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Edward Wortis is well known to critics, teachers, parents, and particularly to young readers by his pen name ”Avi.” His many award-winning books, which include The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, Nothing but the Truth, and the Newbery Award-winning Crispin: The Cross of Lead, consist of a wide variety of genres, including mysteries, adventure yarns, historical fiction, supernatural tales, coming-of-age novels, and comic stories.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Hurdles to Learning
Born in New York City in 1937 and raised in Boston, Avi grew up in an artistic environment. His great-grandparents and a grandmother were writers, two uncles were painters, and both parents wrote. His family was also politically active, its members aligning themselves with the civil rights movement—1950s and 1960s reforms to end racial discrimination against African Americans—and other radical movements. Politics and art led to abundant intellectual stimulation and lively family discussion in Avi’s home. The author once explained that his extended family comprised ”a very strong art community and… there was always a kind of uproarious sense of debate. It was all a very affectionate sharing of ideas—arguing, but not arguing in anger, arguing about ideas.”
This early stimulation at home may have prepared Avi for challenges to come in his education. Although he was an avid reader as a child, difficulties in writing eventually caused him to flunk out of one school. He later learned that he has a dysfunction known as dysgraphia, a marginal impairment in his writing abilities that causes him to reverse letters or misspell words. ”One of my aunts said I could spell a four letter word wrong five ways,” he once commented. ”In a school environment, I was perceived as being sloppy and erratic, and not paying attention.” Despite constant criticism at school, Avi kept writing and he credits his family’s emphasis on the arts for his perseverance.
The first step on Avi’s course to writing professionally was reading: everything from comic books and science magazines to histories, plays, and novels. Despite the skepticism of his teachers, he decided to make a career of writing while still in high school. Between his junior and senior years, his parents hired a tutor to work with him on his writing skills. According to Avi, ”That summer I met every day with a wonderful teacher who not only taught me writing basics, but also instilled in me the conviction that I wanted to be a writer myself.”
Attending Antioch University, Avi enrolled in playwriting rather than English courses. Following graduation from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he worked at a variety of jobs and in 1963 was briefly married to a weaver, Joan Gabriner. Avi continued his graduate education at Columbia University where he studied library science and graduated in 1964. He took a job in the theater collection of the New York Public library. This began his twenty-four-year career as a librarian. Avi’s determination to be a writer never flagged during this time. He married Coppelia Kahn, a professor of English with whom he had two sons. After he had written nearly eight hundred pages of his ”great American novel,” an odd series of events turned his attention toward children’s literature. It all began with telling stories to his two sons. ”My oldest would tell me what the story should be about—he would invent stuff, a story about a glass of water and so forth. It became a game.”
Along with telling stories, Avi was a doodler, and drew pictures for fun. A friend who was writing a children’s book, having seen his drawings, wanted Avi to provide illustrations. When the friend took the book with Avi’s illustrations to a publisher, the book was rejected, but Avi was asked to illustrate other children’s books. Arguing with the publisher that he was a writer and not an artist, he submitted several stories that were turned down. But, seven publishers later, Doubleday accepted his first work for publication. Things That Sometimes Happen: Very Short Stories for Very Young Readers, was published—although without Avi’s artwork—in 1970.
Avi achieved great success with historical novels aimed at young readers. These works include Captain Grey (1977), Night Journeys (1979), and Encounter at Easton (1980). Avi even won the Scott O’Dell Historical Fiction Award for children for his novel The Fighting Ground (1984). He continued writing successful stories based on historical events, including the Newbery Award-winning Crispin: The Cross of Lead, or on real historical figures, as in The Man Who Was Poe (1989).
Though very successful with his historical novels, Avi continued publication of contemporary stories with narratives mixing comic adventures with more serious examinations ”of the darker layers of imaginative experience.” Avi once commented on his 1992 Newbery Honor novel Nothing but the Truth that he got the idea for the structure of this contemporary novel from a form of theater that arose in the 1930s called ”Living Newspapers”— dramatizations of issues and problems confronting American society presented through a ”hodgepodge” of document readings and dialogues.
Quirky and Fun In Publishers Weekly a contributor describes The Mayor of Central Park (2003) as ”an over-the-top romp” and added that Avi’s ”tough-talking prose would do an old gangster movie proud.” Avi’s captivating and oft-described ”quirky” stories have continued unabated with The Book Without Words: A Fable of Medieval Magic (2005), Crispin: At the Edge of the World (2006), The Traitors’ Gate (2007), Iron Thunder (2007), and The Seer of Shadows (2008). In his book A Beginning, a Muddle and an End (2008), Avi engages in every manner of wordplay. In this escapade the protagonists learn, as Avi’s prolific writing has exemplified, that creating and imagining your own adventures is much more fun and more rewarding than searching for adventure.
Works in Literary Context
Avi’s fiction is acclaimed by critics for its uniqueness and wit. Critic Claire Rosser lauds Avi as ”the master of a good story that takes young readers into another historical era.” Avi’s works encompass historical narratives as well as contemporary stories written in his characteristic quirky style that abounds with puns, wit and charming protagonists. While his prose largely has a traditional structure, there are occasions where he experiments with point of view and other style elements. For example, in Hard Gold: The Colorado Gold Rush of 1859 (2008), the chapters follow diary entries that narrate a wagon-train adventure and ”add much to the understanding of an earlier way of life,” according to Debra Banna of School Library Journal.
