________________ CM . . . . Volume XVI Number 12. . . .November 20, 2009


Born to Write: The Remarkable Lives of Six Famous Authors.

Charis Cotter.
Toronto, ON: Annick Press, 2009.
167 pp., pbk. & hc., $14.95 (pbk.), $24.95 (hc.).
ISBN 978-1-55451-191-4 (pbk.),
ISBN 978-1-55451-192-1.

Subject Heading:
Authors-Biography-Juvenile literature.

Grades 4-7 / Ages 9-12.

Review by Harriet Zaidman.

**½ /4


From where do writers get their ideas? When did they start to write? Readers young and old wonder about what inspired an author to create her/his literary works

     A common thread through the history of writing is that some kind of adversity in writers’ lives gives them a broader understanding of what it is to be a human being. The added ability to represent their understanding in words is called talent, and the two qualities blended together have given the world literary works that have entertained, enlightened and influenced the lives of millions of people.

     Charis Cotter has chosen to write about the lives of six famous authors of books for children, Lucy Maud Montgomery, C.S. Lewis, E.B. White, Madeleine L’Engle, Philip Pullman and Christopher Paul Curtis. Her biographies give children an overview of their lives, focusing mainly on their childhoods. Throughout the book, sidebars entitled ‘Echoes’ show how the writers reflected their own experiences or influences through characters and plot lines in their novels. Cotter lists some of the authors’ most popular books at the end of each biography, along with other books about their lives, written by others. Colour pictures show young readers where the writers lived at different times in their lives.

     In general, Born to Write will interest children who imagine they could be writers. It may encourage children to think about the people and events around them, to extrapolate lessons from their experiences and apply them to their writing. The unhappy experiences that formed these writers may also show children who are facing personal challenges that they can survive them and use them in a positive way. Philip Pullman’s self-centred mother became a model for one of his characters; the sting of racism Christopher Paul Curtis felt as a youth led him to write about the black experience in the U.S. over the last 200 years; Madeleine Engle’s character, Meg, suffers the same rejection at school that she did as a child. But a book about writers should be an example of good writing. Born to Write contains inexcusable errors in grammar and writing; mistakes that make a parent or teacher hesitate before recommending it to an enthusiastic wanna-be writer.

     Children will be interested to learn that Lucy Maud Montgomery’s unhappy childhood was the fodder for her famous Anne of Green Gables series. She gave Anne the happy ending she obviously wanted for herself and wished for other children. Abandoned by her father after her mother’s death and raised by disinterested grandparents, Montgomery found solace in the beauty of Prince Edward Island and in literature.

Much as she had turned to her imaginary friends in the glass doors of the bookcase when she was little, as she grew up Maud turned to writing to satisfy her need for companionship. Her grandparents did not encourage her to express her strange ideas and fancies about the world, so she bottled them up inside and then wrote them out in her journal.

     Montgomery’s adult life was no happier; her marriage of convenience only added to her unhappiness. Cotter is frank about Montgomery’s early life but writes that Montgomery died “of a drug overdose in 1942.” That’s a jarring statement that any child would question. It requires explanation. Montgomery’s family has admitted that she committed suicide, a fact which should either have been acknowledged or not mentioned.

     In C.S. Lewis’s biography, we learn that Lewis married late and was left in charge of two children when his wife died. A child would naturally wonder how old these children were and what happened to them since Lewis then became ill himself and died, but this information is left out.

     Cotter has included inserts about the subjects’ favourite authors or other related information. These inserts are plunked into the middle of each narrative, interrupting the reading of the biography. They could have easily been consistently placed at the end of each biography as supplementary information.

     There are a few other errors that sharp editing should have uncovered, including repetition of information that appears both in the text and under captions.

     Today’s children get to meet writers through public events and visits to schools and classes. Meeting real writers energizes kids to read and to write. It’s also important that they get to know about writers who have preceded them, and although it has some problems, Born to Write can be used to motivate children to dive into a good book or to spin their own tales. Who knows who might become the next remarkable writer?


Harriet Zaidman is a teacher-librarian in Winnipeg, MB.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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ISSN 1201-9364
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