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Maia Wojciechowska, 74; Author of Books for Children and Young Adults

July 01, 2002|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As a child in Poland in the 1930s, she parachuted out of an airplane three times before she was 11. And at 12 she fled the invading Nazis with her mother and two brothers through Romania and Italy to join her father, the chief of staff of the Polish air force, in France.

As a young woman, she worked briefly as an undercover detective and raced motorcycles in the United States. She also developed a passion for bullfighting and had a stint as a matador in Mexico.

But Maia Wojciechowska, who died June 13 at the age of 74 after suffering a stroke in Long Branch, N.J., found her greatest fame as a Newbery Medal-winning author of books for young adults and children.

Wojciechowska wrote 19 published books, including "The Hollywood Kid," "Tuned Out" and "The Rotten Years." Her adventurous life and plucky nature inspired her to create characters who courageously confront their problems.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday July 06, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 101 words Type of Material: Correction
Wojciechowska obituary--The obituary Monday of writer Maia Wojciechowska misspelled the last names of her brothers, Zbigniew and Christopher Wojciechowski.

She also wrote the autobiographical "Till the Break of Day: Memories, 1939-1942" and, in 1980, successfully entered the world of adult fiction with her critically acclaimed novel, "The People in His Life." The book was published under her former married name, Maia Rodman, and was based on the life of Ernest Hemingway, whom she had spent a day with at his home in Cuba in 1952.

Hemingway praised Wojciechowska at the time for her understanding of bullfighting, and they maintained a long correspondence on their shared passion.

Bullfighting served as the subject of two of Wojciechowska's children's books, "The Life and Death of a Brave Bull" and "Shadow of a Bull," which earned her the prestigious Newbery Medal in 1965. The award is presented annually for the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.

"Shadow of a Bull" is the story of a Spanish boy who dreams of becoming a doctor but is expected to fight and kill his first bull at 12, emulating his father, a champion bullfighter who died in the ring.

Calling Wojciechowska "a magnificent writer," a reviewer for The New York Times Book Review described "Shadow of a Bull" as "an eloquent, moving book."

Newbery Medal committee members agreed that the novel, which has been translated into 18 languages and is now in its 68th printing, "epitomizes all humanity's struggle for conquest of fear and knowledge of self."

In her Newbery acceptance speech, which she directed to her young readers, Wojciechowska discussed her commitment to write about the problems that confront young people, including pressures to conform.

"I want to give you a glimpse of the choices you have before you," she said, "Of the price that will be asked of you.... When you know what life has to sell, for how much, and what it can give away free, you will not live in darkness."

Born in Warsaw on Aug. 7, 1927, Wojciechowska contracted tuberculosis from her wet nurse and didn't speak until she was 4 1/2 years old.

"I had a very sadistic governess who used to delight in frightening me about things like ladies who ate bad children," she told the Bergen Record newspaper in 1995.

She said that when she did speak for the first time--at the dinner table on Christmas eve--her first words were, "Why must the world be so cruel?"

"I grew up to cultivate courage," she told the Record. "My big thing was to fear nothing--maybe God. I was scared doing things like jumping with a parachute, but I did it."

After fleeing to France during the war, her family sought refuge in Spain and Portugal before arriving in the United States in 1942. Wojciechowska's father, who had been chief of staff of the Polish air force in Britain, became air attache to the Polish Embassy in Washington, D.C.

After the family moved to Los Angeles, Wojciechowska attended Sacred Heart Academy and in 1946 dropped out of Immaculate Heart College in Hollywood after a year.

Married in 1950 to author Selden Rodman, she published her first book two years later, "Market Day for Ti Andre," a story for children illustrated by a primitive artist she and her husband had met on trips to Haiti.

While married to Rodman, she visited Hemingway and his fourth wife, Mary, at their home in Cuba. Wojciechowska already knew Hemingway's second wife, Pauline, and had taught tennis to two of the author's sons in Key West.

"I suppose because I adored Hemingway I remember that day so well," she told The Times in 1980 when her Hemingway-inspired novel was published. "His book 'Across the River and Into the Trees' had just come out and was attacked as the most sentimental slush. He was very upset about the reception to this book, which he obviously liked, and I said to him, 'My God, you have earned the right as a writer to write a sentimental love story if you want to.'

"And so he liked me for that, and he liked me for being pregnant, and also a third thing that was dear to him, I had seen Manolete, a bullfighter who was the best bullfighter in the world. Hemingway said I understood more about bullfighting when I first saw it than any woman he had ever talked to."

In the early 1960s, Wojciechowska, whose long resume included masseuse, waitress, Radio Free Europe translator and professional tennis player, worked as a literary agent in New York and served as publicity manager for Hawthorn Books.

Her commitment to quality children's literature led her to found her own publishing company, Independent Books, in 1975.

She divorced Rodman in 1957. Her brief second marriage to a poet and antique restorer, Richard Larkin, ended in divorce in 1973.

She is survived by two daughters, Oriana Rodman of Santa Fe, N.M., and Leonora Wojciechowska of Garfield, N.J.; and her brothers, Zbigniew Wojciechowska of Laguna Hills, and Christopher Wojciechowska of Pebble Beach.

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