[ PW Home ] [ Bestsellers ] [ Subscribe ] [ Search ]

Publishers Weekly Children's Features

Lois Lowry: Snapshots from Her Life
Sally Lodge -- 9/7/98
In creating many of her novels for children, notably A Summer to Die and Autumn Street, Newbery Medalist Lois Lowry built, most affectingly, on memories from her own childhood. Now readers will be able to make an even clearer connection with Lowry's past and her books next month, with the publication of her autobiographical Looking Back: A Book of Memories (Houghton Mifflin/Walter Lorraine, Oct.).
The book gathers snapshots from Lowry's family archives, corresponding autobiographical snippets and brief passages taken from some of her novels, which were inspired by real-life incidents. Emerging in these pages, in a thematic rather than chronological scheme, are portraits of Lowry's mother, siblings, friends, children and grandchildren, as well as a beloved family pet or two.

The author of two dozen novels for children, including the immensely popular Anastasia books, Lowry launched her writing career more than 20 years ago, penning short stories for adults as well as nonfiction magazine articles, for which she often took the accompanying photographs. "I published short stories in magazines, but found that it was much easier to find periodicals who wanted me to write journalistic pieces," she recalls. Having studied photography in graduated school, Lowry also began photographing children professionally, all the while continuing to write fiction in her spare time. Even when writing fiction became a means of support, photography remained a fascination for Lowry, who took the photographs that grace the covers of both of her Newbery-winning books, Number the Stars and The Giver.

Both this photographic portraiture and her subsequent writing for young readers grew out of what Lowry calls her "passionate interest in children." And though her love of these two creative pursuits make her latest work seem a natural addition to her uvre, she explains that a devastating event -- the death of her son, Grey, whose Air Force fighter plane crashed in 1995 -- actually precipitated Looking Back.

"Grey left a daughter who was then a year and a half old," Lowry explains. "He adored her and I was very concerned that she wouldn't remember him. So I set out to create a little book for her about her short life with her father." In the course of doing that, Lowry says, she went through numerous boxes of family photographs. "Looking through all of these pictures triggered so many memories," she says. "It was my impetus for putting these photographs together in some form."

Lowry notes that another aspect of this tragedy -- the fact that her son's death while on a military mission became what she terms "a kind of media event with many political and legal ramifications" -- convinced her to complete this project. "Once Grey became the focus of an article in Time and of segments on Inside Edition and 60 Minutes, there was no longer any privacy to the sorrow. Because of this publicity, I began to get many letters from strangers who poured out their own life stories, and this made me aware of how important it is for people to tell their stories to each other."

Mimicking Memory

After years of making up characters and plots in her fiction, was it difficult for Lowry to focus on her own story? "Not at all," she responds immediately. "In fact, in many ways it was easier, since with a piece of fiction you have to shape a plot, think about foreshadowing and tuck all the ends in. I didn't have to worry about any of that with Looking Back. From the start I didn't pretend that this would be an organized thing. I sort of viewed this book as having the form that memory actually has -- fragmented, disconnected, yet in the long run connecting in sometimes surprising ways."

This autobiographical work may also help young readers make their own connections with the writer's life, from her early childhood in Hawaii through years spent in New York, Tokyo, Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire. From the plentiful mail Lowry receives from her readers, she is aware of the intense interest today's kids have in authors' lives, which she attributes to the attention teachers pay to the art and craft of writing. "I get many letters asking me what kind of car I drive, what my favorite food is, whether or not I have pets," she says. "I think this book will appeal both to kids who take that kind of personal interest in writers and to teachers who are looking for ways to help their students find ideas for their writing. No matter how uneventful a life may seem, there are many moments of enhanced emotions that do lend themselves to fiction."

And, as Looking Back illustrates, many events clearly lend themselves to nonfiction as well. A strong measure of Lowry's success in reaching children, it appears, is her ability to view characters and situations through a child's perspective. "I look at things that happened through my childhood eyes," Lowry comments. "One strong memory that demonstrates this is an incident that didn't make it into this book, since there is no photo to document it. But I remember well my fourth-grade teacher calling me in to see her one day after school because a friend and I had ganged up on another girl and written her a nasty note. I have a vivid memory of the dress my teacher was wearing -- it was dark blue with squiggles on it. But when I recall that moment today, the squiggles are all blurred, because as she talked to me about what I had done, my eyes filled with tears. That is how I write -- I go back to the child I was and see things through those eyes. It's a very subjective way of writing. But it seems to work."

Lowry's is certainly a vision that travels across multiple genres. Her latest book uncovers not only the personal sources of many of her stories and characters, but a great deal of herself as well. Readers will discover that this author sees remarkably clearly when looking back.
Back To Children's Features
Search | Bestsellers | News | Features | Children's Books | Bookselling
Interview | Industry Update | International | Classifieds | Authors On the Highway
About PW | Subscribe
Copyright 2000. Publishers Weekly. All rights reserved.