Children’s author and educator Joan W. Blos, recipient of both the Newbery Medal and the National Book Award for her historical novel A Gathering of Days, died on October 12 in Ann Arbor, Mich. She was 89.
Blos was born December 9, 1928 in New York City and grew up there with parents who strongly believed in the power of education. Her mother was a teacher, and her father a psychiatrist working with troubled children in the New York City schools. In an autobiographical essay for Something About the Author, Blos recalled how she became a lover of libraries and reading at a very early age. She attended a progressive elementary and middle school and spoke about how much she adored the library—and the librarian—there.
In high school, Blos had her first glimpses of being a writer. She was encouraged by a teacher to enter an essay contest during her sophomore year, and she won the top prize: $25 and publication in a national magazine. As a senior, she also helped write an original all-school musical.
Blos attended Vassar, choosing to major in physiology. She accelerated her studies, including summer courses, and completed her B.A. degree in three years, in part to graduate with friends who were a year ahead of her. After graduating in 1949, Blos worked as an assistant at a nursery school for disturbed children, and decided to focus on earning a degree in psychology, first in a M.A. program at New York’s City College and then a doctorate program at Yale. While at Yale, Blos met Peter Blos Jr., a medical student, whom she married six months later in 1953.
Following three years of study, Blos knew she didn’t want to be a psychologist, but had learned that she wanted to pursue a career that would combine her interest in child development, language, and books. When Blos, her husband, and their young son moved from Connecticut back to New York City, Blos re-enrolled at City College, this time designing a study focused on children’s responses to books. She received her M.A. in 1956. Blos’s family had grown to include a daughter by 1958 when she was offered a position in the publications division at the Bank Street College of Education, working with noted author and professor Lucy Sprague Mitchell. Blos’s mother and aunt were also both on the Bank Street faculty. Some of Blos’s early projects included collaborating on a reading series for children in grades one to three and writing reviews of children’s books for the Saturday Review of Literature. Blos’s responsibilities grew to include teaching courses in children’s literature and conducting the Writers’ Lab.
It was during a Writers’ Lab session when Blos read aloud her own work that she earned the notice of Virginie Fowler, editor of children’s books at Knopf, who was in attendance. That meeting would officially kick off Blos’s own writing career. Knopf published her first picture book, “It’s Spring,” She Said, in 1968.
Blos remained on the Bank Street faculty as a part-time instructor until 1970, when she and her family moved to Ann Arbor. Until 1980, she continued her teaching career as a lecturer at the University of Michigan, but she simultaneously also kept chipping away at a research project (which she called a hobby): studying the history of a New Hampshire farmhouse where her husband’s family spent summer vacations. The fruit of those sleuthing efforts—more than a decade’s worth— became her best-known book, A Gathering of Days: A New England Girl’s Journal 1830–32 (Scribner, 1979) which won the 1980 Newbery Medal and the 1980 NBA (then called the American Book Award).
In all, Blos wrote more than 15 titles for young readers, a mixture of novels and picture books. Her most recent work, Letters from the Corrugated Castle (Atheneum, 2007) concludes the historical trilogy consisting of A Gathering of Days and Brothers of the Heart (Atheneum, 1985).