Susan (Mary) Cooper (1935-)
"Susan Cooper is one of the small and very select company of writers who—somehow, somewhere—have been touched by magic; the gift of creation is theirs, the power to bring to life for ordinary mortals 'the best of symbolic high fantasy,'" wrote Margaret K. McElderry in Horn Book. In her works for children, Cooper mixes elements of her own life with myth, legend, and folklore from the Caribbean, Wales, and the English countryside where she grew up. "Music and song, old tales and legends, prose and poetry, theater and reality, imagination and intellect, power and control, a strong sense of place and people both past and present—all are part of the magic that has touched Susan Cooper," McElderry stated. "Her journeys add great luster to the world of literature."
Cooper was born in rural England, only twenty-three miles outside of London. Her early years were filled with the sounds of World War II, especially the bombing of London: "I was four years old when the war broke out in Britain, and ten when it ended," she wrote in her Something about the Author Autobiography Series (SAAS) entry. "I never came face-to-face with death, or with blood drawn by anything worse than broken glass, but it was a noisy war.… Once, a German aeroplane swooped low, machine-gunning, as we ran; once, a house fifty yards away was blown to pieces; once, we went to school … to find a vast gaping hole in the playground. Once, when I was about six, and we had come back into the dark house after the reassuring monotone of the 'All Clear' siren," Cooper continued, "my parents pulled back the blackout curtain and ceremonially showed me the eastern sky. In a strange great blur along the horizon, it glowed a dull red. 'That's London, burning,' they said."
Even as a young girl, Cooper had few doubts about her future occupation. "I knew I was a writer; I always had, from the age of about eight," she wrote in her SAAS entry. "People ask us so often, in this trade, 'How did you become a writer?'—and the only possible answer is, 'It just happened.'" In a publicity release for Atheneum Publishers, she stated: "The busiest time of my life as a writer was probably the year I turned ten. I was a shy, spherical child, afraid of the dark but full of professional confidence. I wrote three plays for a puppet theatre built by the boy next door, collaborated on a weekly newspaper with the son of my piano teacher, and wrote and illustrated a very small book." She went to Oxford University, taking a degree in English language and literature (and attending the lectures of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien), and became the first woman editor of the university newspaper Cherwell.
After graduation, Cooper went on into journalism, working at first for the Sunday Times's foreign manager, Ian Fleming (the author of the "James Bond" novels), who also authored a regular column for the paper. "When he gave up his column," Cooper stated in SAAS, "I became a full-time news reporter, and eventually feature writer. Like every journalist with a really insistent talent for writing," she continued, "I learned the dissatisfaction that goes with the need for brevity, and I began to write books in my spare time." The first of these to be published was a science fiction novel called Mandrake; the second was a children's book called Over Sea, Under Stone.
Over Sea, Under Stone traces the adventures of three English siblings—Simon, Jane, and Barnabas Drew—who discover in the attic of their old Cornish vacation home a clue to an ancient hidden treasure endowed with mystic powers against the Dark, an evil force that has warred with its counterpart, the Light, throughout history. With the help of Merriman Lyon, a college professor and family friend who is in fact a strong agent of the Light, the three Drews recover the treasure and defeat the forces of the Dark. The story, published in 1965, eventually became the first part of a quintet called "The Dark Is Rising," a series of fantasy novels based in part on Arthurian legend. "My sequence belongs to the vanished rural Buckinghamshire in which I lived my first eighteen years; to the Cornwall of childhood holidays; to the part of North Wales in which my grandmother was born and my parents lived their last twenty-five years," Cooper wrote in her publicity release. "Haunted places all, true springs of the Matter of Britain. Bronze Age barrows littered our landscapes; Celt and Anglo-Saxon merged in our faces; Arthur filled our daydreams, the Welsh legends our darker dreams at night."
Cooper published several more books—a biography of her personal friend, the British writer J. B. Priestley, and Dawn of Fear, a fictionalized account of her childhood war experiences—and married an American college professor and moved to the United States before she continued the quintet. The second volume, The Dark Is Rising—a Newbery Honor Book in 1974—is the story of Will Stanton, youngest son of a Buckinghamshire family, who awakes one morning shortly before the winter solstice to discover that he is no longer entirely human. He is the last of the Old Ones, the agents of the Light, and he is coming into his power. Merriman Lyon, of Over Sea, Under Stone, reappears in The Dark Is Rising as Will's tutor, and he, with the help of the other Old Ones, struggles to prevent the Dark from overwhelming Will as Will learns to control his new powers.
