Janet Taylor Lisle (1947-) Biography
Personal, Addresses, Career, Honors Awards, Writings, Adaptations, Sidelights
Born 1947, in Englewood, NJ; Education: Smith College, B.A., 1969; studied journalism at Georgia State University.
Agent—Gina Maccoby, P.O. Box 60, Chappaqua, NY 10514.
Writer. Has worked as a journalist in Georgia and New York; VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America), volunteer, Atlanta, GA, c. 1970.
Best Books for Young Adults, American Library Association (ALA), Best Books, School Library Journal, Editors' Choice, Booklist, all 1985, Parent's Choice Award, Parent's Choice Foundation, 1986, and Best of the '80s, Booklist, all for Sirens and Spies; Golden Kite Honor Book for Fiction, Society of Children's Book Writers, Best Children's Books, Parent's Magazine, and Editors' Choice, Booklist, all 1987, all for The Great Dimpole Oak; Best Books, School Library Journal, Editors' Choice, Booklist, and Parent's Choice, all 1989, and Newbery Honor Book, ALA, 1990, all for Afternoon of the Elves; Best Books, School Library Journal, New York Times Book Review, Boston Globe, and Parent's Magazine, all 1991, all for The Lampfish of Twill; Best Books, School Library Journal, "Pick of the Lists," American Booksellers Association (ABA), and Best Books, Bank Street Child Study Children's Books Committee, for Forest; Notable Books selection, Bank Street Child Study Children's Books Committee, 1994, for The Gold Dust Letters, and 1995, for Looking for Juliette; Best Books, School Library Journal, 1995, for A Message from the Match Girl; Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction, Riverbank Review "book of distinction" citation, ALA Notable Children's Book, and "Fanfare" citation, Horn Book, all 2001, all for The Art of Keeping Cool; ALA Notable Children's Book citation and "best book" citation, School Library Journal, both 2001, both for The Lost Flower Children.
The Dancing Cats of Applesap, illustrated by Joelle Shefts, Bradbury Press (Scarsdale, NY), 1984.
Sirens and Spies, Bradbury Press (Scarsdale, NY), 1985.
The Great Dimpole Oak, illustrated by Stephen Gammell, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1987.
Afternoon of the Elves, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1989.
The Lampfish of Twill, illustrated by Wendy Anderson Halperin, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1991.
Forest, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1993.
The Gold Dust Letters, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1994.
Looking for Juliette, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1994.
A Message from the Match Girl, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1995.
Angela's Aliens, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1996.
The Lost Flower Children, Philomel Books (New York, NY), 1999.
The Art of Keeping Cool, Atheneum (New York, NY), 2000.
How I Became a Writer and Oggie Learned to Drive, Philomel Books (New York, NY), 2002.
The Crying Rocks, Atheneum (New York, NY), 2003.
Afternoon of the Elves was adapted as a stage play, 1993, and is collected in Theatre for Young Audiences: Around the World in 21 Plays.
Janet Taylor Lisle is the author of young adult and juvenile novels that explore the relationships and boundaries between the miraculous and the everyday. Blending humor and realistic character development, Lisle creates worlds full of both fantasy and fact. She revels in dancing cats, backyard elves, and forests shared by squirrels and humans leading parallel lives. Set primarily in the northeastern United States where Lisle was raised and continues to live, early Lisle titles such as Sirens and Spies, The Great Dimpole Oak, and Afternoon of the Elves were all award-winners and garnered the author a wide readership. Later titles include the four companion volumes of the "Investigators of the Unknown" series. Whatever the topic or setting, "Lisle's books are uniformly delightful," according to Andrea Cleghorn in an essay in Children's Books and Their Creators. And if she employs elements of fantasy in her books, it is in order to delve more deeply into the hidden recesses of human life. As Lisle noted in an essay for Something about the Author Autobiography Series (SAAS), "the investigation of reality, both the inward and outward sort, is at the core of the stories I like to write."
