Gary L. Blackwood (1945–) Biography - Personal, Career, Honors Awards, Writings, Sidelights
Born 1945, in Meadville, PA; Education: Grove City College, B.A., 1967. Hobbies and other interests: Music, outdoor pursuits.
Writer of fiction and nonfiction books, playwright, and writing teacher. Missouri Southern State College, teacher of playwriting, 1989–93, 1997–; Trinidad State Junior College, teacher of writing-for-publication course, 1995. Military service: U.S. Army, sergeant class E-5, 1968–70.
Friends of American Writers Best YA Novel, 1989, for The Dying Sun; Best Book for Young Adults citation, American Library Association (ALA), 1998, for The Shakespeare Stealer, Shakespeare's Scribe and The Year of the Hangman; ALA Notable Book designation, for The Shakespeare Stealer; Best Book designation, School Library Journal, for The Shakespeare Stealer and The Year of the Hangman; Notable Book designation, Smithsonian, for The Shakespeare Stealer and Moonshine.
The Lion and the Unicorn, Eagle Books, 1983.
Wild Timothy, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1987.
The Dying Sun, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1989.
Beyond the Door, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1991.
Time Masters, EPB Publishers, 1995.
The Shakespeare Stealer, Dutton (New York, NY), 1998.
Moonshine, Marshall Cavendish (Tarrytown, NY), 1999.
Shakespeare's Scribe, Dutton (New York, NY), 2000.
The Year of the Hangman, Dutton (New York, NY), 2002.
Wild Timothy, Puffin (New York, NY), 2002.
Shakespeare's Spy, Dutton (New York, NY), 2003.
Alien Creatures, Players Press (Studio City, CA), 2004.
Second Sight, Dutton (New York, NY), 2005.
The Just-So Woman, illustrated by Jane Manning, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2006.
Rough Riding Reformer: Theodore Roosevelt, Benchmark (New York, NY), 1998.
Life on the Oregon Trail, Lucent (San Diego, CA), 1999.
Life in a Medieval Castle, Lucent (San Diego, CA), 1999.
"UNSOLVED HISTORY" SERIES
Debatable Deaths, Marshall Cavendish (Tarrytown, NY), 2005.
Enigmatic Events, Marshall Cavendish (Tarrytown, NY), 2005.
Perplexing People, Marshall Cavendish (Tarrytown, NY), 2005.
Legends or Lies?, Marshall Cavendish (Tarrytown, NY), 2005.
"SECRETS OF THE UNEXPLAINED" SERIES
Alien Astronauts, Benchmark (New York, NY), 1999.
Extraordinary Events and Oddball Occurrences, Benchmark (New York, NY), 1999.
Fateful Forebodings, Benchmark (New York, NY), 1999.
Long-Ago Lives, Benchmark (New York, NY), 1999.
Paranormal Powers, Benchmark (New York, NY), 1999.
Spooky Spectres, Benchmark (New York, NY), 1999.
"BAD GUYS" SERIES; NONFICTION
Pirates, Benchmark (New York, NY), 2001.
Highwaymen, Benchmark (New York, NY), 2001.
Outlaws, Benchmark (New York, NY), 2001.
Swindlers, Benchmark (New York, NY), 2001.
Gangsters, Benchmark (New York, NY), 2001.
Futures: A Dining-Room Comedy-Drama in Three Acts, Players Press, 1996.
Also author of other short plays.
Gary L. Blackwood started his writing career as a teen, and has since become a prolific author of novels for both young adults and middle-grade readers, in addition to penning plays and nonfiction. Popular particularly with boys due to their western and history themes, Blackwood's books include the alternate Revolutionary War history The Year of the Hangman, the nonfiction "Bad Guys" series, and his series of adventure novels centering around Elizabethan playwright William Shakespeare and featuring an orphaned teen named Widge. Praising series installment The Shakespeare Stealer, Nancy Menaldi-Scanlan wrote in School Library Journal that the book features "topnotch writing with a touch of humor." Reviewing Blackwood's nonfiction series, which features such titles as Highwaymen, Gangsters, Swindlers, and Outlaws, Booklist contributor Carolyn Phelan deemed the titles "well written and well designed," citing the author's focus on fascinating ne'erdwells from history. Laura Glaser wrote in School Library Journal that, rather than trying to excuse or explain the moral and ethical choices of past criminals, Blackwood "sticks to the facts and colorful details," making the "Bad Guys" books "simultaneously entertaining and informative reading."
Growing up in rural Cochranton, Pennsylvania, Blackwood became a book lover. "While I was still young enough to be sleeping in a crib," he once commented. "I struck a deal with my mother: I'd give up sucking my thumb if she bought me a series of Gene Autry comics I'd seen advertised on the back of a cereal box." As a child, Blackwood attended one of the last remaining one-room schoolhouses in his state, and recalled that the school library "consisted only of a single set of bookshelves, but it did contain a full set of the Dr. Doolittle books. I had a competition going with one of my classmates to see who could read the entire series first."
