Webb, p. 259; September 15, 2002, Sally Estes, review of The House of the Scorpion, p. 232; November 1, 2004, Jennifer Mattson, review of The Sea of Trolls, p. 475.
Bookseller, November 15, 2002, "Nancy Farmer Shortlisted for National Book Award," p. 34.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, May, 1995, Roger Sutton, review of The Warm Place, p. 304.
English Journal, November, 1997, review of A Girl Named Disaster, p. 124.
Horn Book, September-October, 1993, Lois F. Anderson, review of Do You Know Me?, pp. 597-598; September-October, 1994, Anne Deifendeifer, review of The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm; September-October, 1995, Sarah Guille, review of The Warm Place; September-October, 1996, Lolly Robinson, review of Runnery Granary, p. 575; November-December, 1996, Martha V. Parravano, review of A Girl Named Disaster, pp. 734-735; November-December, 2002, Barbara Scotto, review of The House of the Scorpion, pp. 753-754; November-December, 2004, Roger Sutton, review of The Sea of Trolls, pp. 706-707.
Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, December, 2003, Kathleen Harris, review of The House of the Scorpion, pp. 349-350; September, 2004, James Blasin-game, review of The Sea of Trolls, p. 73, and interview with Farmer, pp. 78-79.
Kirkus Reviews, July 1, 2002, review of The House of the Scorpion, p. 954; September 15, 2004, review of The Sea of Trolls, p. 913.
Kliatt, July, 1996, pp. 46-47; July, 1998, Sheila H. Williams, review of A Girl Named Disaster, p. 46; September, 2002, Paula Rohrlick, review of The House of the Scorpion, p. 8; September, 2004, Paula Rohrlick, review of The Sea of Trolls, pp. 8-9.
New York Times Book Review, November 17, 2002, Roger Sutton, "Disorder at the Border," p. 39.
Publishers Weekly, March 15, 1993, review of Do You Know Me?, pp. 88-89; April 11, 1994, review of The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm, p. 66; March 20, 1995, review of The Warm Place, p. 62; May 20, 1996, review of Runnery Granary, p. 259; October 28, 1996, review of A Girl Named Disaster, p. 82; September 6, 1999, review of Casey Jones's Fireman, p. 102; July 1, 2002, review of The House of the Scorpion, pp. 80-81; July 22, 2002, Jennifer M. Brown, "Nancy Farmer: Voices of Experience," pp. 154-155; July 19, 2004, review of The Sea of Trolls, p. 162; October 25, 2004, Jennifer M. Brown, "Nancy Farmer: Fantasy Rooted in Facts," pp. 22-23.
Reading Today, February-March, 2003, "U.S. National Book Award Winners Named," p. 16.
School Library Journal, April, 1993, p. 118; March, 1995, Ellen Fader, review of The Warm Place, p. 204; August, 1996, Kathy East, review of Runnery Granary, p. 122; October, 1996, Susan Pine, review of A Girl Named Disaster, pp. 144-145; October, 1999, Kate McClelland, review of Casey Jones's Fireman, pp. 136-137; September, 2002, Susan L. Rogers, review of The House of the Scorpion, p. 224; February, 2003, Kathleen T. Horning, "The House of Farmer," pp. 48-51; October, 2004, Steven Engelfried, review of The Sea of Trolls, p. 163.
U.S. News & World Report, October 21, 2002, Holly J. Morris, "Clone Alone," p. 16.
Voice of Youth Advocates, December, 1996, Norma A. Sisson, review of A Girl Named Disaster, p. 268; June, 1997, p. 85.
Wilson Library Bulletin, June, 1995, p. 134.
Educational Paperback Association Web site, http://www.edupaperback.org/ (April 5, 2003), "Farmer, Nancy."