Avi has written many different forms of the novel. Several of his early works, including Captain Grey, Night Journeys, and Encounter at Easton, are set in colonial America. He quickly earned a reputation as a historical novelist and The Fighting Ground won the Scott O’Dell Historical Fiction Award for children.
The Man Who Was Poe is Avi’s fictionalized portrait of nineteenth-century writer Edgar Allan Poe that inter twines fiction and history on several levels. In another unique twist on the convention of historical novels, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle presents the unlikely story of a very proper thirteen-year-old girl who, as the sole passenger and only female on a trans-Atlantic ship in 1832, becomes involved in a mutiny at sea. Another of Avi’s highly lauded historical novels, the Newbery Award-winning Crispin: The Cross of Lead, is set in Eng land during the fourteenth century, as poverty, a greedy aristocracy, and the Black Plague ravage the country.
”The historical novel is a curious construction,” Avi once commented. ”It represents history but it’s not truly accurate. It’s a style.” He elaborates in an interview with Jim Roginski in Behind the Covers. ”Somewhere along the line, I can’t explain where, I developed an understanding of history not as fact but as story.” And Avi’s historical tales are fascinating stories of riveting events and people enlivened by his ”keen sense of time and place,” as his writing is described in School Library Journal.
Writing from Various Points of View
In Nothing but the Truth, Avi offers an unusual perspective as the story is without a narrator; rather, its tale is related through bits of evidence such as school memos, diaries and newspaper articles. Another book, Poppy (1995), which received a Boston Globe-Horn Book Award in 1996, tells a story from the point of view of two deer mice, Ragweed and Poppy, who are about to marry when the self-proclaimed king of Dimwood Forest—an owl named Mr. Ocax—eats Ragweed, supposedly as punishment for neglecting to seek his permission to marry. Similarly, The Good Dog (2001), a tale for younger readers, is told from the point of view of a malamute named McKinley.
Works in Critical Context
Avi’s writing has been applauded for its storyteller’s ease with blending his themes of self-discovery, honesty and courage into drama, history, and mystery in a unique and sincere way. Critics and readers alike admire the unique vision that Avi brings to his reading audience. Publication of The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle won Avi his first Newbery honor in 1991. Avi won additional Newbery honors in 1992 and 2003, and his books continue to be popular with young readers. Anita Moss states of his writing, ”Avi deserves credit for his sensitivity and humorous portrayals of adolescent characters, his willingness to question received values and the ability to recreate the ambience of historical periods.”
The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle
School Library Journal terms this historical novel ”a crackling good yarn.” Bloom and Mercier, in their book on Avi, conclude that this story ”posits yet a more sophisticated understanding of the adolescent’s journey toward the home of self.” According to Publishers Weekly, ”[A]wash with shipboard activity, intense feelings, and a keen sense of time and place, the story is a throwback to good old-fashioned adventure yarns on the high seas.”
Crispin: The Cross of Lead
Avi’s Crispin: The Cross of Lead (2002) ”introduces some of his most unforgettable characters,” according to Booklist contributor Ilene Cooper. Critic Hazel Rochman declares that the author ”builds an impressive backdrop for his arresting characters.” ”Avi’s plot is engineered for maximum thrills, with twists, turns and treachery aplenty, notes a Publishers Weekly contributor, adding that the ”compellingly drawn friendship between the boy and the old juggler gives the book its emotional heart.
- The Fighting Ground. Philadelphia.: Lippincott, 1984.
- Bloom, Susan P., Mercier, Cathryn M. Presenting Avi. New York: Simon & Schuster Macmillan, 1997.
- Chevalier, Tracy, Ed. Twentieth-Century Children’s Writers Detroit: St. James’s Press, 1986, pp. 45-46.
- Lynch-Brown, Carol and Carl Tomlinson. Essentials of Young Adult Literature. Boston: Pearson, 2005, pp. 25, 27, 85-93.
- Lynn, Ruth Nadelman. Fantasy Literature for Children and Young Adults. New Providence, N.J.: Bowker, 1995, p. 615.
- Sutherland, Zena. Children and Books. Glenview, Ill.:Scott Foresman, 1986, p. 403.
- Roginski, Jim. Behind the Covers: Interviews with Authors and Illustrators of Books for Children and Young Adults. Westport, Conn.: Libraries Unlimited, 1985, pp. 33-41.
- Cooper, Ilene. Review of Crispin: The Cross of Lead. Booklist (May 15, 2002): 1604.
- Engberg, Gillian. Review of ”Things That Sometimes Happen.” Booklist (October 1, 2002): 332.
- Miles, Betty. ”School Visits: The Author’s Viewpoint.” School Library Journal (October 1987): 124.
- Review of Nothing but the Truth. Publishers Weekly (September 6, 1991): 105.
- Review of Crispin. Publishers Weekly (June 3, 2002): 88.
- Review of Things That Sometimes Happen. Publishers Weekly (September 30, 2002): 70.
- Rochman, Hazel. ”A Conversation with Avi.” Booklist (January 15, 1992): 930.
- Rosser, Claire. ”Hard gold; the Colorado Gold Rush of 1859.” Kliatt 42.5 (September 2008): 6-7.
- Retrieved November 27, 2008, from www.avi-writer.com.
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