Joyce Sweeney (1955–) Biography
Personal, Addresses, Career, Member, Honors Awards, Writings, Adaptations, Sidelights
(Joyce Kay Sweeney)
Born 1955, in Dayton, OH; Education: Wright State University, B.A. (summa cum laude), 1977; graduate study in creative writing at Ohio University, 1977–78. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Unity. Hobbies and other interests: Native American studies, Florida natural history, professional wrestling.
Agent—George Nicholson, Sterling Lord Literistic, Inc., 65 Bleecker St., New York, NY 10012.
Philip Office Associates, Dayton, OH, advertising copy-writer, 1978; Rike's Department Store, Dayton, advertising copywriter, 1979–81, legal secretary, 1980–81; freelance advertising copywriter in Dayton, 1981–82; full-time writer, 1982–. Teacher at creative-writing workshops.
Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, Florida Council for Libraries, Mystery Writers of America.
Delacorte Press First Young-Adult Novel prize, and Best Books for Young Adults citation, American Library Association (ALA), both 1984, both for Center Line; Best Books for Reluctant Readers designation, ALA, 1988, for The Dream Collector; The Dream Collector and Face the Dragon named New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age, 1991; Best Books for Young Adults designation, ALA, 1994, for The Tiger Orchard; Best Books for Young Adults designation, ALA, and named New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age, both 1995, Nevada Young Readers' Award in young-adult category, and Evergreen Young Adult Book Award, Washington Library Association, both 1997, all for Shadow; Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers designation, ALA, named New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age, and Nevada Young Readers' Award listee, all 1997, all for Free Fall; Best Books designation, ALA, 1999, for The Spirit Window; Top-Ten Book for Tweens designation, Working Mother magazine, 2000, and Booklist Top-Ten Sports Book designation, both for Players; ALA Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers, 2004, for Takedown.
Center Line, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1984.
Right behind the Rain, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1985.
The Dream Collector, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1989.
Face the Dragon, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1990.
Piano Man, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1992.
The Tiger Orchard, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1993.
Shadow, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1994.
Free Fall, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1996.
The Spirit Window, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1998.
Players, Winslow Press (Delray Beach, FL), 2000.
Waiting for June, Marshall Cavendish (New York, NY), 2003.
Takedown, Marshall Cavendish (New York, NY), 2004.
Players, Marshall Cavendish (New York, NY), 2005.
Headlock, Henry Holt (New York, NY), 2006.
Contributed book reviews to periodicals; contributor of short stories and articles to periodicals, including New Writers, Playgirl, Co-Ed, Green's, and Writer; contributor of poetry to Blue Violin and Poetry Motel. Author of monthly column for Fort Lauderdale News/Sun-Sentinel.
Author's works have been translated into Danish, Dutch, Hebrew, and Italian.
Free Fall was adapted for audio cassette by Recorded Books Inc., 1997.
Called a "master at depicting the inner working of families," by Horn Book reviewer Patty Campbell, Joyce Sweeney writes realistic fiction for young adults that centers on family issues and friendship. Beginning with her first novel, Center Line, Sweeney puts the modern American family under the magnifying lens and probes its structure, its strengths, and its dysfunctions. Her more recent novels deal with teen suicide, divorce, homosexuality, fantasized love, the supernatural, and environmental concerns, all which play out against the backdrop of family relations. "Perhaps it's because I didn't have one in the traditional sense that I am always writing about families," Sweeney told an interviewer for Authors and Artists for Young Adults (AAYA).
Sweeney's father died when the author was a young child; consequently, "I was an only child,… it was just me and Mom," she recalled. Her first five years were spent in a rural town near Dayton, Ohio, where she developed a lifelong love for the outdoors and nature. It was a rude awakening for her to move to Dayton just before beginning school. "I may not have realized it at the time," Sweeney said, "but I missed the country and didn't really like the city. When I went to school I was doubly an outsider—a country kid and one who was already bookish. I just had no idea how to relate to the other kids."
Books were an important part of Sweeney's childhood, especially favorites such as Heidi, The Wizard of Oz, and Peter Pan. A writer by the fourth grade, she was tackling the novels of John Steinbeck and also attempting to sell her own work—mostly poetry—to magazines. Reaching high school presented a new beginning to the shy writer, and she took advantage of it, inspired in part by the writings of Norman Vincent Peale. As a freshman in high school she met the boy who would later become her husband. She also continued her writing, branching out into fiction and influenced by a teacher who had published several short stories and was able to show Sweeney the ropes of publishing.