One of Blackwood's most popular books, The Shakespeare Stealer, was inspired by a newspaper article he first read in the mid-1960s. "It informed me that, in the sixteenth century, an English doctor named Timothy Bright had invented an early system of shorthand," he once explained. "I knew something of that time period already, from studying Shakespeare in college. The elements of shorthand and Shakespeare melded in my mind, and expanded to become my first novel, which I called An Art of Short, Swift, and Secret Stealing."
Blackwood never found a publisher for the book, so he put it aside for a number of years, then decided to rewrite it "as a book for kids." "For a long time," Blackwood explained, "it looked as if the new improved version of the book, now called The Shakespeare Stealer, would be consigned to oblivion like its predecessor. Most of the editors who saw it liked it a lot, but didn't feel it would sell well…. After being turned down sixteen times over a period of seven years, the book finally found a home at Dutton." The work has since gone on to receive substantial critical recognition.
The Shakespeare Stealer concerns Widge, a fourteen year old who has been raised in a Yorkshire orphanage. Widge is apprenticed to Dr. Bright, a minister who teaches the teen his system of "charactery" (or shorthand) for the purpose of gaining the boy's help in stealing other ministers' sermons. Before long, Bright sells his young apprentice for the sum of ten pounds to Simon Bass, a London theatrical manager. Bass plans to use the boy's shorthand skills to have him steal William Shakespeare's new play, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, so that Bass's own theater can produce it without having to pay royalties.
Widge is not far along with his transcript when he is discovered hiding in a balcony by the actors of the Globe Theatre; thinking fast, the teen pretends to be stage struck and is ultimately hired as an acting apprentice for Shakespeare's acting troupe, the Lord Chamberlain's Men. At first Widge sticks to Bass's plan and tries to use his new position to steal the Globe's own copy of the play, but the "brave new world of friendship, fun, and backstage intrigue," in the words of a Kirkus Reviews critic, make him question the ethics of his efforts. Instead, Widge practices lines, learns the arts of stagecraft and sword fighting, and works to evade Bass's brutal henchmen. Jennifer M. Brabander, writing in Horn Book, pointed out that, "like Hamlet, Blackwood's story focuses on its protagonist's doubt and deliberation about his interrupted quest." By the end of the story, Widge plays the role of Ophelia in a command performance before Queen Elizabeth I.
Appraising The Shakespeare Stealer, Deborah Stevens noted in her review for the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books that the "pleasing air of high adventure to Widge's escapades … is enhanced by Blackwood's careful but never dry use of period and theatrical detail." Brabander, writing in Horn Book, credited Blackwood with "set[ting] the stage for future reading and play-going" for his young fans, and a Kirkus Reviews critic called the book a "delightful and heartwarming romp through Elizabethan England." A Publishers Weekly reviewer remarked on the author's inclusion of colorful historical details—such as Widge having his supper warmed on a stove, and to the recovery of an injured man in a hospital—and cited in particular the book's "lively depictions of Elizabethan stagecraft and street life." Sally Margolis, who reviewed the book for the School Library Journal, wrote that "Blackwood puts a young boy in a sink-or-swim predicament in alien territory where he discovers his own strength. It's a formula with endless appeal." Carolyn Phelan, writing in Booklist, commented that "this historical novel makes an exciting introduction to the period and to Shakespearean theater."
Sequels to The Shakespeare Stealer include Shakespeare's Scribe and Shakespeare's Spy. Shakespeare's Scribe finds Widge and the acting troupe traveling to different towns to perform, even as rumors of the growing spread of the plague reveal the threat to London. As Widge helps transcribe a play for the injured Shakespeare, he meets a man who claims to be his father and learns a great deal about himself in the process. As stage props and costumes start to go missing and threaten the troupe's stage success with plays such as Hamlet and Measure for Measure, Widge—now an actor—must become an undercover investigator in Shakespeare's Spy, while a subplot finds him falling in love with the popular playwright's daughter, Judith. In a Horn Book review Brabander called Shakespeare's Scribe an "engaging portrayal of a young boy's coming of age in Elizabethan England," while School Library Journal contributor Nancy Menaldi-Scanlan lauded Blackwood's book as "extremely well structured, with … interesting subplots" and "realistic" dialogue. Carolyn Phelan stated in Booklist that "Widge and many of the other characters emerge as memorable, complex individuals that children will want to meet again." In Horn Book, Jeannine M. Chapman wrote that, despite the many plot lines, Shakespeare's Spy, "with its intrigues, romances, and plagues, is an enjoyable read," and a Kirkus Reviews writer deemed it "peppered like its predecessors with hilarious wordplay and real stagecraft."
