Susan Kuklin (1941-) Biography
Personal, Addresses, Career, Member, Honors Awards, Writings, Sidelights
Born 1941, in Philadelphia, PA; Education: New York University, B.S., 1963, M.A., 1966. Hobbies and other interests: Dance, traveling, gardening (in pots on a roof terrace), reading (especially Chinese and Japanese fiction and the classics), visiting museums, theater concerts, opera.
Agent—c/o Author Mail, Putnam Publishers, 200 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10016.
Photographer and writer. New York City Public Schools, New York, NY, English teacher, 1965-74; New York City Board of Education, curriculum developer, 1970-74; University of Tennessee, Knoxville, teacher of film studies, 1974-76; photojournalist, 1974—. Member of executive committee, Works Ballet Company. Exhibitions: Photographs exhibited at Lincoln Center Library, 1973; Lever House, New York, NY, 1986; and at other group shows in and around New York City.
International PEN, Authors Guild, Authors League of America, Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators.
Outstanding Science Trade Book for Children designation, National Science Teachers Association, 1980, for The Story of Nim; Notable Children's Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies designation, National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS)/ Children's Book Council, 1984, for Mine for a Year; Thinking Big named a Best Book of the Year by School Library Journal and International Board on Books for Young People, both 1986, and among Child Study Association of America's Children's Books of the Year, 1987; Reaching for Dreams named a Best Book of 1987 by American Library Association (ALA) and New York Public Library; best children's book award, San Francisco Chronicle, Words Project for AIDS' Names Project award, and Association of Children's Librarians of Northern California Best Book designation, all 1989, all for Fighting Back; Best Book for Reluctant Young-Adult Readers designation, and Best of the Year designation, New York Public Library, both 1993, and best nonfiction book designation, Hungry Mind, 1994, all for Speaking Out: Teenagers Take on Race, Sex, and Identity; ALA Best Books designation, Best Book for Reluctant Young-Adult Readers, Best of the Year designation, New York Public Library, and Suicide Prevention Award, New Jersey Survivors of Suicide Conference, all 1994, all for After a Suicide: Young People Speak Up; Book of the Year designation, Choice, 1996, Christopher Award, 1997, and Voice of Youth Advocates nonfiction honor list inclusion, all for Irrepressible Spirit: Conversations with Human Rights Activists; Carter G. Woodson award, NCSS Outstanding Merit Book award, and Pick of the List, American Book Sellers, all for How My Family Lives in America; Best Book designations, New York Public Library, and Parent's Guide to Children's Media, both 2003, both for All Aboard!
AND PHOTOGRAPHER; FOR YOUNG PEOPLE
Mine for a Year, Coward (New York, NY), 1984.
Thinking Big: The Story of a Young Dwarf, Lothrop (New York, NY), 1986.
Reaching for Dreams: A Ballet from Rehearsal to Opening Night, Lothrop (New York, NY), 1987.
When I See My Doctor, Bradbury Press (New York, NY), 1988.
When I See My Dentist, Bradbury Press (New York, NY), 1988.
Taking My Cat to the Vet, Bradbury Press (New York, NY), 1988.
Taking My Dog to the Vet, Bradbury Press (New York, NY), 1988.
Fighting Back: What Some People Are Doing about AIDS, Putnam (New York, NY), 1988.
Going to My Ballet Class, Bradbury Press (New York, NY), 1989.
Going to My Nursery School, Bradbury Press (New York, NY), 1990.
What Do I Do Now: Talking about Teenage Pregnancy, Putnam (New York, NY), 1991.
Going to My Gymnastics Class, Bradbury Press (New York, NY), 1991.
How My Family Lives in America, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1992.
Speaking Out: Teenagers Take on Race, Sex, and Identity, Putnam (New York, NY), 1993.
Fighting Fires, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1993.
After a Suicide: Young People Speak Up, Putnam (New York, NY), 1994.
From Head to Toe: How a Doll Is Made, Hyperion (New York, NY), 1994.
Kodomo: Children of Japan, Putnam (New York, NY), 1995.
Irrepressible Spirit: Conversations with Human Rights Activists, Putnam (New York, NY), 1996.
Fireworks: The Science, the Art, and the Magic, Hyperion (New York, NY), 1996.
Dance Hyperion (New York, NY), 1998.
