Cynthia DeFelice (1951–) Biography
Personal, Addresses, Career, Member, Honors Awards, Writings, Sidelights
(Cynthia C. DeFelice)
Born 1951, in Philadelphia, PA; stepEducation: William Smith College, B.A., 1973; Syracuse University, M.L.S., 1980. Hobbies and other interests: Quilt making, dulcimer playing, hiking, backpacking, bird watching, fishing, reading, watching films.
Agent—c/o Author Mail, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc., 19 Union Square West, New York, NY 10003.
Storyteller and writer. Worked variously as a barn painter, day-care provider, and advertising layout artist; Newark public schools, Newark, NY, elementary school media specialist, 1980–87. Co-founder of Wild Washer-women Storytellers, 1980.
Authors Guild, Authors League of America, Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, National Storytelling Association, Audubon Society, Nature Conservancy, Wilderness Society, Seneca Lake Pure Waters Association.
Notable Children's Trade Book for Language Arts designation, National Council of Teachers of English, and Teacher's Choice Award, International Reading Association (IRA), both 1989, both for The Strange Night Writing of Jessamine Colter; Best Children's Books of the Year designation, Library of Congress, Best Illustrated Children's Books of the Year designation, New York Times, and Reading Magic Award, Parenting, all 1989, all for The Dancing Skeleton; Best Books designation, School Library Journal, Notable Children's Book designation, American Library Association (ALA), Notable Children's Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies designation, National Council for the Social Studies/Children's Book Council (NCSS/CBC), and IRA/CBC Young-Adult Choice Award, all 1990, Hodge-Podger Society Award for Fiction, 1992, and Sequoyah, and South Carolina children's book awards, all for Weasel; Best Book designation, New York Public Library, 1994, for Mule Eggs; listed among Books for the Teen Age, New York Public Library, 1995, for Lostman's River; Best Book designation, New York Public Library, 1995, and Anne Izard Storytellers' Choice Award, 1996, for Three Perfect Peaches; South Dakota Prairie Pasque Children's Book Award, and Sunshine State Young Reader's Award, both 1995, both for Devil's Bridge; Best Book designation, School Library Journal, 1996, and NCSS/CBC Notable Children's Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies designation, 1997, ALA Notable Children's Book designation, Judy Lopez Memorial Award, International Honor Book designation, Society of School Librarians, and Books for the Teen Age selection, New York Public Library, all for The Apprenticeship of Lucas Whitaker; New York State Knickerbocker Award, 1998, for body of work; NCSS/CBC Notable Children's Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies designation, 1999, for Nowhere to Call Home; Texas Bluebonnet Award, and Iowa Children's Choice Award, both 2002, both for The Ghost of Fossil Glen.
The Strange Night Writing of Jessamine Colter, calligraphy by Leah Palmer Preiss, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1988.
Weasel, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1990.
Devil's Bridge, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1992.
The Light on Hogback Hill, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1993.
Lostman's River, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1994.
The Apprenticeship of Lucas Whitaker, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 1996.
The Ghost of Fossil Glen, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 1998.
Nowhere to Call Home, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 1999.
Death at Devil's Bridge, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 2000.
The Ghost and Mrs. Hobbs, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 2001.
Under the Same Sky, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 2003.
The Ghost of Cutler Creek, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 2004.
The Missing Manatee, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 2005.
Bringing Ezra Back, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 2006.
The Dancing Skeleton, illustrated by Robert Andrew Parker, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1989.
When Grampa Kissed His Elbow, illustrated by Karl Swanson, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1992.
Mule Eggs, illustrated by Mike Shenon, Orchard (New York, NY), 1994.
(Reteller, with Mary DeMarsh and others) Three Perfect Peaches: A French Folktale, illustrated by Irene Trivas, Orchard (New York, NY), 1995.
Casey in the Bath, illustrated by Chris L. Demarest, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 1996.
Willy's Silly Grandma, illustrated by Shelley Jackson, Orchard (New York, NY), 1997.
Clever Crow, illustrated by S.D. Schindler, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1998.
Cold Feet, illustrated by Robert Andrew Parker, DK Ink (New York, NY), 2000.
The Real, True Dulcie Campbell, illustrated by R.W. Alley, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 2002.