Lisle has been writing since she was a child. The only daughter—and oldest child—in a family of five siblings, she grew up in rural Rhode Island and Connecticut. She enjoyed her special position as the sole girl in the family, and she and her brothers were avid readers from an early age, consuming J. R. R. Tolkien and Robert Louis Stevenson until they felt "in a trance" from the stories, as she recalled in SAAS. Her tranquil childhood in Farmington, Connecticut, changed radically when she went to a private school in the sixth grade. "I was a new girl," Lisle wrote in SAAS, "an outsider, and even though I recognized some of the students in my class from home, I felt shy and out of place." Worse, she began to have academic troubles, something that had never occurred before. Math, particularly, was a weak spot, but she soon compensated with a talent for soccer that won her friends and recognition. Yet always throughout school, English classes were her safe haven. From the age of ten, Lisle was composing stories both at school and increasingly on her own at home. When her teachers became more concerned with such things as spelling and sentence structure over content, Lisle turned to "secret writing," as she called it in SAAS.
Attending Smith College, Lisle majored in English, but her study of the great writers daunted her with the high benchmark they set. "I did not take a single writing class at Smith College," Lisle noted in SAAS. "In a completely unforeseen way, my education had silenced me." Out of college, she married and worked as a volunteer for VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) for a time. Then she returned to school and earned a degree in journalism. Thereafter she worked for a decade as a journalist, writing both hard news and features. The daily grind of deadline writing was another kind of school for Lisle, and helped give her a facility for speedy organization.
A new marriage and the birth of her child put Lisle on a different path, however. In 1981 she gave up journalism and started writing for children. A writer's workshop helped with this decision, and the inspiration of some childhood memories resulted in her first book, The Dancing Cats of Applesap, the story of a shy ten-year-old girl who manages to save her town's drugstore and soda fountain by bringing some amazing cats together. As Ilene Cooper noted in a Horn Book article about Lisle, the story was "an utterly original fantasy," about cats that dance in a drugstore after hours to the guitar strums of the owner. Melba Morris, the protagonist of the book, brings Applesap, New York, notoriety when she helps spread the news about the cats in Mr. Jiggs's old-fashioned drugstore. This notoriety, in turn, saves the drugstore. "This story has elements found in the most enduring works of children's fiction: humor, inventiveness, and a message gently relayed," Cooper noted, writing in Booklist. Anne Osborn, in School Library Journal, called the book a "gentle but rewarding story" and "not so much a cat fantasy as a novel of character development and growth."
Lisle followed this initial publication with a more realistic young adult novel, Sirens and Spies, the story of two sisters and their secret-bearing violin teacher. As Lisle explained in SAAS, "I contrived to place a pair of sisters at the center of the story so that I could experience a little of the doubleness of sisterhood," the doubleness she was missing in her own youth surrounded by four younger brothers. Mary and Elsie take violin lessons from Miss Fitch, with Elsie being the favorite. It is therefore surprising to Mary when her sister turns against the aged teacher, accusing her of being a collaborator with the Germans during the Second World War in her native France. But when Miss Fitch is injured in her home by an intruder, Mary helps to un-ravel the secret in the teacher's past. Nancy Choice, writing in Voice of Youth Advocates, called the book a "moving story about friendship, forgiveness, and the awful power of secrets." Zena Sutherland in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books noted that Sirens and Spies is a "truly sophisticated book," while David A. Lindsey in School Library Journal dubbed it "a piece of quality fiction."
Lisle wrote a quartet of imaginative novels for children and young adults from 1987 to 1993, including The Great Dimpole Oak, Afternoon of the Elves, The Lampfish of Twill, and Forest. Something of a technical tour de force, The Great Dimpole Oak cuts back and forth from Paris to Bombay to small town America where a majestic oak tree is weaving its subtle magic over all concerned. Everyone who comes into contact with the tree is affected in this "feat of originality and plotting," according to a critic in Publishers Weekly, who concluded: "A beautifully orchestrated novel, this is short yet deeply satisfying." Anita Silvey, writing in Horn Book, found everything about the book, from writing to cover art, "marked by exquisite taste," and concluded that Lisle's third novel "contains no echoes of other creators' voices."
