Paula Danziger (1944-)
Since the 1974 publication of her first novel The Cat Ate My Gymsuit, Paula Danziger has become one of America's most popular authors for young adults. Most of her books "center around young teenage girls faced with the problems of establishing a grownup identity," Alleen Pace Nilsen observed in Twentieth Century Children's Writers. But while Danziger's characters frequently deal with personal and family problems, they do so with humor, wit, and spirit. As a result, Nilsen wrote, "teenagers begin to smile at themselves and come away from [Danziger's] books a little more confident that they too will make it."
"My life as an author began as a small child when I realized that was what I wanted to do and started mentally recording a lot of information and observations," Danziger told Marguerite Feitlowitz in an interview for Authors and Artists for Young Adults (AAYA). "That's also when I started to develop the sense of humor and the sense of perspective that allows me to write the way I do." While in high school, Danziger spent much of her time reading and also wrote for school and town newspapers. Nevertheless, she recalled, "I'd been raised to believe that I was not particularly bright, not college material.... Family dynamics were such that I fell into fulfilling their low expectations."
Despite her lackluster performance in school, Danziger was admitted to Montclair State College, where she studied to be a teacher. While in college, she was introduced to John Ciardi, a noted poet and author for children. She secured a semi-regular babysitting job with his family, including several summers when she accompanied the Ciardis to writers' conferences. The poet encouraged Danziger in her studies and frequently shared his literary knowledge and insight with her. The author related in her AAYA interview: "John Ciardi taught me more than anyone else about poetry and writing. Their house was full of books, and I borrowed liberally from the shelves. . . . It was the best lesson I've ever had in my life. He read the poems and explained them, giving me a sense of language structure."
After her graduation from college in 1967, Danziger began working as a substitute teacher—"an occupation that could have been a punishment in Dante's Inferno," the author commented in English Journal. That job led to full-time positions as a junior high school English teacher. However, Danziger wanted to further her education, so she returned to school after three years to pursue a master's degree. Her studies were interrupted when she was involved in a bizarre series of car accidents. The first mishap was relatively minor, but it left her with a painful case of whiplash. Then, when she sought treatment several days later, the car she was traveling in was hit head-on by a drunken driver. Danziger hit the windshield of the car and suffered temporary brain damage that left her unable to read and haunted by nightmares.
To combat her fear and feelings of powerlessness, Danziger began writing a novel about a teenager beset by self-doubt and family troubles. "I felt very out of control," she once explained, and "the last time I felt that way was when I was a kid. When you're a kid, everyone seems to be in charge, to have the right to tell you what to do, how to feel. In hospitals and schools it seemed to be the same way. So I wanted to confront all that." In addition, the author continued, "I really missed teaching my eighth graders.... [so] I decided to write a book to talk to them about survival—learning to like oneself, dealing with school systems, and being able to celebrate one's own uniqueness. The result was The Cat Ate My Gymsuit."
"The cat ate my gymsuit" is one of the excuses junior high school student Marcy Lewis gives her physical education teacher to avoid dressing for gym class. Uncomfortable with her looks, unhappy with her insensitive and uncommunicative parents, and unsatisfied with a school that stifles individuality, Marcy becomes involved in a student protest over a teacher's firing and learns to have faith in herself and her abilities. The result is "a thoroughly enjoyable, tightly written, funny/sad tale of an unglamorous but plucky girl who is imaginative, believable, and worthy of emulation," a reviewer commented in Journal of Reading.
With its "fresh and funny" approach, The Cat Ate My Gymsuit "grabbed teenagers' attention because it was so different from the serious realistic novels that adult critics were raving over," Nilsen noted in Twentieth-Century Children's Writers. Despite the book's popularity, Danziger returned to teaching after recovering from her accident. Meanwhile, she continued working on a second book, The Pistachio Prescription. Eventually "the realization came that it was incredibly hard to be a good creative writer and a good creative teacher" at the same time, Danziger commented in English Journal. "Each was a full-time job. My choice was to write full time. I was never good at taking attendance, doing lesson plans, or getting papers back on time. I sold two ideas to Dell, took the advance money, and hoped for decent royalties."
