13 minute read

Elvira Woodruff (1951–) Biography

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

Born 1951, in Somerville, NJ; Education: Attended Adelphi University, 1970–71, and Boston University, 1971–72.


Agent—c/o Author Mail, Holiday House, 425 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10017.


Writer. Worked variously as a janitor, gardener, baker, window decorator, ice-cream truck driver, storyteller, and library aide; owner of toy, clothing, and miscellany store in Clinton, NJ.

Honors Awards

Dear Napoleon, I Know You're Dead, But—included in numerous child-voted state awards, including Missouri's Mark Twain Book Award, Oklahoma's Sequoyah Children's Book Award, and West Virginia Children's Book Award.


Awfully Short for the Fourth Grade, illustrated by Will Hillenbrand, Holiday House (New York, NY), 1989.

Tubtime, illustrated by Suçie Stevenson, Holiday House (New York, NY), 1990.

The Summer I Shrank My Grandmother, illustrated by Katherine Coville, Holiday House (New York, NY), 1990.

The Wing Shop, illustrated by Stephen Gammell, Holiday House (New York, NY), 1991.

Show and Tell, illustrated by Denise Brunkus, Holiday House (New York, NY), 1991.

Back in Action, illustrated by Will Hillenbrand, Holiday House (New York, NY), 1991.

Mrs. McClosky's Monkeys, illustrated by Jill Kastner, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1991.

George Washington's Socks, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1991.

The Disappearing Bike Shop, Holiday House (New York, NY), 1992.

Dear Napoleon, I Know You're Dead, But—, illustrated by Noah and Jess Woodruff, Holiday House (New York, NY), 1992.

The Secret Funeral of Slim Jim the Snake, Holiday House (New York, NY), 1993.

Ghosts Don't Get Goose Bumps, illustrated by Joel Iskowitz, Holiday House (New York, NY), 1993.

The Magnificent Mummy Maker, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1994.

Dear Levi: Letters from the Overland Trail, illustrated by Ruth Peck, Knopf (New York, NY), 1994.

A Dragon in My Backpack, illustrated by Denise Brunkus, Troll Associates (Metuchen, NJ), 1996.

The Orphan of Ellis Island: A Time Travel Adventure, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1997.

Dear Austin: Letters from the Underground Railroad, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter, Knopf (New York, NY), 1998.

The Christmas Doll, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1998.

The Memory Coat, illustrated by Michael Dooling, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1998.

Can You Guess Where We're Going?, illustrations by Cynthia Fisher, Holiday House (New York, NY), 1998.

The Ghost of Lizard Light, Knopf (New York, NY), 1999.

The Ravenmaster's Secret: Escape from the Tower of London, Scholastic (New York, NY), 2003.


Elvira Woodruff combines history and magic in equal measure in her novels and picture books for young readers. With books such as Awfully Short for the Fourth Grade, The Disappearing Bike Shop, Dear Napoleon, I Know You're Dead, But—, and The Ravenmaster's Secret, she spans a broad readership, from the read-aloud set to middle graders. Reviewing The Summer I Shrank My Grandmother, a Publishers Weekly
[Image Not Available]
contributor commented that "Woodruff seems to know all the tricks for holding a middle grade audience: blending elements of magic, fast-paced action and a dab of levity, she produces an irresistible tale."

"Becoming a writer has been one of the most pleasant surprises I've had in my life," Woodruff once told Something about the Author (SATA). Born in New Jersey, she wrote her first poem at age nine: "I can remember sitting at the dining room table with my pencil and paper and feeling as if I had just discovered something really wonderful," she recalled. "I had. It was the joy of creating. It was the same feeling I had when I completed my first piece of embroidery, planted my first garden, painted my first picture."

