Colby Rodowsky (1932-) Biography
Personal, Addresses, Career, Honors Awards, Writings, Sidelights
(Colby F. Rodowsky)
Born 1932, in Baltimore, MD; Education: College of Notre Dame of Maryland, B.A. (English), 1953. Religion: Roman Catholic.
Agent—c/o Author Mail, Gail Hochman, Brandt & Brandt, 1501 Broadway, NY 10036.
Teacher in public schools in Baltimore, MD, 1953–55, and in a school for special education, 1955–56; Notre Dame Preparatory School, Baltimore, librarian's assistant, 1974–79; children's book reviewer, Baltimore Sunday Sun, 1977–84.
American Library Association Notable Book citation for Not My Dog and The Gathering Room, and Best Books for Young Adults citation for Julie's Daughter, Hannah in Between, and Remembering Mog; Hedda Seisler Mason Award, Enoch Pratt Library, for Fitchett's Folly; School Library Journal Best Books of the Year citations for The Gathering Room, Julie's Daughter, and Sydney, Herself; Horn Book Fanfare Award for Not My Dog.
What about Me?, F. Watts (New York, NY), 1976.
P.S., Write Soon, F. Watts (New York, NY), 1978.
Evy-Ivy-Over, F. Watts (New York, NY), 1978.
A Summer's Worth of Shame, F. Watts (New York, NY), 1980.
The Gathering Room, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1981.
H, My Name Is Henley, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1982.
Keeping Time, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1983.
Fitchett's Folly, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1987.
Dog Days, illustrated by Kathleen Collins Howell, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1990.
Jenny and the Grand Old Great-Aunts, illustrated by Barbara Roman, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1992.
Hannah in Between, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1994.
The Turnabout Shop, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1998.
Not My Dog, illustrations by Thomas F. Yezerski, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1999.
Spindrift, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2000.
Jason Rat-a-Tat, illustrated by Beth Peck, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2001.
Not Quite a Stranger, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2003.
Clay, Harper Trophy (New York, NY), 2004.
The Next-Door Dogs, illustrations by Amy June Bates, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2005.
That Fernhill Summer, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2006.
FOR YOUNG ADULTS
Julie's Daughter, (sequel to Evy-Ivy-Over), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1985.
Sydney, Herself, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1989.
Lucy Peale, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1992.
Sydney Invincible, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1995.
Remembering Mog, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1996.
Rodowsky's young-adult short stories have been anthologized in Visions, edited by Donald Gallo, Delacorte, 1987, and in Connections, edited by Gallo, Delacorte, 1989.
Contributor of fiction, essays, and reviews to periodicals, including Christian Science Monitor, New York Times Book Review, Washington Post, McCall's and Good Housekeeping.
A former teacher, Colby Rodowsky turned to writing for children when she was forty years old and her youngest child was in second grade. The author of such award-winning books as the middle-grade novel The Gathering Room and the young-adult novels Julie's Daughter and Remembering Mog, Rodowsky has earned praise from critics and readers alike for her likeable protagonists and true-to-life situations. While the young people who inhabit Rodowsky's fiction live in a tough world characterized by unpredictable events and undependable authority figures, their efforts to cope with parental abandonment, poverty, and even death, are aided by warm and loving individuals. As Carol Edwards noted in the School Library Journal, "Rodowsky makes her readers work, never patronizing or condescending, yet always revealing inner layers that poke through the surface."
Born in 1932, Rodowsky grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, and she has set many of her books on Maryland's eastern shore. As a child she wanted to become a writer, and her mother encouraged her. "I don't know whether it was because she was a doting mother or she really thought I could write, but she was very supportive," the author once told an interviewer. Due to her parents' rocky marriage, Rodowsky spent a great deal of time at the home of her grandmother in the Chesapeake Bay, Virginia, town of Cape Charles, where she first discovered the library, and made many friends. That area, which Rodowsky recalled in an autobiographical essay for Something about the Author Autobiography Series (SAAS) was "a wonderful, almost magical place," would become the setting for several of her books.