Greenwitch, the third volume of the sequence, brings the Drews and Will to Cornwall. The treasure the Drews had uncovered in Over Sea, Under Stone has been stolen by an agent of the Dark, and Will, Merriman, and the three children work together to recover it. The Grey King, Cooper's Newbery Award-winning fourth volume, takes Will to Wales, where he discovers Bran Davies, the Pendragon—the lost heir of Arthur—and combats the evil mountain spirit called the Grey King. In the final volume, Silver on the Tree, Will, Bran, and the Drews unite to combat the final rising of the Dark. "The underlying theme of my 'Dark Is Rising' sequence, and particularly of its fourth volume The Grey King," Cooper explained in her Newbery acceptance speech, reprinted in Horn Book, "is, I suppose, the ancient problem of the duality of human nature. The endless coexistence of kindness and cruelty, love and hate, forgiveness and revenge—as inescapable as the cycle of life and death, day and night, the Light and the Dark."
After completing the "Dark Is Rising" sequence, Cooper began working in other genres. "All my life," she wrote in Horn Book, "I had been rooted in libraries, both as a reader of other people's books and writer of my own. All my life I had been stagestruck, haunted by the theater. Within a year of finishing Silver on the Tree, and my sequence of novels," she continued, she began working on stage pieces, including a play called Foxfire, written with Hume Cronyn, that played on Broadway with Cronyn and his wife Jessica Tandy in the lead roles. Later, Cooper wrote a television adaptation of Harriette Arnow's novel The Dollmaker, which was presented on ABC in 1984. Jane Fonda played the lead role and was awarded an Emmy for her performance.
In addition to her stage works, Cooper has continued to publish fantasy stories for children and young adults. Jethro and the Jumbie is the story of an encounter between a young boy and a ghost, set in the West Indies, where Cooper and her husband had a vacation home. The Silver Cow and The Selkie Girl are based on folk-tales and legends from the British Isles. Seaward, a young adult novel, was written just after Cooper's parents died and her marriage broke up, and intertwines themes of love, life, death, and hate. Cally and Westerly are two young people who have lost their parents and are thrown into an ambiguous, myth-haunted other-world. Seaward reintroduces the dualism theme that predominates in the "Dark Is Rising" novels, showing how Cally and Westerly are manipulated by the Old Gods in their journey together.
Originally written as a bedtime story for one of the author's grandchildren, Matthew's Dragon is a picture book about how young Matthew meets a tiny dragon who emerges from the pages of a book. After battling the neighborhood cat, Matthew and the dragon—who grows as big as a house—fly into the sky, where they meet all of the dragons from story land before returning home to bed. A reviewer in Publishers Weekly called Matthew's Dragon "another display of impressive storytelling" as well as "an inspired pairing of author and illustrator." The same illustrator, Jos. A. Smith, provided the illustrations for Danny and the Kings, a realistic picture book with echoes of the Bible story about the Three Wise Men. Writing in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, Betsy Hearne said, "Some holiday books deserve year-round attention and not many of them feature the elements that make this one so appealing.… At the risk of sounding sexist and classist, it's hard to find working-class boy-books, so put this one on your Christmas list for next year."
With The Boggart, a humorous fantasy for middle graders, Cooper created one of her most popular books. The title character, a Scottish trickster spirit, has lived in Castle Keep as a companion of the MacDevon clan, who are the recipients of its lighthearted practical jokes. When the last MacDevon passes away, the Boggart is grief-stricken until the Volnik family of Toronto—distant relatives of the MacDevons—come to the castle that they have inherited. After arrangements are made for the castle's sale, the Boggart is accidentally shipped back to Canada in an old desk. Writing in New York Times Book Review, Rafael Yglesias commented, "The plot of a mysterious and possibly ancient being befriending modern kids and making trouble in their world will be familiar to any reader who has seen 'Gremlins' or 'E. T.,' but that doesn't make its working out in The Boggart any less suspenseful or, in one lovely scene at a theater in Toronto, surprising and moving."
The lovable imp returns in The Boggart and the Monster, a story in which the trickster and the Volnik children, who have come to stay at Castle Keep, help Nessie—the Loch Ness monster, who is the Boggart's cousin—elude a scientific investigation. Writing in New York Times Book Review, Jim Gladstone maintained: "Cooper sets up a provocative elision of technological, natural, emotional and spiritual forces. Not that children will necessarily notice. The story is swiftly plotted and densely populated, zipping along with the speed of a video game."