The success of Danziger's next books allowed her the freedom to remain a full-time writer. The Pistachio Prescription, which details how an insecure teenager overcomes health problems and conflicts with her feuding parents, was considered "unusually well done" by Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books contributor Zena Sutherland. Sutherland added, "the characterization and dialogue are strong, the relationships depicted with perception, and the writing style vigorous." Sutherland likewise found that Can You Sue Your Parents for Malpractice? "has enough humor and breezy dialogue to make it fun to read, and enough solidity in the characters and relationships to make it thought-provoking." A story of a ninth grader confused by relationships with stubborn parents and unpredictable boyfriends, the novel has a "skillful balance between humor and pathos" which makes it "yet another to add to [Danziger's] growing list of successful efforts in literature that's particularly appropriate for junior high students," Michele Simpson commented in Journal of Reading.
While Danziger's readers enjoy the humor and pacing of her books, some critics have faulted them as superficial, containing generic characters and situations. According to Perry Nodelman of Children's Literature in Education, for instance, the "typicality" of books such as The Cat Ate My Gymsuit means that "we cannot possibly understand the story unless we fill in its exceedingly vague outlines with knowledge from our own experience. . . . The book demands, not distance, but involvement." Sutherland, on the other hand, argued that There's a Bat in Bunk Five, which recounts Marcy Lewis's summer as a camp counselor, "has depth in the relationships and characterizations; and it's written with vigor and humor." While the novel contains elements of familiar camping stories, the critic explained, it "doesn't, however, follow a formula plot."
Responding to such criticism, Danziger told Feitlowitz: "For anyone who has ever felt alone—and who hasn't, in truth—a book can make a very good friend. Like a good friend, a book can help you see things a little more clearly, help you blow off steam, get you laughing, let you cry." The author continued: "I think there is so much in life that is hard and sad and difficult and that there is so much in life that is . . . joyous and funny. There's also a lot of in between those two extremes. As a writer, I try to take all of those things and put them together. That way people can say 'I know that feeling' and identify with it."
This sense of identification helps to make Danziger's books so popular with her readers; as Nilsen and Kenneth L. Donelson stated in Literature for Today's Young Adults, Danziger's books "remain favorites . . . because they do not talk down to their readers, because they present real issues and real problems facing their readers, and because they do not pretend that there are easy answers to any problems." Danziger's sometimes negative portrayals of adults and quick one-liners "may annoy adults," the critics conclude, "but her humor is exactly what her readers want."
Though Danziger's later novels continue in her well-known humorous vein, they also include a science-fiction spoof, a book with a biracial protagonist, and a series books for preteen readers. This Place Has No Atmosphere is set in the year 2057 and follows a teenager whose family moves to a colony on the moon. The Divorce Express presents Phoebe, who shuttles between her long-divorced parents. "Mercifully avoiding the . . . gloom and wearisome heart-searching of so many novels on this highly topical subject," Margery Fisher commented in Growing Point, "The Divorce Express makes its point in an agreeably relaxed and shrewd manner." The book also introduces Rosie, the biracial daughter of a mixed marriage; in It's an Aardvark-Eat-Turtle World, Rosie must cope with a new "family" when her mother combines households with her boyfriend. And the novels Everyone Else's Parents Said Yes and Make Like a Tree and Leave, which follow the adventures of sixth-grader Matthew Martin, continue "to reflect Danziger's awareness of what students of a certain age are like and what appeals to them," remarked Dona Weisman in a School Library Journal review of Everyone Else's Parents Said Yes. Matthew's adventures are continued in Earth to Matthew and Not for a Billion, Gazillion Dollars.
Aimed at even younger readers is the series that features Amber Brown. Reviewing Amber Brown Is Not a Crayon, Roger Sutton observed in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books that "Danziger's brisk and empathetic writing brings her the same kind of intuitive connection with kids she's made in books for older readers." These books deal not only with usual school traumas, but also with issues of divorce and blending families. The series has won praise for its ability to entice new readers and to make even kids who hate books find that reading can be fun.
The cast of the "Amber Brown" books continues in a second series about the spirited youngster, "A Is for Amber Brown." Aimed at a younger audience, this second series features the protagonist back in early elementary school, several years before the original "Amber Brown" series. In a Publishers Weekly review of the first two books, It's Justin Time, Amber Brown, and What a Trip, Amber Brown, a critic noted that "the emotions are real and recognizable." Discussing both Get Ready for Second Grade, Amber Brown and It's a Fair Day, Amber Brown, School Library Journal contributor Mary Elam thought that "the characters in these prequels for beginning readers lose nothing from their original portrayals in the longer books for older children."