Rodowsky's elementary-school education was completed in New York City, where she and her mother moved after her parents separated. Despite missing her friends, she loved the city; its energy inspired her to begin writing "'seriously'; pounding away on my mother's typewriter, dipping more often than not into an impassioned purple prose." She even completed her first long story, titled The Strangons, and confidently sent it off to a major New York publisher, although Rodowsky has since remembered this childish first effort as "insignificant and forgotten."
Returning to Baltimore after her parents' divorce when she was fifteen years old, Rodowsky attended a preparatory school in Georgetown and lived with her father and his parents. After graduation, she enrolled at Maryland's College of Notre Dame, living at home and graduating with a degree in English. While there she edited the college literary magazine, worked on the yearbook, and began to write vast quantities of poetry.
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She also met and fell in love with Lawrence Rodowsky, the history major and aspiring lawyer whom she would later marry. Colby established a career as an elementary school teacher and working with children with special needs; she left teaching before the births of the couple's six children. Meanwhile, Larry Rodowsky began a successful legal career that resulted in a seat on the State of Maryland's court of appeals. The Rodowsky family lived in "a very noisy house," as the author once confided to SATA. "The house is quiet now—the children grown up and moved away," she later added. "But the family now includes five sons-in-law, one daughter-in-law, and many grandchildren, who all visit often (and only one dog and one cat)."
Rodowsky's writing career was inspired by a visit with one of her former teachers, Sister Maura Eichner, from Notre Dame. "We weren't talking about writing; we were just talking about books," the novelist noted. Sister Maura "finally stopped what she was saying and looked at me and said, "Just think; you have all your writing still ahead of you.' It really kind of gives me cold chills even now when I think about it. I did not go home and write a book, but I went home thinking maybe I hadn't missed the boat on what I'd really wanted to do."She added, "I was about forty, and at that time I thought if you hadn't done anything by forty, you never would. Now I know a lot better."
In 1972 Rodowsky began a writing tutorial that forced her to return to a typewriter and, as she had done so many years before, start "banging" out a book-length manuscript. While her first effort was unsaleable, she attempted another … and then another. Finally, her third effort, about a fifteen-year-old girl who has a brother with Down's syndrome, was accepted by a publisher and released in 1976 as What about Me?
Drawing from her experience teaching mentally handicapped children, she once explained: "I kind of backed into [What about Me?] because I wanted to write about a child who had a younger brother or sister with a handicap…. I didn't set out to write about a retarded child." In the novel, Rodowsky's young protagonist resents her brother Fredlet, who has Down's syndrome. Although Rodowsky generally knows how a book will end, and often writes the last page first, Fredlet's death took her, as well as her fictional characters, by surprise. Reviewing the novel for Publishers Weekly, Jeane Mercier called it a "profoundly moving, honest and tightly controlled, important novel." With this praise echoed by other critics, Rodowsky was encouraged to continue her literary efforts. When the first of her children left home in the late 1970s, she took over a room in the house as an office and began to feel like a real writer.
Rodowsky's second published novel, P.S., Write Soon, concerns crippled Tanner McClean, who writes an idealized version of her life to her pen-pal Jessie Lee. Tanner glosses over her handicap and the unexpected marriage of her older brother. But although she dislikes her new sister-in-law, Cheryl, the older girl teaches Tanner how to face life realistically rather than hiding in fiction. The Gathering Room takes place in a Baltimore cemetery. Nine-year-old Mudge's father, Ned, moves his family from the inner city and takes a job as caretaker of the old cemetery after the death of a friend. Ned teaches his son in the room where mourners used to congregate, and the boy befriends the spirits of the dead, who "provide this simple, well-wrought story with a pleasant, if melancholy sense of time and mortality," according to Jane Langton in the New York Times Book Review. School Library Journal contributor Elizabeth Holtze noted that Rodowsky "writes clear narrative and convincing dialogue…. Despite the cemetery setting and the problem posed … this is a happy book."