Iqbal Masih and the Crusaders against Child Slavery, Holt (New York, NY), 1998.
Hoops with Swoopes, Hyperion (New York, NY), 2001.
The Harlem Nutcracker, Hyperion (New York, NY), 2001.
Trial: The Inside Story, Holt (New York, NY), 2001.
From Wall to Wall, Putnam (New York, NY), 2002.
All Aboard!: A True Train Story, Orchard (New York, NY), 2003.
Contributor of photographs and essays to periodicals, including Time, Newsweek, Psychology Today, New York, New York Times, Pegasus, Us, Der Spiegel, Science, Dance, Discovery, Cricket, Woman, Junior Scholastic, Viva, Family Weekly, and Planned Parenthood Review.
Herbert Terrace, Nim, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1979.
(With Herbert Terrace) Anna Michel, The Story of Nim, a Chimp Who Learned Language, Knopf (New York, NY), 1979.
Paul Thompson, The Hitchhikers, Franklin Watts (New York, NY), 1980.
Linda Atkinson, Hit and Run, Franklin Watts (New York, NY), 1981.
Gene DeWesse, Nightmares in Space, Franklin Watts (New York, NY), 1981.
Contributor of photographs to books, including How Animals Behave, National Geographic Society Books (Washington, DC), 1984; Terry Miller, Greenwich Village and How It Got That Way, Crown (New York, NY), 1990; and Robert Lacy, editor, Balanchine's Ballerinas, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1984.
Susan Kuklin has blended her skill as a photographer with her penchant for dramatic story-telling to produce a number of books for teen readers, many of which tackle controversial and difficult subjects. Kuklin's focus has ranged from teen pregnancy to suicide, from dwarfism to AIDS, and from prejudice to the fight for human rights. In award-winning titles such as Fighting Back: What Some People Are Doing about AIDS and Thinking Big, Kuklin explores the human drama behind the statistics, making such subjects at once readable and informative. The author/photographer's love of dance and theater has also found expression in her published work, and her series of books for younger readers help children confront potentially scary situations, from a first visit to the dentist to their first day at nursery school.
Kuklin came to children's books in a roundabout manner: through dance and theater, and then to photography and writing. Growing up in Philadelphia, she was introduced to "art, theater, and books," as she once told Something about the Author ( SATA ). "Going to the opera, ballet, or theater with my family was my idea of a wonderful time. At night my grandmother would read to me Russian fables and short stories, and I spent a great deal of time at the public library."
Kuklin especially loved dance and decided she wanted to become a dancer, though by the time she was a teenager such enthusiasm had evolved from direct participation to "audience appreciation." Yet the performing arts still held her interest, and she found a new dream: becoming an actress. To that end, she spent summers as an apprentice at Philadelphia's Playhouse in the Park and Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival, working in minor roles or backstage and rubbing shoulders with real actors such as Jessica Tandy and Geraldine Page.
While attending New York University, Kuklin majored in drama and took acting classes at the Herbert Berghof Studio. In graduate school her desire for an on-stage career was replaced by an interest in directing. "While acting taught me how to interpret a part, directing forced me to look at the big picture which included a visual application of the art," Kuklin later recalled. "I learned about framing, position, lighting, movement, etc. These fundamentals later became intrinsic aspects of my approach to photography and nonfiction writing." Such a career was still several years in the future, however; shortly after graduating from college, Kuklin supplemented her meager acting income by teaching English and helping with curriculum development in the New York City schools. She liked to stress drama in her curriculum, and was particularly pleased with how her pupils—mainly inner-city kids—responded to the plays of William Shakespeare. During these years she also became an inveterate traveler; she also took up photography as a way to record some of these trips.
Kuklin married in 1973 and moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, when her law-professor husband was offered a position there. She also taught at the University of Tennessee in the film studies department. During her two years in Knoxville, and inspired by travels in Appalachia, she began to take her photography seriously. Working with Planned Parenthood, Kuklin produced a photo essay titled "Appalachian Families." Slowly, editors began to take notice of her work, and she won commissions. To hone her skills she studied photography—not only composition but also printing and other darkroom techniques.
Once back in New York Kuklin won a children's book contract, taking photographs for the story of a chimpanzee who was taught language. Work on The Story of Nim: The Chimpanzee Who Learned Language was "a far cry from Appalachia," as Kuklin recalled, noting that she learned basic sign language before she was introduced to her chimp subject. What resulted was a popular and award-winning account of a fascinating study in communication between the chimp and human animal species.
