Author Paula Fox, best known for her award-winning and emotionally complex children’s novels, died on March 1 at a hospital near her home in Brooklyn. She was 93.
Fox was born April 22, 1923 in New York City. In various interviews she described her parents as “self-absorbed” and recalled a childhood of moving from place to place in the care of family friends or foster caregivers as her mother and father traveled the world. When she was a newborn, her parents abandoned her at a foundling hospital in Manhattan. At five months old, Fox was placed under the care of the Congregational minister Reverend Elwood Corning who lived in New York’s Hudson Valley with his mother. Fox’s “Uncle Elwood,” whom she oft noted as a major influence in her life, taught her to read and introduced her to stories from literature and American history. Fox traced her awakening as a writer back to this time, when at the age of five, she suggested Corning write a sermon about a waterfall, and he obliged.
When Fox was six, she was on the move again, relocating first to California and then to Cuba to live on a sugar plantation with her grandmother. Three years later, that country’s revolution forced Fox back to New York City. She told Something About the Author that by this time, she had attended nine schools and had rarely seen her parents. Throughout these tumultuous years, Fox said in a 1990 Publishers Weekly interview, reading and books offered her solace. “Reading was everything to me. Wherever I went—except in Cuba—there was a library. Even though my schools changed, I’d always find a library.”
Upon graduating high school, Fox worked various jobs and ultimately landed a position as a stringer with a British news organization, which helped fuel her desire to travel internationally. In her teens, Fox had a very brief marriage that ended in divorce, and once she was back in the United States, she married Richard Sigerson, with whom she had two children before their divorce in 1954. Fox wanted to continue her education, and studied at Columbia University from 1954–1958, but, because of financial constraints, she could not continue and earn her degree. In the late 1950s Fox taught English as a second language to Spanish-speaking children and also held other teaching posts that included working with emotionally disturbed students.
In 1962 Fox married editor and translator Martin Greenburg and traveled with him to Greece where he had a six-month Guggenheim fellowship. Fox has said that her time in Greece was a catalyst for realizing a long-held dream of becoming a writer. Fox’s first book for children, Maurice’s Room, was published by Macmillan in 1966. A very prolific period followed with Fox writing novels for young readers as well as for adults. Critics have often noted Fox’s masterful writing style, and have described much of her work as “serious” and “honest,” in addressing such themes as loss, abandonment, resentment, and homosexuality and AIDS. Her children’s novel Blowfish Live in the Sea (Bradbury, 1970), which focused on a teen boy visiting his estranged, alcoholic father, was a National Book Award finalist in the children’s book category in 1971. The Slave Dancer, about a young fife player who is kidnapped and given the job onboard a slave ship to play his instrument and “dance” the slaves as their exercise, won the 1974 Newbery Medal. And her One-Eyed Cat (Bradbury, 1984), in which a boy struggles with guilt after he believes that he’s accidentally injured a stray cat with an air rifle, was awarded a Newbery Honor in 1985. In 1978, she received the international Hans Christian Andersen Award, honoring her body of work.
In her 2001 memoir for adults, Borrowed Finery, Fox recounted her tragic childhood and revealed that she had been reunited with a daughter she had given up for adoption at age 21, following a romantic liaison after the end of her first marriage. The daughter, Linda Carroll-Barraud, sought out Fox, who welcomed the new members of her family, which include one of Carroll-Barraud’s daughters, rock musician Courtney Love.
Fox’s longtime editor at Bradbury, Richard Jackson, shared these words: “Let’s remember her laughing. Anyone who has read Paula Fox’s YA novel The Moonlight Man knows how funny she could be, yet tender too, not malicious. I cherish a non-book memory, a lunch in midtown during which we got onto recasting Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy of Omelet, Prince of Denmark.” I do not know who Horatio became, or Ophelia, but I do recall the phone ringing after I’d returned to the office—Macmillan’s, then on 12th Street and Fifth Avenue—to hear two other suggestions for, say, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. If she were here still, she could, and would, remember for me. A true friend.”