Elizabeth Winthrop (1948-) Biography
Personal, Career, Member, Honors Awards, Writings, Adaptations, Sidelights
(Elizabeth Winthrop Mahony)
Born 1948, in Washington, DC; Education: Sarah Lawrence College, B.A., 1970. Politics: Democrat. Hobbies and other interests: Swimming, hiking, yoga.
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Berkshire Eagle, Pittsfield, MA, reporter, 1969; Harper & Row (publisher), New York, NY, assistant editor of Harper Junior Books, 1971–73; Editors Ink (manuscript evaluation service), New York, NY, founding partner, 1987–; writer. Has lectured at schools and universities and taught at writers' conferences.
PEN, Authors Guild, Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators.
School Library Journal Best of the Best, 1966–78 designation, and American Library Association (ALA) Best Book for Young Adults designation, 1978, both for A Little Demonstration of Affection; ALA Best Book for Young Adults designation, 1980, for Knock, Knock, Who's There?; Children's Choice Award listee, 1985, Utah State Book Award Honor Book, 1986, Dorothy Canfield Fisher Award, 1987, California Young Reader Award, and West Virginia Book Award Honor Book designation, both 1989, and Wyoming Young Adult Honor Book, 1991, all for The Castle in the Attic; PEN Syndicated Fiction awards, 1985, 1990, and Open Voice Award, 1987, for short stories; Texas Bluebonnet Award nomination, 1986, for Belinda's Hurricane; Children's Choice Award listee, 1987, for Lizzie and Harold; Children's Choice Award listee, and Teacher's Choice Award listee, both 1992, both for Vasilissa the Beautiful; New York Times Ten Best Illustrated Children's Books designation, 2001, Book Sense '76 listee, Nick Jr. magazine Best Books for Children designation, and Bank Street College Best Books for Children designation, all 2001, all for Dumpy La Rue.
Bunk Beds, illustrated by Ronald Himler, Harper (New York, NY), 1972.
That's Mine!, illustrated by Emily McCully, Holiday House (New York, NY), 1976.
Potbellied Possums, illustrated by Barbara McClintock, Holiday House (New York, NY), 1977.
Are You Sad, Mama?, illustrated by Donna Diamond, Harper (New York, NY), 1979.
Journey to the Bright Kingdom, illustrated by Charles Mikolaycak, Holiday House (New York, NY), 1979.
Sloppy Kisses, illustrated by Ann Burgess, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1980.
I Think He Likes Me, illustrated by Denise Saldutti, Harper (New York, NY), 1980.
Katharine's Doll, illustrated by Marylin Hafner, Dutton (New York, NY), 1983.
A Child Is Born: The Christmas Story, illustrated by Charles Mikolaycak, Holiday House (New York, NY), 1983.
Tough Eddie, illustrated by Lillian Hoban, Dutton (New York, NY), 1984.
He Is Risen: The Easter Story, illustrated by Charles Mikolaycak, Holiday House (New York, NY), 1985.
Lizzie and Harold, illustrated by Martha Weston, Lothrop (New York, NY), 1986.
Shoes, illustrated by William Joyce, Harper (New York, NY), 1986.
Maggie and the Monster, illustrated by Tomie dePaola, Holiday House (New York, NY), 1987.
Bear and Mrs. Duck, illustrated by Patience Brewster, Holiday House (New York, NY), 1988.
The Best Friends Club: A Lizzie and Harold Story, illustrated by Martha Weston, Lothrop (New York, NY), 1989.
Sledding, illustrated by Sarah Wilson, Harper (New York, NY), 1989.
Bear's Christmas Surprise, illustrated by Patience Brewster, Holiday House (New York, NY), 1991.
A Very Noisy Girl, illustrated by Ellen Weiss, Holiday House (New York, NY), 1991.
(Adapter) Vasilissa the Beautiful: A Russian Folktale, illustrated by Alexander Koshkin, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1991.
Asleep in a Heap, illustrated by Mary Morgan, Holiday House (New York, NY), 1993.
I'm the Boss!, illustrated by Mary Morgan, Holiday House (New York, NY), 1994.
Bear and Roly-Poly, illustrated by Patience Brewster, Holiday House (New York, NY), 1996.
(Adapter) The Little Humpbacked Horse: A Russian Tale, illustrated by Alexander Koshkin, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1997.
As the Crow Flies, illustrated by Joan Sandin, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1997.
Promises, illustrated by Betsy Lewin, Clarion (New York, NY), 2000.