For her next project, Kuklin created a photographic essay documenting the production of a new ballet by noted choreographer George Balanchine. With the success of 1987's Reaching for Dreams: A Ballet from Rehearsal to Opening Night, assignments from major magazines began coming her way. During this time, she missed delving into a subject in greater depth, something her work on children's books had allowed her. Kuklin returned to children's books with her first authored and illustrated title, Mine for a Year. In this story, she focuses on a seeing-eye-dog-in-training and its human trainer, a foster child named George who, as part of a 4-H program, works with the puppy for a year. Interestingly, George himself suffers from failing eyesight and might one day need a dog like Doug, the puppy he is helping to train. "As a photographer, sight, obviously, is essential," Kuklin noted. "What would it be like not to have sight?" Mine for a Year answers this question, and was praised as containing "great" human interest appeal by a Booklist reviewer. A reviewer for the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books was "impressed by the candor and directness of the text," which follows the 4-H Club's dog-training program.
Kuklin tells the story of eight-year-old dwarf Jaime Osborn in Thinking Big. She worked closely with Jaime and her family, focusing on all the things the Osborns want readers to learn about being a dwarf. Thinking Big does a "good job of providing information simply," according to a Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books writer. Readers will come to understand that "having a disability doesn't make another child different in any but a physical sense." Elizabeth S. Watson, writing in Horn Book, commented on the "well integrated" text and photos, and noted that the book should be "a real addition" to the limited resources available for children with such special needs. Margaret C. Howell concluded in School Library Journal that Thinking Big is a "positive book that should be of interest to libraries as it covers a subject about which little has been written."
With Reaching for Dreams Kuklin indulges her love of the dance once again, this time creating a book-length study of how a dance production is staged. She followed the rehearsals of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in preparation for a new ballet. "All my books are important to me," Kuklin explained to SATA, adding that Reaching for Dreams "is especially from the heart." Many reviewers agreed. Margrett J. McFadden called the book "delightful" in her Voice of Youth Advocates review, concluding that "Students (or browsers) at any age will enjoy the pictures and commentary."
Kuklin again focuses on the dance while teaming up with choreographer Donald Byrd for The Harlem Nutcracker. As she explained on her Web site, in contrast to the "traditional Nutcracker by E. T. A. Hoffmann, … Byrd's Nutcracker is black, not white. The music is Ellington, not Tchaikovsky. The choreography is jazz dancing, not classical ballet." Although, according to a Publishers Weekly contributor, the work "meanders and the photos are uncharacteristically grainy," a Kirkus reviewer wrote that the photographs "capture both the expressive movement of the dancers and their subtle emotions." "This powerful story is not just an-other retold fairy tale," the reviewer concluded of The Harlem Nutcracker; "it stands on its own, dancing in the reader's imagination." She also teamed up with dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones to produce Dance. Combining simple text and beautiful photos, the book captures "all the movement, joy, and pulsating energy of dance," according to a Horn Book contributor, while Glenn Griffin commented in Dance that "Kuklin's photographs of Jones illustrate the text with fine insight and powerful images," creating a volume that Griffin dubbed "a delight."
Though many of Kuklin's books are aimed at middle-and high-school readers, she has also written and illustrated several books with younger readers in mind. "By combining photojournalism techniques with medium format photography, actual experiences of a young child going to the doctor, the dentist, etc., are portrayed," Kuklin explained of these books to SATA. When I See My Doctor and When I See My Dentist won praise from a Booklist critic as being "notable for their realistic approaches, relatively detailed texts, and attractive formats." Other titles directed toward a young readership include Going to My Ballet Class, which was praised as "A handsome book on a subject seldom approached at the beginning level" by Carolyn Phelan in Booklist. Nancy Vasilakis, writing in Horn Book, described as a "welcome addition" Kuklin's inclusion of an afterword for parents on how to choose a ballet school for their children, noting that it offers "sound and detailed practical advice."