During college, Sweeney studied English and creative writing at Wright State University. While a college freshman, she sold her first piece of fiction to New Writers, and in her junior year she sold another story, this time to Playgirl magazine. "That second sale was an affirmation for me," Sweeney explained in her AAYA interview. "It told me that I could actually build a career as a writer." After graduation, she took more creative-writing courses in a master's program at Ohio University. Though she did not complete the degree, the experience was a positive one. "You're not taught how to write fiction in English classes. No one talks about how to stay in point of view, for example. For this you have to take creative writing courses. And I had some great teachers like Daniel Keyes who taught me valuable lessons. Also just being around professional writers was an inspiration. Here is this person who writes books for a living, and he goes to the dentist. He does shopping. He's a human like me. This made it seem possible for me to become a writer, too."
Sweeney married in 1979, began her working life, but her jobs in advertising and as a legal secretary left little time for her writing. Finally, Sweeney's husband convinced her that the only way to become a writer was to do it full time. With his support, a year later she started the long process that led to her first novel. Not long thereafter, the couple relocated to Florida, where they still reside.
That first novel, Center Line, was written as an adult novel although it features young protagonists: five brothers who escape an abusive father to learn about family responsibilities on their own. The novel was inspired by something Sweeney read about the Beatles as very young men in Hamburg, Germany. "Here were these irresponsible, overgrown kids in Hamburg," Sweeney explained, "and they had to learn to look out for each other. Something similar was happening with me, too. In my marriage I was having to learn about responsibilities by caring for another human, my hus-band. I thought this would make a great centerpiece for a story about real coming of age." The writing was the easy part; Sweeney's agent submitted the manuscript to almost thirty publishers before putting it in the pool of first-book contestants for the Delacorte Press First Young-Adult prize. Winning that prize secured the novel's publication as well as a healthy advertising budget.
Center Line tells the story of the Cunnigan brothers: oldest brother Shawn, Steve, Chris, Rick, and Mark. Their mother has been dead for a number of years, and their alcoholic father regularly beats one or the other of the boys. To escape this intolerable situation, Shawn cashes out his college account. The brothers steal their father's car and hit the road, determined to live on their own until they grow up. The skills of each brother soon come into play: Chris proves to be the Romeo of the group and scores so well in that domain that he even shares his surplus with his brothers. Young Mark earns money during difficult times as a "blind" guitarist in a shopping mall. Along the way, Steve "drops out" of the group and marries an older woman, and the remaining four end up in Florida working on a fishing pier. Things are fine for a time until Rick and Shawn get into a fight, and Rick blows the whistle on his brothers. An understanding judge, however, remands the others to Shawn's custody—their father has since disappeared—and all is neatly wrapped into a happy but cautionary ending.
Sue Estes, writing in Booklist, concluded that Center Line is a "powerful novel for mature teenagers," while a reviewer in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books commented that "this is a strong first novel … with fast-moving adventure, a gritty sense of place, and controlled scenes of comedy, drama, and pathos." Writing in the Wilson Library Bulletin, Patty Campbell compared Sweeney's first novel to The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton, noting that Center Line "has a plot twist that makes it a much more subtle and interesting work than The Outsiders."
Sweeney followed her initial publishing success by reworking a novella she had written before Center Line. Again, she did not consciously write a YA novel; rather, she explores a difficult time in her own life through a brother and sister in Right behind the Rain. Kevin is twenty-one, handsome, and a talented dancer with a part in an upcoming movie. He goes home to Ohio for the summer, where his younger sister, Carla, is dazzled by his success. However, Carla soon sees that Kevin is deeply unhappy; his success has become a burden, his strive for perfection a prison. While others see only the golden boy, Carla sees possible danger ahead, and when Kevin buys a gun, it becomes her task to talk him out of killing himself.
Right behind the Rain "was inspired by feelings I personally had during college," Sweeney explained. "I felt I had to be perfect: the four-point student. I also took care of our home when mom was working. And I had to be the perfect girlfriend as well as future great writer. I finally worked things out, but I definitely had suicidal feelings for a time. And it is amazing how many kids respond to this when I visit at schools. Invariably there is at least one student in the crowd who says 'How did you know I was feeling like this?'"
Reviewing Right behind the Rain, a Publishers Weekly commentator noted that Sweeney's "simple, sensitive writing conveys all the emotions of a memorable summer," while a Kirkus Reviews critic emphasized the "close, caring relationship between brother and sister" that "is easy to believe," and concluded that "this relationship [is] the novel's strongest asset and one readers will appreciate." Sweeney commented that "one of the obvious weird things about my life is that I was an only child and have devoted my whole career to writing about sibling relations."
