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Debby Atwell (1953-) Biography

Personal, Career, Writings, Sidelights

Born 1953, in Providence, RI; Education: University of New Hampshire, B.F.A., 1976. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Christian.


Children's book writer and illustrator; iconographer.



Barn, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1996.

River, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1999.

Pearl, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2001.

The Thanksgiving Door, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2003.


David Lewis Atwell, The Day Hans Got His Way, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1992.

David Lewis Atwell, Sleeping Moon, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1994.


Debby Atwell is an author-illustrator whose folk art paintings well suit her themes of American history through individual perspective. Atwell began her work with children's books by illustrating two titles by her husband. Since then she has written and self-illustrated several more picture books in a style that a Publishers Weekly reviewer described as "a sort of Currier & Ives meets Grandma Moses." In books such as Barn, River, and Pearl, Atwell helps young readers to understand how things change and how they stay the same through a broad sweep of time.

Barn, Atwell's first self-illustrated work, tells the story of a barn from its construction during the Revolutionary War to its present-day use in the suburbs of a big city. What gives the tale its immediacy is the way it is told: the barn is the narrator, even after it burns to the ground and is reincarnated as a home for horses. In Booklist, Shelley Townsend-Hudson called Barn a "moving story … unusual and warm." A Publishers Weekly reviewer likewise felt that the text and pictures "exude tranquility."

River and Pearl follow the same format as Barn. In River, a third-person narrator describes how the river changes from a clean home for fish and animals to a polluted, over-used victim of the Industrial Revolution. Near the book's end, however, a group of people decide to clean up the waterway and restore it to life. Booklist contributor Carolyn Phelan found Atwell's illustratons in this work "particularly haunting in their evocation of place." In Pearl, the narrator is Pearl herself. She tells her family history from her grandfather's encounter with George Washington to her own birth during the

Debby Atwell, at right

Civil War, and onward to the twentieth century and the birth of her great-granddaughter. In Booklist, Lauren Peterson deemed Pearl a "thoroughly entertaining over-view of American history" that "humanizes" events that might otherwise baffle youngsters. Dorian Chong in School Library Journal liked the illustrations, calling them "highly detailed and charmingly evocative of the past." A Publishers Weekly critic awarded Pearl a starred review, concluding: "Brimming with patriotism and hope, this is a gem."

The Thanksgiving Door follows Ann and Ed, an elderly couple, to the New World Café after Ann accidently burns Thanksgiving dinner. At first, the restaurant's proprietors hesitate to welcome their guests, but after a scolding from Grandma, Ann and Ed are invited to join the family for food, dance, and general celebration of what Grandma calls an "old country Thanksgiving." Writing for School Library Journal, Bina Williams deemed Atwell's illustrations "luminous," while a reviewer for Publishers Weekly concluded, "all will likely tap into the acts of kindness that contribute to Atwell's economically told tale."

Atwell once told SATA: "There are so many talented children's artists and authors that it is difficult to carve a niche truly one's own in the world. My aim is to intrigue the child's mind with a story they can't predict, and do my best to make pictures that hold their attention. All the intangibles, I just hope for."

Biographical and Critical Sources


Booklist, October 1, 1996, Shelley Townsend-Hudson, review of Barn, p. 357; November 1, 1999, Carolyn Phelan, review of River, p. 537; May 1, 2001, Lauren Peterson, review of Pearl, p. 1690; October 1, 2003, GraceAnne A. DeCandido, review of The Thanksgiving Door, p. 325.

New York Times Book Review, September 16, 2001, Mary Harris Russell, review of Pearl, p. 27.

Publishers Weekly, August 10, 1992, review of The Day Hans Got His Way, p. 69; September 2, 1996, review of Barn, p. 129; September 6, 1999, review of River, p. 102; February 26, 2001, review of Pearl, p. 85; October 8, 2001, review of Barn, p. 67; September 22, 2003, review of The Thanksgiving Door, p. 65.

School Library Journal, June, 2001, Dorian Chong, review of Pearl, p. 100; September, 2003, Bina Williams, review of The Thanksgiving Door, p. 166.*

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