A young girl with the unusual name of Slug connects three of Rodowsky's books that draw from several elements in the author's life. In Evy-Ivy-Over, which takes place in Rodowsky's childhood home of Cape Charles, Slug lives a carefree, if unorthodox, life with her grandmother, Gussie. But as Slug matures, she realizes her
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hand-me-down clothes are funny-looking and that Gussie herself is an odd character. She learns through contact with "normal" families, however, to appreciate Gussie. "I was very close to both of my grandmothers," Rodowsky once recalled. "In Evy-Ivy-Over … I tried to describe the grandmother-grandchild relationship, though I must say neither of my grandmothers was at all like Gussie."
While not the main character, Slug also appears in H, My Name Is Henley, which deals with the plight of a young girl and her restless mother, Patti. Like Rodowsky's own mother, light-hearted, restless Patti is a bit of a dreamer; unable to stay in any one place for long, she stays until she quits her job and moves to another city. "Henley is probably the most mature and perceptive 12-year-old I've met in YA literature," stated Voice of Youth Advocates contributor Barbara Lenchitz Gottesman. "Rodowsky has created a masterpiece." While some reviewers pointed to some weak characterization, "the tension and conflict between mother and daughter, the strain on a child forced into adult responsibilities, and the characterization of Patti are intensely real," wrote Nancy C. Hammond in Horn Book.
Julie's Daughter, which was named a School Library Journal Best Books for Young Adults, unites Slug and her mother Julie, who once abandoned her infant daughter at the bus station. Slug and Julie are brought together in caring for their neighbor, artist Harper Tegges, who is dying of cancer. The story is seen through their three viewpoints. Voice of Youth Advocates contributor Debbie Earl maintained that "the differing narrations help us develop sympathy and understanding" for Rodowsky's protagonists; Earl found the novel "sensitively done and surprisingly humorous." Christine Jenkins, writing in Interracial Books for Children Bulletin, concluded that Julie's Daughter "succeeds in portraying strong women, both old and young."
Rodowsky pairs adventure and comedy in Fitchett's Folly, which again takes place on Maryland's Eastern shore. The novel focuses on a motherless girl, Sarey-Ann, whose father drowns while attempting to rescue another child. Sarey-Ann has to deal with her feelings of resentment toward the foundling, Faith, who comes to live with the girl, her little brother, and her aunt. A Horn Book contributor noted that "Sarey's prickly dislike is convincingly portrayed in her first-person recounting…. Scrapes and adventures add to the story of Sarey's eventual acceptance of Faith."
One of Rodowsky's best-known novels, Sydney, Herself, features another child who has lost a parent. Sydney's Australian father died a month before she was born; blocking out his death, in a school writing assignment, Sydney decides to reinvent herself as the daughter of a rock singer, a member of the group The Boomerangs. When Sydney gives her story to a local newspaper, events snowball. A Horn Book reviewer lauded the novel as "fresh, humorous, and believable. Sydney is interesting—bright, gritty, and sometimes sulky." And adds that the book is "funny, poignant, and appealing." Sydney, Herself would be followed by Sydney, Invincible, as Rodowsky's spunky heroine must deal with being a student in her mother's history class, working to resuscitate the school newspaper, and wait for her best friend Wally to return from boarding school in New Hampshire. Calling Sydney "a refreshingly realistic character" with problems that are "unique enough to be interesting" and solutions that are "plausible and endearing," Voice of Youth Advocates contributor Betsy Eubanks dubbed Sydney, Invincible a coming-of-age novel that shows its protagonist's "maturity evolv[ing] naturally as she deals with the accumulating stress. [Readers] are hopeful that she will succeed and gratified when she learns lessons that make her more sensitive and perceptive." "Rodowsky is an accomplished and sure-footed interpreter of what goes on in the mind of a teenaged girl," added Washington Post Book World critic Brigitte Weeks in praising both Sydney, Herself and its sequel.