Old Granny and the Bean Thief, illustrated by Cat Bowman Smith, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 2003.
One Potato, Two Potato, illustrated by Andrea U'Ren, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 2006.
Praised for her talent as a storyteller as well as her writing skills, Cynthia DeFelice creates children's stories that are drawn from the folk tradition, American history, and contemporary society. Her books feature young people thrust into situations that require them to make vital decisions and assume responsibilities far beyond their years. In her picture books and novels, DeFelice mixes the elements of suspense, drama, and humor into "crackling good storytelling," as a Publishers Weekly reviewer described her efforts. Whether illuminating a past way of life for twenty-first-century readers in historical novels such as the award-winning Weasel and The Apprenticeship of Lucas Whittaker or highlighting the threats to Earth's ecosystem in Lostman's River and Devil's Bridge, DeFelice has as her primary concern the telling of a compelling story. "DeFelice knows how to make history come alive by providing characters who readers will find both realistic and sympathetic," maintained Voice of Youth Advocates contributor Cindy Lombardo, recommending titles by DeFelice that showcase epochs from nineteenth-and early-twentieth-century American history.
Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1951, DeFelice was raised in a Philadelphia suburb where she enjoyed a secure upbringing and inherited a strong storytelling tradition. As she once recalled, "my two brothers, my sister, and I would snuggle in Mom's lap while she read to us. She was a great storyteller and had this terrific sense of rhythm and timing. It was in that big, tan chair where we all used to curl up together that I learned to love stories and to feel their magic." DeFelice recalled her childhood as "pretty idyllic," with time spent either playing with her brothers or curled up in a chair somewhere, lost in a good book. Her psychiatrist father was also supportive of his daughter's interests. "You could tell him anything. So my early years were very nourishing."
Graduating from high school, DeFelice enrolled at William Smith College, located about forty miles southeast of Rochester, New York. She immediately fell in love with the region, and has lived there ever since. After graduating in 1973, she worked briefly as a barn painter; a year later she was married, and her two young stepchildren became her priority. Once her children were older, DeFelice enrolled at Syracuse University and earned an advanced degree in library science. Her job as a school librarian in Newark, New York ultimately sparked her interest in both storytelling and writing children's books.
DeFelice teamed up with music teacher Mary DeMarsh in a storytelling venture called the Wild Washerwomen, in which the two women told stories in schools throughout upstate New York. After these sessions, intrigued listeners often requested written versions of her tales. When DeFelice set about fulfilling this request, her career as a children's-book author began, and her first book, The Strange Night Writing of Jessamine Colter, was published in 1988.
The inspiration for her first novel came from a nightmare DeFelice had, in which, as she recalled, "I dreamed I saw my hand floating through space, come to rest at my desk, and then pen in perfect calligraphy, 'You are going to die tomorrow night at ten o'clock.'" In DeFelice's novel, a calligrapher named Jessie, who writes out the important notices for her small town, suddenly discovers that she has the ability to foretell the future through her writing. When she foretells her own death, Jessie passes on her knowledge of calligraphy and her strength to her young apprentice. Reviewing The Strange Night Writing of Jessamine Colter, a Voice of Youth Advocates critic called the novel "a simple, loving story," while in Publishers Weekly a reviewer noted the story's "wistful mood and … gently unwinding pace," adding that readers "will revel in its poetic language." Roger Sutton, writing in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, dubbed the story "sentimental in the best sense."
Encouraged by the success of her first book, DeFelice left library work and embarked on a career as a full-time writer, continuing to alternate novels for older readers with picture books for the younger set. Her second novel, set in Ohio during the 1830s, benefited from the increased time DeFelice had to research. In Weasel readers meet Nathan, part of a pioneering family, who wakes one night to learn that a deranged former Indian hunter named Weasel has wounded Nathan's father. Vowing to avenge his father's attack, Nathan hunts down the violent and disturbed man, but when the opportunity to strike arises, he realizes that such violence would make him no better than the assailant he has been hunting.