Danziger joined forces with Ann M. Martin, author of the "Baby Sitters Club" series, in an epistolary novel titled P.S. Longer Letter Later and its sequel Snail Mail No More. The first book tells of two junior high best friends, suddenly separated by hundreds of miles, who write to each other. Elizabeth's affluent parents suffer a reversal of fortune when her father's company is downsized. Tara*Starr (as she signs herself) must cope with her young parents planning for their first "wanted" child. Ron Koertge, writing for the New York Times Book Review, described P.S. Longer Letter Later as a "spirited and readable book with none of the anemia or tendentiousness" associated with much YA writing. In the sequel, Snail Mail No More, pen pals Elizabeth and Tara are now in the twenty-first century and correspond via e-mail. Calling the book "alternately funny and poignant," a reviewer in Publishers Weekly noted that "the two characters approach life differently enough that there will likely be a response or suggestion that resonates with every reader, and both heroines share one important trait: they are all heart."
"As always, Danziger's characters are likable, and the dialogue and situations ring true" in the novel United Tates of America, Ronni Krasnow wrote in School Library Journal. Protagonist Sarah Kate "Skate" Tate narrates this story of adapting to middle school and coming to terms with the sudden death of her Great Uncle Mort, affectionately referred to as "GUM." "The family's reactions to his death—a mix of sadness, happy memories, even anger and guilt—are poignantly portrayed in some of the novel's strongest scenes," thought Horn Book's Peter D. Sieruta. Prior to his passing, GUM had enjoyed traveling the world, and in his will, he leaves the Tates a good deal of money with which to travel and expand their own horizons. The highlight of the book is a thirty-two page, full-color insert of the scrapbook Skate creates that year, which includes several photographs of the trip that the family took to Plymouth, Massachusetts, with part of their inheritance. "Young scrapbook artists, in particular, will take delight in this book's unique artwork," commented a Publishers Weekly contributor.
Danziger has a good sense of how kids think and what their concerns are; even so, she sometimes considers returning to teach full-time so she can be closer to them, she told Feitlowitz. "I miss working with the kids, but I don't miss the faculty meetings, taking attendance, and grading papers," the author revealed. "I'm also not great about getting papers back in time. My strength as a teacher was that I really cared about kids, books, and creativity." So to keep in touch with her audience, Danziger travels the country, giving lectures and visiting schools. She also puts in extended visits of several days in length at various schools so that she can talk in depth with students.
"So here I am a full-time writer, a 'grown-up' who chooses to write about kids," Danziger once commented. "I've made this choice because I think that kids and adults share a lot of the same feelings and thoughts, that we have to go through a lot of similar situations." As she explained in her AAYA interview, "All writers write from deep experience. For me, that is childhood. From it flow feelings of vulnerability, compassion, and strength. Perhaps it would be better to say that I write 'of' young people rather than 'for' or 'to' them. Writers tell the best stories we possibly can, hopefully in ways that others will like."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Volumes 6 and 7, Beacham Publishing (Osprey, FL), 1990.
Children's Literature Review, Volume 20, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1990.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 21, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1982.
Danziger, Paula, in an interview with Marguerite Feitlowitz for Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Volume 4, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1990.
Drew, Bernard A., The One Hundred Most Popular Young Adult Authors, Libraries Unlimited (Englewood, CO), 1996.
Krull, Kathleen, Presenting Paula Danziger, Twayne Publishing (New York, NY), 1995.
Nilsen, Alleen Pace, and Kenneth L. Donelson, Literature for Today's Young Adults, 2nd edition, Scott, Foresman (Glenview, IL), 1985, pp. 335-369.
St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers, 2nd edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Twentieth Century Children's Writers, 3rd edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1989.
Booklist, December 15, 2001, Ilene Cooper, review of The Pistachio Prescription, p. 729; April 15, 2002, Shelle Rosenfeld, review of United Tates of America, p. 1400; January 1, 2003, Jean Hatfield, review of United Tates of America, p. 924; September 1, 2003, Carolyn Phelan, review of Amber Brown Is Green with Envy, p. 119.