The Dream Collector is a reworking of important lessons Sweeney learned as a teen entering high school. "If you make a wish, you can work it out," Sweeney said in her interview. "It's important kids understand that. It's not so much magic as willing something to happen. But then of course you have to watch out what you wish for. That's what makes the dramatic tension in The Dream Collector." In the novel, fifteen-year-old Becky is faced with a quandary: what to get family members for Christmas when funds are limited and wish lists are somewhat extravagant. She opts to buy everyone a self-help book that describes how an individual can make his or her wishes become reality. Like a genie released from the bottle, the gift books unleash conflicts in the family as well as joyful surprises. Brother Tim gets the kitten he wanted; Scott manipulates family finances to get a fancy racing bike; their mother, who wanted lots of money, leaves their father for another man; budding poet Julia finally gets published; and Becky herself goes on a date with the neighbor, only to discover that she likes his friend Tom more. A reviewer in Publishers Weekly commented that in The Dream Collector "Sweeney ably delineates family relationships as she explores the nature of dreams and the pitfalls of ambition," adding that "her affecting and tender novel presents a perfect blend of humor and dramatic tension."
Challenges to friendship, the agony of teen love, and dreams from the past inform Face the Dragon, Piano Man, and The Tiger Orchard. In Face the Dragon best friends Eric and Paul join four other teens in an accelerated class at high school. Beowulf becomes not just the subject-matter for the class, but the theme of the book as well, as each of the characters in Sweeney's story has to confront his or her own personal dragon. Eric has always felt under the shadow cast by the more confident Paul, and determines not only to tackle the demon of public speaking, but also to battle Paul for the attentions of fellow student Melanie. Though Eric has always viewed his friend as supremely confident, Paul is in fact racked by fears that he may be gay. When their teacher exposes these fears, Eric comes to Paul's defense, much like Beowulf's comrade, Wiglaf, does. Barbara Chatton noted in School Library Journal that the "frank language of adolescents is aptly depicted and flows naturally," and Booklist reviewer Stephanie Zvirin wrote that in the novel "Sweeney says a lot about jealousy, pride, and embarrassment, and about what friendship really is."
Jeff, age twenty-six, is the romantic lead in Piano Man. A talented young musician, he lives next to fourteen-year-old Deidre, a budding chef. Crushing on this older man, Deidre decides that the way to Jeff's heart is through his stomach. Unfortunately, Jeff's heart belongs to another, gourmet cooking or no, and Deidre's gourmet-style romantic advances remain ignored. Subplots involve other wrong choices by women: Deidre's widowed mom is dating again, but not happily, and her cousin Suzie is going out with an abused teen who keeps her at arm's length. "This is far from a formula treatment of the not-smooth course of true love," observed Zena Sutherland in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books. "The plots are smoothly integrated, the characters are well-defined and consistent, and the writing has, in both dialogue and exposition, a natural flow." Susan R. Farber commented in Voice of Youth Advocates that "Sweeney is expert at portraying the highs and lows, the dreams and expectations of young women in love (lust? like?)," while a Kirkus Reviews contributor applauded the "deft dialogue, willing players, and plausible events" that constitute this novel.
Sweeney again turned to her own experiences for inspiration in writing Shadow. "When my husband was a kid, his family had no pets …," she explained. "So his dream was to have pets galore. We adopted cats all over the place it seemed, and then feline leukemia struck. Over the course of several years we lost five cats. That loss touched me profoundly. I knew I wanted to use the material somehow in a book, but not a dead-pet story. Something more. Then I decided I wanted to write a supernatural story. I enjoy those tales myself and wanted to try my hand at one. It came to me that this might be the perfect way to use the grief I felt for the loss of those cats."
The eponymous cat in Shadow has been dead for a year, but thirteen-year-old Sarah still grieves its passing. Add this to the continual feuding between her older brothers, Brian and Patrick, a father who dotes on Brian and a mother who picks on him, and a girlfriend who nearly cuckolds one brother with the other, and a recipe for domestic disaster is in place. Soon Sarah begins seeing her dead cat, and after confiding this to the housekeeper, Cissy, who has a natural proclivity for things supernatural, she is informed that her cat is probably returning in the spirit to warn her of impending danger. Further complications ensue when Sarah realizes she is in love with her childhood friend, Julian. When she confides her experiences with Shadow to Julian, his skepticism nearly destroys their budding romantic relationship. The impending danger becomes all too real when Brian discovers his girlfriend on the verge of becoming intimate with his brother Patrick. An enraged Brian nearly strangles Patrick; they are stopped only by what appears to be the ghost of Shadow.