In 2003, Kuklin traveled through the Colorado Rockies to photograph and write about Durango and Silverton Narrow-Gauge steam engines. Describing her book All Aboard! A True Train Story, she told SATA that "To write about these old gals, I rode the narrow rails, taping their chugga-chuggs, hisses, and whoos." These same sounds echo in the text of the book. Writing in Booklist, Lauren Peterson noted in particular the author's inclusion of "some great descriptive words, which will introduce children to the concept of onomatopoeia—as well as basic train vocabulary." "While young readers may be enthralled by the sight of a steam locomotive in action, older picture book readers may be less satisfied," countered a Publishers Weekly contributor, while Melinda Piehler stated in School Library Journal that "Young train enthusiasts will love this rifle."
From trains and fireworks, Kuklin has ranged in her subjects to walls; as Kuklin noted for SATA, such books were great fun to do, as they are "a departure from my other work and give me an opportunity to stretch." From Wall to Wall covers a variety of wall styles and function from around the world. Dealing with physical as well as emotional walls, Kuklin delves into the meaning of the barricades fashioned by humans. As a Kirkus Reviews contributor noted of the book, "Kuklin's thoughtful exploration of these human-made creations is sure to inspire discussion."
Kuklin features the WNBA Houston Comets' basketball star Sheryl Swoopes in her 2001 photo essay, Hoops with Swoopes. The book introduces young readers to the sport of basketball, and as Ilene Cooper wrote in Booklist, Kuklin "captures the energy and enthusiasm of women's basketball in general and of Swoopes in particular." A reviewer for Publishers Weekly maintained that, through her book, Kuklin "delivers a potent message about female strength and self-esteem," although a Horn Book contributor noted that because the photographer depicts "Swoopes alone, away from competition," the work does not capture "the drama of contact that's a vital part of the game."
Although she has received many awards for her books, Kuklin has been particularly cited for addressing hard-hitting books on controversial topics facing teens. Fighting Back: What Some People Are Doing about AIDS is a "moving portrayal of a dedicated team of trained volunteers," according to a Kirkus Reviews contributor. Beverly Robertson, writing in Voice of Youth Advocates, commented that the book "is an emotionally wrenching story that is accessible to teens because it is about individuals, not numbers." Kuklin employs a similar investigative and interview approach in creating What Do I Do Now? in which she interviews teens from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds to explore the impact pregnancy had on their lives. Laura L. Lent, writing in Voice of Youth Advocates, concluded that this "is a book that simply must be read to gain an understanding of the problem."
Race matters and prejudice are the subject of Kuklin's Speaking Out, which was the result of a year's worth of student interviews at a racially and culturally diverse high school in New York. Teen suicide is the focus of After a Suicide, for which the author interviewed young people who either attempted suicide themselves, or were deeply affected by the suicide of someone close to them. Libby K. White noted in School Library Journal that while many books on teen suicide discuss the effects on survivors, "Kuklin's is the only one that considers their predicament so thoroughly, sympathetically, and intelligently." William R. Mollineaux, writing in Voice of Youth Advocates, concluded that After a Suicide "merits its greatest praise for being a suicide deterrent, for I believe that any reader contemplating suicide will reconsider this final act."
Kuklin investigates human rights issues in An Irrepressible Spirit, which contains the personal testimonies of men and women who experienced human rights abuses. Additionally, the book presents accounts of human-rights workers and comments from representatives of the Human Rights Watch. Tracey Kroll, in School Library Journal, commented that Kuklin's work "will stir strong emotions and raise awareness." Equally hard-hitting, Iqbal Masih and the Crusaders against Child Slavery delves into the issue of child slavery. As Booklist reviewer Hazel Rochman noted, the 1998 volume "is as much a call to action as an account of child slavery and the struggle against it." Drawing on the first-hand accounts of child laborers in several countries, Kuklin reveals the courageous work done by child advocates worldwide, framing the larger picture within the life story of Iqbal Masih, a young Pakistani boy who escaped slavery to become a leading voice in the international fight against child slavery until his murder at age twelve. A Horn Book reviewer concluded that "The honesty, documentation, and timeliness of the unfinished story of both child slavery and the killing of Iqbal Masih are riveting."
Focusing on the U.S. judicial system, Kuklin describes for readers a New York City kidnaping trial involving illegal Chinese immigrants in Trial: The Inside Story. In this detailed work, she covers not only the crime itself, but also the lengthy trial process as it slowly unfolds in most U.S. courts. School Library Journal contributor Ann Brouse concluded that the volume's "excellent organization and wealth of relevant and useful supplementary material create a revealing document," although Booklist contributor Randy Meyer added that Trial requires "a close reading to grasp all the legal maneuvering fully."