Despite this discovery, it would be several decades before Woodruff embraced her calling as a writer. After attending college as an English literature major for two years, she left for the world of work, and for the next fifteen years held a series of different jobs, including receptionist, window-dresser, and library aide. She also married and raised two sons, which provided her a second exposure to children's books. "It was like coming back to an old love," she recalled to SATA. Taking up writing in her thirties, she was fortunate to have the aid of her cousin, author and illustrator Frank Asch, who provided advice with both manuscript preparation and selecting a publisher. "He looked over my work, offered suggestions, and basically held my hand through the births of those first efforts." Woodruff's first manuscript, the picture-book text Mrs. McClosky's Monkeys, was published, but only after several other Woodruff titles had hit the shelves.

After a divorce required her to earn a more stable income, and the sale of her second manuscript, Tubtime, suggested that there was a living to be made in children's books, Woodruff converted her sewing table to a desk and exchanged her sewing machine for a computer. Her instincts proved right: during her first years she published three or more books a year, moving from picture books such as The Wing Shop and Show and Tell to historical novels for older readers. In the early 1990s she added speaker to her profession, and began to talk to young people about what it is like to be an author.

In Tubtime, which Ilene Cooper praised in Booklist for showing that "bath time has never been more fun," three little sisters take a bath together after a mud fight. While talking on the telephone downstairs, their mother keeps yelling up to the children to see if they are doing all right. Meanwhile, the girls have begun blowing soap bubbles, and each becomes magically stuffed with an animal: a chicken, a frog, even an alligator. "The fantastic happenings in the bathroom … escalate with impunity," Cooper added, concluding that Tubtime "bubbl[es] … over with good cheer." Praised as "lighthearted" by School Library Journal reviewer Liza Bliss, Tubtime contains the fantasy elements that are repeated in many of Woodruff's more recent works.

[Image Not Available]

More fantasy is served up in The Wing Shop, which tells the story of a boy who is disappointed by his family's move to a new neighborhood until he views it from up on high via a pair of special wings purchased at Featherman's Wing Shop. In Show and Tell, a boy searching for the perfect object for school sharing finds a bottle of bubbles in the grass; when the bubbles land on his teacher and fellow students, they shrink down to the size of a spec and float about the room and then out the window on an airborne adventure. Once safely enlarged and back in class, all agree that Andy's was the best show and tell ever. Horn Book contributor Nancy Vasilakis commented of The Wing Shop that Woodruff's "simple story, with its reassuring theme of change and acceptance, is filled out and given added meaning by Stephen Gammell's exuberant and wildly improbable illustrations." Show and Tell also received praise; "Any kid who has ever brought a dopey item for show-and-tell … will relish Andy's success," wrote Ilene Cooper in a review of the book for Booklist.

In the first of Woodruff's popular middle-grade novels, Awfully Short for the Fourth Grade, young Noah finds a packet of magic dust in the gumball machine. Surprisingly, the dust actually works, making him shrink to the size of his plastic toy action figures. Now Lilliputian in size, he joins his toys in an adventure, proving how treacherous the school yard can be for a little guy. Noah and his new companions have several close shaves with the school bully and a rapacious hamster before the boy returns to normal size. A critic for Kirkus Reviews noted that "Woodruff wins some chuckles with her humorous depiction of grade-school subcultures … and her topic will be dear to the heart of any child who collects little plastic creatures." Elaine Fort Weischedel concluded in School Library Journal that Awfully Short for the Fourth Grade "is pleasant fare and a promising debut for Woodruff," while Booklist reviewer Denise Wilms dubbed the book a "breezy adventure, with particular appeal for boys."

Noah returns in Back in Action, in which the nine year old is still a fan of plastic action figures. This time, he brings friend Nate along on his small-scale adventures, but when the shrinking powder brings Nate's toy monster to life, the adventures become a battle for survival; Noah must learn some fast leadership skills in order to deploy his action figures and battle the hungry monster. Elaine E. Knight, writing in School Library Journal, noted that Woodruff affirms "the value of individual initiative and cooperative effort" in her "light-fantasy adventure," while in Booklist contributor Linda Callaghan deemed the book's mix of action tale and fantasy "ripe with clever plot action, excitement, and humor." Kathryn Pierson Jennings commented in a review of Back in Action for the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books that the novelist "knows boys' fantasies—endless candy, a working space station and plane to fly in, and a real army."

