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Families: A Writer Who’s 13 At Heart

5 minute read
Andrea Sachs

Sharon Creech has long been exquisitely attuned to the comings and goings of the junior set. But when she returned to the U.S. in 1998, after 18 years in Europe, the children’s author was caught flat-footed. The life of the American child, she discovered, had lurched into a higher gear during her absence. “There were all these frazzled parents who spent their lives in car pools, getting their kids to ballet lessons and gymnastics,” recalls Creech. “And I was thinking, Goodness, don’t the kids ever get time just to climb a tree or lie in the grass? There doesn’t seem to be that kind of time for kids anymore.”

That sentiment permeates A Fine, Fine School (HarperCollins), her slyly subversive new book for children four to eight years old. A second new work has also just been published: Love That Dog (HarperCollins), an innovative novel in free verse for kids ages 8 to 12. Creech has been dazzling critics since 1995, when Walk Two Moons, her first children’s book to be published in the U.S., won the prestigious Newbery Medal, the Academy Award of children’s books. “To win the Newbery Medal on your first book is an astounding feat,” says Diane Roback, the children’s editor at Publishers Weekly. “She is one of these writers whose subsequent books have very much lived up to the accolades she got on her first book.”

Creech manages to write about serious themes in a way that engages kids and is never heavy-handed. A Fine, Fine School revolves around a principal who loves his work so much that he decides to keep his school open longer and longer, until the students are attending classes on weekends and holidays. It takes Tillie, a little girl, to make the principal come to his senses. “I haven’t learned how to climb very high in my tree,” she protests. “And I haven’t learned how to sit in my tree for a whole hour.” Creech’s prose is accompanied by the witty illustrations of Harry Bliss, a New Yorker cover artist and cartoonist. On one page, a lunchroom wall is adorned with a sign that implores, WHY NOT STUDY WHILE YOU CHEW?

Love That Dog, for older children, is appealing to adult readers as well. Jack, a reluctant student, resists poetry assignments from his teacher, Miss Stretchberry. “I don’t want to because boys don’t write poetry,” he pouts. But slowly Jack comes to savor poems, through the subtle persuasion of Miss Stretchberry, who is never heard from or described on the page. Through poetry, Jack comes to grips with the death of his beloved yellow dog, Sky: “He was such a funny dog/that dog Sky/that straggly furry smiling dog Sky.” The book, deceptively simple and never preachy, is studded with work by acclaimed poets such as Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams and Walter Dean Myers.

Creech, 56, became a children’s writer by accident. She grew up in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, in a family with four siblings and “a lot of chaos,” says Creech. In 1979, newly divorced with two young children and armed with a master’s degree in English, she moved to Thorpe, England, to teach literature at a boarding school. It was there that she met and married her present husband, who was the headmaster. Creech set out to become an adult author, but when she submitted Absolutely Normal Chaos in 1990 (a story based on her childhood), her agent told her it would be more appropriate as a children’s book. To her surprise, a publisher bought the book and asked for another children’s book. “I thought I’d better go find out what a children’s book was,” says Creech.

Winning the Newbery Medal was a dizzying experience, she says. “I was sort of pushed through this very beautiful golden door into this world of children’s literature.” The Newbery carries no cash award, but money comes rolling in because the medal boosts sales to libraries and schools. Creech was bombarded with phone calls, requests for interviews and invitations to conferences and bookstore events. “Your life is just not your own for the first year afterward,” says Creech. Continuing as a teacher was out of the question. “It just consumed me.”

Now Creech takes her best-seller status in stride. She lives near Princeton, N.J., with her husband, who is now headmaster of the Pennington School–and was the model for the principal in A Fine, Fine School. “He’s a very enthusiastic headmaster, in that he’s such an advocate for the school and the students and the teachers,” says Creech. “He’s like a cheerleader for the school. He’s just that kind of personality.” The two expect to become grandparents for the first time in October.

Creech is not a tortured writer. “I seem to somehow be able to tap into my own 13-year-old self very easily,” she says. “If you came up and tapped me on the shoulder when I was in one of my writing trances, I suppose I would maybe talk like a seventh-grader.” It’s a talent that delights her ever increasing following.

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