Weasel earned both praise and commendations. Calling DeFelice's young protagonist "unforgettable," School Library Journal contributor Yvonne Frey praised the author for addressing race relations in a new way, by turning "the results of hate back on the white race itself." Weasel "makes a positive contribution to a world caught up with killing and revenge," Kathryn Hackler added in her Voice of Youth Advocates review, while a contributor to Publishers Weekly praised the author's "fast-paced" tale which "effectively conveys the battle between good and evil." Nathan's story continues in Bringing Ezra Back, as the young man goes on a journey that teaches him a great deal about the measure of men.
Devil's Bridge takes place off the coast of Massachusetts in Martha's Vineyard. Twelve-year-old Ben Daggett hears two men scheming to cheat their way to the ten-thousand-dollar prize in the annual striped bass fishing derby by injecting an illegally caught fish with mercury to increase its weight. Before he perished in a hurricane the year before, Ben's fisherman father had set the record for the largest bass ever caught, and Ben does not want his father's accomplishments overshadowed by dishonest efforts. Since no one will listen to him when he attempts to divulge the men's scheme, Ben determines to catch the biggest fish himself. While he manages to hook the winning fish, Ben lets the creature go free at the last minute because he is unwilling to take its life. Praising the novel, School Library Journal contributor Louise L. Sherman dubbed it a "fast paced and involving" adventure yarn, while Booklist critic Janice Del Negro called Ben "an appealing main character." The novel's protagonist also appears in Death at Devil's Bridge, in which the thirteen-year-old Ben takes a job as first-mate on a fishing boat, only to find himself enmeshed in the illegal drug trade and possibly even murder. School Library Journal reviewer Renee Steinberg wrote that the "lively prose style, a plot that keeps readers wondering, and generally fleshed-out characters create a selection that will hook its target audience to the end."
A desire for justice is also the focus of The Missing Manatee, which takes place in coastal Florida, where eleven-year-old Skeet Waters discovers a huge manatee shot dead, its body beached on the rocks near the boy's fishing spot. When the body of the animal is secretly removed, Skeet dedicates himself to finding the killer of the endangered creature; Although he had planned to spend his time fishing, investigating the crime is a way of taking his mind off his parents' crumbling marriage. A few hours spent with Deadbeat Dan, his fishing-guide father's fishing buddy, soon provides the boy with clues as to the culprit. Noting that Skeet's narration "rings true," Allison Grant added in School Library Journal that in The Missing Manatee "DeFelice offers a realistic story that is fast paced and full of drama." In Booklist Todd Morning predicted that the author's focus on fly fishing "will grab young lovers of outdoor adventure," while in Kliatt Janis Flint-Ferguson noted the story's coming-of-age element, writing that Skeet ultimately learns "that growing up means learning to cope with things as they are and not as you want them to be."
Inspired by an newspaper article pointed out to DeFelice by her husband, The Apprenticeship of Lucas Whitaker concerns a young boy who goes to work for a local physician after his entire family dies of tuberculosis (TB). Once commonly known as "consumption," TB was a major cause of death prior to the turn of the twentieth century. Because of the wasting characteristics of the disease, some communities believed that the illness was transmitted by the newly dead, who, like vampires, spread the disease through entire households. Set in Connecticut during the mid-1800s, the novel finds twelve-year-old Lucas working for the town doctor. As he gains in medical knowledge, the boy is freed from a secret guilt: the folk remedy he failed to perform—digging up the body of the first member of his family to die of consumption, removing the heart, and burning it—would not have saved lives. Praising the novel's likeable main characters and its description of the harsh realities of farm life during the nineteenth century, School Library Journal contributor Jane Gardner Connor noted that "readers will experience a period when even a doctor's knowledge was very limited, and … will come to realize how fear and desperation can make people willing to try almost anything." In her Horn Book review of The Apprenticeship of Lucas Whitaker, Elizabeth S. Watson added that the novel's plot moves swiftly "in spite of a wealth of detail" about "health, hygiene, and witchcraft."
The loss of both parents is also a motivating factor in the life of twelve-year-old Frances Barrow in DeFelice's Nowhere to Call Home. When her father loses his Philadelphia-based business—as well as everything else—during the stock market crash of 1929, he commits suicide, leaving Frances an orphan. Determined to make her own way rather than live with a distant aunt, Frances disguises herself as a boy and travels west by jumping trains. "The dialogue rings true," Voice of Youth Advocates critic Cindy Lombardo noted, adding that the story's "fast pace … will keep readers turning pages until the poignant resolution." While setting her story in the past, DeFelice bridges the gap between her young protagonist and modern-day readers, according to Horn Book reviewer Margaret A. Bush. "The story is a good adventure," Bush maintained, "presenting readers with insights into homelessness quite relevant to our own time."
