Miriam Cohen (1926-) Biography
Personal, Career, Honors Awards, Writings, Adaptations, Sidelights
Born 1926, in Brooklyn, NY; (second marriage) Gabriel, Jem. Education: Attended Newburgh Free Academy, 1943, and Antioch College, 1944-45. Politics: Independent progressive. Religion: Jewish.
Parents' Choice award, 1984, for Born to Dance Samba.
"FIRST-GRADE FRIENDS" SERIES
Will I Have a Friend?, illustrated by Lillian Hoban, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1967.
Best Friends, illustrated by Lillian Hoban, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1971.
The New Teacher, illustrated by Lillian Hoban, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1972.
Tough Jim, illustrated by Lillian Hoban, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1974.
When Will I Read?, illustrated by Lillian Hoban, Green-willow (New York, NY), 1977.
"Bee My Valentine!," illustrated by Lillian Hoban, Green-willow (New York, NY), 1978.
Lost in the Museum, illustrated by Lillian Hoban, Green-willow (New York, NY), 1979.
First Grade Takes a Test, illustrated by Lillian Hoban, Greenwillow (New York, NY), 1980.
No Good in Art, illustrated by Lillian Hoban, Greenwillow (New York, NY), 1980.
Jim Meets the Thing, illustrated by Lillian Hoban, Green-willow (New York, NY), 1981.
So What?, illustrated by Lillian Hoban, Greenwillow (New York, NY), 1982.
See You Tomorrow, Charles, illustrated by Lillian Hoban, Greenwillow (New York, NY), 1983.
Jim's Dog Muffins, illustrated by Lillian Hoban, Greenwillow (New York, NY), 1984.
Starring First Grade, illustrated by Lillian Hoban, Green-willow (New York, NY), 1985.
Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire!, illustrated by Lillian Hoban, Greenwillow (New York, NY), 1985.
Don't Eat Too Much Turkey!, illustrated by Lillian Hoban, Greenwillow (New York, NY), 1987.
It's George!, illustrated by Lillian Hoban, Greenwillow (New York, NY), 1988.
See You in Second Grade!, illustrated by Lillian Hoban, Greenwillow (New York, NY), 1989.
The Real-Skin Rubber Monster Mask, illustrated by Lillian Hoban, Greenwillow (New York, NY), 1990.
Born to Dance Samba, illustrated by Gioia Fiammenghi, Harper (New York, NY), 1984.
Marijuana, Its Effects on Mind and Body (nonfiction), Chelsea House (New York, NY), 1985.
Robert and Dawn Marie 4 Ever, Harper (New York, NY), 1986.
Laura Leonora's First Amendment, Lodestar (New York, NY), 1990.
Second-Grade Friends, illustrated by Diane Palmisciano, Scholastic, Inc. (New York, NY), 1993.
Down in the Subway, illustrations by Melanie Hope Greenberg, DK Publishing (New York, NY), 1998.
Mimmy and Sophie (stories), illustrated by Thomas F. Yezerski, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1999.
Backpack Baby (board book), Star Bright Books (New York, NY), 1999.
Mine: A Backpack Baby Story, Star Bright Books (New York, NY), 1999.
Eddy's Dream, photographs by Adam Cohen, Star Bright Books (New York, NY), 2000.
Say Hi, Backpack Baby! (board book), Star Bright Books (New York, NY), 2002.
Eggy, Meggy, and Peggy, Star Bright Books (New York, NY), 2003.
Wah-Wah!: A Backpack Baby Story, Star Bright Book (New York, NY), 2003.
My Big Brother, illustrated by Ronald Himler, Star Bright Books (New York, NY), 2004.
Mimmy and Sophie: All around the Town, illustrated by Thomas F. Yezerski, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2004.
Author's works have been translated into Hebrew.
Cohen's works are included in the Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota.
Will I Have a Friend? was adapted as a filmstrip with cassette, Threshold Filmstrips, 1974.