"A fascinating portrayal of a manipulative yet touching friendship" is how Annette Curtis Klause summed up Lisle's next book, Afternoon of the Elves, in School Library Journal. The outcast, Sara-Kate, befriends the younger, more popular Hillary by showing her an elf village in her back yard, but Hillary also discovers the truth about Sara-Kate: that she is alone caring for her sick mother and desperately trying to cope with domestic duties and unpaid bills. Neither Hillary nor the reader are ever quite sure of the reality of the elves, but once social services intervenes and takes Sara-Kate from her mother, Hillary sets the tiny village up in her own yard. In Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, Betsy Hearne described Afternoon of the Elves as "a carefully developed story focused on two children who influence each other in realistic, subtle stages."
In The Lampfish of Twill, the magic is underwater. An old fisherman leads Eric down a whirlpool into an ancient and glorious world at the center of the Earth. A Publishers Weekly contributor compared The Lampfish of Twill favorably to other classics of the imagination such as Wrinkle in Time and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and noted that it "tickles the imagination and challenges preconceived notions about reality and illusion." A Kirkus Reviews commentator called it "a splendid, unique fantasy" in which "fantastical creatures help convey truths that transcend the harsh realities of a world whose rituals and prejudices are all too familiar."
With Forest, the magic is more traditional, involving the exploits of twelve-year-old Amber and a sentient squirrel named Woodbine. Amber unwittingly sets off a war between humans and the other forest animals when she builds a tree house too deep in the forest. Carol Fox, reviewing the book in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, concluded that Lisle "has created a world of innocence marked with heartache, truth infused with absurdity, and wisdom relinquished to reck-lessness—all in the guise of animal fantasy." In Publishers Weekly a reviewer noted that this "expertly crafted promotion of open-mindedness and tolerance is sure to hold its audience's attention."
Lisle has also written a series of four middle-grade novels titled collectively "Investigators of the Unknown." The stories, which include The Gold Dust Letters, Looking for Juliette, A Message from the Match Girl, and Angela's Aliens, recount a year in the lives of four nine-year-olds who, while investigating magic, begin to discover truths about themselves and their families. In the initial volume, Angela receives letters, covered in gold dust, from a lonely, old-fashioned fairy. Investigating these letters with her friends, Georgina and Poco, leads Angela to a new understanding of her father. "Lisle celebrates the imagination's power to help ease wounds," maintained a Publishers Weekly critic in a starred review of The Gold Dust Letters. Starr LaTronica noted in School Library Journal that the author had created a "multifaceted novel to be appreciated on many levels."
The magic and reality-checks continue with the second novel in the series, Looking for Juliette, in which Angela moves to Mexico for the year, leaving her cat, Juliette, with Poco. But when Juliette turns up missing, Poco and Georgina blame the elderly Miss Bone, who is caretaking Angela's house. Walter, another classmate, introduces a Ouija board to the hunt. Ellen Fader noted in School Library Journal that the book "is well plotted, and replete with humor, interesting characters, and enough shivers and surprises to satisfy readers." Ilene Cooper called the work "a magical mix" in her Booklist review.
With the third title in the series, A Message from the Match Girl, Georgina and Poco try to help Walter, an orphan who believes he is being haunted by, and receiving messages from, his dead mother. A contributor to Kirkus Reviews called the book "a tantalizing mystery of mother love," and a Publishers Weekly critic called it a "poignant story." The series was rounded off with the return of Angela from Mexico in Angela's Aliens. Because she seems to have become a different person—taller and more adult and somber—after being away, Poco, Georgina, and Walter suspect that Angela has been abducted by aliens and then returned in an altered state. In Publishers Weekly a reviewer noted that Lisle's magic would work on even the "most down-to-earth readers," and that as with all the books in the series—indeed, with all of Lisle's books—Angela's Aliens is more concerned with "opening the door to possibilities in human relationships than on solving supernatural mysteries."
