“Sidelights Sketch” from SOMETHING ABOUT THE AUTHOR, Vols. 80 & 125
by J. Sidney Jones
Marilyn Singer is an award-winning author of children’s books in a wide variety of genres, including fiction and nonfiction picture books, juvenile novels and mysteries, young adult fantasies, and poetry. Among her many characters are a dog who insists he is not a dog, an armadillo, a young heart surgery patient, obsessive Lizzie Silver, Stryker the poltergeist, twin detectives named Sam and Dave–even a dog detective. “People often ask me why I write so many different kinds of things,” Singer commented in an essay for the Something about the Author Autobiography Series (SAAS). “I tell them it’s because I have so many different parts to my personality, and each part has a different way of expressing itself. I tell them too that I like to challenge myself so that I’ll never be bored.”
Singer was born in Manhattan in 1948, but she grew up in North Massapequa, Long Island. As a young girl Singer began writing, partly influenced by her grandmother, with whom she had a close relationship. Poems were and still are her favorite form, but she also experimented with plays, and this early love of the theater eventually carried over into many of her books. “It seemed in those years that my childhood would remain pretty carefree,” Singer once commented.
In 1956 Singer had to undergo heart surgery, but the fact that her parents and doctor kept the truth of her illness from her was more traumatic than the actual surgery. Years later, Singer dealt with her emotional wounds in her 1978 novel, It Can’t Hurt Forever. As a high school student, she felt unpopular and on the outside of the cliques. In 1965 she began attending Queens College–a branch of the City University of New York–as an English major and education student. College was a more rewarding experience for Singer and a Junior Year Abroad program to England’s Reading University would also be a formative experience for the budding writer.
Returning to Queens College, Singer finished her last year there and then moved to an apartment in New York City. She began teaching and became very committed to her job. “I wanted to inspire my students, to make literature come alive for them, to make school a pleasure and not a chore,” Singer once recalled. In 1970 she met her future husband, Steve Aronson, who had come to New York from Wisconsin to become an actor, and a year and a half later they were visiting some of Singer’s friends in England when they decided to get married.
Singer began her writing career doing teaching guides on film and filmstrips, and, although she enjoyed the work for a while, she was not entirely satisfied. She also began looking into magazine writing. Her article proposals were not very successful, but she did manage to have some of her poetry published. The following year brought a major turning point in Singer’s life. She was sitting in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden with a pad of paper and a pen in case she wanted to write a new poem, when she suddenly found herself writing a story instead. Upon seeing this first story, her husband encouraged her to write more, so Singer wrote a number of children’s stories featuring animals and mailed them off to publishers. In the meantime, she joined a workshop for unpublished children’s authors at Bank Street College and continued writing. Then one day she received a letter from Dutton, telling her that they wanted to publish one of her books–The Dog Who Insisted He Wasn’t. “I barely got through reading the letter before I let out a scream,” Singer once wrote. “A book! A published book! I was about to become an author! A children’s author! How extraordinary! How fine! I had a new career.”
In The Dog Who Insisted He Wasn’t, Singer tells the story of Konrad the dog, who is absolutely positive that he is not a dog but a person instead. He is lucky enough to find Abigail, who convinces her family to go along with Konrad and treat him as a human. Konrad sits at the table to eat, takes baths, and even goes to school. When the other dogs in the neighborhood decide that they too want to be treated like people, all chaos breaks loose. They are eventually convinced to go back to their carefree lives as dogs, and Konrad compromises by agreeing to pretend he’s a dog. A reviewer for the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books praised Singer’s portrayal of conversations between animals and humans and further observed that “the adult-child relationships are exemplary.”
Singer often features dogs in her work, including the non-fiction book A Dog’s Gotta Do What a Dog’s Gotta Do: Dogs at Work and the poetry collection It’s Hard to Read a Map with a Beagle on Your Lap. Chester the Out-of-Work Dog, one of Singer’s most popular books, features a border collie who loses his job when he and his family move from their farm to the city. Writing in Booklist, Ilene Cooper claimed, “This picture book has it all–slapstick comedy, a touch of pathos, and an actual story with a beginning, a middle, and an end.”