More than entertaining readers, Kuklin views as her primary role the raising of awareness among her young readers. "Although the topics we all explore are quite different, a common thread is always present: the urge for self-expression," she once commented to SATA. "In effect, my subjects reveal themselves, warts and all, as a way to begin a conversation." Throughout her body of work, as critics have noted, Kuklin never loses sight of the human subject, despite sometimes complex themes or topics. "When I get right down to it," she once said, "my books revolve around one rudimentary question: how do ordinary people deal with unusual, sometimes extraordinary, situations? I simply report my subject's choices and values, trying hard not to add editorial comments. For a person who loves sappy, happy endings, letting my subject 'go' can be trying. So far, I've been lucky. My subjects have come through wonderfully."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Booklist, September 1, 1984, review of Mine for a Year, p. 67; September 15, 1989, Carolyn Phelan, review of Going to My Ballet Class, p. 185; May 1, 1988, review of When I See My Doctor and When I See My Dentist, p. 1525; June 1, 1996, Stephanie Zvirin, review of Fireworks: The Science, the Art, and the Magic, p. 1710; November 1, 1998, Hazel Rochman, review of Iqbal Masih and the Crusaders against Child Slavery, p. 481; December 15, 2000, Randy Meyer, review of Trial: The Inside Story, p. 806; June 1, 2001, Ilene Cooper, review of Hoops with Swoopes, p. 1885; February 1, 2004, Lauren Peterson, review of All Aboard! A True Train Story, p. 980.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, July-August, 1984, review of Mine for a Year, p. 207; May, 1986, review of Thinking Big, p. 170; April, 1987, pp. 149-150; March, 1989, p. 174; November, 1991, p. 66; April, 1992, pp. 212-213; October, 1993, p. 49; January, 1995, p. 170; April, 1995, p. 279; September, 1996, p. 19.
Dance, August, 1999, Glenn Griffin, review of Dance, p. 40.
Horn Book, September, 1984, p. 607; July-August, 1986, Elizabeth S. Watson, review of Thinking Big, p. 466; January, 1989, p. 91; September-October, 1989, Nancy Vasilakis, review of Going to My Ballet Class, p. 639; January, 1999, review of Iqbal Masih and the Crusaders against Child Slavery, p. 81; January, 2000, review of Dance, p. 44; May, 2001, review of Hoops with Swoopes, p. 348.
Kirkus Reviews, December 15, 1988, review of Fighting Back: What Some People Are Doing about AIDS, p. 1813; September 1, 2001, review of The Harlem Nutcracker, p. 1286; March 15, 2002, review of From Wall to Wall, p. 416.
New York Times Book Review, July 1, 1984, p. 23; January 22, 1989, p. 29.
Publishers Weekly, July 2, 2001, review of Dance, p. 78; September 24, 2001, review of The Harlem Nutcracker, p. 54; December 22, 2003, review of All Aboard!, p. 60.
School Library Journal, October, 1984, p. 158; May, 1987, p. 114; August, 1988, p. 89; October, 1988, p. 133; December, 1988, p. 99; February, 1989, p. 106; September, 1989, p. 241; November, 1990, p. 104; December, 1991, p. 111; March, 1992, p. 231; July, 1993, p. 108; September, 1993, p. 225; August, 1995, p. 148; April, 1996, p. 146; August, 1986, Margaret C. Howell, review of Thinking Big, pp. 83-84; April, 1996, Tracey Kroll, review of Irrepressible Spirits, p. 162; December, 1994, Libby K. White, review of After a Suicide, pp. 135-136; January, 2001, Ann G. Brouse, review of Trial, p. 148; August, 2001, Blair Christolon, review of Hoops with Swoopes, p. 170; December 2003, Melinda Piehler, review of All Aboard!, p. 136.
Voice of Youth Advocates, August, 1991, Laura L. Lent, review of What Do I Do Now?, p. 190; December, 1987, Margrett J. McFadden, review of Reaching for Dreams, p. 250; February, 1995, William R. Mollineaux, review of After a Suicide, pp. 359-360; April, 1989, Beverly Robertson, review of Fighting Back: What Some People Are Doing about AIDS, p. 59.
Susan Kuklin Web site, http://susankuklin.com(September21, 2005).*
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