"This page-turner is a psychic novel built around realistic feelings, emotions, hates, fears, and love," noted Bonnie Kunzel in Voice of Youth Advocates. Kunzel deemed Shadow "well-written and bound to be a teen pleaser with its mixture of sibling rivalry, romance, and psychic revelations." Bruce Anne Shook, writing in School Library Journal, observed that "characters are realistically drawn, and the plot is riveting," and called the conclusion "nicely done." A Publishers Weekly reviewer felt that Sweeney "offers believably complex characters" and "challenges conventional views of reality."
Free Fall is the story of four boys—two antagonistic brothers and their friends—who get trapped in an underground cave. Neil and Randy are high school athletes and best friends. Together with Neil's younger brother David and his friend Terry, they explore a cave in Florida's Ocala National Forest. There is tension between the boys from the outset, but it reaches a climax when they realize they are lost. Neil tries to climb out, but falls and breaks a leg. David ultimately comes to the rescue by finding an underwater passage out of the cave, but not before the quartet have shed their macho façades and shared their darkest secrets. Booklist reviewer Ann O'Malley commented that "Sweeney mixes excitement with finely crafted characters and credible psychological underpinnings to deliver a powerful punch." A reviewer in Horn Book called Free Fall a "taut survival story" and noted that "the book features gritty, realistic dialogue and insightful characterizations." Pam Carlson concluded in Voice of Youth Advocates that the novel is "a gripping, sometimes scary tale of survival and brotherhood," while a Publishers Weekly commentator wrote that, "lean and skillfully wrought," Free Fall "hooks the reader and doesn't let go."
Environmental concerns combine with another dysfunctional family in The Spirit Window, the story of Miranda and her summer visit to her dying grandmother on a Florida island. Miranda is accompanied by her psychiatrist father, Richard, and his new, young, and spoiled wife, Ariel. Grandmother Lila and her son do not see eye to eye on the real estate she will leave behind at her death: he intends to develop it but she wants it preserved. To this end, she leaves the land to her young, part-Cherokee assistant, Adam, who shares Lila's beliefs in preservation and to whom Miranda is strongly attracted. Miranda soon finds herself torn between loyalty to family and her feelings for Adam in this "gentle story about two adolescents far wiser and more mature than the adults in their lives," according to Beth Anderson, writing in the Voice of Youth Advocates. A reviewer in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books noted that "Sweeney has a strong sense of place that contributes to an overall setting of mood that is very effective," while School Library Journal contributor Angela J. Reynolds concluded that a "love story, a mystery, and a spiritual journey combine to make this a satisfying read."
Sweeney features another female protagonist in Waiting for June, her 2003 YA novel. High-school senior Sophie is pregnant—very pregnant—and receives hostile treatment at school, while at home her mother is plainly upset about her daughter's condition and the fact that Sophie refuses to say who the baby's father is. Haunted by strange dreams in her sleep, Sophie also finds herself haunted in real life when she begins receiving threatening, unsigned notes. Ultimately, the threads of Sweeney's plot resolve themselves, the ending buoyed by Sophie's optimistic nature and the kindness of some special friends. Elizabeth Stolle, reviewing Waiting for June in the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literature, wrote that Sweeney "weaves a dream world of myth and legend through a revealing and realistic plot," while in Kirkus Reviews a contributor noted that the mystery will "keep readers interested all the way to the happy … end." Praising Sweeney's resilient teen protagonist, a Publishers Weekly contributor predicted that readers "will admire Sophie's courage and humor," as well as her upbeat personality.
High school sports is the backdrop for Players, as senior Corey begins to suspect that Noah, an ambitious new player on the basketball team he captains, is behind some injuries that have befallen the team's top players. Turning detective after a gun is planted in his best friend and fellow starting-squad member's locker, Corey manages to solve the crime, but not before Noah commits one last evil act. In School Library Journal, Todd Morning wrote that Sweeney's YA thriller "scores as a fast paced story of the unmasking of a sociopath," while Roger Leslie dubbed it a "real winner" in his Booklist review, adding that the author "does a great job of depiction male teenagers" through "authentic dialogue and realistic relationships."