Singer’s writing for younger children has also addressed a variety of people and places in the world. In the 1991 picture book Nine O’Clock Lullaby, Singer’s text explores what children around the world are doing at the time a child in Brooklyn is going to sleep. Complemented by the illustrations of Frane Lessac, the book provides a simple introduction to time zones and children of other cultures as well as serving as a “rhythmic, pleasing lullaby,” according to a Publishers Weekly critic. Patricia Dooley, writing in School Library Journal, praised the way Nine O’Clock Lullaby demonstrates “the connectedness of the inhabitants of our global village.” Singer and Lessac again teamed up for On the Same Day in March, a picture book look at weather in seventeen locations around the world. For each location, “Singer provides a few lines of lyrical text that vividly create the climate,” noted Booklist’s Michael Cart, who concluded that the book “doubles as a delightfully agreeable introduction to both climatology and geography.” Jody McCoy, writing in School Library Journal, called the same title a “useful and engaging addition.”
Dramatically different picture books take young readers into the land of myth. In The Golden Heart of Winter, an original folktale, three sons are sent off to bring back a prize to their aging father. “The rich prose and haunting illustrations of this original story give it the texture of a folktale,” wrote Miriam Martinez in Language Arts. In The Painted Fan readers are transported to ancient China where a cruel ruler destroys all the fans in the kingdom after a soothsayer tells him a painted fan will be his undoing. This is a story told with “simplicity and dignity,” according to Carolyn Phelan in Booklist. Medieval England and verse prove the inspiration for Maiden on the Moor, a story about two shepherd brothers who find a young maiden on a snowy moor. Donna L. Scanlon, reviewing the picture book in School Library Journal, felt the tale “is sure to spark imaginations as it transcends ordinary fairy-tale conventions.” Scanlon also noted that Singer “knows how to distill words into images, and she conveys the bleak beauty of the setting with clarity and precision.” Singer presents another original fairy tale in The Palace of the Ocean King, in which traditional roles are reversed: it is the maiden who must save the imprisoned young prince.
Young readers are also taken onto the bustling streets of multi-cultural Brooklyn in Didi and Daddy on the Promenade, which is about an eager preschooler and her father on a Sunday morning outing. The two view such sights as the Brooklyn Bridge and Statue of Liberty. Shelle Rosenfeld, writing in Booklist, commented that both young and adult readers will “recognize and enjoy Didi’s humorous enthusiasm (and Daddy’s good-natured participation) as the walk brings anticipated joys and unexpected surprises.”
In addition to this rich collection of fiction picture books, Singer has also produced a wide array of nonfiction works for young readers as well as numerous poetry volumes in picture book format. In Exotic Birds, Singer presents a “fact-filled but readable introduction” to the subject, according to Booklist contributor Leone McDermott. Ellen Dibner, reviewing the same title in School Library Journal, concluded that Exotic Birds is a “most satisfying book for browsing, general information, and exotic bird watching.” Other flying creatures are dealt with in A Wasp Is Not a Bee and A Pair of Wings. Animal anatomy is the subject of the engaging and often humorous Bottoms Up!, a “cheerful book about behinds and their uses,” according to Booklist’s Ilene Cooper. In Prairie Dogs Kiss and Lobsters Wave, Singer shows how animals greet one another. The book, according to Booklist’s Hazel Rochman, is noteworthy for its “friendly, immediate text and active, colorful pictures.” Of her several poetry books for young readers, Singer’s personal favorite is the award-winning Turtle in July, “a lovely picture book of poetry that moves through the seasons,” according to Janet Hickman in Language Arts. Nancy Vasilakis, reviewing Turtle in July in The Horn Book, felt that Singer and illustrator Jerry Pinkney created a “vivid picture book that is visually as well as auditorily pleasing,” and that Singer, by using the first person, “captures the essence of each animal.”