George Washington's Socks takes the reader back to the American Revolution as Matthew, his sister Kate, and three friends board an old rowboat and are transported back in time. Poorly dressed for the weather, Kate receives the gift of a pair of warm socks from the chivalrous Washington himself. Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci plays a supporting role in The Disappearing Bike Shop, in which Tyler and best friend Freckle grow suspicious over a bike shop that seems to disappear and reappear on a vacant lot. Finally building up their courage, they enter the shop and encounter the strange owner, Quigley, who has a secret room full of inventions and amazing drawings. Later, working on a school report on Leonardo da Vinci, Tyler becomes convinced that Quigley is the reincarnation of the Italian inventor/artist. School Library Journal contributor Jana R. Fine noted that "Woodruff's story combines mystery, suspense, and an element of danger into a rollicking good adventure," and added that "readers will be drawn into the smoothly building plot and find that the past can be truly exciting."

Napoleon Bonaparte plays a walk-on role in Dear Napoleon, I Know You're Dead, But—, a story centering on another school assignment. Writing letters to historical figures can be boring … that is, until they begin to write back. When Marty's letter to the long-dead French emperor is relayed via the boy's crusty but lovable grandfather, Marty receives a surprise: a response, postmarked from Paris, from Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte himself! Marty thinks it is one of Grandfather's tricks, until the elderly man dies, and after the funeral a grieving Marty receives a letter from artist Vincent Van Gogh. Todd Morning, reviewing Dear Napoleon, I Know You're Dead, But— in School Library Journal, wrote that Woodruff's book maintains "a nice balance … between the story's serious elements and the humorous, fantastic parts," and added that the "affectionate relationship between Marty and his grandfather is particularly well rendered."

History takes on another time-travel aspect in The Orphan of Ellis Island. In this novel Dominic has no heritage to share in his fifth-grade discussion on family backgrounds because he has spent much of his life in foster care. A visit to New York's Ellis Island with his class and his effort to escape an uncomfortable moment result in a trip back in time. Finding himself in Italy in 1908. Dominic is befriended by orphaned brothers en route for America, and he shares their immigrant adventures in this "enjoyable and informative tale," according to Susan L. Rogers in School Library Journal.

More conventional history is served up in the companion books Dear Levi: Letters from the Overland Trail and Dear Austin: Letters from the Underground Railway. In both titles Woodruff employs the epistolary format to tell historical tales. Dear Levi follows Austin Ives, a twelve-year-old orphan, as he sets out in 1851 for the Oregon Territory and writes to his brother, Levi, in Pennsylvania about the adventures he has on his pioneering trip. Booklist reviewer Deborah Abbott concluded that Dear Levi makes for "solid reading," while Elizabeth Bush noted in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books that "Woodruff presents a bounty of information in a format that will be especially valued as a classroom readaloud." Discussing the sequel in School Library Journal, Janet Gillen noted that Levi's letters back to his brother in Dear Austin telling of his adventures aiding escaping slaves on the Underground Railroad serve as an "emotional and gripping tale of one boy's confrontations with the issue of slavery and its significance in American history."

In The Ravenmaster's Secret Woodruff takes her interest in history farther afield, setting the middle-grade novel in England. The year is 1735, a brutal time that is overshadowed by Scotland's efforts to gain independence from English rule. Eleven-year-old Forrest lives at the Tower of London, a prison where some of the inmates are condemned to face death at a public hanging. Forrest's father, a ravenmaster, cares for the birds living in the tower and also brings food to the prisoners held
[Image Not Available]
there. When one of the prisoners condemned to death turns out to be a young Scottish rebel named Maddy, Forrest sees a new side of the Scottish cause. Together with his pet raven Tuck, Forrest helps Maddy plot her path to freedom in a novel that School Library Journal reviewer Bruce Ann Shook praised for containing "suspense, excitement, and interesting characters." In Booklist Carolyn Phelan cited The Ravenmaster's Secret as "an absorbing historical adventure with a unique and colorful setting," adding that Woodruff's inclusion of a glossary of period terms and a background essay on the Tower of London is an "unusual but welcome" aid for young history buffs. A Publishers Weekly reviewer added that Woodruff "has much to say about the nature of war, judgment and prejudice" in her thoughtful text, while a Childhood Education reviewer dubbed The Ravenmaster's Secret "a real page turner."