Dumpy La Rue, illustrated by Betsy Lewin, Holt (New York, NY), 2001.
Halloween Hats, illustrated by Sue Truesdell, Holt (New York, NY), 2002.
The First Christmas Stocking, illustrated by Mitchell Tolle, Random House (New York, NY), 2002.
Dancing Granny, illustrated by Salvatore Murdocca, Marshall Cavendish (Tarrytown, NY), 2003.
Dog Show, illustrated by Mark Ulriksen, Henry Holt (New York, NY), 2004.
Daisy in the Middle, illustrated by Pat Cummings, Henry Holt (New York, NY), 2005.
Belinda's Hurricane, illustrated by Wendy Watson, Dutton (New York, NY), 1984.
Luke's Bully, illustrated by Pat Grant Porter, Viking (New York, NY), 1990.
Franklin D. Roosevelt: Letters from a Mill-Town Girl, Winslow Press (Delray Beach, FL), 2001.
The Red-Hot Rattoons, Henry Holt (New York, NY), 2003.
Walking Away, illustrated by Noelle Massena, Harper (New York, NY), 1973.
A Little Demonstration of Affection, Harper (New York, NY), 1975.
Knock, Knock, Who's There?, Holiday House (New York, NY), 1978.
Marathon Miranda, Holiday House (New York, NY), 1979.
Miranda in the Middle, Holiday House (New York, NY), 1980.
The Castle in the Attic, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman, Holiday House (New York, NY), 1985.
The Battle for the Castle, Holiday House (New York, NY), 1993.
In My Mother's House (adult novel), Doubleday (New York, NY), 1988.
Island Justice (adult novel), William Morrow (New York, NY), 1998.
Contributor of stories to books, including Best American Short Stories, edited by Robert Stone, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1992; contributor to New England Review and American Short Fiction.
Winthrop's works have been translated into French, Spanish, German, Danish, and Chinese.
Shoes was adapted for videocassette for Live Oak Media, 1988. The Castle in the Attic and The Battle for the Castle were adapted for audiocassette, narrated by Winthrop, Listening Library, 1996 and 1997 respectively.
Elizabeth Winthrop has written books in numerous genres for every age group over the course of her long career. Many of her works concern family relationships and are closely linked to the author's experience as a child or a mother. In addition to her many picture books, including Asleep in a Heap, Dumpy La Rue, and Squashed in the Middle, Winthrop has penned chapter books and novels for older children, and her critically acclaimed young-adult novels. The author has more recently published two well-received fantasy novels, The Castle in the Attic and its sequel, The Battle for the Castle, as well as two novels for adults and adaptations of Russian folktales.
Winthrop grew up in Washington, DC, in "a large, ramshackle, sort of falling-down house. Although we were in the city itself, it was as if we were in the country. There was an acre of woods around our house. There was a stream at the bottom of the house where you could fish for crayfish." There were also plenty of books to capture the imagination, and her favorites included fantasies such as P.L. Travers's Mary Poppins and C.S. Lewis's "Chronicles of Narnia," both of which influenced her own works for children, as well as Charles Dickens' tales and Laura Ingalls Wilder's autobiographical works. Watching her journalist father working helped Winthrop view writing as a serious career. "I would come home from school at three o'clock in the afternoon, and I would hear the keys of his old Underwood typewriter—BANG, BANG, BANG, BANG. And I saw him published and I saw that we had food on the table and shoes on our feet, and so it really dignified the profession of a writer."
Although the Catholic school she attended did not encourage creative writing, Winthrop developed an early interest in wordsmithing and devoted her after-school hours to composing stories and keeping a journal. She also spent a month each summer at her grandmother's house with her young cousin, an aspiring painter. Together they wrote and illustrated stories and put on plays. The author once described the experience as "a lot of creative, yeasty words. A lot of dignity given to the concept of being a writer."
While attending a Connecticut boarding school, Winthrop found a creative writing teacher who "was an incredible influence on my belief that I could do it, that I could be a writer and I could publish." She later enrolled in Sarah Lawrence College with the intention of majoring in creative writing. Jane Cooper, a poet who taught fiction writing, recognized Winthrop's gift for handling young characters and directed her toward children's literature. Following Cooper's advice, Winthrop went on to take a course in children's-book-writing in her senior year, and after graduation, sought a position in children's-book publishing.