Cooper has often written in books and magazines and has spoken to groups about both the genre of fantasy and her own literary career. In 1996, she published Dreams and Wishes: Essays on Writing for Children, a collection of fourteen essays drawn from various speeches in which she explores the craft of writing, outlines the nature of fantasy, and recalls her experiences as an author and reporter. A critic in Publishers Weekly called Dreams and Wishes "essential reading not just for fans of Cooper or of fantasy novels, but for devotees of children's literature."
In 1999, King of Shadows was published to rave reviews. A critic for Publishers Weekly said that "Cooper brilliantly weaves past and present together, using London's Globe Theatre as a backdrop to demonstrate the timelessness of Shakespeare's works and the theater at large." The novel focuses on a child actor who travels back in time to perform with Shakespeare in an original production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Calling the novel her "biggest labor of love ever" in Publishers Weekly, Cooper said that she became fascinated with the theater at a young age. "I was the kind of kid who went to the local repertory theatre every Saturday afternoon and sat in the very cheap seats at the top of the house, gobbling it up," she said in the Publishers Weekly interview. She went on to say that the book took several years to research.
Returning to themes of good and evil, Cooper's Green Boy tells of brothers Trey and Lou, who are caught up in dramas both in the real world and a strange "Other-world" called Pangaia. At home, the boys' grandparents are battling potential development of their unspoiled island in the Bahamas, while in Pangaia, things have already been destroyed by pollution and overdevelopment. Trey narrates the story in a "sensible, likable voice, and there is enough tension and adventure in both worlds to keep the pages turning," wrote Eva Mitnick for School Library Journal. Though "the narrative gives way to moments of preachiness or melodrama about protecting our environment, … young readers are likely to be pulled in by the sensitive portrayals of Trey and Lou, the mysterious adventures in Pangaia, and the whirlwind climax," concluded a Publishers Weekly reviewer. Cooper turned to younger readers with her picture book Frog, "a pellucid small story with an economy of words and a lot of meaning," wrote a Kirkus Reviews contributor. The book's protagonist is a boy named Little Joe who thinks that he is not a good swimmer. His parents and siblings, who swim like fish, panic when a tiny little frog wanders into the pool. They squeal and chase the frog about, but Little Joe just watches from the edge of the pool. Finally, when family and frog are exhausted, Little Joe gently scoops up the frog and frees it. "Little Joe's involvement in Frog's small drama is satisfying and effectively shifts the boy's focus off of himself and what he thinks are his limitations," Kitty Flynn commented in Horn Book. While watching Frog from the edge of the pool, Little Joe noticed how the amphibian propelled itself with strong kicks, and once he releases Frog, Little Joe tries kicking like that himself. With this new knowledge, Little Joe swims the whole way across the pool. The tale is "slight," thought Booklist's Ilene Cooper, "but children who have their own troubles in the water may appreciate the encouraging story."
"Every book is a voyage of discovery," Cooper wrote in Celebrating Children's Books. "Perhaps I speak only for myself, perhaps it's different for other writers; but for me the making of a fantasy is quite unlike the relatively ordered procedure of writing any other kind of book.… Each time, I am striking out into a strange land, listening for the music that will tell me which way to go. And I am always overcome by wonder, and a kind of unfocused gratitude, when I arrive." The author describes herself as "a writer whose work sometimes turns out to belong on the children's list, and sometimes elsewhere. To tell the truth," she concluded, "I don't write for you, whoever you are; I write for me. And 'me' is a complicated word; perhaps I know less about its meaning now than when I was that busy ten-year-old."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Volume 5, Beacham Publishing (Osprey, FL), 1991.
Celebrating Children's Books: Essays on Children's Literature in Honor of Zena Sutherland, edited by Betsy Hearne and Marilyn Kaye, Lothrop (New York, NY), 1981.
Children's Literature Review, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 4, 1982, Volume 67, 2001.
Cooper, Susan, Something about the Author Autobiography Series, Volume 6, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1988.
Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1993.
Mikkelsen, Nina, Susan Cooper ("United States Author" series), Twayne Publishers (New York, NY), 1998.
St. James Guide to Fantasy Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers, 2nd edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Sutherland, Zena, and others, Children and Books, Scott, Foresman (Chicago, IL), 1981.