Singer’s first middle grade novel, It Can’t Hurt Forever, recounts the trauma Singer had herself experienced as a child undergoing surgery. In this fictionalized version of her experience, Singer presents Ellie Simon, who is to enter the hospital for the same corrective heart surgery Singer had. Unlike Singer, however, Ellie is told what is going to happen to her, with the exception of the catheterization she must undergo. When she learns about it, she argues with the doctors and her parents, just as Singer wished she had done. Singer “provides an honest and thorough look at pre-and post-operative care and at the concerns of a girl facing a major trauma,” pointed out Karen Harris in School Library Journal. A Kirkus Reviews contributor concluded that It Can’t Hurt Forever is “sharp, fast, funny, genuinely serious, and helpfully informative.”
Among her other early works for middle grade children are two novels about the obsessions of a young girl named Lizzie Silver. Tarantulas on the Brain has ten-year-old Lizzie doing everything she can to earn enough money to buy a pet tarantula. She tries having a junk sale and even works as a magician’s assistant to get the necessary money, lying to her mother about what she is doing. In the end, her secret desire and activities are discovered and everyone is much more sympathetic than Lizzie imagined they would be. The pace of Tarantulas on the Brain “is fast and exciting; the characters are sufficiently quirky to keep the readers engrossed and narrator Lizzie Silver, 10, wins their affections,” asserted a Publishers Weekly reviewer. In the sequel to Tarantulas on the Brain, Lizzie Silver of Sherwood Forest, Lizzie’s new preoccupations include her desires to be one of Robin Hood’s merry followers and to learn how to play the harp so she can attend the same music school as her best friend. Lizzie Silver of Sherwood Forest is a “funny, touching sequel,” stated another Publishers Weekly contributor, adding: “This is an adroitly balanced and enjoyable tale about a naive and eager girl.”
Singer has also produced a fantasy novel for younger readers, Charmed. Miranda, a twelve-year-old with an active imagination, travels to worlds around the galaxy in a quest to collect the “Correct Combination”–a group of characters who must unite to destroy an evil being known as the Charmer. Besides Miranda and the humanoid named Iron Dog, the group includes Bastable, Miranda’s invisible feline friend, Rattus, a clever rodent, and the wise cobra-goddess, Naja the Ever-Changing. The fact that the characters manage to work together even though some of them represent animals that are natural enemies was appreciated by Voice of Youth Advocates contributor Jennifer Langlois, who stated that the book’s plot is “a good way to show young people that just because someone is different doesn’t mean they are bad.” Sally Estes declared in Booklist that in Charmed “the various worlds created by Singer are fascinating,” and School Library Journal reviewer Susan L. Rogers lauded the fantasy’s “somewhat surprising and quite satisfying conclusion.”
Other middle-grade and juvenile novels by Singer include Twenty Ways to Lose Your Best Friend, California Demon, Big Wheel, Josie to the Rescue, and The Circus Lunicus. Rosie Rivera opens up the wrong bottle in her mother’s magic shop and unleashes a genie in California Demon, a book in which “humor keeps the story buoyant, magic gives it sparkle,” according to Kathryn Jennings in Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books. Wheel Wiggins, a leader of a gang, is trying to organize a Fourth of July Carnival, but is running into problems from a rival in Big Wheel, a “surefire story from a popular author,” as a writer for Kirkus Reviews noted. More magic and fantasy is served up in The Circus Lunicus when young Solly’s toy lizard turns into a fairy godmother and helps him to learn some home truths about himself, his supposedly dead mother, and his evil stepmother and siblings. “This loony, fast-paced mystery-fantasy . . . is full of surprises and clever plot twists,” observed Cart in Booklist, “and it’s as much fun as a three-ring circus.” A Kirkus Reviews critic described The Circus Lunicus as “luminous and humorous.”