Basing her setting on the Finger Lakes region near her home in central New York, DeFelice brings a supernatural twist to a trio of novels featuring Allie Nichols, friend Dub, and canine companion Hoover. In The Ghost of Fossil Glen, while roaming the lands near her home Allie hears a ghostly whisper, and soon becomes haunted by the voice of Lucy, a girl who was murdered in that area four years earlier. Although Dub questions her sanity, Allie is determined to bring justice to the now-departed Lucy. The Ghost and Mrs. Hobbs picks up the action, as Allie attracts the attentions of a second spectre. The ghost this time around is a good-looking young man who gets Allie to help him seek what she thinks is justice; actually, she discovers almost too late that it is really vengeance this ghost is after. A local pet store becomes the focus of The Ghost of Cutler Creek, as Allie and Dub join Hoover in investigating mysterious goings on in their community, while also following their curiosity over a new boy in town. Praising The Ghost of Fossil Glen as a "beautifully crafted thriller," Booklist contributor Lauren Peterson added that DeFelice creates an "expertly paced, dynamic page-turner that never gives readers the chance to become distracted or lose interest." "There's more than enough suspense in this well-told story," noted Sharon McNeil in a School Library Journal review of The Ghost and Mrs. Hobbs, adding that "Allie is a strong, likeable, believable character." A Horn Book critic deemed The Ghost of Cutler Creek "a gripping, suspenseful story," while in School Library Journal a reviewer again praised Allie and Dub as likeable protagonists, adding: "Mystery fans will not be disappointed."
While continuing to pen novels for middle-grade readers, DeFelice has also produced picture books, once explaining: "I enjoy doing both kinds of books…. But with picture books, every word has to count. It is more like writing poetry." Her first picture book, The Dancing Skeleton, focuses on the difficulties a widow faces when her deceased husband refuses to stay dead; he comes back to dance about when the widow's new suitor—a fiddler—comes a'courting. Like several of her picture books, The Dancing Skeleton is a retelling of a traditional folk tale. "These stories never get old for me," DeFelice once noted. "Even if I tell them a hundred times, I find something new in them, and looking at the faces in the audience is so much fun. The kids are like my editors: I know immediately when something works or doesn't." In praise of The Dancing Skeleton, Ellen D. Warwick wrote in School Library Journal that DeFelice's "rhythmic prose captures the vocabulary, tone, the very cadences of the oral tradition."
Other picture books by DeFelice include Mule Eggs, Willy's Silly Grandma, Cold Feet, and The Real, True Dulcie Campbell. In Mule Eggs a city slicker named Patrick moves to the country where, in addition to the challenges posed by farm life, has to contend with a local practical joker. Willy's Silly Grandma finds that grandmother's folk cures prove not to be as silly as people thought, and in Cold Feet a Scottish bagpiper takes the boots off a dead man in the forest one wintry night, only to have the feet snap off with them. Later, to avenge a slight, he places the thawed-out feet under a farmer's cow to make it appear the beast has eaten him. "DeFelice pitches this deliciously eerie tale in the kind of cadence and language that make for a grand readaloud," wrote a Publishers Weekly reviewer, while Horn Book critic Robert Strang dubbed Cold Feet a "good choice for cold winter nights as well as Halloween." In another illustrated offering, an imaginative young farm girl's dreams of being a princess last only so long as the sun is out in The Real, True Dulcie Campbell, which a Publishers Weekly critic praised as "a smartly told story with a gentle moral."
Whether creating picture books or novels, DeFelice has the same basic goals. "I want to write a story to entertain, to engage the minds, hearts, and senses of young readers," she once stated. "I really think that kids are the most challenging audience to write for. They demand a satisfying story. They will not sit through something that does not please them." "I want my readers to come away from my books with a memory worth having," she also noted, "something that will enrich their lives and something that they might not otherwise have the chance to experience. But I don't like to tie up all the loose ends. I respect my readers and figure they will become part of the process if I don't answer all the questions for them. After all, life isn't like that. We can't know everything in real life. Why should we expect to in fiction?"