Getting a job with noted editor and author Charlotte Zolotow at Harper and Row, Winthrop recalled the early 1970s as "the golden age of children's books" and con-siders herself privileged to have witnessed it first-hand: "You would be sitting at your desk and Maurice Sendak would walk by. You'd pick up the phone and E.B. White would be on the other end. You'd look up and Arnold Lobel would be carrying his "Frog and Toad" stuff. Harper and Row had, to my mind, the best people working in children's books, and it was because of Ursula Nordstrom, a legendary, brilliant, quixotic lady. I worked there under her, and that taught me more than I'd ever have been able to learn anywhere else." Winthrop was the assistant to an editor who read incoming manuscripts, and she used the situation to her full advantage. She once observed, "I would clean up her desk—she had a terribly messy desk—and I would put my manuscripts on it. I was constantly shuffling things around so that my manuscript was right on top of her pile. And they read some and turned some down, and then they read Bunk Beds and they liked it and they took it."
Bunk Beds is a picture book celebrating the power of the imagination. While this book was based on her own childhood experience, many of her picture books were inspired by things her son and daughter did or said as young children. In Bear and Roly-Poly Bear acquires a new sister, a panda almost as large as Bear's friend Mrs. Duck. At first Bear has a hard time adapting to his new sibling, but he eventually accepts her. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly noted that "Winthrop is again dead-on in addressing toddlers' trepidations about facing unsettling situations." In addition, Stephanie Zvirin, writing in Booklist, observed that "Bear and his 'Big' little sis are a winning team of opposites."
Winthrop's picture books often focus on family relationships and communication. In Asleep in the Heap, "a joyful book" with a "gently humorous text" according to Judy Constantinides in School Library Journal, Winthrop relates the familiar bedtime scenario of a young child too busy playing to go to sleep. In this case, Mama, Daddy, big sister Molly, and the family dog all fall asleep in one big heap before Julia—the child everyone was trying to get to sleep—joins them. Winthrop features Julia and her family again in I'm the Boss!, which Booklist contributor Stephanie Zvirin deemed "a winning story that can't miss with little ones." Julia, bossed by her parents, her older sister, and even her baby sister, is tired of being pushed around. Dressing up in Mama's clothes, she tries to be the boss herself, and succeeds, just barely, by bossing the family dog.
The author's droll humor comes through in many of her books for younger readers. In The Red-Hot Rattoons, for example, five tap-dancing rodents hit the road and head for Tinsel Town, hoping to make it big in the entertainment business. With the help of jazz buff Uncle Switchtail, Ella, Monk, Woody, Benny, and Fletcher arrive in New York and make several whisker-thin escapes from trouble while performing their song-and-dance act. Finally, they make it to Radio City Music Hall where Manhattan rats put their names in up in lights on an appropriately scaled-down marquee. The audiobook version of The Red-Hot Rattoons, narrated by Winthrop and including jazz music and an entertaining cast, was praised as "a rollicking adventure involving the power of dance, jazz, and the will to survive" by School Library Journal critic B. Allison Gray, while in Publishers Weekly a critic dubbed it "solidly entertaining."
Also featuring animal characters, the picture book Dumpy La Rue presents the story of a character who defies convention. Dumpy is a spirited pig who wants to dance, although his family insist that pigs, especially boy pigs, should fight, grunt, snuffle, and play sports. Genevieve Ceraldi, reviewing the book in School Library Journal, appreciated Winthrop's "quick rhyming text" and her characters' "warmth and enthusiasm." Promises, which a Publishers Weekly contributor praised as a "responsible and poignant approach to a sensitive subject," explores young Sarah's adjustment to her mother's treatments for cancer. "The simple, first-person narrative sensitively portrays the diverse challenges and emotional impact a parent's illness has on a child," observed Shelle Rosenfeld in Booklist.
Winthrop serves up more humor for younger children in Dancing Granny, Dog Show, and Squashed in the Middle. Dancing Granny, which features what a Publishers Weekly contributor dubbed a "quirky rhymed narrative," finds a girl coaxing her grandma to put in her teeth, get dressed, and go on a nighttime trip to the zoo. Dog Show is a "waggish tale of a low-key pooch and his enthusiastic owner," according to another Publishers Weekly critic, and Winthrop's droll wit is matched by Mark Ulriksen's "colorful and quirky" paintings in the opinion of Carol Ann Wilson in School Library Journal. In Squashed in the Middle young Daisy's big, bustling African-American family is full of warmth and affection, but as the middle sister the girl feels frustrated that she can never make her opinions heard. A Publishers Weekly reviewer praised the book as "an especially sympathetic treatment of middle-child angst," while a Kirkus Reviews critic predicted that Winthrop's "humorous domestic drama" is "sure to hit the mark with the middle child in everyone."