A Publishers Weekly reviewer described The Lost Flower Children as a "blend of gentle fantasy and tough reality." Bereft after the death of their mother, nine-year-old
Olivia and her peculiar five-year-old sister Nellie are sent to spend the summer with Great-Aunt Minty. Olivia's isolation is complete, as she must care for Nellie and deal with her own grief with little help from her doddering aunt. Then Olivia finds an old book in which she reads a story about children placed under a spell by garden fairies. Only when a buried tea set is dug up will the children be free of the spell and able to continue their lives. Taken by the story, Nellie begins to dig in Aunt Minty's overgrown garden—and she begins to uncover a child's tea set, cup by cup. Lisle's suggestive ending allows readers to come to their own conclusions about the restoration of the magical children. In her Booklist review of the work, Shelle Rosenfeld called The Lost Flower Children "an irresistible mystery resulting in personal transformation." A Horn Book critic praised the story as "a tantalizing, delicately told book" that will "… take readers into completely unexplored territory, setting them free to imagine what they will."
Lisle won the prestigious Scott O'Dell Award for The Art of Keeping Cool, a historical novel set in Rhode Island during World War II. Robert's father goes off to fight in the war, and Robert, his sister, and his mother must move in with his paternal grandparents. There Robert and his cousin Elliot are at the mercy of their grandfather's temper, but they take strength in each other. Elliot, a talented artist, has also befriended an expatriate German painter named Abel Hoffman, but in the wartime climate of fear, the townspeople conclude that Hoffman is a spy. "This is a powerful story of World War II at home," wrote Hazel Rochman in Booklist. "Lisle weaves together the thrilling war action and the spy mystery." A Publishers Weekly reviewer called the novel "an intriguing web of family secrets and wartime fears" that "… brings universal themes of prejudice and loss to a personal level." School Library Journal correspondent Cyrisse Jaffee likewise characterized The Art of Keeping Cool as "a heartfelt story about family dynamics and the harmful power of prejudice and hatred."
Switching gears, Lisle next wrote How I Became a Writer and Oggie Learned to Drive, a humorous, fast-paced novel about the dual thrills of living dangerously and writing, told in the voice of a twelve-year-old boy who is determined to become a writer. Archie Jones's story "The Mysterious Mole People" starts as bedtime entertainment for his younger brother, Oggie, six, who is trying to cope with newly separated parents and split living arrangements. But the story soon develops into an all-consuming passion. Writing secretly in the closet at night, Archie begins to see how his real-life troubles with a tough neighborhood gang are spilling over into his fiction, and vice-versa, how his writing gives him a way to speak about his deepest feelings. Lisle's story is "a book about writing that is both serious and unpretentious," wrote Susan Marie Swanson in Riverbank Review. Carol A. Edwards in School Library Journal concluded that the book's real essence lies in "how fiction and life are different and equally useful to one another."
Lisle returned to a Rhode Island setting for The Crying Rocks, a story about thirteen-year-old Joelle's search for her origins. Found by the railroad tracks when she was five, and adopted by an older couple, Joelle recalls nothing of her early years, until Carlos, a classmate, tells her she resembles seventeenth-century Narragansett Indians in an old painting in the public library. The teens begin to research these early natives, hiking trails in nearby woods and exploring the Crying Rocks, where the weeping of children can sometimes be heard. In a starred review for Voice of Youth Advocates, Diane Emge wrote: "Again Lisle demonstrates her skill at creating characters rich with personality." Horn Book correspondent Peter D. Sieruta called the work "a multi-layered novel that explores the strong but subtle connections between the past and present." Booklist contributor Ilene Cooper concluded: "Lisle's fluidly written story fascinates."
"I believe in the unknown," Lisle once commented. "There is a great deal we don't know about our world, like how big the universe is or what makes our brains work." And as she concluded in SAAS, "What we know and believe must always be qualified by what we don't know yet. New facts are arriving daily, however, new ways of thinking and seeing…. The stories are there to be told, and unless there's some unseen system at work that's set on preventing me, I expect to keep on writing them."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Kovac, Deborah, Meet the Authors: 25 Writers Talk about Their Writing, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1995.