Whether writing lighthearted fare about the shrinking adventures of a fourth-grader, or more hard-hitting stories of young people caught in the maw of history, Woodruff employs a keen observer's eye and a continual sense of humor. "I've found that writing is an organic process, unfolding from one's life," the author once told SATA. "What you have to do as a writer is feel, look, and listen. Your stories then become a celebration of these observations."

Biographical and Critical Sources


Booklist, January 1, 1990, Denise Wilms, review of Awfully Short for the Fourth Grade, p. 922; April 1, 1990, Ilene Cooper, review of Tubtime, p. 1561; January 15, 1991, p. 1059; September 15, 1991, Ilene Cooper, review of Show and Tell, pp. 167-168; January 15, 1992, Linda Callaghan, review of Back in Action, p. 941; March 15, 1992, pp. 1380-1381; December 15, 1992, p. 739; January 15, 1994, p. 931; July, 1994, Deborah Abbott, review of Dear Levi: Letters from the Overland Trail, p. 1949; January 1, 2004, Carolyn Phelan, review of The Ravenmaster's Secret, p. 864.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, January, 1992, Kathryn Pierson Jennings, review of Back in Action, p. 142; December, 1992, p. 128; February, 1994, p. 205; September, 1994, Elizabeth Bush, review of Dear Levi: Letters from the Overland Trail, pp. 28-29; March, 1997, pp. 261-262.

Childhood Education, summer, 2004, review of The Ravenmaster's Secret, p. 215.

Horn Book, May-June, 1991, Nancy Vasilakis, review of The Wing Shop, p. 327; September-October, 1994, p. 592.

Kirkus Reviews, September 1, 1989, review of Awfully Short for the Fourth Grade, p. 1335; March 1, 1991, p. 325; May 15, 1994, p. 710; January 15, 1997, p. 147; October 15, 2003, review of The Ravenmaster's Secret, p. 1277.

New York Times Book Review, June 16, 1991, p. 25.

Publishers Weekly, April 27, 1990, p. 60; November 2, 1990, review of The Summer I Shrank My Grandmother, p. 74; March 22, 1991, p. 80; May 10, 1991, p. 281; July 8, 1996, p. 85; February 9, 1998, p. 98; September 25, 2000, review of The Christmas Doll, p. 74; January 5, 2004, review of The Ravenmaster's Secret, p. 62.

School Library Journal, November, 1989, Elaine Fort Weischedel, review of Awfully Short for the Fourth Grade, p. 116; July, 1990, Liza Bliss, review of Tubtime, p. 66; June, 1991, Ruth Semrau, review of Mrs. McClosky's Monkeys, p. 93; November, 1991, Eve Larkin, review of The Wing Shop, p. 109, and Bruce Anne Shook, review of George Washington's Socks, p. 125; December, 1991, Elaine E. Knight, review of Back in Action, pp. 119-120; May, 1992, Jana R. Fine, review of The Disappearing Bike Shop, p. 117; October, 1992, Todd Morning, review of Dear Napoleon, I Know You're Dead, But—, pp. 123-124; May, 1997, Susan L. Rogers, review of The Orphan of Ellis Island, p. 140; October, 1998, Janet Gillen, review of Dear Austin: Letters from the Underground Railway, p. 148; March, 1999, p. 188; October, 2000, review of The Christmas Doll, p. 64; January, 2004, Bruce Anne Shook, review of The Ravenmaster's Secret, p. 138.


Elvira Woodruff Home Page, http://www.ewoodruff.com (July 6, 2002).

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: Carlos Watson Biography - Was a Student Journalist to Stefan Zweig (1881–1942) Biography