Drawing on her storytelling skills, Winthrop has collaborated with Russian illustrator Alexander Koshkin on translating several Russian folktales into picture-book form. In Vasilissa the Beautiful young Vasilissa's dying mother gives the girl a magic doll, explaining that if she feeds the doll whenever she is sad or in danger, it will protect her from harm. After his wife's death, Vasilissa's father marries a cruel widow with two daughters. While he is gone, his new wife moves with all three girls to a house at the edge of the woods where her husband will not be able to find them. Ordered out into the forest, Vasilissa encounters the evil witch Babayaga, who threatens to eat her if she does not complete a series of seemingly impossible tasks. The doll helps Vasilissa finish the work, and the witch thanks the girl by giving her a token that helps her to build a new life and eventually achieve a story-book ending with a handsome tsar. A Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books reviewer admired the ways in which "the stages of a child's passage into adulthood through grief, tests, and tempering" are incorporated into the story.
Winthrop and Koshkin teamed again for The Little Humpbacked Horse: A Russian Tale, published in 1997. In this story a peasant's simple son, Ivan, rescues a golden-maned mare; in appreciation the mare gives him two stallions and a humpbacked horse. To Ivan's surprise the humpbacked horse helps him to complete difficult tasks for the tsar, thereby surpassing his more clever brothers and scheming rivals. Eventually, Ivan becomes the new tsar and marries the beautiful princess. Noting that Winthrop and Koshkin adapted "another Russian folktale to superb effect," a Publishers Weekly reviewer praised Winthrop for retaining "the traditional feel of the story while using a pace and vernacular … comfortable to modern readers."
A book for older readers, Walking Away concerns Emily and her yearly visit to her grandparents' farm. Although her grandfather is growing older, he and Emily still have a special relationship, working together and fishing from inner tubes on the pond. This year Emily has invited her friend Nina to join them, and Emily's enthusiasm for the place created such an attractive picture in Nina's mind that the girl is disappointed by the farm and the surrounding neighbors. Unable to enjoy the things Emily likes to do, Nina instead devises ways to make trouble and convinces Emily to join her. Surprised at this new rift between herself and her friend, Emily is even more distressed by the loss of her grandfather's trust and companionship since Nina arrived. A contributor to Kirkus Reviews called the novel "a muted, moving view of age, death, change, and incompatibility.
Although contemporary young adults are accustomed to novels that turn on subtle nuance, Winthrop pointed out that psychologically oriented books for adolescents were rare at the time her second young-adult novel, A Little Demonstration of Affection, was published. "It's really a story of pre-adolescent love," she once explained. "It's not about sexual abuse, it's not about incest really. It's just about those yearnings, and how when parents don't demonstrate affection to their children, the children have to look for it elsewhere." The author views this message as central to her body of writing as a whole: "I think if there's been one theme throughout all of my books, it has been communication. It has been, 'Tell somebody about it. Don't be silent. Don't hold in your feelings.' Jenny never talks about how she feels and so she builds it up to something that's out of control."
Winthrop's first fantasy novel, The Castle in the Attic finds ten-year-old William inconsolable at the thought of losing his lifelong nanny and friend, Mrs. Phillips when she moves home to England. At their parting, Mrs. Phillips gives the boy a good-bye present: a model castle and miniature silver knight that have been in her family for generations. The gift is truly magical: the knight, Sir Simon, comes to life and explains that he hails from a tiny medieval world in which the evil wizard Alastor has turned all the residents to lead. William channels Sir Simon's ability to shrink object to miniature size and tries to trap a tiny Mrs. Phillips in the lord's castle so that she cannot return to England. However, through an adventure with Sir Simon William realizes he cannot alter his nanny's wish to return home, and he ultimately rights his wrong and helps topple the evil Alastor in the process. Writing in School Library Journal, Louise L. Sherman called The Castle in the Attic "a satisfying quest fantasy with a strong element of modern realism which will appeal to a wide range of readers." Although a Booklist contributor noted "a slight mechanical feel" to the story's ending, the novel is successful as a "light but involving piece of imagining."