Booklist, October 15, 1993, Deborah Abbott, review of Danny and the Kings, p. 451; September 15, 1997, Hazel Rochman, interview with Cooper, p. 226; June 1, 2001, Stephanie Zvirin, "FYI" (Hans Christian Andersen Awards nominations), p. 1872; February 1, 2002, Patricia Austin, review of Over Sea, Under Stone, p. 954; March 1, 2002, Hazel Rochman, review of Green Boy, p. 1136; June 1, 2002, Ilene Cooper, review of Frog, pp. 1733-1734.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, February, 1994, Betsy Hearne, review of Danny and the Kings, p. 184.
Horn Book, October, 1970, p. 477; June 1973, p. 286; October, 1975, p. 461; August, 1976, Margaret K. McElderry, "Susan Cooper," and Susan Cooper, "Newbery Award Acceptance," pp. 367-372; December, 1977, pp. 660-661; June, 1983, review of The Silver Cow: A Welsh Tale, pp. 287-288; February, 1984, pp. 59-60; May-June, 1990; May-June, 1991, Ethel L. Heins, review of Tam Lin, pp. 340-341; May-June, 1993, Ann A. Flowers, review of The Boggart, p. 330; January-February, 1997, Roger Sutton, review of Dreams and Wishes: Essays on Writing for Children, p. 83; May-June, 2002, Anita L. Burkam, review of Green Boy, pp. 326-327; July-August, 2002, Kitty Flynn, review of Frog, pp. 443-444.
Kirkus Reviews, February 1, 1980, p. 120; January 15, 2002, review of Green Boy, p. 102; May 15, 2002, review of Frog, pp. 730-731.
New York Times, November 7, 1982, D. C. Denison, "How Foxfire Journeyed to Broadway," p. H1; November 12, 1982, Frank Rich, review of Foxfire, pp. 20, C3; November 21, 1982, Walter Kerr, review of Foxfire, p. H3; May 11, 1984; December 11, 1987, John J. O'Connor, review of Foxfire, p. 28.
New York Times Book Review, October 27, 1968; November 8, 1970; May 22, 1973; May 5, 1974; September 28, 1975, pp. 10, 12; June 12, 1983, review of The Silver Cow, p. 20; November 10, 1991, Susan Fromberg Chaeffer, review of Matthew's Dragon, p. 53; May 16, 1993, Rafael Yglesias, review of The Boggart, p. 23; May 18, 1997, Jim Gladstone, review of The Boggart and the Monster, p. 29; January 16, 2000, David Patterson, review of King of Shadows, p. 27; May 19, 2002, DeRaismes Combes, review of Green Boy, p. 32; June 16, 2002, review of Frog, p. 20.
Publishers Weekly, August 31, 1970, p. 279; July 12, 1991, review of Matthew's Dragon, p. 65; May 27, 1996, review of Dreams and Wishes: Essays on Writing for Children, p. 81; February 17, 1997, review of The Boggart and the Monster, pp. 219-220; March 1, 1999, review of Don't Read This! And Other Tales of the Unnatural, p. 70; September 27, 1999, review of King of Shadows, p. 106; November 1, 1999, review of King of Shadows, p. 57; November 22, 1999, Elizabeth Devereaux, interview with Susan Cooper, p. 22; June 18, 2001, review of King of Shadows, p. 83; January 14, 2002, review of Green Boy, p. 61; May 13, 2002, review of Frog, p. 70; October 6, 2003, review of Green Boy, p. 87.
School Library Journal, October, 1975; December, 1977; February, 1980, Helen Gregory, review of Jethro and the Jumbie, p. 44; May, 1991, Helen Gregory, review of Tam Lin, p. 88; May-June, 1997, Carolyn Ward, review of The Boggart and the Monster, p. 315; November, 2001, Tina Hudak, review of Over Sea, Under Stone, p. 77; February, 2002, Eva Mitnick, review of Green Boy, p. 130; April, 2002, Louise L. Sherman, review of Greenwitch, p. 85; June, 2002, Marrianne Saccardi, review of Frog, p. 92; July, 2002, Tina Hudak, review of Silver on the Tree, p. 64.
Wall Street Journal, November 16, 1982, Edwin Wilson, review of Foxfire, pp. 26, 32.
Susan Cooper Web Site, http://www.thelostland.com/ (January 12, 2004).
Cooper, Susan, publicity release from Atheneum Publishers, 1985.
Brief BiographiesBiographies: Ciara Biography - Wrote Out Goals to Elizabeth David (1913–1992) BiographySusan (Mary) Cooper (1935-) Biography - Personal, Awards, Honors, Writings, Adaptations, Sidelights - Addresses, Career, Member