Silvey, Anita, editor, Children's Books and Their Creators, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1995, p. 410.
Something about the Author Autobiography Series, Volume 14, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992, pp. 157-166.
Twentieth-Century Children's Writers, 4th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1995.
Booklist, July, 1984, Ilene Cooper, review of The Dancing Cats of Applesap, p. 1550; September 15, 1994, Ilene Cooper, review of Looking for Juliette, p. 136; May 15, 1999, Shelle Rosenfeld, review of The Lost Flower Children, p. 1690; September 15, 2000, Hazel Rochman, review of The Art of Keeping Cool, p. 237; February 1, 2002, Ilene Cooper, review of How I Became a Writer and Oggie Learned to Drive, p. 939; October 15, 2003, Ilene Cooper, review of The Crying Rocks, p. 405.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, June, 1985, Zena Sutherland, review of Sirens and Spies, pp. 188-189; October, 1988, Betsy Hearne, review of Afternoon of the Elves, p. 37; January, 1994, Carol Fox, review of Forest, p. 160.
Horn Book, January-February, 1988, Anita Silvey, review of The Great Dimpole Oak, p. 64; November-December, 1988, Ilene Cooper, "New Voices, New Visions: Janet Taylor Lisle," pp. 755-758; May, 1999, review of The Lost Flower Children, p. 333; March-April, 2002, Peter D. Sieruta, review of HowIBe-came a Writer and Oggie Learned to Drive, p. 214; November-December, 2003, Peter D. Sieruta, review of The Crying Rocks.
Kirkus Reviews, October 1, 1991, review of The Lampfish of Twill, p. 1288; October 1, 1995, review of A Message from the Match Girl, p. 1432.
New York Times Book Review, February 11, 2001, Marigny Dupuy, review of The Art of Keeping Cool, p. 27.
Providence Journal Bulletin (Providence, RI), April 10, 1996, Jerry O'Brien, "Janet Taylor Lisle Creates Truly Human Characters That Are Real to Young Readers."
Publishers Weekly, October 9, 1987, review of The Great Dimpole Oak, p. 88; September 13, 1991, review of The Lampfish of Twill, p. 80; August 30, 1993, review of Forest, p. 97; January 10, 1994, review of The Gold Dust Letters, p. 62; September 25, 1995, review of A Message from the Match Girl, p. 57; September 16, 1996, review of Angela's Aliens, p. 84; April 12, 1999, review of The Lost Flower Children, p. 75; September 4, 2000, review of The Art of Keeping Cool, p. 108; March 11, 2002, review of How I Became a Writer and Oggie Learned to Drive, p. 73; November 17, 2003, review of The Crying Rocks, p. 65.
School Library Journal, October, 1984, Anne Osborn, review of The Dancing Cats of Applesap, p. 159; August, 1985, David A. Lindsey, review of Sirens and Spies, p. 78; September, 1989, Annette Curtis Klause, review of Afternoon of the Elves, p. 254; April, 1994, Starr LaTronica, review of The Gold Dust Letters, pp. 128-129; August, 1994, Ellen Fader, review of Looking for Juliette, p. 158; October, 2000, Cyrisse Jaffee, review of The Art of Keeping Cool, p. 164; March, 2002, Carol A. Edwards, review of How I Became a Writer and Oggie Learned to Drive, p. 234.
Voice of Youth Advocates, December, 1985, Nancy Choice, review of Sirens and Spies, p. 320; February, 2004, Diane Emge, review of The Crying Rocks, p. 494.
Janet Taylor Lisle Home Page, http://www.janettaylorlisle.com/ (December 15, 2003).
Penguin Putnam, http://www.penguinputnam.com/ (December 15, 2003), "Janet Taylor Lisle."
Riverbank Review, http://www.riverbankreview.com/ (March 27, 2004), author profile and review of How I Became a Writer and Oggie Learned to Drive.
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