In Lucy Peale, a love story for teens, a girl from a strict pastor's family is date-raped. After her father condemns her, she runs away to Ocean City, where she meets Jake, a kind young man who invites her to stay with him. While the two eventually fall in love, Lucy realizes that she must find her own destiny. In the novel, Rodowsky alternates between Lucy's viewpoint and that of a narrator, a technique some reviewers found awkward. However, a Publishers Weekly critic applauded the author's use of plot twists which keep Lucy and Jake's attention focused on their developing relationship, rather than on sex. School Library Journal contributor Jacqueline Rose appreciated "the moods created by descriptions of the sea town's atmosphere that mirror the characters' feelings." A Kirkus reviewer concluded of Lucy Peale, that Rodowsky has penned "a heartwarming story" that is "gentle and appealing [and] written with insight and skill."
Another troubled family is portrayed in Hannah in Between, as twelve-year-old Hannah Brant must cope with an alcoholic parent. Avoiding bringing friends over to her house is just one way of dealing with her mother's erratic behavior. Hannah also attempts to solve the problem by hiding empty bottles and, along with a father in denial, pretending that everything is "normal" at home. When her mother is injured in a car accident as a result of her drinking, Hannah must deal with her situation. Hannah in Between is a book that "weaves a young teen's limited understanding of the disease with her gradual acceptance that only her mother can begin to reverse her illness," according to Horn Book contributor Elizabeth S. Watson. "Although Rodowsky may have us following a predictable path," added Booklist reviewer Stephanie Zvirin, "she guides us forward with sensitivity and a sure hand."
Coping with death is a theme of several of Rodowsky's novels for young teens, among them Remembering Mog, The Turnabout Shop, and Not Quite a Stranger. In Remembering Mog, Annie's high school graduation is overshadowed by memories of her older sister's death two years earlier, on the eve of the girl's own graduation. As each of her family members deal with Mog's death in their own way, Annie takes the summer to realize that she must seek professional help in coming to terms with the loss of her sister so that she can move on in her own life. Counting Remembering Mog as among Rodowsky's "string of solid, real-life stories, without pretense or angst," Voice of Youth Advocates critic Patricia J. Morrow deemed the novel "a quiet book, whose characters and dialogue bring the reader along through insights and adjustments." In Booklist, Stephanie Zvirin added that the novel succeeds "as a poignant, crystalline rendering of death's legacy for a parent and child."
The Turnabout Shop features a fatherless fifth-grader named Livvy whose mother, Althea, dies and leaves her daughter in the care of Jessie Barnes, a single friend to whom Livvy's presence is as much a surprise and adjustment as her new home is to Livvy. Slowly, the two learn to live with one another, and Livvy adapts to a move to Baltimore, a new school, new friends, and being a part of Jessie's large, close-knit family. Noting that readers will immediately identify with Rodowsky's likeable characters," a Kirkus reviewer added that "Jessie … and Althea's characters burst forth from Livvy's narration as vividly as her own." A Publishers Weekly reviewer praised The Turnabout Shop as a "poignant, quiet story [that] offers a reassuring view of coming to terms with grief and unwelcome change."
Seventeen-year-old Zack Pearce shares narrator duties with thirteen-year-old Tottie Flannigan in Not Quite a Stranger. Zack's single mom is dying of cancer, and her dying wish is that he track down the father he has never known. When he does so, he arrives at the Flannigan family's door; the two teens are actually half-brother and-sister. When Zack is taken in by the family, Tottie's life is thrown into turmoil: not only is she no longer the oldest child in the family, but she also starts to view her father as less-than-honorable and loses respect for parental authority. Praised by School Library Journal contributor Edward Sullivan as an "emotionally charged story," Not Quite a Stranger brings to life teens attempting to redefine the contexts of their lives. Rodowsky "does a superb job of downplaying the melo-
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drama of an extraordinary situation," according to a Publishers Weekly reviewer, while a Kirkus Reviews contributor concluded that the author's "deliberate treatment allows her … characters plenty of room to explore their feelings."
