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Lloyd Alexander, 83; children's author wrote `Prydain Chronicles'

May 19, 2007|Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writer

Lloyd Alexander, whose books for children set in mythic lands with modern-sounding problems won him top literary prizes, has died. He was 83.

Alexander died Thursday at his home in Drexel Hill, Pa., according to Jennifer Abbots, a publicity manager at Henry Holt, his publisher. He had cancer, but the cause of death was not given.

The author of more than 20 children's books, Alexander is probably best known for "The Prydain Chronicles," a five-book series he wrote in the 1960s. Prydain is an imaginary place resembling Wales where a young hero named Taran escapes a wicked sorceress, battles evil warriors and searches for a stolen sword with mythic powers.

One book in the series, "The Black Cauldron," was made into a Disney animated movie in 1985. Another, "The High King," won Alexander the Newbery Medal for children's literature in 1969.

The Prydain series is "a rich and varied tapestry of brooding evil, heroic action and great natural beauty," said a 1968 review in the Washington Post Book Review.

Alexander's next major success was "The Marvelous Misadventures of Sebastian," about a young fiddler who meets an orphaned princess trying to escape the cruel but powerful man who plans to marry her. It won the National Book Award in 1971.

In part, Alexander said, it was a story about the joys of making music. He found that kind of joy writing children's books.

"Westmark Trilogy" from the early 1980s solidified Alexander's reputation for stories set in distant times and places where the problems seem modern. The kingdom of Westmark resembles feudal Europe and Colonial America. The oppressive leaders there bring on conflict and revolution.

"I used the imaginary kingdom not as a sentimentalized fairyland but as an opening wedge to express ... some very hard truths," Alexander said in "The Pied Pipers," a 1974 book about children's authors.

In a 1982 speech, he said, "At heart, the issues raised in a work of fantasy are those we face in real life."

Some of Alexander's earliest children's books were biographies, among them "The Flagship Hope: Aaron Lopez" (1960), about a wealthy merchant who lived in Rhode Island during the American Revolution and used ships he owned to transport supplies to Colonial troops.

The romance of past eras and the challenges that can be overcome by courage and other virtues fascinated Alexander and formed the basis for his fiction. Biography soon became too limiting for him. He found that "in the realm of fantasy for children I was able to take up deeper questions," he said in a 1999 interview with the Baltimore Sun.

Alexander was born Jan. 30, 1924, in Philadelphia. His father went bankrupt in the stock market crash of 1929, and the family struggled through the Great Depression that followed.

Alexander turned to reading as an escape. He discovered Greek and Celtic myths and Welsh legends. He later read Charles Dickens' novels, in which honorable characters contend with villains and terrible injustices.

"If he helped me escape from my daily life ... he also sent me back somehow better able to face it," Alexander said of Dickens in a 1968 interview with Top of the News.

Alexander graduated from high school knowing that he wanted to be a writer. After an unsatisfying year at a state teachers college, he joined the U.S. Army in 1943 thinking it would lead to adventure. That, it seemed to him, was "the best way to learn about writing," he explained in his 1960 memoir, "My Love Affair With Music."

During World War II, he was stationed in Paris, where he worked in military intelligence. He mastered French, and after being discharged from the service he took classes at the Sorbonne.

In Paris he met Janine Denni, whom he married in 1946. The couple and their daughter, Madeline, settled in Pennsylvania, where Alexander worked at various jobs while he launched his writing career.

His wife died several weeks ago. Their daughter died as an adult. He is survived by grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

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mary.rourke@latimes.com

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