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'90s FAMILY : An Intuitive Touch for Teen Books : Author: Lois Lowry never planned to write fiction for young adults. But fate and a natural connection to her audience stepped in.

November 09, 1994|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — At a recent dinner party, Lois Lowry was asked the question for the thousandth time. Now that you've had so much success as a writer for young people, Lowry's inquisitor wondered, why not write a real book?

"Tell me," Lowry replied. "Would you ask a pediatrician why she didn't become a real doctor?"

Lowry knows full well that the implication of the exchange is that "it is somehow a lesser art, writing for children." Her own parents sometimes questioned when she was going to get serious and write for adults.

Lowry herself postponed any kind of major literary endeavor until she was well into her 30s and dabbling in the kind of dilettante journalist career that the wife of a successful lawyer can afford to pursue. She wrote a free-lance magazine article here, an occasional short story there. Sooner or later, she figured, she'd settle down and produce the great American novel--for grown-ups, of course.

But a short story in Redbook magazine evoked an unexpected telephone call. An editor at Houghton Mifflin read the piece about a woman who loses her sister and suggested that Lowry turn it into a work of "middle grade fiction"--publishing-speak for a young adult audience.

"It had never even occurred to me to do that," Lowry marveled. "Now, in retrospect, I wonder why I didn't think of it myself."

The story bloomed into "A Summer to Die," the first of 21 young-adult novels that Lowry has written since 1977. "The Giver," her most recent title, won the 1994 Newbery Medal, the counterpart in children's literature of a National Book Award. Lowry also earned a Newbery in 1990 for "Number the Stars," making her one of only four authors to earn a pair of the coveted prizes. All her books have been published by Houghton Mifflin.

Her success is at once felicitous and serendipitous--"by chance," said Lowry, a basket of yarn at her feet and knitting needles in her lap--"to the degree that anything is by chance." For just as she was launching this new career in the then-fledgling field of young-adult fiction, she was beginning a new life. Her marriage ended, and for a time, Lowry and various permutations of her four children (now ages 32 to 36) lived in Maine, not far from another then-novice novelist, Stephen King.

For Lowry, blessedly, the stories seemed to flow forth so intuitively that they verged on automatic writing inspired mainly by her own memories. In an instant, she was back in Carlisle, Pa., in an era when no one got divorced and no one's mother worked outside the home. Every tiny detail returned full-force, right down to the color of dresses she wore in pictures that were taken in black-and-white.

It seems amazing to her that not everyone shares this youthful recall. "I have talked to a surprising number of people who profess not to remember their childhoods," Lowry remarked. "When I remember my childhood, it's as if I become a child again."

It's a gift, she conceded, and "I feel very fortunate. Of course, I'm a lousy tennis player, and I can't ski."

With encouragement from editors, educators and, most important, her young readers themselves, Lowry has tramped through the turf of the modern dilemmas that confront children 14 and younger. She recognizes, clearly, that "children now have a much more sophisticated childhood. They travel, they move. The kids in my neighborhood grew up in the same house, and didn't move until they got married themselves."

Children's books in those days assiduously avoided any kind of significant subjects. And while she confesses to "not being a reader of children's books today," Lowry said her impression is that even the most shallow of young peoples' titles "attempt to deal with--what is the word?--contemporary issues."

Lowry accepts her own literary responsibility--but also views it with ambivalence. "I tend to be an idealist," she said. "I would love to be able to protect all children from all bad things. But I'm also pragmatic. I think it is probably and unfortunately necessary that they be alert to what lies out there--because they're going to encounter it much younger than I ever did."

Somewhere along the line, Lowry lost track of a year of her life. She thinks she is 57, but until recently told people she was 56. She shrugged. Numbers, and years, seem so irrelevant.

With her Newberys, and her literary accolades, she is occasionally stunned to find herself in the company of famous authors whose lives are dissected down to the designs of their kitchens. (For the record, Lowry's kitchen is compact and efficient, even if her coffee maker does lie. "It says the coffee's ready," she said, admitting a deep family secret. "It's not.")

Her following grows with each book. In her early years, Lowry consigned correspondence to a fictional secretary, Marion Kline, who could say things in letters that Lowry herself would never dare. If someone wanted her to review a manuscript about talking caterpillars, for example, Ms. Kline could politely explain that Ms. Lowry was otherwise engaged. Ms. Lowry, by contrast, would probably have read every single talking-caterpillar word.

So now there is a real secretary and real response letters. The flood from the outside world, her readers, reminds Lowry that her craft needs no defending.

"Books for kids are very valuable things," she said.

"And I'm delighted that I'm able to do them well, and that kids respond to them."

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