In addition to her novels for older readers, Rodowsky has authored several novels for younger children and often casts canines in the main-character role. In Dog Days a young girl discovers that the author of her favorite dog stories is moving in next door … along with the woman's famous dog. Dogs also figure prominently in Not My Dog, a story about a "sort of square, boring brown dog" that is inherited by nine-year-old Ellie in lieu of the bouncy puppy the disappointed girl had been promised by her parents—until Preston shows that he is truly the pick of the litter. The Next-Door Dogs addresses a child's fear of dogs as nine-year-old Sara learns to feel comfortable with the creatures after an understanding dog-lover moves into the house next door. Written for newly minted readers, The Next-Door Dogs was praised by a Kirkus Reviews contributor as a "heartwarming tale of overcoming fears, becoming independent and facing personal challenges," and Horn Book reviewer Martha V. Parravano dubbed it a "story pitched perfectly at younger readers."
Jenny and the Grand Old Great-Aunts and Jason Rat-a-Tat are also aimed at a young audience. In what School Library Journal reviewer Anna DeWind called an "appealing cross-generational story," Jenny and the Grand Old Great-Aunts finds Jenny dropped off to spend the afternoon with her great aunts in their terrifyingly quiet Victorian home. However, the home also reveals a wonderful magic, after one aunt introduces the little girl to a treasure cache in the attic. "This comforting story deftly conveys the strength of the bond that can exist between the old and the young," commented a Publishers Weekly contributor.
Nine-year-old Jason is the star of Jason Rat-a-Tat, and his disinterest in athletics makes him a square peg in his sports-loving family. While his little sister plays soccer, his older brother enjoys baseball, and both his parents are athletic coaches, Jason sits, uninterested, on the sidelines, watching the clouds. Fortunately, a perceptive grandparent recognizes the boy's artistic bent, and a new snare drum unleashes Jason's spirit in an easy reader that a Kirkus Reviews contributor described as a "well-crafted, low-stress tale" that will appeal to "young musician[s] in the making."
Rodowsky is perplexed by comments that imply that writing for children is easier than writing for adults. "I don't think when you write for children that you ever consciously decide you're going to make something simpler, that you ever write down in any way," she once commented. "It's a challenge—a kind of balancing act," she also explained to SATA, "and I get irritated by people who think you write for children because that's where you start, and then you work up to writing for grownups. I don't think it's any easier to write for children than for adults, but the rewards are great—particularly when I get a letter from a child whose life has been touched by a book of mine."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Volume 23, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1998, pp. 169-176.
Something about the Authors Autobiography Series, Volume 22, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1996, pp. 225-239.
Booklist, July, 1992, p. 1933; April 1, 1994, Stephanie Zvirin, review of Hannah in Between, p. 1437; April 15, 1995, Stephanie Zvirin, review of Sydney, Invincible, p. 1493; February 1, 1996, Stephanie Zvirin, review of Remembering Mog, p. 926; June 1, 1998, Kay Weisman, review of The Turnabout Shop, p. 1768; February 1, 1999, Carolyn Phelan, review of Not My Dog, p. 975; February 15, 2000, review of Spindrift, p. 1115; June 1, 2002, Gillian Engberg, review of Jason Rat-a-Tat, p. 1725; November 15, 2003, Gillian Engberg, review of Not Quite a Stranger, p. 593; March 1, 2005, Stephanie Zvirin, review of The Next-Door Dogs, p. 1199.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, February, 1984, p. 116; October, 2003, Deborah Stevenson, review of Not Quite a Stranger, p. 75.