Books for Keeps, July, 1995, Chris Powling, "Autograph No. 93," pp. 14-15.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, May, 1978, Zena Sutherland, review of The Pistachio Prescription, p. 140; June, 1979, Zena Sutherland, review of Can You Sue Your Parents for Malpractice?, pp. 172-173; December, 1980, Zena Sutherland, review of There's a Bat in Bunk Five, p. 68; June, 1994, Roger Sutton, review of Amber Brown Is Not a Crayon, pp. 316-317.
Children's Literature in Education, winter, 1981, Perry Nodelman, "How Typical Children Read Typical Books," pp. 177-185.
English Journal, November, 1984, Paula Danziger and others, "Facets: Successful Authors Talk about Connections between Teaching and Writing," pp. 24-27.
Growing Point, September, 1986, Margery Fisher, review of The Divorce Express, pp. 4673-4674.
Horn Book, March-April, 2002, Peter D. Sieruta, review of United Tates of America, pp. 210-211.
Journal of Reading, January, 1976, review of The Cat Ate My Gymsuit, pp. 333-335; February, 1980, Michele Simpson, review of Can You Sue Your Parents for Malpractice?, p. 473.
Kirkus Reviews, February 15, 2002, review of United Tates of America, p. 253; June 1, 2002, review of It's a Fair Day, Amber Brown, p. 803.
Kliatt, spring, 1979, Cyrisse Jaffe, review of The Pistachio Prescription, p. 6.
New York Times Book Review, January 5, 1975; March 18, 1979, Selma G. Lanes, review of The Pistachio Prescription, p. 26; June 17, 1979, Jane Langton, review of Can You Sue Your Parents for Malpractice?, p. 25; November 23, 1980; February 13, 1983; May 17, 1998, Ron Koertge, "Please Mr. Postman," review of P.S. Longer Letter Later, p. 27.
PEN Newsletter, September, 1988, Paula Danziger and others, "Writing for Children: Where Does It Come from and How Is It Different from Writing for Adults?," pp. 16-26.
Publishers Weekly, September 8, 1989, review of Everyone Else's Parents Said Yes, p. 70; September 12, 1994, review of Thames Doesn't Rhyme with James, p. 92; February 20, 1995, review of You Can't Eat Your Chicken Pox, Amber Brown, p. 201; June 7, 1999, review of P.S. Longer Letter Later: A Novel in Letters, p. 53; September 20, 1999, review of Amber Brown Is Feeling Blue, p. 90; January 10, 2000, review of Snail Mail No More, p. 68; March 12, 2001, review of It's Justin Time, Amber Brown and What a Trip, Amber Brown, p. 91; February 4, 2002, review of United Tates of America, p. 77; July 21, 2003, review of Amber Brown Is Green with Envy, pp. 197-198.
School Library Journal, September, 1989, Dona Weisman, review of Everyone Else's Parents Said Yes, p. 249; October, 1990; July, 1997, Jackie Hechtkopf, review of Amber Brown Sees Red, p. 61; March, 2001, Genevieve Ceraldi, review of It's Justin Time, Amber Brown, p. 205; April, 2001, Holly Belli, review of What a Trip, Amber Brown, p. 105; June, 2002, Ronni Krasnow, review of United Tates of America, p. 136; July, 2002, Mary Elam, review of Get Ready for Second Grade, Amber Brown and It's a Fair Day, Amber Brown, pp. 87-88; November, 2002, Jane P. Fenn, review of United Tates of America, pp. 86-87; September, 2003, Maura Martin Smith, review of Get Ready for Second Grade, Amber Brown, pp. 73-74, Susan Mingee, review of It's a Fair Day, Amber Brown, p. 74, and Michele Shaw, review of Amber Brown Is Green with Envy, p. 176.
Storyworks, April, 2001, Alyssa Egts, review of Remember Me to Harold Square, p. 7.
Time for Kids, September 26, 2003, "Amber Brown Is Back," p. 3.
Voice of Youth Advocates, December, 1987, Nancy Headley Jones, review of Remember Me to Harold Square, p. 46.
Scholastic Books Web Site, http://www.scholastic.com/ (February 13, 2004), "Meet Paula Danziger."*
Brief BiographiesBiographies: Ciara Biography - Wrote Out Goals to Elizabeth David (1913–1992) BiographyPaula Danziger (1944-) Biography - Awards, Honors, Writings, Sidelights - Personal, Addresses, Career, Adaptations