Blackwood also appeals to readers looking for fast-moving, action-filled plots and likeable characters in novels such as The Year of the Hangman and Second Sight. In the former, he plays out an alternate history in which the British vanquished North American colonials during the American Revolution, leaving General George Washington captive and Benjamin Franklin hid-ing in a New Orleans safe house. In the novel fifteen-year-old juvenile delinquent Brit Creighton Brown is sent to the colonies to build character, and winds up in the hands of the colonial underground. Joining with rebel leader Benedict Arnold, he attempts to rescue Washington and learns a lot about honor and loyalty in the process. A Publishers Weekly reviewer found the novel "adventurous, if somewhat unrealistic," but also praised the book's "clever dialogue" and "compelling questions," while in School Library Journal Starr E. Smith wrote: "Packed with action … and compelling portrayals of real-life and fictional characters," The Year of the Hangman "will appeal to fans of both history and fantasy."
Moving closer to the historical record, Second Sight focuses on a presidential assassination: the murder of Abraham Lincoln during the U.S. Civil War. The main character and narrator, teenager Joseph Ehrlich, is a struggling actor who performs a stage act with his father, Nicholas, during which he feigns clairvoyance. Then he meets Cassandra Quinn, a girl living in his family's boarding house who demonstrates a real ability to foresee the future. When Cassandra predicts Lincoln's death, and states that politically radical actor John Wilkes Booth will be the killer, Joseph realizes that he must attempt to derail this tragedy. Noting that Blackwood "twist[s] history with some surprising results," Renee Steinberg praised the novel in School Library Journal as useful as a "springboard for some interesting class discussions." Introducing the novel as "brilliantly re-envisioned history," a Kirkus Reviews writer concluded that Blackwood casts his dramatic novel with "historical people and events, sets them in the most vivid evocation" of the mid-1800s, and then "caps his mesmerizing thriller with a stunning twist."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Booklist, June 1, 1998, Carolyn Phelan, review of The Shakespeare Stealer, p. 1763; September 1, 1999, p. 131; September 1, 2000, Carolyn Phelan, review of Shakespeare's Scribe, p. 112; January 1, 2002, Carolyn Phelan, review of Highwaymen and Swindlers, p. 850; March 15, 2003, review of Year of the Hangman, p. 1290; September 1, 2003, Carolyn Phelan, review of Shakespeare's Spy, p. 119; October 1, 2005, Carolyn Phelan, review of Second Sight, p. 48.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, July-August, 1998, Deborah Stevens, review of The Shakespeare Stealer, p. 483; December, 2002, review of The Year of the Hangman, p. 144.
English Journal, December, 1989, p. 77.
Horn Book, July-August, 1989, p. 485; June, 1998, Jennifer M. Brabander, review of The Shakespeare Stealer, p. 353; November, 2000, Jennifer M. Brabander, review of Shakespeare's Scribe, p. 752; November-December, 2003, Jeannine M. Chapman, review of Shakespeare's Spy, p. 739.
Kirkus Reviews, April 15, 1998, review of The Shakespeare Stealer, p. 576; October 15, 2003, review of Shakespeare's Spy, p. 1269; August 1, 2005, review of Second Sight, p. 844.
Kliatt, September, 2002, Claire Rosser, review of The Year of the Hangman, p. 6, and Sally M. Tibbetts, review of Shakespeare's Scribe, p. 15; March, 2004, Janet Julian, review of The Year of the Hangman, p. 59.
Publishers Weekly, June 1, 1998, review of The Shakespeare Stealer, p. 63; September 16, 2002, review of The Year of the Hangman, p. 70.
School Library Journal, October, 1987, p. 137; May, 1989, p. 124; March, 1991, p. 192; June, 1998, Sally Marg-olis, review of The Shakespeare Stealer, p. 140; March, 1999, pp. 216-217; August, 1999, p. 166; October, 1999, p. 144; September, 2000, Nancy Menaldi-Scanlan, review of Shakespeare's Scribe, p. 225; January, 2002, Laura Glaser, reviews of Highwaymen, Gangsters, and Outlaws, p. 146; September, 2002, Starr E. Smith, review of The Year of the Hangman, p. 219; December, 2002, review of The Year of the Hangman, p. 41; September 1, 2003, Carolyn Phelan, review of Shakespeare's Spy, p. 119; October, 2003, Susan Colley, review of Shakespeare's Spy, p. 158; February, 2004, Nancy Menaldi-Scanlan, review of The Shakespeare Stealer, p. 82; September, 2005, Renee Steinberg, review of Second Sight, p. 198.
Voice of Youth Advocates, October, 2002, review of The Year of the Hangman, p. 269.
Wilson Library Bulletin, January, 1990, p. 99; March, 1990.
Gary Blackwood Home Page, http://mowrites4kids.drury.edu/authors/blackwood (April 12, 2006).
Edgar Wolfe Literary Award Web site, http://www.kckpl.lib.ks.us/FOL/ (February 21, 2003), "Gary L. Black-wood."
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