Miriam Cohen is a writer with an agenda. An avid champion of the rights of children, she creates picture books and novels that showcase young people whose positive spirits turn adversity into something constructive. Collaborating with illustrator Lillian Hoban, Cohen has penned the "First-Grade Friends" picture-book series, which features a group of first graders
who reflect the fears, joys, and curiosity of children beginning to forge their own path in the world. In more recent years Cohen has expanded her written repertoire to include chapter books for older children, "Backpack Baby" board books for the toddler set, and even a work of nonfiction.
Cohen was born in Brooklyn and grew up in Newburgh, New York, before enrolling at Antioch College. "School did not interest me very much," she once recalled to SATA. "I only wanted to read. I read walking to school, at the dinner table, walking home from the library with the six books a week allowed me. I never thought of being a writer." She wrote her first book in the late 1960s, shortly after her first child was born. "I've always been fascinated by the idea of bringing something into being that wasn't there before, like a painting or a play or a story," she explained.
A meeting with an editor at Harper & Row encouraged Cohen in her efforts to become an author. "I'd written a children's story (a very bad one) and I looked in the phone book for the nearest publisher," she later recalled. "Harper was closest to my apartment in Manhattan. So I just put my first baby into his buggy with the story and pushed up the ten blocks. [The editor] … looked at my work and said, 'This isn't it. But you are a writer. You must read everything that's been written for children, and then write something different, something that comes from you.'"
Although much of the next eight years was taken up with raising her two children, Cohen persisted, and her first children's book, Will I Have a Friend?, was published in 1967. The first of Cohen's books to feature Hoban's illustrations, Will I Have a Friend? introduces young Jim and Paul, who are beginning their school career. Encouraged by his dad's assurance that he will meet a new friend by the end of his first day of school, Jim waits as the hours go by and no friend emerges. Finally, during nap-time, he meets Paul, and the two find they have much in common. Praised as a "beguiling" and "meaningful picture book" by Horn Book contributor Virginia Haviland, Cohen's debut proved popular with youngsters, parents, and reviewers alike.
Encouraged by the response to their first project, Cohen and Hoban expanded the adventures of young Jim and his fellow classmates into a total of nineteen volumes: the "First Grade Friends" series. Series installments, such as Lost in the Museum, The New Teacher, and Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire!, reflect the antics of exuberant six- and seven-year-olds. "I loved watching nursery and kindergarten life as my boys went through," Cohen once explained, discussing the inspiration for the series. The New Teacher, for instance, finds Jim, nervous at the arrival of a new instructor, telling jokes during morning recess about how terrible the teacher is as a way of making himself feel more confident. Called a "little gem" by School Librarian critic Chris Brown, The New Teacher "has the same simplicity, the same humor, [and] the same appealing directness of text and illustrations" as its predecessors, in the opinion of a contributor to the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books.
Other books in the "First Grade Friends" series include Tough Jim, in which Jim dresses as a muscle man for his class costume party; When Will I Read?, which reflects a child's frustration at being one of the last of his classmates to learn the secret of reading; and "Bee My Valentine!," which mirrors many children's experiences as Valentine cards are handed around the classroom on that February day. In the entertaining Lost in the Museum, a field trip to New York City's Museum of Natural History turns into a search for missing students when the dinosaur bones become too much of a temptation for four boys. Academic-test anxiety is portrayed in First Grade Takes a Test, as Cohen "deals sensitively
with the small insecurities of young children, including their problems with standardized tests," according to Ann A. Flowers of Horn Book. And in Starring First Grade, in the wake of the scramble for favorite roles in a performance of the Three Billy Goats Gruff to be acted out before the entire school, Jim finds himself cast as a silly old tree and feels a growing jealousy toward his friend Paul, who snagged the choice role: the troll. Each book features Hoban's illustrations of smiling, somewhat rumpled children from a variety of racial backgrounds.