The Battle for the Castle, the sequel to The Castle in the Attic, finds William and his biker friend Jason under pressure to "jump the trains." This test of courage, which in William's town separates the men from the boys, involves climbing the side of a moving train, crossing the top, and then jumping off the other side. When Jason succeeds at jumping the trains and William fails, William must find another way to prove himself. He tells Jason of the magic token and his triumph over the evil wizard. Jason is enthralled by the tale, and the two decide to shrink themselves and their bicycles and return to the kingdom. There a new problem awaits them: an army of man-eating rats led by a giant rat that walks on two legs. While Jason trains on his bicycle and plans to defeat the rats using armor and brute strength, William befriends Gudrin, an earthy twelve-year-old girl who teaches William to ride a horse and brings out his intuitive side. When it comes time to face the enemy, Jason's swords and muscles prove ineffective, but William, in partnership with Gudrin, destroys the rats using his intellect and imagination.
People often ask Winthrop why she writes for so many different ages. "It keeps me interested," is her reply. "The year I published a novel for adults (Island Justice) I also wrote three picture books. Island Justice took me two and a half years from the first inkling to the final draft. An idea for a picture book may germinate for months or even years, but the actual writing time can be as short as a week and it feels satisfying after years on one project to be able to finish a book in a matter of days. Each of the audiences I write for presents a different challenge and exercises a different writing muscle."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Reginald, Robert, Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature, 1975–1991, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992.
Ward, Martha, and others, Authors of Books for Young People, Scarecrow Press (Metuchen, NJ), 1990.
Winthrop, Elizabeth, Sloppy Kisses, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1980.
Booklist, April 15, 1975, review of A Little Demonstration of Affection, p. 869; January 15, 1986, review of The Castle in the Attic, p. 761; May 1, 1994, Stephanie Zvirin, review of I'm the Boss!, p. 1610; March 1, 1996, Stephanie Zvirin, review of Bear and Roly-Poly, p. 1189; March 1, 1997, p. 1159; April 1998, Hazel Rochman, review of As the Crow Flies, p. 1334; June 1, 2000, Shelle Rosenfeld, review of Promises, p. 1912; March 15, 2001, Stephanie Zvirin, review of Dumpy La Rue, p. 1406; September 15, 2002, Stephanie Zvirin, review of Halloween Hats, p. 247.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, July, 1975, review of A Little Demonstration of Affection, p. 188; January, 1981, Zena Sutherland, review of Miranda in the Middle, p. 103; June, 1991, review of Vasilissa the Beautiful, p. 254.
Childhood Education, fall, 2003, review of Dancing Granny, p. 41.
Horn Book, May-June, 2005, Lauren Adams, review of Squashed in the Middle, p. 318.
Kirkus Reviews, April 1, 1973, review of Walking Away, pp. 386-387; August 1, 2003, review of Dancing Grandma, p. 1025; August 14, 2004, review of Dog Show, p. 815; April 15, 2005, review of Squashed in the Middle, p. 485.
Library Journal, April 1, 1998, Francine Fialkoff, review of Island Justice, p. 126.
New York Times Book Review, September 6, 1998, Malachy Duffy, review of Island Justice, p. 16; October 21, 2001, review of Dumpy La Rue, p. 30.
Publishers Weekly, February 5, 1996, review of Bear and Roly-Poly, p. 89; January 20, 1997, review of The Little Humpbacked Horse: A Russian Tale, p. 402; May 25, 1998, review of Island Justice, p. 62; May 15, 2000, review of Promises, p. 117; April 16, 2001, review of Dumpy La Rue, p. 65; September 23, 2002, review of Halloween Hats, p. 22; September 29, 2003, review of Dancing Granny, p. 63; August 30, 2003, review of Dog Show, p. 55; April 12, 2004, review of The Red-Hot Rattoons (audiobook version), p. 25; April 18, 2005, review of Squashed in the Middle, p. 62.
School Library Journal, February, 1986, Louise L. Sherman, review of The Castle in the Attic, p. 91; January, 1994, Judy Constantinides, review of Asleep in a Heap, pp. 101-102; July, 1994, p. 92; May, 1996, p. 101; June 1998, Faith Brautigan, review of As the Crow Flies, p. 124; June, 2000, Joy Fleishhacker, review of Promises, p. 128; May 2001, Genevieve Ceraldi, review of Dumpy La Rue, p. 139; October, 2002, Piper L. Myman, review of Halloween Hats, p. 136; October, 2003, Eve Ortega, review of Dancing Granny, p. 142, and John Peters, review of The Red-Hot Rattoons, p. 180; August, 2004, Anna Rich, review of The Red-Hot Rattoons, p. 1954; October, 2004, Carol Ann Wilson, review of Dog Show, p. 136.
ChildrensLit.com, http://www.childrenslit.com/ (August 7, 2002), "Elizabeth Winthrop."
Elizabeth Winthrop Web site, http://www.elizabethwinthrop.com (September 19, 2005).