Mysteries and young adult fantasy novels are also among Singer’s writings. The “Sam and Dave” series stars a pair of twins who solve mysteries, some set in school, some further afield. A Clue in Code has the detectives in search of the thief who stole the class trip money. There is an obvious suspect who insists he is innocent, so Sam and Dave embark on an investigation. “Singer’s ability to subtly incorporate the necessary facts of the case into the narrative demonstrates her respect for young readers eager for satisfying mysteries they can solve on their own,” pointed out a Booklist reviewer.
Elements of the supernatural are introduced into Singer’s young adult novel Ghost Host. Bart Hawkins seems to have an ideal life–he is the quarterback of the high school football team and dates Lisa, the captain of the cheerleading squad. He secretly loves to read, though, and fears that if this gets out he will be labeled a nerd. When he discovers that his new house is haunted by Stryker, a nasty poltergeist, his life is thrown into chaos and he must enlist the help of a friendly ghost and the class brain to pacify Stryker. “Ghost Host is above all else fun to read,” maintained Randy Brough in Voice of Youth Advocates. “Singer’s deft introduction of the supernatural into the world of a high school junior, his family, and friends creates headaches for everyone, ghosts included.” Ghosts are also at the center of the 1997 title Deal with a Ghost in which fifteen-year-old Deal, or Delia, thinks she is terribly sophisticated until she comes face to face with a ghost who knows her name. Booklist critic Chris Sherman described this novel as “fast-paced” and “engrossing.”
Singer has written several other books for young adult readers, including The Course of True Love Never Did Run Smooth, which deals with the difficulties encountered by Becky and Nemi, a girl and boy who, during the production of a high school presentation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, find that their friendship is changing from one of childhood buddies to something more sexually charged. “Singer neatly uses Shakespeare’s comedic mix-up as a foil for the tangled web woven by her teenage protagonists,” noted Estes in a Booklist review of the novel. Highlighting Singer’s writing style, Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books reviewer Zena Sutherland found much merit in The Course of True Love Never Did Run Smooth, noting that “the minor characters are sharply defined [and] the familial relations are strongly drawn, with perceptive treatment of the dynamics of the acting group and especially of its gay members.” In Several Kinds of Silence Singer tackles the theme of prejudice when young Franny falls in love with a Japanese boy, and in Storm Rising the author tells an inter-generational tale of lonely Storm, who finds comfort with an older woman who possesses unusual powers. Additionally, Singer has edited volumes of short stories for young adult readers, including Stay True: Short Stories for Strong Girls and I Believe in Water: Twelve Brushes with Religion.
Singer once mentioned that people often ask her why she writes books for children and young adults instead of for a more mature audience. “I’ve given them a lot of answers such as 1) Kids are interesting to write about and for; 2) If you understand the child in yourself, you can understand the grown-up better. I want to understand myself better; 3) There’s nothing else I know how to do. All of these answers are basically true. But now I think the truest, most honest answer I can give is that I write books for children and young adults because I like to.”
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES
Authors of Books for Young People, 3rd edition, edited by Martha E. Ward, Scarecrow Press, 1990.
Children’s Literature Review, Volume 48, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1998.
St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers, 2nd edition, edited by Tom Pendergast and Sara Pendergast, St. James (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Something about the Author Autobiography Series, Volume 13, Gale (Detroit, MI).
Booklist, May 15, 1983, Sally Estes, review of The Course of True Love Never Did Run Smooth, p. 1197; September 15, 1985, review of A Clue in Code, p. 140; January 1, 1991, Sally Estes, review of Charmed, p. 922; February 1, 1991, Leone McDermott, review of Exotic Birds, pp. 1126-1127; May 15, 1991, p. 1806; September 15, 1991, p. 166; October 15, 1992, Ilene Cooper, review of Chester the Out-of-Work Dog, p. 425; December 1, 1992, p. 671; May 1, 1994, Carolyn Phelan, review of The Painted Fan, p. 1609; June 1, 1997, Chris Sherman, review of Deal with a Ghost, pp. 1686-1687; March 15, 1998, Ilene Cooper, review of Bottoms Up!, pp. 1242-1243; April 1, 1998, p. 1313; December 1, 1998, Hazel Rochman, review of Prairie Dogs Kiss and Lobsters Wave, p. 681; May 1, 1999, p. 1596; February 15, 2000, Michael Cart, review of On the Same Day in March, p. 1116; November 15, 2000, p. 640; December 1, 2000, Michael Cart, review of The Circus Lunicus, p. 708; April 1, 2001, Shelle Rosenfeld, review of Didi and Daddy on the Promenade, p. 1480; May 15, 2001, p. 1755.
Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, January, 1977, review of The Dog Who Insisted He Wasn’t, p. 82; May, 1983, Zena Sutherland, review of The Course of True Love Never Did Run Smooth, p. 179; February, 1993, Kathryn Jennings, review of California Demon, p. 191.
The Horn Book, July-August, 1989, p. 478; January-February, 1990, Nancy Vasilakis, review of Turtle in July, pp. 82-83; March-April, 1998, p. 223.
Kirkus Reviews, October 15, 1978, review of It Can’t Hurt Forever, p. 1140; December 1, 1993, review of Big Wheel, p. 1529; August 1, 1999, p. 1231; December 1, 1999, p. 1890; September 15, 2000, review of The Circus Lunicus.
Language Arts, April, 1990, Janet Hickman, review of Turtle in July, pp. 430-431; January, 1992, Miriam Martinez, review of The Golden Heart of Winter, p. 67.
Library Journal, November, 1992, p. 78.
Publishers Weekly, July 9, 1982, review of Tarantulas on the Brain, p. 49; June 1, 1984, p. 65; February 22, 1985, p. 158; June 27, 1986, review of Lizzie Silver of Sherwood Forest, pp. 91-92; April 24, 1987, p. 71; May 12, 1989, p. 291; April 13, 1990, p. 64; March 1, 1991, review of Nine O’Clock Lullaby, p. 72; July 12, 1991, p. 66; October 12, 1992, p. 78; June 14, 1993, p. 70; April 18, 1994, p. 62; August 29, 1994, p. 78; January 25, 1999, p. 96; January 24, 2000, review of On the Same Day in March, p. 311; October 23, 2000, p. 76; February 12, 2001, p. 210.
School Library Journal, September, 1978, Karen Harris, review of It Can’t Hurt Forever, p. 149; December, 1982, pp. 68-69; August, 1983, Joan McGrath, review of The Course of True Love Never Did Run Smooth, p. 80; May, 1984, p. 102; May, 1985, p. 110; September, 1985, p. 149; December, 1985, pp. 82-83; October, 1986, p. 83; May, 1987, p. 104; September, 1987, pp. 182-183; August, 1989, p. 132; November, 1989, p. 99; June, 1990, p. 126; December, 1990, Susan L. Rogers, review of Charmed, p. 111; June, 1991, Ellen Dibner, review of Exotic Birds, p. 120; July, 1991, Patricia Dooley, review of Nine O’Clock Lullaby, p. 64; December, 1991, p. 102; January, 1993, p. 84; July, 1993, p. 95; April, 1995, Donna L. Scanlon, review of The Maiden on the Moor, p. 146; June, 1997, p. 128; June, 1998, p. 122; July, 1998, p. 91; September, 1999, p. 206; April, 2000, Jody McCoy, review of On the Same Day in March, p. 126; July, 2000, p. 87; November, 2000, p. 162; December, 2000, p. 148; February, 2001, p. 115; May, 2001, p. 135.
Voice of Youth Advocates, August, 1985, p. 164; June, 1986, p. 83; June, 1987, Randy Brough, review of Ghost Host, p. 83; December, 1990, Jennifer Langlois, review of Charmed, p. 32.
From Something About the Author, Vol. 80, Gale, 1995. Reprinted by
permission of The Gale Group, www.galegroup.com.
From Something About the Author, Vol. 125, Gale, 2002. Reprinted by
permission of The Gale Group, www.galegroup.com.