In Mimmy and Sophie, Cohen continues to write for elementary-aged readers, this time presenting a set of four short chapters about two sisters living in Depression-era Brooklyn, New York. The stories are semi-autobiographical: they reflect Cohen's own memories of growing up in a strong family that survived a difficult time with strength and humor. In Mimmy and Sophie the sisters purchase Popsicles from a street vendor, visit their elderly Russian grandparents, have a short disagreement before a friend's snub reunites them again, and enjoy a family picnic on the Brooklyn Bridge. In a second chapter book, Mimmy and Sophie: All around the Town, older sister Mimmy stands up for Sophie against neighborhood bullies, and the two sisters join in other activities that bring to life the ups and downs of childhood in the early twentieth century. Cohen "injects a hearty dose of charm into the low-key slice-of-life style plot lines through her sympathetic and well-trained recall for children's voices and perceptions," noted a Publishers Weekly contributor in a review of Mimmy and Sophie, while Booklist critic Ilene Cooper praised the book's storyline as "timeless." Despite the historic setting, Cooper added, the "familial elements" in Mimmy and Sophie "will attract today's kids." Calling the book a "treasure," a Kirkus Reviews contributor added: "These comforting, familiar situations, nostalgically illustrated [by Thomas F. Yezerski], will bring a smile to any young reader." The series is designed for children aged six through ten.
Middle-grade readers have enjoyed Cohen's novels like Laura Leonora's First Amendment, Born to Dance Samba, and Robert and Dawn Marie 4 Ever; they reflect the perceptions, thoughts, and apprehensions experienced by many pre-teens. In Born to Dance Samba Cohen relates the story of eleven-year-old Maria Antonia, a young Brazilian girl who hopes to qualify as the solo dancer at a public dance performance at Rio de Janeiro's annual carnival. Based on Cohen's own understanding of Brazilian culture gained during a two-year stay in that country, Born to Dance Samba shows the simple joys of even the poorest children, who make their home in the barrio, "and the fact that they make the best of their situation," according to a Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books contributor. "Cohen does much to encourage understanding," added Booklist reviewer Susan Roman, "not only by pointing up differences but also by showing the commonality of experiences felt by children in various parts of the world."
In Robert and Dawn Marie 4 Ever, Cohen introduces fourteen-year-old Robert, who narrates the story of his undying love for Dawn Marie. Living with a kindly elderly couple after his own mother decides that she can't handle raising children and so deposits him in a succession of foster homes, Robert meets and falls for a pretty Catholic school student who gives him the attention and affection that his mother never did. Praising the novel for being "sweet without being sugary," Zena Sutherland noted in a Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books review that Cohen makes "the innocent rapture of a first love … poignant and credible" by telling the story in Robert's own words. "Witty and compassionate," the book "is a testimony to the little acts of bravery and goodness that go unnoticed," added a Kirkus Reviews commentator.
Biographical and Critical Sources
Something about the Author Autobiography Series, Volume 11, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1991, pp. 69-84.
Booklist, May 1, 1984, Susan Roman, review of Born to Dance Samba, p. 1236; August, 1999, Ilene Cooper, review of Mimmy and Sophie, p. 2066; January 1, 2004, Hazel Rochman, review of Mimmy and Sophie All around the Town, p. 852.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, October, 1972, review of The New Teacher, p. 24; September, 1984, review of Born to Dance Samba, p. 3; November, 1986, Zena Sutherland, review of Robert and Dawn Marie 4 Ever, p. 45.
Childhood Education, fall, 2001, Susan A. Miller, review of Eddy's Dream, p. 49.
Horn Book, October, 1967, Virginia Haviland, review of Will I Have a Friend?, p. 581; December, 1980, Ann A. Flowers, review of First Grade Takes a Test, p. 632.
Kirkus Reviews, November 1, 1986, review of Robert and Dawn Marie 4 Ever, p. 1651; October 15, 1998, p. 1529; February 1, 2004, review of Mimmy and Sophie All around the Town, p. 130.
Publishers Weekly, April 5, 1999, review of Mimmy and Sophie, p. 241; February 16, 2004, review of Mimmy and Sophie: All around the Town, p. 175.
School Librarian, March, 1981, Chris Brown, review of The New Teacher, p. 21.
School Library Journal, January, 2001, Louise L. Sherman, review of Eddy's Dream, p. 92; May, 2004, Pat Leach, review of Mimmy and Sophie: All around the Town, p. 108.
Voice of Youth Advocates, December, 1990, p. 278.*
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