More thrills are served up in Takedown, which finds thirteen-year-old Joe Anderson excited about having his friends over to his house while his parents are not home. An innocent party where a televised wrestling match is the planned entertainment turns terrifying, when an escaped murderer breaks into Joe's home and holds the young teens hostage. Noting the novel's appeal for reluctant readers, Ed Sullivan noted in Booklist that Takedown is a "fast-moving story" in which the "professional-wrestling angle will intrigue fans of the sport." In School Library Journal, Jessi Platt praised Sweeney's text for its "simple language," while a Kirkus Reviews contributor dubbed the novel a "corker of a hostage drama [that is] laced with humor."
Sweeney continues to dedicate her writing to the YA market. "I used to think that I would somehow graduate to adult fiction from YA, but no longer," she admitted in her AAYA interview. "This is where I can make a difference; this is my audience. And the teen years are where the important decisions are made, ones that affect the rest of a lifetime." "I try not to think of my audience a lot," she also commented. "Mostly I try to work through some experiences in my own life, thoroughly disguising myself…. I don't think of message. My unconscious knows what the message is, but I don't want to be thinking about that. Instead, I want to put issues out there, to open things up for discussion. I certainly want to be a force for good, but that has to come naturally through the story. It can't be forced and planned."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Volume 26, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Booklist, April 1, 1984, Sue Estes, review of Center Line, p. 1110; December 15, 1989, p. 827; September 15, 1990, Stephanie Zvirin, review of Face the Dragon, p. 157; July, 1994, p. 1936; April 1, 1995, pp. 1404, 1416; May 27, 1996, review of Shadow, p. 81; July, 1996, Ann O'Malley, review of Free Fall, p. 1819; April 1, 1997, p. 1310; March 15, 1999, review of The Spirit Window, p. 1302; October 1, 2000, Roger Leslie, review of Players, p. 337; September 1, 2003, Frances Bradburn, review of Waiting for June, p. 115; October 15, 2004, Ed Sullivan, review of Takedown, p. 406.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, June, 1984, review of Center Line, pp. 194-195; June, 1992, Zena Sutherland, review of Piano Man, p. 281; May, 1998, review of The Spirit Window, p. 341; February 2004, Elizabeth Bush, review of Waiting for June, p. 246.
Horn Book, November-December, 1994, Patty Campbell, "The Sand in the Oyster," pp. 756-759; spring, 1997, review of Free Fall, p. 84.
Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literature, April, 2004, Elizabeth Stolle, review of Waiting for June, p. 617.
Kirkus Reviews, May 1, 1984, p. 153; May 1, 1987, review of Right behind the Rain, p. 726; November 15, 1989, p. 1678; October 1, 1990, p. 1398; May 15, 1992, review of Piano Man, p. 676; May 1, 1996, p. 694; October 1, 2003, review of Waiting for June, p. 1231; October 1, 2004, review of Takedown, p. 970.
Kliatt, March, 1995, Claire Rosser, review of The Tiger Orchard, p. 12.
Publishers Weekly, February 10, 1984, review of Center Line, p. 194; May 8, 1987, review of Right behind the Rain, p. 72; November 24, 1989, review of The Dream Collector, p. 72; January 30, 1995, review of The Tiger Orchard, p. 101; June 24, 1996, review of Free Fall, p. 62; November 6, 2000, review of Players, p. 92; November 3, 2003, review of Waiting for June, p. 75.
School Library Journal, April, 1984, p. 127; June, 1987, p. 114; November, 1989, p. 129; October, 1990, Barbara Chatton, review of Face the Dragon, p. 145; April, 1992, p. 150; September, 1994, Bruce Anne Shook, review of Shadow, pp. 242-243; November, 1996, p. 126; March, 1998, Angela J. Reynolds, review of The Spirit Window, p. 224; September, 2000, Todd Morning, review of Players, p. 238; October, 2003, Catherine Ensley, review of Waiting for June, p. 180; January, 2005, Jessi Platt, review of Takedown, p. 137.
Times Literary Supplement, August 24, 1984, p. 954.
Voice of Youth Advocates, February, 1990, Susan Rosenkoetter, review of The Dream Collector, p. 348; April, 1992, Susan R. Farber, review of Piano Man, p. 37; October, 1994, Bonnie Kunzel, review of Shadow, pp. 218-219; June, 1996, Pam Carlson, review of Free Fall, p. 102; April, 1998, Beth Anderson, review of The Spirit Window, pp. 50-51; June, 2005, Cyndi Gueswel, review of Takedown, p. 139.
Wilson Library Bulletin, March, 1984, Patty Campbell, "The Young Adult Complex," pp. 502-503; January, 1990, p. 7; September, 1994, p. 127.
Balkin Buddies Web site, http://www.balkinbuddies.com/ (January 1, 2006), "Joyce Sweeney."
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