Biographical and Critical Sources
Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Volume 36, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 2000.
Booklist, March 15, 1992, Karen Hutt, review of When Grampa Kissed His Elbow, pp. 1386-1387; December 1, 1992, Janice Del Negro, review of Devil's Bridge, p. 669; March 15, 1998, Lauren Peterson, review of The Ghost of Fossil Glen, p. 1243; August, 2000, Gillian Engberg, review of Death at Devil's Bridge, p. 2131; September 1, 2000, p. 112; December 1, 2000, p. 740; September 1, 2001, p. 103; March 1, 2005, Todd Morning, review of The Missing Manatee, p. 1193.
Book Report, September-October 1999, Catherine M. Andronik, review of Nowhere to Call Home, p. 59.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, September, 1988, Roger Sutton, review of The Strange Night Writing of Jessamine Colter, p. 5; November, 1992, pp. 70-71; December, 1993, p. 79; June, 1994, p. 317; October, 1996, pp. 54-55; March, 1998, p. 240; May, 2003, review of Under the Same Sky, p. 358.
Horn Book, January-February, 1990, Elizabeth S. Watson, review of The Dancing Skeleton, pp. 75-76; March-April, 1994; January-February, 1997, Elizabeth S. Watson, review of The Apprenticeship of Lucas Whitaker, p. 55; March-April, 1999, Margaret A. Bush, review of Nowhere to Call Home, p. 207; September-October, 2000, Robert Strang, review of Cold Feet, p. 585; March-April, 2004, review of The Ghost of Cutler Creek.
Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, May, 2000, Barbara Powell, review of Nowhere to Call Home, p. 778.
Kirkus Reviews, July 15, 1988, p. 1055; November 1, 1992, p. 1374; April 15, 2005, review of The Missing Manatee, p. 471.
Kliatt, March, 2005, Janis Flint-Ferguson, review of The Missing Manatee, p. 9; May, 2005, Paula Rohrlick, review of Under the Same Sky, p. 22.
Publishers Weekly, August 12, 1988, review of The Strange Night Writing of Jessamine Colter, pp. 460-61; April 27, 1990, review of Weasel, p. 62; September 7, 1992, review of Devil's Bridge, pp. 96-97; May 4, 1998, review of Clever Crow, p. 211; April 26, 1999, p. 84; September 4, 2000, review of Cold Feet, p. 108; July 16, 2001, p. 183; July 15, 2002, review of The Real, True Dulcie Campbell, p. 73; March 10, 2003, review of Under the Same Sky, p. 72.
School Library Journal, September, 1989, Ellen D. Warwick, review of The Dancing Skeleton, p. 239; May, 1990, Yvonne Frey, review of Weasel, pp. 103-104; August, 1992, p. 134; November, 1992, Louise L. Sherman, review of Devil's Bridge, pp. 88-89; August, 1996, Jane Gardner Connor, review of The Apprenticeship of Lucas Whitaker, p. 142; July, 1998, pp. 92-93; April, 1999, p. 113; September, 2000, Renee Steinberg, review of Death at Devil's Bridge, p. 228; September, 2000, p. 193; August, 2001, Sharon McNeil, review of The Ghost and Mrs. Hobbs; September, 2002, Ruth Semrau, review of The Real, True Dulcie Campbell, p. 183; March, 2003, Gerry Larson, review of Under the Same Sky, p. 232; August, 2003, Kathy Piehl, review of Lostman's River, p. 115; March, 2004, review of The Ghost of Cutler Creek; June, 2005, Allison Grant, review of The Missing Manatee, p. 154.
Voice of Youth Advocates, April, 1989, review of The Strange Night Writing of Jessamine Colter, p. 26; June, 1990, Kathryn Hackler, review of Weasel, pp. 101-2; October, 1999, Cindy Lombardo, review of Nowhere to Call Home, p. 256; April, 2003, review of Under the Same Sky, p. 47; June, 2005, Barbara Johnston, review of The Missing Manatee, p. 126.
Cynthia DeFelice Home Page, http://www.cynthiadefelice.com (November 15, 2005).
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