Horn Book, October, 1981, p. 537; April, 1983, Nancy C. Hammond, review of H, My Name Is Henley, p. 167; April, 1984, Mary M. Burns, review of Keeping Time, p. 203; July-August, 1987, review of Fitchett's Folly, p. 473; September-October, 1989, review of Sydney, Herself, p. 631; March-April, 1991, review of Dog Days, p. 202; May-June, 1992, p. 338; September-October, 1994, Elizabeth S. Watson, review of Hannah in Between, p. 601; March, 1999, Martha V. Parravano, review of Not My Dog, p. 212; May-June, 2005, Martha V. Parravano, review of The Next-Door Dogs, p. 479.
Interracial Books for Children Bulletin, Volume 17, number 1, 1986, Christine Jenkins, review of Julie's Daughter, p. 7.
Kirkus Reviews, June 15, 1992, review of Lucy Peale, p. 784; January 15, 1998, review of The Turnabout Shop, p. 117; March 15, 2002, review of Jason Rat-a-Tat, p. 424; July 15, 2003, review of Not Quite a Stranger, p. 967; April 15, 2005, review of The Next-Door Dogs, p. 480.
Kliatt, March, 2000, Paula Rohrlick, review of Spindrift, p. 24; September, 2003, Claire Rosser, review of Not Quite a Stranger, p. 12.
New York Times Book Review, October 25, 1981, Jane Langton, review of The Gathering Room, p. 47.
Publishers Weekly, January 22, 1979, review of What about Me?, p. 371; April 24, 1987, review of Fitchett's Folly, p. 70; June 9, 1989, p. 70; November 23, 1989, review of Dog Days, p. 65; January 6, 1992, review of Jenny and the Grand Old Great-Aunts, p. 66; May 4, 1992, review of Lucy Peale, p. 57; March 25, 1996, review of Remembering Mog, p. 85; January 5, 1998, review of The Turnabout Shop, p. 68; January 10, 2000, review of Spindrift, p. 69; February 25, 2002, review of Jason Rat-a-Tat, p. 67; June 30, 2003, review of Not Quite a Stranger, p. 80.
School Library Journal, October, 1981, Elizabeth Holtze, review of The Gathering Room, p. 146; January, 1983, p. 87; January, 1985, Barbara Jo McKee, review of Keeping Time, p. 88; September, 1985, p. 148; July, 1989, Carol A. Edwards, review of Sidney, Herself, p. 92; April, 1992, Anna DeWind, review of Jenny and the Grand Old Great-Aunts, p. 99; July, 1992, Jacqueline Rose, review of Lucy Peale, p. 91; August, 1995, review of Sydney Invincible, p. 164; April, 2002, Faith Brautigam, review of Jason Rat-a-Tat, p. 121; September, 2003, Edward Sullivan, review in Not Quite a Stranger, p. 220; June, 2005, Jennifer Cogan, review of The Next-Door Dogs, p. 126.
Voice of Youth Advocates, April, 1983, Barbara Lenchitz Gottesman, review of H, My Name Is Henley, p. 41; April, 1986, Debbie Earl, review of Julie's Daughter, p. 34; August, 1995, Betsy Eubanks, review of Sydney, Invincible, p. 164; June, 1996, Patricia J. Morrow, review of Remembering Mog, p. 100; October, 2003, review of Not Quite a Stranger, p. 218.
Washington Post Book World, July, 1995, Brigitte Weeks, review of Sydney, Invincible, pp. 16-17.
Wilson Library Bulletin, February, 1990, p. 84; May, 1990, p. 58.
Children's Book Guild of Washington, DC, Web site, http://www.childrensbookguild.org/ (September 17, 2005), "Colby Rodowsky."
Childrenslit.com, http://www.childrenslit.com/ (September 17, 2005), "Colby Rodowsky."
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