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Jacqueline Margaret Kay (1961–) Biography

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

(Jackie Kay)


Born 1961, in Edinburgh, Scotland; partner of Carol Ann Duffy (a poet), since 1999; Education: University of Stirling, B.A. (honors, English), 1983.


Office—School of English Literature, Language, and Linguistics, Percy Building, University of Newcastle upon Tyne, Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 7RU, England. Agent—Pat Kavanagh, Peters, Fraser & Dunlop, 503/4 The Chambers, Chelsea Harbour, London SW10 OXF, England.


Poet and playwright. Writer-in-residence, Hammersmith, London, England, 1989–91; Wingfield Arts, Suffolk, England, poet-in-the-schools; University of Newcastle upon Tyne, Newcastle upon Tyne, England, instructor.

Jackie Kay

Honors Awards

Eric Gregory Award, 1991; Scottish Arts Council Book Award, and Saltire First Book of the Year Award, both 1991, and Forward Prize, 1992, all for The Adoption Papers; Signal Poetry Award, 1993, for Two's Company, 1999, for The Frog Who Dreamed She Was an Opera Singer; Somerset Maugham Award, 1994, for Other Lovers; London Guardian Fiction Prize, 1998, and Authors' Club First Novel Award, and IMPAC Dublin Literary Award shortlist, both 2000, both for Trumpet; Cholmondeley Award, 2003.



Two's Company (poetry), illustrated by Shirley Tourret, Puffin (London, England), 1992.

Three Has Gone (poetry), illustrated by Jody Winger, Blackie Children's Books (London, England), 1994.

The Frog Who Dreamed She Was an Opera Singer, Bloomsbury Children's (London, England), 1998.

Strawgirl, Macmillan Children's (London, England), 2002.

Number Parade: Number Poems from 0-100, illustrated by Jo Brown, LDA, 2002.


Chiaroscuro, Methuen (London, England), 1986.

The Adoption Papers, Bloodaxe Books (Newcastle upon Tyne, England), 1991.

That Distance Apart (chapbook), Turret (London, England), 1991.

Other Lovers, Bloodaxe Books (Newcastle upon Tyne, England), 1993.

Christian Sanderson: A Poem, illustrations by Peter Arkle, Prospero Poets (Alton, England), 1996.

Off Colour, Bloodaxe Books (Newcastle upon Tyne, England), 1998.

Sick Bag, Bloodaxe Books (Newcastle upon Tyne, England), 1998.

Life Mask, Bloodaxe Books (Newcastle upon Tyne, England), 2005.


(Author of libretto) Once through the Heart (opera), produced by English National Opera, 1991.

Bessie Smith (biography), Absolute (Bath, England), 1997.

Trumpet (novel), Pantheon (New York, NY), 1998.

Why Don't You Stop Talking (short stories), Picador (London, England), 2002.

Also author of material for television and radio. Contributor of plays to anthologies, including Lesbian Plays, edited by Jill Davis, 1987; Gay Sweatshop: Four Plays and a Company, edited by Philip Osment, Methuen Drama (London, England), 1989; and International Connections: New Plays for Young People, Faber & Faber (London, England), 2003. Contributor of poems to anthologies, including A Dangerous Knowing: Four Black Women Poets, Sheba, 1983; and Penguin Modern Poets, Volume 8: Jackie Kay, Merle Collins, Grace Nichols, Penguin, 1996; and to periodicals Artrage and Feminist Review. Short stories included in anthologies Everyday Matters 2, 1984, and Stepping Out, 1986.


The writing of Scottish-born poet Jackie Kay has been praised for the unique qualities it gains due to the rich influences of Kay's background and life experiences. Kay, who writes in both the Scots dialect and in standard English, is also a black woman; she was adopted as a child by Caucasian parents and grew up in a predominantly white community. Kay's lesbianism also influences her work for adults, which consists of plays, fiction, and poetry. The award-winning poetry collection The Adoption Papers, for example, includes a tenpoem sequence describing Kay's search for her birth mother from three perspectives: that of the poet as a child, that of Kay's biological mother, and that of her adoptive mother.

Kay's highly praised poetry for children includes the collections Two's Company, Three Has Gone, and the award-winning The Frog Who Dreamed She Was an Opera Singer. In her works for younger readers she takes on serious topic such as racism, but filters these childhood experience through a gentle lens, tempering her characteristic thoughtful and meaningful approach with an uplifting view. In addition to her poetry and plays, Kay is the author of several works of fiction, including the adult novel Trumpet, a collection of short fiction, and the children's novel Strawgirl. Reflecting her love of blues music, she has also penned a well-received biography of American blues singer Bessie Smith. In 2003 Kay received the prestigious Cholmondeley Award.

Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, Kay grew up in the city of Glasgow; she discovered her love for poetry through the works of celebrated eighteenth-century Scots poet Robert Burns. After earning an honours degree in English at Stirling University, she moved to England and embarked upon a career as a writer for the theater as well as for television and radio. At a time of rising feminist consciousness, her plays were popular with women's theater groups, and she contributed poems and short stories to several anthologies and magazines. Discussing Kay's first published poetry collection, The Adoption Papers, Booklist reviewer Pat Monaghan claimed that the work "should become a feminist classic." The volume, which is noted for the poet's use of rhythm and sound, also includes poems about death, including dying of AIDS; about gay love; and about life in Great Britain under the government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Kay's second collection of poetry for adults, Other Lovers, was also praised for its use of language. In this work, Kay includes memories of the racism directed at her as a child, as well as a poem written from the perspective of a sixteen-year-old girl.

In her poetry collections for children Kay focuses on experiences important to her young audience and draws on many of the subjects and issues that she addresses in her adult works. Her writing for young people contains at its heart a sensitive child's developing perceptions of the people and society that exists around her. In her first collection for children, Two's Company, Kay uses blank verse to express a variety of childhood experiences, from the pain of divorce to the joys of travel. Imaginary friends are the subject of several poems, some of which are narrated by Carla, a girl whose parents have separated and who is trying to muster her customary spirit. Two's Company was praised as "a brilliant debut in writing for children" by Morag Styles in Books for Keeps, the critic adding: "There is plenty of fun, pain too, lyrical moments, compassion, but absolutely no sentimentality (the great fault of so many who attempt to write for the young)."

In Three Have Gone Kay's subjects range from a Gaelic dog who refuses to speak English to childhood betrayal and guilt and the joys and difficulties of living within a family. Writing in Junior Bookshelf, D.A. Young called the volume "an excellent successor to Two's Company, adding that Kay "continues to delight us with childhood memories crisply retold as if they had happened yesterday." "A spirited child with a lively imagination she must have been, and that spirit pervades her work," wrote Judith Nicholls, describing Kay in a review of Three Has Gone for Books for Keeps. The Frog Who Dreamed She Was an Opera Singer is an imaginative collection that features droll characters such as Mr. and Mrs. Lilac, the Sulk Pod, Jimmy Mush, and, of course, the highly imaginative amphibian of the title.

In Strawgirl Kay spins a story about eleven-year-old Molly "Maybe" McPherson who lives in a rural Highland community where she is one of the few people of mixed race. Her innate feistiness when dealing with life—she earned her nickname because she never commits herself to answering a question with "yes" or "no"—and the local bullies is transformed into resilience and perseverance after Maybe's father is killed in a car accident and she must help her grieving mother run the farm and save the property from unscrupulous businessmen hoping to take advantage of the family's tragedy. At harvest time, when the girl's spirits start to sag, a magical doll called Strawgirl suddenly appears, helping Maybe harness her strengths and gain the confidence to deal with the challenges life has given her. Praising the novel's image-filled text in the London Daily Telegraph, Carole Mansur noted that with Strawgirl Kay crafts "a warm and comforting story in which elements of traditional folk myths are yoked to a world recognisable to today's children."

Commenting on the difference between writing for children and adults, Kay told Jean Sprackland in PoetryClass.com: "I don't like writing for children that is 'writing for children.' If it is any good, then adults will like it too. When I create a voice or character, I go through the same process…. When I am writing for children, my own childhood—my past—comes swimming back. I like to keep the conversation open between myself as an adult and myself as a child. When I am creating children's characters, the gap between childhood and adulthood doesn't seem that large."

Biographical and Critical Sources


Contemporary Poets, sixth edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996, pp. 565-566.


Booklist, March 15, 1992, Pat Monaghan, review of The Adoption Papers, p. 1332.

Books for Keeps, November, 1992, p. 23; March, 1993, Morag Styles, review of Two's Company, p. 28; September, 1994, Judith Nicholls, review of Three Has Gone, pp. 20-21.

Books for Your Children, autumn, 1994, p. 28.

Daily Telegraph (London, England), July 12, 2002, Carole Mansur, review of Strawgirl.

Junior Bookshelf, August, 1994, p. 135; February, 1995, D.A. Young, review of Three Has Gone, pp. 21-21.

Library Journal, January, 1999, Lawrence Rungren, review of Trumpet, p. 152; July, 1999, Judy Clarence, review of Off Colour, p. 94; October 1, 1999, review of Trumpet, p. 51.

Publishers Weekly, December 21, 1998, review of Trumpet, p. 50.

School Librarian, May, 1994, p. 70; summer, 1999, review of Off Colour, p. 97; winter, 2002, review of Strawgirl, p. 192.

Times Educational Supplement, February 19, 1993, p. R2; November 11, 1994, p. R7.

Times Literary Supplement, May 22, 1992, p. 30.

World Literature Today, autumn, 1999, review of Trumpet, p. 736, and Off Colour, p. 743.


ContemporaryWriters.com, http://www.contemporarywriters.com/ (July 31, 2005), "Jackie Kay."

PoetryClass.com, http://www.poetryclass.com/ (July 31, 2005), Jean Sprackland, interview with Kay.

Writing Scotland Web site, http://www.bbc.co.uk/scotland/arts/writingscotland/ (July 13, 2005), "Jackie Kay."

Additional topics

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